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KUPD's John Holmberg on Red, White, and UFest and 9-11

KUPD's John Holmberg on Red, White, and UFest and 9-11

John Holmberg has been at the helm of Holmberg's Morning Sickness on KUPD for 10 years. The weight of the fact does not escape him.

"Wow," Holmberg says over the phone, his trademark voice in full effect.

"[That] makes me feel old. Makes me feel useless. This is not the way this [was] supposed to go," he jokes.

"It flew by. You start hearing stuff, mainly, like, we were at a restaurant a while ago, and the waiter came up, and he couldn't have been more than 20, and he recognized us. Brady [Bogen] and I were sitting there eating, and he said, 'Oh, my God, I've listened to you guys every morning since I was in sixth grade.'

You're like, 'This kid is old enough to drink. I could go drinking with this kid.' I don't feel much older, but it's been little moments like that when you realize 10 years is a long time -- we've been fortunate enough to have that. I can't say I've worked a day in the last 10 years, so it can't be all bad."

Holmberg is celebrating the 10th anniversary of his show with the Red, White, and UFest concert, featuring Anthrax, Five Finger Death Punch, Danko Jones, My Darkest Day, and more, on Saturday, September 10, at Firebird International Raceway. But the concert doesn't just mark Holmberg's milestone. The show also honors the heroes of 9/11, and pays tribute to "Holmberg's Heroes." Complimentary tickets were given to military personnel, firefighters, and police officers.

"We're doing this show because our anniversary falls around the same time [as the 10th anniversary of 9/11]," Holmberg says. "But it kind of dovetails nicely, into [remembering a] situation were we all realized what heroes were. I want to put a silver lining on [the events] rather than focus on how awful it was. Kind of look back and say, 'This is the day I really truly learned what heroism is.'"

Holmberg took a few minutes to speak with Up on the Sun about being on the air the morning of the 9/11 attacks, the Clear Channel "no play" list following the attacks, and the importance of not cashing in on tragic events to sell concert tickets.

Up on the Sun: You have a history with Valley radio. You did some other shows before coming to KUPD, right?

John Holmberg: I was at the Zone (KZON). I started there as a scrub, goofing off, doing tapes for public affairs, running things. I produced the morning show. [Then the] morning show guy decided he didn't want to do it anymore. Didn't want to get up. So they put me in during the interim, and things went really well. So I did that morning show for little awhile, and they had an ownership switch out when all that craziness in the late '90s happened with radio, and every owner moved and switched, and they switched formats, and then when they switched back, they asked me to come back and do afternoons.

I told them [I wouldn't] unless they doubled my money. And they did it, so I was like, 'Sweet!' So I ended up taking the job for money, which I never recommend anyone doing. It ended up being -- well, it ended up being a good decision because it lead me here -- but at the time...They were overpaying me, which is rare for me to say. It was a bad decision that ended up leading to the best possible situation.

So KUPD is the place for you.

It's a great group of people more than anything else. I love it here.

Does KUPD represent your musical taste?

It's probably the top choice I have. I like the rock. I like it to be more on the harder side of rock. I run the gamut. I have a weird sponge-brain for knowledge and strangeness. So, sometimes I get caught up in [weird things.] I also have an odd sensation of loving things I can't stand. So Katy Perry, Ke$ha, [they] stick in my head, I hate them both with a passion, but I know all their songs. I hear them once. They are just such bubblegum garbage to me, but there it is and I'm stuck with it. A hypnotic power.

Obviously, you run a pretty funny show --

That was sort of complimentary [laughs]. Thank you. You run an average magazine.

[Laughs.] No, I mean you guys have a lot of fun on the air. But what I was working toward is that you guys are doing something heavy, the Red, White, and Ufest thing, which is tied into 9/11. You were fairly fresh to KUPD when the attacks happened, right?

Two weeks. It was really strange. It was a really strange time, going through the transition of figuring out how to replace someone who had been here for 20 years, and start new without doing anything old, and then have that happen on top of it. It was really, as far as my job goes, not to say it was a good event, but it made everyone relax and say, 'There's so much more important in the world than to worry about how my job is going...' It opened our eyes to to say, 'The world is a different place, after that, and we're not going to change it by any means. Let's provide people with what we do. And in the meantime, if we entertain ourselves someone else might enjoy it, too.'

Even thinking back on it, it kind of washes over me. Such an odd sensation of 'well, everything is different.' What I thought at the time [was] there goes our personal freedoms, so much of what we know. In hindsight, the way everybody felt at the time was, 'Who knows now? So let's just live day to day and do what we can.'

[This show is a tribute to the heroes of that day.] I learned what true heroism was that day. We all did, watching on TV, those people running toward the building. The obvious reaction is 'Get the hell out of there,' and so many of these people were running at it. You really recognized that. By choice, they don't want to be there. But they had to. You didn't see anybody cowering away. It's an unbelievable statement on what those guys do day-to-day. It really personified in the most horrible way what these guys could face at any second. And I don't know anybody who has a job that that threat is prevalent each day. That's an awesome responsibility. And when the military got involved, immediately after, you're thinking, these guys do the same thing. They run to the problem. That's truly what a hero is.

So we really want to tip our caps and say, 'Let's not sit back and act all maudlin, we all know it was a tragedy, let's use this opportunity to recognize where our heroes are.'

