Welcome to installment number five of the Jay Stellar Saga. To get caught up, start at issue 46, and find out exactly how I came to be a part-time resident of the Los Padres National Forest, communing with birds, motorcycle trails, and firewood. I was also communing with technology – sort of. I was more than curious about the pirate radio station run by a portly, good-natured gent named Barry out of his gas station/video store/auto repair shop.
I’d decided that this would be a perfect entrée to living out my childhood fantasy of hosting a radio show. I grew up listening to the radio for hours after I was supposed to be fast asleep in bed. I had a little transistor in my room, and after lights out I would lay the radio on my pillow and then lay my ear on the speaker so I could listen without my parents knowing. This was in the ’70s, which many would argue was the golden age of radio in Southern California. We had Tom Donahue and Dr. Demento on KMET, Joe Benson and Jim Ladd on KLOS, and a little later, Rodney Bingenheimer on KROQ. Plus, we had Chick Hearn calling Laker games, Vin Scully broadcasting Dodger games, and Ira Fistell talking about anything anyone damn well wanted to talk about late into the night on KABC. Radio was my escape and all-access pass to a different world. Almost every night found me fighting heavy eyelids, trying to stay awake for one more song, caller, or inning.
As I explained in the last installment, 88.5 Pine Mountain Radio was essentially an antenna hooked up to Barry’s 200-CD changer. So as I sat on my deck watching the birds, I thought, why not try making my own radio show? I had an extensive collection of music, a home recording studio in my garage in Santa Monica, and now, Barry. “What’s stopping me?” I asked one of the Stellar’s Jays on my deck rail. The jay seemed to regard me for a moment, and we made eye contact (this really happened). Suddenly, I had my psudeonym: I would be Jay Stellar, the eclectic, country-tinged, mysterious-but-friendly voice of the Los Padres National Forest! I would elevate Pine Mountain radio above Barry’s bad Billy Joel and Bette Midler CDs and bring some culture to the people!
I got so excited I knocked over my beer. I hopped on my motorcycle and shot down to the gas station, where I found a parka-clad Barry (it was only mid-September, but already chilly) changing the fan belt on a Dodge Durango.
“Hey Barry, you got any open slots in that 200-CD changer of yours?” I asked.
“Maybe,” Barry answered, wiping his hands on a rag. “Why?”
“Can you take it off random and play two CDs start to finish in a row?”
“Maybe. I think so.”
“Well, what if I were to pre-record a radio show? Would you broadcast it?”
Barry gave me a curious look, and then invited me into the shop where he rented the videos. We chatted for a while, and Barry turned out to be quite an open-minded dude, and not at all precious about his radio station. He agreed to play anything I brought him. He figured the best time would be around 5:00 p.m. on a Saturday when people were in their cabins cooking dinner. I agreed, and promised to bring him a show the next Friday.
And that was that. Sometimes all you have to do is ask, folks. I was giddy with excitement, but somehow this decision also brought back to life that disapproving voice in my head. “Oh, so now you’re going to make a radio show? Who’s going to pay for that? Do you even know how to do that? And when will you find the time?”
The kid who grew up sleeping with his head on a transistor radio felt his shoulders droop a bit. It was true, I had no idea how to make a radio show, and I had two photography shoots scheduled for the coming week, so where was I going to find the time? And more importantly, why? Why was I doing this? How many people even listened to 88.5?
But as I was learning, the mountains were having an effect on me. I didn’t listen to that adult voice in my head with as much deference as I used to. I challenged it. It would be fun to make a radio show, I argued, so who even cares if anyone is listening? And I could do it at night. And if I don’t finish it, who’s going to care? Barry? I think not. Hell, it’s only two hours of radio – I could bang it out in an evening.
That week in Santa Monica, I moved all my CDs out to my garage, where I had a pretty cool home-recording setup. I moved my best vocal mic to an articulating stand over the mixing console, and on a Tuesday night in late September 2001, I started making what would become “Sweetheart of the Radio,” which I named after a Byrds song, “Sweetheart of The Rodeo.” The name seemed to encompass everything I loved about radio, as well as the mountain/country vibe that I was absorbing through the sweet Pinon Pines air.
I sat down at about 7:00 that night, ready to bang out my new radio show. After settling on my title, I realized I needed a catchy opening. I wanted the show to seem like an old-timey variety show, with some anticipation and build. I started with some record scratches and a little guitar riff, and then searched for some opening remarks from musicians I admired. I settled on Bob Dylan telling us he’d like to “say something out loud,” in an excerpt from his spine-tingling “Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie.” I then had Victoria Williams pop in with, “I don’t claim to be a pianist,” before Tom Waits wishes us “an inebriated good evening.” An auspicious start, but I’d also need an appreciative audience. I found different applause clips from some live records and dropped those in. But it was still missing something, namely the quintessential live radio introduction from a group of singers crowded around a microphone. Well, if you want something done, doo-wop it yourself. I sang: “SWEETHEARRRRRT, OF THE RAY-DEE-OOOH,” and then added three or four harmonies on top, from falsetto to bass, in an attempt to make it sound like a quartet. It was pretty sketchy, so I fleshed it out with more sound effects and clapping, and the pièce de résistance: a catchy little ditty from a collection of vintage cartoon scores. I listened back, and felt a glow of accomplishment warming my chest. It was exactly what I wanted. It was mysterious, homespun, eclectic, and sounded like it issued from an old Magnavox. I looked at the clock. Oh my god! It was 3:00 a.m., and I had recorded exactly 32 seconds of audio.
Clearly, this radio thing was taking a bit longer than I had anticipated. I was tired, and though still flushed with creative afterglow, it was about time to call it a night. As I lay in bed, I laughed at myself, realizing I’d spent eight hours making an introduction for a show that still didn’t exist. I had no idea what music I was actually going to play. Details!
But I knew one thing: I was going to be the mysterious Jay Stellar, purveyor of fine music, hero to underappreciated bands everywhere, mountaintop curator and combatant of loneliness. The next day I would give voice to Mr. Stellar, and begin my weirdest life chapter yet … to be continued