Magnificent Obsessives

Three DJs take the road less traveled.

As practically everyone with at least one functioning ear has noticed, most terrestrial radio stations that concentrate on music take chances less often than Rush Limbaugh fills prescriptions under his own name. Despite the growing popularity of satellite radio, with its enormous number of specialty shows, old-technology outlets (particularly the commercial ones) continue to rely on familiar formats, narrow playlists and predictable song selections that treat listeners like dogs trained to wag their tails on cue.

Fortunately, some more imaginative (and free) options can still be found on local airwaves thanks to jocks such as Joel Davis, Sire and Jack Rummel -- men with enjoyably idiosyncratic fixations and a stubborn desire to share them with others. Finding their shows isn't always easy, but the joy of discovery more than justifies the search.

Exploration is an intrinsic part of Davis's signature program, TerraSonic, which airs at 10 a.m. Saturdays on Radio 1190, CU-Boulder's station. Davis focuses on world music, and, he says, "I definitely try to cover as much ground as I can in each show."

Joel Davis is on the worldbeat.
Mark Manger
Joel Davis is on the worldbeat.

A Miami native, Davis moved to Boulder around twenty years ago, and before long, he found himself volunteering at the city's eclectic public-radio signal, KGNU. This relationship continues via his work on a couple of current offerings: Western Front, a magazine show, and the music-oriented Afternoon Sound Alternative. But back in the day, he helmed a show specializing in world music that impressed John Quigley, the former manager of Radio 1190. TerraSonic set sail in February 2002 and is now considered a Radio 1190 staple. "I feel like I'm exposing the 1190 audience to something new," he says.

Davis is also involved with world music in a production capacity; he currently manages White Swan Records, a Boulder imprint that recently reissued The Lost Album, a long-unavailable 1980 platter by African music icon Salif Keita. As a result, he has access to a lot of new or obscure material, and regularly uses it to blast through every boundary in sight. "You can put a Mexican mariachi troupe next to a Macedonian wedding band, and you might find similarities -- possibly very apparent ones, or ones that are more subtle than that," he notes.

This unique blend caught the attention of the folks at Underheard.org, a terrific Internet clearinghouse that makes TerraSonic available for download and podcast. The site helps Davis get his musical message out to folks well beyond Boulder's city limits, and that's appropriate. In his words, "It's really one big world to me."

Sire is another Radio 1190 contributor; he's part of The Rasta Experience, which is heard on Sundays at 2 p.m. But he's also managed to slip onto the schedule of a big-time outlet -- the Mountain, at 99.5 FM, which airs Reggae on the Mountain at 10 p.m. Saturday nights. The departure of original Mountain program director Dan Michaels, who was replaced by Beau Raines earlier this year, resulted in the watering-down of the station's comparatively eclectic approach to classic rock. Still, Sire says no one's tinkered with his blend of roots favorites (Bob Marley, Toots & the Maytals) and more contemporary, dancehall-oriented performers (Sizzla, Tanya Stephens) for one simple reason: The ratings are actually pretty good. "It's a strong show," he says. "So they let me play my own music, they let me pick my own music, they let me ramble on, and they don't want me to change or conform to what they do on other shows."

Reggae was originally forbidden fruit for Sire, who grew up in Jamaica as the son of two ministers who detested it. He got into the skankin' sound anyway, and after attending college in Toronto, migrated to Chicago and became part of the music scene as a performer (he was in a band called Rude Beat League) and as the host of a radio show dubbed Radio Jamaica. He moved to Denver in the early '90s and currently has a slew of production and promotion gigs on his plate. But he's reserved a space for Reggae on the Mountain, which he unveiled in 2002. "We try to keep it very rootsy, very up," he says. "But the music comes with a message, and we emphasize that. It's what the music's all about."

Jack Rummel is as much of a true believer as Sire, but his music of choice is considerably more obscure: ragtime. He oversees Ragtime America at 8 p.m. three Thursdays a month on KGNU, and his devotion to the form is no passing fancy. As he points out, "The show just celebrated its 26th anniversary."

Rummel, 66, made his living as a dentist for over forty years (he's retired), but he's played ragtime since his childhood and became even more enamored of the sound after hearing Joshua Rifkin versions of Scott Joplin compositions circa the '70s. "They blew me away, because he wasn't playing ragtime in a rinky-dink way," he remembers. "He was playing it as if it were serious music -- and from then on, I never looked back."

Over the years, Rummel has made four ragtime recordings, issued three self-published folios of his own compositions and helped put on thirteen editions of the Rocky Mountain Ragtime Festival, which wrapped in 2005. Yet there's no end in sight for Ragtime America, the only show of its kind between the Pacific Coast and the Mississippi River. Rummel regularly hears from ragtime aficionados across the country who've discovered the show through KGNU's website, www.kgnu.org, and their ardor matches his. "I'm still very much in love with the music, and I really appreciate the composers who are writing new ragtime today," he says. "They're writing wonderful stuff, and I just hope I can continue to keep it in the public's eye -- and ear."

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