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The Message

Love and Haight: Raechel Donahue climbs the Mountain.
Mark Manger

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 Airplane and 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."

 

After a year or so, KMPX's owners tried to impose some structure on the anarchic operation. In response, the entire staff went on strike, demanding, among other things, summer solstice as a paid holiday. Later, after an astrologer cursed the parking lot (thereby dooming KMPX for all eternity, in Donahue's opinion), the dispossessed workers moved en masse to another station, KSAN. The radio revolution continued at the new address, attracting the loyalty of many a rebel along the way. When the Symbionese Liberation Army kidnapped heiress Patty Hearst, it used KSAN to communicate with the rest of society. Once during these months, federal agents asked to meet Tom at the home he shared with Raechel (they married in 1969). It's a shame this get-together never actually took place, given how it forced Raechel into domesticity mode. "There were pot seeds all over," she says, "so I had to vacuum for the FBI."

When Tom died in 1975, Raechel headed down the coast to Los Angeles's KMET, another of his stations and a landmark in its own right, to try to clear her head. "It was just too painful to be around all those old memories," she says. "San Francisco is a very small town, and it was just inescapable." Two radio stations later, she received a terrific opportunity to explore a new medium when she was hired as an entertainment reporter by CNN during the Ted Turner-owned television network's nascent days. She was soon assembling segments for People Tonight, an Entertainment Tonight-like video-magazine that also co-starred luxury-lover Robin Leach. "I learned all my video skills from Ted Turner," she says, "because you had to do everything fast and cheap."

Other TV experiences followed, including work as a writer and producer for On the Flipside, a music-oriented program aired on a local L.A station. Additionally, she established herself as a sought-after voice talent, providing background chatter, fill-in overdubs and lots more for a startlingly wide range of television and film projects -- from The Bob Newhart Show and Battlestar Galactica to all of the Rocky movies. This specialty is dying out, since the Screen Actors Guild has changed rules that once forbade extras from speaking. ("That's so wrong," Donahue jokes.) Nonetheless, she's stacked up such an impressive, not to mention bizarre, list of credits that she draws thousands of dollars per annum in residuals.

Examples? Donahue boasts that she's "died during sex" in many pictures, with the 1981 Burt Reynolds flick Sharky's Machine standing out because she made noises for both the doomed woman and "the old lady across the street who saw what happened." An even prouder achievement was "talking jive" for sitcom veteran Barbara Billingsley in the 1980 laugh riot Airplane!, and she put some needed authenticity into The Wedding Singer, a 1998 Adam Sandler vehicle set during the '80s. "We were all pretending to be kids listening to music, and I shouted out in my highest-pitched voice, 'Let's all go down to the mosh pit!'" Donahue remembers. "The director stopped everything and said, 'Hey, lady. This film is about the '80s, and "mosh pit" is such a '90s term.' And I said, 'Oh, honey, we already did this. I'll bet you think you invented green hair and nose rings, too.'"

Of course, Donahue knows more than most about these phenomena, having worked at Los Angeles's KROQ, the country's most influential modern-rock station, during the early and mid-'80s, when it was turning the Cure, Depeche Mode and the like into American hit-makers. Subsequent stops included the original KIIS-FM, where she co-hosted L.A.'s highest-rated morning show with DJ Rick Dees; a SoCal challenger dubbed the Edge; Radio Riviera, headquartered in fabulous Monte Carlo; and, at the dawn of the '90s, an L.A. techno station that called itself Mars FM. She loved Mars FM, but after a year, the mission failed. "It was kind of like The Producers," she says. "We had great ratings, but the owners didn't want it to succeed because they'd have to pay back the investors -- so they decided to change the format to smooth jazz. I was so disappointed that I decided I no longer wanted to be a member of a club I kept being beaten over the head with."

With that, she backed away from radio for the better part of a decade, although she didn't entirely abandon the dial. With her son, Jesse Donahue, she co-hosted Tres Generations, a weekly journey "from bebop to hip-hop," for a public-radio station in Northridge, California. But in general, she focused on documentary films, which allowed her to talk about music in a different context.

