Bespectacled and silver-haired, Dani Cutler is the queen of the Phoenix independent airwaves. Her regalia is composed of vinyl LPs, cassette tapes, and digital files. Her subjects: the many men and women to whom she’s given airtime and the listeners so appreciative of her playlist narrative. No one who really knows her would argue her mixtape majesty, although she might think it’s a stretch.
Cutler has recently celebrated two milestones: her 15th anniversary at indie radio station KWSS/93.9 FM
, which happened last month, and her 50th birthday, which happened on April 28. A concert in honor of her birthday will be held on Saturday, April 30, at Last Exit Live.
“I love making things sound amazing,” she says.
That revelation didn’t come until after working at the station for a while and literally finding her groove.
“When I started at KWSS, I was a stay-at-home mom raising two kids. The internet provided me an outlet to explore not only my music interests but political interests (I had a current events podcast which led to radio), which led to meeting many interesting people and listening to their stories,” she says. “I also discovered how much I enjoyed audio production, which really surprised me.”
It might have been a foreshadowing of destiny that Cutler is originally from Staten Island — the island’s North Shore is a popular spot for musicians trying to make it big. She would have to leave ferries, bridges and the ocean behind, though, because at 5 years old, she moved to landlocked Tempe. Music followed her.
“I played the viola growing up and classical music was my main focus through high school,” she says.
About three decades later, music and radio became a part of her life’s work. She also owns a marketing business, which takes up a lot of her time. For those wondering how she does it all, she says the work/life balance isn’t a clear-cut concept.
“Sometimes you give more to the work, and with awareness, you can see when you need to give yourself some rest.”
That rest also includes her husband, who she says is an introvert in the best way. They take time to go hiking, watch movies, and just hang out and enjoy each other’s company. Surprisingly, music radio and being a part of a great community also has its relaxing properties.
“When I take time off from the radio, I miss it,” she says. “When I haven't been to a show in a while, I miss it. I'm also very grateful that I have many marketing clients in the music industry and although it is work (and at times can be frustrating as all jobs are), it's work I enjoy and gives me purpose.”
Every weekday she gets up to do her morning show at KWSS, then at noon she does “Dani’s Diner,” a retro program showcasing music from the '70s, '80s, and '90s. When I asked her about one song from the '80s that didn’t resonate then, but holds meaning now, she says it’s Pat Benatar’s “Invincible” from the 1985 movie The Legend of Billie Jean
, a drama with a slight allusion to the story of Joan of Arc.
Perhaps it’s the spirit of that storyline, which led to an epiphany.
“During 2020 it was super clear how much independent radio is needed,” she says. “Everyone was stuck inside for a time, and our local music scene came to a stand-still. Now, if you're Green Day or Taylor Swift you are probably in a better position to ride it out — people aren't going to forget about you and it isn't going to affect you financially in the same way. But independent artists? Live music is pretty much their only way to make a little cash, not to mention all of the independent venues affected. KWSS dove in and was able to continue spotlighting our local artists. While artists were still releasing music during the shutdown, we could continue supporting them and keeping our listeners in the know.”
Plans for her 50th birthday support that sentiment. Several years ago, she and friend Cheyenne Rowell started doing a birthday show to support the station and local artists. She admits this year’s makes her a little more excited.
“It's a big milestone for me personally,” she says. “My teen years had some complications, and I ended up in the foster care system when I was 17. I didn't know if I'd make it to 20, much less 50. I look back on my life since then and damn, I'm proud of what I've accomplished. No, I didn't cure cancer, but I have always tried to give back in some way. I'm grateful. I'm alive. I want others to [hopefully] feel inspired and know that accomplishments are valid, no matter how big or small. If it matters to you, it matters.”
Taking the retro vibe to the extreme, we asked a silly hypothetical question about a time-traveling ‘50s housewife and what lessons she would learn after hanging out with Cutler for a while.
“I'm going to imagine that I had a progressive ‘50s housewife shadow me," Cutler says. "When she returned to her time, she would realize she could be whatever she wanted to be and not have to settle for what society expected of her and start making it happen.”
Cutler plans on still making things happen, from making connections with the community to discovering new music.
If she has any regrets, she’s left them behind. She equates them to emotional hoarding and doesn’t hang on to them.
“That being said, it's important to look back occasionally, especially if you are trying to better yourself. I try to look forward and see what I can do today to make my immediate world a better place for myself and those I connect with. That way when I do look back, I can look back fondly and be grateful for the life the universe has given me.”
Dani's 50th Birthday Bash. With Let Alone, The Woodworks, Turn Zero, and Fire by Night. 8 p.m. Saturday, April 30, at Last Exit Live, 717 South Central Avenue. Tickets are $12 to $15 on the Last Exit Live website