By Alan Prendergast
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Disc jockey and filmmaker Raechel Donahue is standing behind a bank of buttons, faders, computer screens and assorted doohickeys at the Mountain, Denver's latest classic-rock purveyor, when the studio door swings open and five visitors pour inside. Leading the pack is Sire, the host of the Mountain's weekly reggae program, followed by Fletch and three of his friends. Turns out Fletch, a handsome, dreadlocked sort with a bottomless voice he accurately likens to that of actor Keith David, wants to get into radio, and he's hoping that Donahue, who's led as fascinating a career as any jock in the FM-rock era, can give him some pointers.
Can she ever. These days, Donahue, who's in her mid-fifties, gets almost as much joy out of teaching as doing. She recently helped one of her interns land a gig at a station in Wyoming, and at present, she's working with two more trainees.
During a break, Donahue shows Fletch how to master the Mountain's gear, looking like a rock-ready version of Kate Mulgrew's Captain Janeway on Star Trek Voyager as she pushes, points and prods. Next she offers him some basic lessons in pronunciation. "No matter what format you're in, it's important," Donahue tells him in a voice that smokes like a stick of incense. "Take 'February.' A pro says it 'Feb-ru-ary.' If you say 'Feb-uh-wary,' it'll mark you as an ama-tour.'"
Fletch rolls the various words around in his mouth, getting a feel for their idiosyncrasies, and nods attentively when Donahue delivers a mantra on responsibility: "There is no 'I'm sick.' There is no 'I'm too busy.' You've got to be there -- you've got to want to be there -- every day."
No problem, Fletch declares. Yet he's concerned that he lacks the sort of broad rock-music knowledge that differentiates self-declared Mountain guides from their peers. "Should I, like, study for three months or something?" Fletch asks.
Donahue laughs. After all, she's been researching this stuff in one way or another going back to at least 1967, when her husband, the late Tom Donahue, launched San Francisco's KMPX, which is widely acknowledged to have been the first real underground FM rock signal in these United States. "She's a legend," Sire says, and no one at the Mountain would disagree.
"We were looking for special people to be on the Mountain," notes Dan Michaels, the station's program director, who hired Donahue about a year ago. "We couldn't just have people trained to be liner-card readers, because we have none. We had to find people who knew music inside and out and could talk about it intelligently. And that's Raechel."
True enough. Donahue came of age during a psychedelic period whose survivors generally claim to recollect little or nothing, but her synapses are still firing at a steady clip. On top of planning a documentary about political music for which she dreams of chatting with Bob Dylan, an old acquaintance she bumped into about a year ago at a Los Angeles body-scan clinic, she's currently compiling a memoir with the saucy title Jock Itch, "because these are the stories I've been itching to tell," she says. Assisting her are journals she kept between 1965 and 1975, when the world in which she traveled "was on fire."
Her own life began heating up in 1964 after she was hired to work at Autumn Records. The label was owned by "Big Daddy" Tom Donahue, who'd become the top-rated AM disc jockey in San Francisco thanks to his "over 400 pounds of solid sounds." According to her, "Tom thought I was 22, because I was going to San Francisco State, but I got out of high school early. I was only seventeen -- still a minor." Hired around the same time was Sylvester Stewart, who produced area acts such as the Beau Brummels and the Mojo Men for Donahue before forming the groundbreaking ensemble Sly & the Family Stone. The band repeatedly struck gold before Stewart, aka Sly Stone, was muted by drugs and personal problems. "Sly's still in San Francisco," Donahue says, "but you wouldn't recognize him. He's hunchbacked, old and bald. It's too bad what happened, because he was so immensely talented."
Tom Donahue eventually tired of AM; in 1967, he wrote an article for Rolling Stone headlined "AM Radio Is Dead and Its Rotting Corpse Is Stinking Up the Airwaves." To get away from the stench, he headed to FM, which offered superior sound quality but was largely being used to simulcast AM signals until the Federal Communications Commission ruled that license-holders needed to develop original FM content. With that in mind, he persuaded the owner of a struggling outlet called KMPX to let him try an experiment. Donahue and company spun album tracks from Bay Area acts such as Jefferson Airplaneand the Grateful Dead, routinely offered political statements instead of the empty, fast-talking jabber of their AM brethren, and otherwise embraced the counterculture vibe that came to be associated with Haight-Ashbury. The result was forward-looking and grassroots at the same time. "We did lots of lost-dog announcements," Donahue says, "partly because Janis Joplin's dog seemed to get lost about once a week."