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"The white man -- I get that a lot," he said, laughing. He explained he'd always worked in rhythmic radio, and had been a fan of hip-hop since he was a young man in Tucson. His radio career took him from Tucson to a weekend slot at Power 92 years ago, then to L.A. where he worked at Power 106, the major hip-hop station there, then to an urban adult contemporary station in San Diego, and finally back to Power 92 as program director.
"My passion's always been for the music, and to me the music doesn't have to be political," he explained. "Plus, I'd like to think, and I hope this comes across on KTAR, I have respect for other opinions even if I don't agree with them. I assume the majority of people don't believe like I do.
"The managing of radio stations these days is much less about the music you play, and I say that kind of woefully. Because years ago, you had to eat, sleep and breathe it. You had to be all about it. I'd have to have my hat on backwards right now and be wearing a Roc-A-Wear jersey and be saying 'yo' a lot.
"It comes down to the people you surround yourself with. I'm not 19 anymore. Our target audience is 18 to 24 years old; over half of them are Latino -- that's not what I am. You don't have to look far to realize that, and I don't pretend to be. But if you walk around and look at the staff, guess what -- the staff fits the demographic. So I surround myself with people who can give me that information so I can make decisions, but I'm getting it from people who are the most like the audience."
Fair enough, but how do you reconcile conservative values with running a station that thrives off playing Eminem and plays tracks like Jadakiss' "Why," where he raps, "Why did Bush knock down the towers?"
"If Eminem wants to make fun of George Bush, it doesn't bother me at all, go ahead. I dare somebody to say we don't play or we do play a song because of some sort of political stand to the song."
Our conversation soon turned to our divergent political views, and we argued about embryonic stem cell research, the war on terror, and importing Canadian prescription drugs. "Boy, look at you -- we're gonna discuss these things," he said. It was, as I expected, a stalemate.
On stem cell research, he predictably said he agreed with the president, that "I'm not willing to sacrifice one life to save another."
"Isn't that exactly what [President Bush] is doing with the soldiers in Iraq? Sacrificing their lives to save others?" I retorted.
"You're funny. . . . We've suffered far greater losses at the hands of the terrorists. I don't believe the 1,000 GIs have died in vain. They died to protect even the people who don't believe in what they're doing."
"Have any of us lefties been able to straighten out your thought processes?" I asked, hopeful.
"No, you've just galvanized me. You prove my point half the time," he replied. Not me, buddy, not me.
At some point, I warily had to ask him if he had any political aspirations. "I couldn't afford the pay cut to be a senator," he replied. "I worry I'm too outspoken and too clear-cut on the issues. Politics is about anything but taking stands on issues. I can give yes or no answers, and I don't think you can get elected doing that. I don't think either [Bush or Kerry] say things they truly believe. They say what the research says swing voters want to hear, and that drives me nuts. I'm not gonna pander to you. I doubt I could ever hold my tongue."
I was surprised that I found Bruce St. James to be personable, friendly, even. The sort of guy I'd like to argue politics over a beer with, except he doesn't drink. Doesn't even take aspirin, he told me. So much for sharing a blunt after the interview.
He does have a passion outside radio and politics, though -- racing sprint cars at Manzanita Speedway on the weekends. It's another world where he's a dichotomy. "The people in the hip-hop world think I'm a redneck because I go to the races," he explained. "The people at the races think I'm a metrosexual, and that I'm a gangster because I play that rap music on the radio, or I put light colors in my hair, or because I don't have chewing tobacco and a tattoo of the rebel flag. So I can't win for losing. I get it from both directions."
Soon, though, St. James will have to choose between his two contradictory roles. It was recently announced that KTAR and the two sister stations besides Power 92 would be acquired by Bonneville International Corporation, and Power 92 would be the only Emmis Communications radio station in town. It's a good thing Bonneville didn't snap up Power 92 also, or there likely would have been some serious changes -- Bonneville is a Utah-based firm owned by Deseret Management Corporation, which manages the for-profit businesses for the Mormon church. Not exactly a bitches-and-blunts sort of outfit.