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I'm not talking about scenesters who play songs for nightclub crowds, or vinyl junkies who juggle beats on a couple of turntables. Those are the newer notions of what a DJ is. Instead, I'm thinking of the faceless folks who deliver music over the airwaves.
These days, it still takes a rich voice, a dynamic personality, and maybe even a gonzo sense of humor to be a DJ -- and someone could become a minor celebrity because of it -- but how often does on-air talent really get to make personal choices about the music? That's someone else's job now. Once upon a time, DJs had the freedom to really get creative, to throw listeners a musical curveball instead of sticking to a playlist. They thrived on the momentum of the music scene, giving bands exposure and digging up an unpredictable mix of sounds.
For a long time, it seemed like this golden era of radio existed only in my imagination, but then a couple of years ago I saw Mayor of the Sunset Strip, a documentary about L.A.'s legendary Rodney Bingenheimer, who's been on KROQ for a few decades now. Thank him for breaking every edgy sound from glam to grunge, and beyond. He's still doing it, too. So to be fair, the old-school notion of the trendsetting DJ isn't completely extinct, but it sure is uncommon.
I don't know whether all of this yearning for more personal, eclectic radio makes me a total throwback, or -- considering how podcasting and Web-based radio have brought all kinds of grassroots commentary and obscure music to the masses -- an ahead-of-the-curve futurist.
Either way, you can definitely call me a fan of "The Last Broadcast" on The Zone, KZON-FM 101.5. Hosted by J.C. (a.k.a. Jason Chudy), the Sunday night segment from 7 to 9 is a refreshing mix of bands that I'm shocked to actually hear on local radio, and not just on a stereo at a record store, or between bands at a show. That's not to say I've never heard of them, though. For example, the super-hot indie band Clap Your Hands Say Yeah has been getting plenty of next-big-thing accolades from the national music media. It's just that they're nowhere to be found on the radio. That is, not unless you listen to J.C.'s show.
J.C. makes a living as a regular weeknight host at KZON from 7 to midnight. "You can think of ways to talk about Fall Out Boy and make it fun," he tells me, smirking, on a recent evening at Chez Nous, one of his favorite Phoenix haunts. But "The Last Broadcast" is his true creative outlet. "Sundays -- that's what I live for. That's like recess."
"The Last Broadcast" is the show J.C.'s always wanted, chock-full of indie and even unsigned bands, local artists, and quirky album cuts. Sometimes his weekly favorites generate enough buzz to switch over to regular rotation on The Zone.
J.C. grew up in the Bay Area, diving into radio right out of high school. He ended up spending several years at Live 105, a big San Francisco alternative rock station, and it made an impression on him. "I never had the cool older brother or cousin to guide me. I was just a metalhead," he says. "But at the station, I had five or six cool older brother types -- people I looked up to."
In June, J.C. decided to move to Phoenix when KZON's program director, Chris Patyk, welcomed his idea for a new music show that would include his off-the-radar discoveries. "The Last Broadcast" made its debut in July.
This guy's got great taste, and he's not afraid to share it. But not in a pretentious way. When J.C. bitches about music he can't stand, he comes across sounding like a friend who's on a rant that you completely understand and silently nod in agreement with. When he plays unsung classics -- like Plastic Bertrand or The 13th Floor Elevators -- he brings listeners up to speed on why this lesser-known stuff matters. And when he plays local bands, he nonchalantly throws them in, putting Adam Panic, xrayok, or Awake and Alert on a par with national players such as Deerhoof and LCD Soundsystem.
"When I came here, I had no idea what to expect, but it's not at all hard to find good bands," he says of the Valley's music scene.
Now, the bands are starting to find him, too. But they'd better do it fast, because the future of "The Last Broadcast" just got dimmer with KZON's recently announced format change, from alternative rock to "Free FM," a hybrid of daytime talk and night-and-weekend rock.
CBS Radio (which owns KZON, and was called Infinity Broadcasting until mid-December) has already rebranded 10 other stations in major metropolitan areas as Free FM, promoting it as a free alternative to paid satellite radio. (The Zone's move comes with Howard Stern's switch to satellite.)
Despite the changes, J.C. says he'll be on the air for at least the first quarter of 2006, but beyond that, we'll see. KZON's market manager, Mark Steinmetz, tells me that there are "a lot of moving parts right now," and that J.C. could possibly become involved in new developments at the station as it searches for a broader appeal.
For now, J.C. is working harder than ever for those two precious hours on Sunday nights. He says he finds new bands through reviews on Pitchforkmedia.com and Buddyhead.com, in magazines, and from the recommendations of a few DJ friends from back home. He tries to get three or four new CDs or records a week. And J.C. loves listener feedback.
"People will e-mail and say things like, 'Oh my God, I can't believe what you're doing!' And all it is," he says with a look of satisfaction, "is I play cool records for two hours."
Now that's what I call a DJ.