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."

Such devotion is typical of Rummel and his fellow outsiders, and thank goodness. They give fed-up radio listeners a reason to dial another day.

Themes like old times: Earlier in the editorship of Denver Post overseer Greg Moore, the paper's Sunday "Style" section was revamped to accommodate a single theme per week -- but when behind-the-scenes personnel found that they couldn't sustain the approach, the concept was dumped mere months later in favor of a more standard potpourri blend. Of late, however, the Post has embarked on an even bolder mission, thematically linking each day's features section. In addition to the Friday staples "7 Days" and "Screen" and the long-running Sunday offerings "A&E" and "Style," Mondays spotlight "Fitness," Tuesdays tout DVDs, CDs and the like under the heading "Play," Wednesdays continue to focus on "Food," and Thursdays bubble about home decorating as part of "Room."

The strategy carries some risks. Readers whose hobbies or habits correspond to the Post's themes will find much to like in these reconfigured sections, whereas people who don't care about, say, exercise tips or that perfect window treatment may find little or nothing of interest in their pages. Moreover, the design means that anything that doesn't fit within that day's subject area but remains deserving of ink -- such as previews for timely events -- is given short shrift at the rear of the section. This requirement has also affected columnist Bill Husted, whose regular people-and-places column has gotten progressively worse placement over the course of Moore's reign.

E-mails to Ray Mark Rinaldi, the Post's assistant managing editor for A&E and features, went unreturned, but Moore says editors wanted to fill what were seen as coverage gaps. "We didn't have a home section, and we wanted one -- that's what ŒRoom' is -- and ŒFitness' is self-evident. This is a place that really prizes a healthy lifestyle, and it made sense to go directly at that interest," he allows. "And ŒPlay' lets us be a little more consumer-oriented. We're constantly reinventing ourselves." He isn't worried that the specialization increase could alienate some subscribers. "It's possible that we may develop people who may only be interested in things on particular days," he acknowledges, "but there are other things, like puzzles and advice columns, that others may like."

Even so, Moore is wary of pledging to stick with the themes over the long run. "Our commitment is for as long as we think it works," he says.

Otherwise, the notion will go out of style -- just like it went out of "Style."

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