 

Take Rock and Roll Genius: Phil Spector, a piece she constructed three years ago for the Discovery Channel. Phil Spector has been in the news because he was charged in the February 2003 gunshot death of aging starlet Lana Clarkson in his Alhambra, California, mansion; he's currently free on $1 million bail. However, he made his reputation as an eccentric producer whose vaunted Wall of Sound formula enhanced '60s pop orgasms such as the Righteous Brothers' "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin.'"

Even before Spector was accused of murder, he seldom offered interviewers anything other than silence, but Donahue has known him "since I was a kid," she says, and kept the lines of communication open as time went by. Indeed, the announcer heard at the beginning of "Do You Remember Rock & Roll Radio?" from the 1980 Ramones album End of the Century, arguably the last major Spector production, was none other than Donahue's late stepson, Sean Donahue. In consideration of these connections, Spector allowed Donahue to use plenty of his music for a video valentine that features memories and anecdotes from a terrific lineup of notables headed by Tina Turner, Ben E. King, Darlene Love, Atlantic Records kingpin Ahmet Ertegun and Yoko Ono. (Donahue quizzed John Lennon's widow in the Dakota, the New York building where she lives, with the help of fellow filmmaker Albert Maysles, who co-directed 1970's Gimme Shelter, about the Rolling Stones' disastrous free rock festival at Altamont Speedway.) Spector sat before her camera, too, in the very home where Clarkson later died -- but not for long.

"He lasted about ten minutes," Donahue recalls. "He insisted that only I could mike him up and do his makeup, and then, in the middle of the interview, he stood up, said, 'No more!' and bolted out of the room with his microphone still attached. He dragged the sound girl right along behind him." This small amount of videotape is valuable because of ensuing events, but Spector would have to give Donahue permission to air it, and that's not about to happen right now.

A more recent Donahue production, Rock Jocks: The FM Revolution, which has been screened by PBS stations in Los Angeles, New York and elsewhere, strikes closer to home for her. Narration chores went to actor Howard Hesseman, who played Dr. Johnny Fever in the sitcom WKRP in Cincinnati. Furthermore, he once worked at KSAN and is a longtime pal of Donahue's. "I kind of programmed WKRP," she says. "Howard's a jazz fan, so he'd call me up and ask what rock songs he should play on the show." Rock Jocks glories in the raucous past of KMPX and KSAN with the assistance of commentators such as Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner, the Dead's Bob Weir and original MTV video jock J.J. Jackson before tracing the corporatization of FM that wound up bleeding the originality from that side of the spectrum. About the rise of radio consultants, who imposed homogeneity on the dial for fun and profit, pioneering jock Jim Ladd says, "That's what ruined FM radio. Once they took over, the freedom was gone."

In Donahue's view, the Mountain is a return to a more liberating style of radio, and its quality helped convince her to leave her precious California in favor of Colorado. Not that it's the reincarnation of KSAN. Once upon a time, Donahue could come up with conceptual sets of music on the fly, but now she's got to clear her ideas with programmers ahead of time. Program director Michaels insists this is done to avoid unintentional repetition, and it's true that the Mountain goes out of its way not to overplay cuts from its vast library; a computer prevents jocks from spotlighting the same tune more than once every eight days. Moreover, obscure compositions aren't simply banned from the playlist. On the night of Fletch's stopover, Donahue played several seldom-heard (and much appreciated) slabs of wax, the oddest of which was Randy Newman's quirky 1968 chestnut "The Beehive State."

The tradeoff for these pleasures are irritating links between songs featuring a sedate-voiced fellow identifying the Mountain and offering somnambulistic aphorisms. Michaels says these snippets are intended to help create "an environment that makes it easier to listen to music," and apparently it's working. In the summer Arbitron ratings book, the most recent full survey available, the Mountain ranked third in the market among men between ages 25 and 54, its target demographic, and fifth with women in the same bracket.

 

Donahue's been a big part of this rise, and she shows Fletch and his pals why when she yells "Shut up!" an instant before the end of the Beatles' "Mother Nature's Son" and rolls into an extended rap that's witty, informed and as effortless as a hippie on holiday. Once she's finished, one of Fletch's friends erupts with admiration. "Damn, girl!" he exults. "You got busy all of a sudden."

That's the way she likes it.


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