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This was originally posted on DenverPost.com on Aug. 28, 2003 as one of my first "PostPop" blogs. In July, 2004, Raechel moved on to become program director of a syndicated radio show based at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland.

Freeform radio pioneer on-air in Denver

By Gil Asakawa, Denverpost.com Executive Producer

The sun is setting and the view is terrific from the 10th floor studio of 99.5 The Mountain, with downtown Denver's skyline elegantly framed by the northern Front Range, and Long's Peak rising in the distance like a hooded ghost against the descending dusk.


Raechel Donahue recalling freeform radio back in the day. Photo by Gil Asakawa

Raechel Donahue is standing at the mountain top as the sun sets; she's on the station weekday evenings from 7 pm to midnight. She's at home in a radio studio - you can tell she's no newbie to her work, even though these days much of the work is computerized. There are no turntables like in the old days - most of the music is stored on the station's hard drive, bigger than any maniacal college student's massive collection of MP3 files.

But the Mountain is an echo of a bygone era of rock radio, when the music reflected the musical taste and knowledge of the DJs; when instead of screaming at listeners or telling stupid raunchy jokes for a few yuks, the jocks spoke to audiences about the music like they were sharing their record collection with their best friend. That freeform radio of the late '60s and 1970s became more and more corporate over time and the playlists got smaller and smaller.

Not on the Mountain, though. The playlist here is always growing to include more songs, including, as it turns out, ones that the jocks don't always want to play. Donahue scrolls through the list of songs in the computer system, deciding what to play … and not play. "Uncle Albert and Admiral Halsey" is so leaving …. Buh-bye," she says of the tired Paul McCartney track.

The Mountain staff has more freedom than most radio stations in programming their own music, which is why the station evokes the glory days of freeform radio so vividly. Listeners are regularly surprised to hear songs they haven't heard in 20 or even 30 years - album cuts that haven't been played to death by "classic rock" formats - mixed in with contemporary music by new artists.

Although the airstaff call their home the "Mountain cabin," the studio is anything but rustic - as part of Entercom, the Mountain is part of a brand-spanking new corporate office in Denver's Tech Center with KOSI, Alice 106 and KEZW. Inside the gleaming chrome and high-tech gray studio, Donahue is settling into her weeknight shift and shooing out Pete Mackay, a grizzled veteran of Denver's radio wars.

Tom and Raechel Donahue back in the day.


The setting might be shiny and new, but the sound of the station - and, admittedly, most of its airstaff - is anything but new. These guys have kicked around the airwaves for decades, and that's exactly what makes them so good, and makes the station so interesting to listen to.

And of all the jocks, Raechel Donahue, 56, has the most amazing resume: She helped invent freeform radio.

Back in the 1960s, she was the self-described "child bride" of Tom Donahue, who had been a Top-40 DJ in the late '50s and early '60s, promoted the Beatles' final concert at Candlestick Park in San Francisco, and had branched out with his own label, Autumn Records, where the two met. Tom Donahue recorded the Beau Brummels, a Bay Area group that had the hit "Laugh Laugh," but had gotten disaffected with the loud, in-your-face presentation of the teenybopper stations and the endless repetition of just a handful of big hits (sounds like radio today).

In an epiphany described in the opening chapter of Jim Ladd's entertaining history of FM radio, "Radio Waves," Donahue and then-Raechel Hamilton (the two were married in 1969; Donahue died in 1975) sat around in their apartment wondering why there were no radio stations that played the albums they listened to. At the time, rock and roll music was evolving out of its teen roots and musicians were experimenting with new styles and long improvisational solos, and San Francisco seemed the epicenter of the new movement, with groups such as the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane. The two wanted to play not just the new groups but all the songs from those groups, not just the hits.

So Donahue began calling radio stations and found a Spanish-language FM station in financial trouble, KMPX. After convincing the owner to let him try the new format, KMPX became the blueprint for the new, album-oriented sound that ruled the industry during the '70s.

After just a year, though, when the owner wanted to put some limitations on the programming, Donahue and the staff went on strike, and eventually took over another station, KSAN, which booted a classical music format to accommodate the hippies with their fringe, beads and candles. Howard Hesseman, the actor who played the laid back DJ Johnny Fever on the late-'70s TV sitcom "WKRP in Cincinnati," was one of the original staffers at KSAN.

Donahue stayed in radio for more than a decade after her husband died, but retired in 1990. In the past decade, she's been a documentary filmmaker, making both industrial films for clients and working with a partner, Carolyn Travis, on personal projects such as "Rock Jocks: The FM Revolution," which has aired on PBS in New York and will premiere on PBS in Los Angeles in September. She takes off from Denver on the weekends to work on her films; one upcoming documentary is about protest music. She's also an author and journalist, and she's polishing a journal she's kept since 1965, that she plans to publish with the title "Jock Itch."

But she's most happy to be on the air again.

"I haven't been able to do this kind of radio in a really long time," she says. "I even got to play six songs about philosophers - you're encouraged to think here, and take the music as far as your brain will take you."

Most radio doesn't take listeners far at all, she says. "People are so used to hearing the same songs in an ever-shrinking circle. When stations test-market today, they ask 'Do you know this song?' and if you say 'yeah,' then they'll play it. So no wonder all you hear is the same stuff over and over."

Aside from the conservative playlists and computer technology, the main difference between then and now, she says, is that "When we first started playing freeform rock, there was a limited selection of music - we were playing the latest albums as they came out. There was no such thing as 'classic rock,' no oldies."

Now, most of what The Mountain plays is out of the back catalogs of any music store.

Another difference is the atmosphere in the studio - gone are the days of incense and candles, and listeners donating fringed and beaded wall hangings for the station. But Donahue doesn't mind the chrome and readily admits, "I'm too old to read by candlelight anyway."

Still, one thing hasn't changed: Her laidback, chummy delivery. As she back-announces a song by the Grateful Dead, she chuckles into the mic, "What a long strange trip it's been indeed… and it's not over yet, my darlings."


More music: For a taste of the revolutionary sounds of KSAN, visit the terrific Jive 95 tribute Web site created by one of its longtime jocks, Norman Davis. Included is an audio archive of airchecks (even hour-long blocks of programming), newscasts and commercials from the station. The "Roots of KASN" section even features airchecks from KMPX, the original station the Donahues ran for a year before founding KSAN. The entire sit'es a time-machine into an entire culture, not just radio.

For years, the last bastion of freeform radio has been commercial-free community-sponsored public radio and tax-supported college stations.

Some of these stations have become powerful hubs of culture and politics (and are conduits for programming from National Public Radio and Pacifica Foundation, such as KRCC in Colorado Springs, as well as KGNU and KVCU AM1190 in Boulder.

But on commercial radio, you'd be hard-pressed to hear the breadth of music and depth of music knowledge anywhere but The Mountain.



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Copyright 1998-2004 by Gil Asakawa -- not for use without permission.
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