 

So you guys have a bunch of seats set aside for personnel.

We've been handing those out, and we've had a great response. It's one of those deals were they've got their own section. We're going to do a heavy tribute to them, the guys from Anthrax and Ivan from Five Finger Death Punch, work with the military all the time, Patrick from Filter, he is all about going over and performing for the troops. They were on board immediately when we told them the concept of this thing. It seems like these artists can't wait to do the same thing I can't wait to do and just say thank you.

What was it like in the days following the attacks. How soon afterward did you get the FCC "no play" list? I imagine that the kinds of bands you have playing this event, like Anthrax, those guys wouldn't have been played.

Well, the funny thing is, the girl I was seeing at the time was in the Trade Center. So I flew back to New York on the first flight back...West Coast to East Coast, I flew back JetBlue from Ontario, California to New York, so I didn't know what was going on at the station. I was living in Los Angeles and working here at the time, it was a transition time [between KZON and KUPD]. When 9/11 happened I had to go back to New York. My initial response was, 'Who cares what happens at work, I'll figure that out later.'

We've since been married and divorced, so now I look back at it differently, like, Al-Qaeda missed one, but that's kind of my own personal problem. [Laughs] No, no -- I mean, I went back, and I came back from an emotional state into work again, about a week and 1/2 after it happened. Our programing department was pretty much steadfast about saying, 'We're going to be respectful, but let's not be silly.'

That's what's great about working at KUPD, there's no corporate overlord, that says, 'These [songs] are over. The FCC had their suggestion list, and by all means, a couple of them were [inappropriate], and I never like the government saying 'Here's what you can do and can't do,' but there were a couple moments were you were like, 'Yeah, maybe not appropriate.' It might get to the wrong person at the wrong time, and there's no need to push that envelope. Ease people back in. It did get silly some of the stuff on that list -- I remember looking at the list and saying 'That has nothing to do with it.'

We played it by ear, how the world was responding. If we said it was no good, we went with it, if we felt like it was okay, we said, 'Life goes on, and you have to move forward. You can't be afraid.'

Clear Channel put the list out, and they recommended the FCC give it to everyone. We kind of went on a thing, like, I dunno. It seemed like a knee jerk reaction to a problem. We certainly didn't want to offend anyone, but I think the people listening to our station were understanding that we weren't [playing things] to get a reaction. I think that cooler heads prevailed, and after a couple weeks were like, 'That's silly to even worry about hurting people's feelings that has nothing to do with it.' It got to the point that they were going crazy at other places...

[On a band like Anthrax] What were they going to change their name to something puppies -- Basket of Puppies. Is it really that bad that we can't even say the words? You don't take the threat away. If you think back, there was a lot of stuff we did that was...a bit rash. We were all acting a little weird at the time, but how can you blame us?

 

I'm always worried and wary around anniversary events. Because you see so many people cashing in on the idea.

One of my biggest pet peeves about media -- which by the way, I fucking hate for the most part -- because they are so disingenuous about anything when it comes to this. The one thing I remember about 9-11 was how real everything got. The news got real. Dan Rather cried. Everything got real. It wasn't for ratings, it wasn't for anything else. We all put that aside.

And then, it didn't' take long after that. I remember The one year anniversary it was let's run this documentary on CBS about [the Naudet brothers] and there time as they filmed the attacks. It was just a carefully manipulated documentary that was really intense, but at the end they left you wondering if those guys were alive until the last scene. And I'm like, 'That's not what this was about.' It like the movie Pearl Harbor. Who gives a fuck who's trying to have sex with who? Who cares about the love story? [That was] the most tragic event in American history up to that point. It just seemed like, 'Let's find a personal angle.

With my ex-girlfriend, who was in the tower...I got calls that day. 'We heard you on the radio, we understand that you had someone you loved in the thing, would you like to come on with us?' And I was like, 'No, it's the last I want to do.' Why would I grandstand that? That's what it seemed like they wanted everyone to do. It's so sickening. 'Look at the picture!' I'm rambling here [but] they wouldn't show Dale Earnhardt's crash, because it was just tragic to watch someone die. They won't show Joe Theisman's leg break, but they'll show those building falling every goddamn chance they get. If you really cared, and it really was something that could upset someone, you'd think about what was going on while those were falling. It's all for show, and the media -- they way they handled it just a few years later -- was disgusting to me.

It makes me feel good to know that you aren't using that as a selling point.

A guy like me, I literally dick around on the air about everything, I goof off constantly. About everything. For me to go out there and put the 'Glenn Beck sad-face' on the whole thing, and try to make everyone feel my emotions, because if I don't, they think I don't care...It's not how I am. I know radio people who will go out there, and make it so personal, and it is personal to me, but it's personal to everyone, let them experience it themselves. Don't force your beliefs down just because you happen have a 100,000 watt microphone and they can hear you. I can give my opinion, doesn't mean everyone has to agree.

I get so sick to the idea. We've got heat, a little bit, for doing a show on September 10, [with people] saying, 'What, are they're having a party?' It's not party. It's a celebration of our resilience and the people who made that possible.

Red, White, and UFest is scheduled to include Anthrax, Five Finger Death Punch, and more, on Saturday, September 10 at Firebird International Raceway.

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