Dead air

In an age of digital downloads and prerecorded commercial radio, one writer goes in search of Sacramento's last late-night deejays

illustration by jonathan buck

Nate Kommoju is suffering from late-night stoner withdrawal.

Up until recently, the first-year junior at UC Davis was moonlighting as a volunteer disc jockey at the campus station, KDVS 90.3 FM. Like all first-time jockeys, Kommoju paid her dues working the graveyard shift, hosting the 1:30 to 3:30 a.m. slot every Tuesday. Under the Wonka-approved moniker “Veruca Salt,” the 18-year-old Aggie pulled from KDVS’ massive vinyl library and spun records heavy in old soul, jazz, swing and funk.

It was during these witching hours that the stoners would call, sometimes to ask the name of a song or ramble on about their parents’ love of these old-timey genres. Other times they’d spend 20 minutes free-associating their love for all things Gene Wilder.

“I think I’ll miss that,” the classics major says wistfully.

Kommoju hasn’t given up hosting radio, but she did give up the night. This quarter, Kommoju, now using the pseudonym “Myra Maines” (say it out loud), is spinning her easy-listening set for the Wednesday-morning commute crowd. The junior’s shift into the daylight speaks to a macro transition already underway in the world of radio: the disappearance of the late-night deejay.

There once was a time when a raging insomniac could count on a smoky voice to help wile away the lonely nighttime. But nowadays, with digital automation and prerecorded vocal tracks taking over commercial radio, the voice on the other end of that terrestrial radio dial is usually as dead as a predawn weeknight.

KDVS is one of the few regional imprints left where you can hear a live, local voice between the “safe harbor” hours of midnight and 4 a.m., but it’s the last of a dying breed.

“The future of radio broadcasting is pretty uncertain,” says the woman who calls herself “Ophelia Necro.”

Necro recently ended her own late-night radio creepfest at KDVS. After two years of hopscotching “The Suicide Watch” around the graveyard schedule, Necro (who asks that her real name be withheld) is pulling up stakes and returning to the community-college radio station in Los Altos where her death-obsessed identity was born.

Perhaps it’s fitting that the woman who took her name from Hamlet’s suicidal squeeze represents the latest local personality to commit on-air hara-kiri.

While Necro is relocating mostly for personal reasons—she made a promise to a dear, departed radio friend—other stations are killing live late-night signals because of technological advances and plain old disinterest.

It’s been a whole year since Sacramento State University’s radio station offered a show that crept anywhere near midnight, says KSSU station manager Josue “Josh” Alvarez Mapp. The program holding that unexpected honor—a midnight-to-2 a.m. libertarian talk and country-music show—was a very early Wednesday-morning staple on the KSSU dial for about two years before host Gatz Nieblas moved on last spring.

Since then, Mapp has been unable to talk any of his college-age deejays into staying up past their surprisingly conservative bedtimes.

“Even when I joined KSSU three years ago, 11 p.m. was a common show end time,” he tells SN&R. “Now, most shows here are shy at even reaching 10 p.m.”

Mapp, a 26-year-old social-science major who also interns at the state Capitol, ends his own Friday-night program mixing relationship talk and love-gone-wrong songs around 11 p.m. If he weren’t commuting from Stockton every day, he says he’d host it until 1 a.m.

“I have always idolized the late-night deejays for having some of the best shows I’ve ever heard,” he says. “I always wanted to do that.”

Joey Mitchell remembers those old days. Hell, he was the old days. When Mitchell came to Sacramento way back in 1975, it was as a late-night deejay for a country station, working the midnight to 5 a.m. block. Back then, if you needed a bathroom break, you put on “Stairway to Heaven” or “American Pie” and prayed the record wouldn’t skip.

It was a tough grind for the veteran voice, now tasked with waking oldies fans up each weekday morning on KCCL-FM 92.1 K-HITS.

“It’s a crazy, crazy job,” Mitchell says of being a graveyard radio personality. “You had this feeling that even though it was the middle of the night, it was a huge audience.”

And it entailed being a soothing (but not sleep-inducing) voice to all those night owls with no one else to talk to.

That was a two-way street, actually.

Sherrie Valk is the public-affairs director for Salem Communications Sacramento, which operates a handful of Christian-rock and talk stations on the FM and AM dials. The 52-year-old says her friends would sometimes call late-night deejays up on a whim and then not be able to get off the phone with the lonely record spinners.

Mitchell spent less than a year in that graveyard slot, but he racked up the lonely-heart listeners quick. It was during the CB radio craze when folks on the same frequency could communicate with each other over modest distances. Mitchell got himself one of these citizens band radios and set it up in the studio, becoming a favorite call for truckers rumbling through Sacramento.

“Because you were on the air and accessible … there was that camaraderie,” he recalls.

But that was a long time ago. Commercial radio has evolved to the degree that there are virtually no live, late-night local personalities anymore. (Heck, on-air promo spots for KKDO Radio 94.7 and KQJK Jack-FM’s 93.7 openly brag about not having any on-air talent whatsoever.) Instead, truckers and other graveyard-shift workers listen to a digital set of music replays and prerecorded features that serve to create a fiction of live broadcast. The only ones who are actually working in a radio station at that time are usually technicians making sure the fiction doesn’t collapse.

Before the last deejay leaves the KSSU Sac State station for the night, for instance, he or she sets the system to play through the night and until the next live body walks through the doors at a reasonable hour. If anything goes wrong, Mapp or station adviser Susie Kuo resets things from home.

illustration by jonathan buck

As a result, there’s an entire generation that doesn’t much recall the lost art of a disembodied voice speaking to the sleepless.

Larry Lee is the parking-enforcement supervisor for the city of Sacramento. He works into the night, listening up to three radio frequencies at a time. Two are for dispatch and police communications, but he also tunes into a national AM broadcast to glean the night’s top stories. He believes it’s live, but isn’t 100 percent sure.

“I’m actually only 24,” he says. “I’m not too familiar with how everything used to be live back in the day.”

If Lee needs breaking news right away, the millennial taps the touchscreen of his iPhone and voil&#;agrave;.

Despite the disappearance of late-night on-air talent, people haven’t stopped ringing up radio stations during odd times of night. Mitchell says he’ll hear messages from early-bird state workers priming themselves for a long commute, while Valk counts messages from complainers and those wanting contact information for a program or commercial that aired in the eventide.

“I’ve talked to a lot of elderly, especially women who have trouble sleeping, who are listening in the wee hours of the morning,” she says.

Yes, in the gloaming, the people still listen, even when there isn’t anyone actually there talking to them.

The mystique of being a late-night on-air personality shivering through caffeine withdrawal and preserved in tobacco smoke has dissipated like the last puff from a Marlboro.

“In general, the allure of being ’that deejay’ who has the crazy, good show that is super late has long lost its luster,” suggests Mapp, KSSU’s part-time station manager. He hasn’t been able to enlist anyone “gutsy enough” to take advantage of the station’s open format during a twilight time slot.

With more motorists springing for satellite radio and cramming their portable music devices into now-ubiquitous smartphone docks, it may not be much longer before the radio disc jockey goes the way of the milkman and singing telegram.

But on one college-radio dial, at least, that pirate spirit still flickers.

Kommoju knows exactly when the radio bug bit. Five years ago, Kommoju was just another precocious 13-year-old getting an early-bird start touring college campuses. As the group navigated the bushy, tree-lined quads of UC Davis, her pilgrimage halted in front of a funny-looking building at Lower Freeborn Hall.

Underneath that jagged roof, the tour guide explained, pumped the loud heart of KDVS, which got its start in a dormitory laundry room almost 40 years ago.

“We’re still in the basement,” Kommoju argues, “but we’re more accepted.”

For the current spring quarter, more than 30 people applied for 14 available time slots. This group consists of students, teachers and weekday warriors, all of whom were willing to mop floors, organize records and staff early-morning fundraising drives just for the chance to be on air.

One of those deejays goes by the name of Trotsky. Legend has it the soon-to-be grad-school student started spinning punk records at the station when he was just 14. That was long before either Kommoju or general manager Renner Burkle’s time, but the rebel yeller is still going strong. Trotsky’s show, Cargo Shorts and Crew Cuts with co-hosts H.G. and Phil, runs the 10 p.m. to midnight slot on Mondays. Their online mission statement is simple: “We play punk, fuck you!”

Kommoju admires the sort of rebel attitude you can only find on a noncommercial radio dial with a patchy signal. Grab on to it, and you just may hear something revolutionary.

“At least here,” Kommoju says, “it’s not dying.”