What is hip?
Longtime Sacramento rock DJ Bob Keller may be a dinosaur from radio’s pre-corporate era, but he knows how to surf the changes
“If you’re really hip, the passing years will show.”
That was the promise offered by an old hit by Tower of Power, which blasted out of radios during the early ’70s. In radio, where an average stint as disc jockey is brief and unsure at best, those passing years have been very kind to Bob Keller, who spins classic-rock hits on weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at KSEG 96.9 FM, better known as “The Eagle.” Keller recently marked 20 years on River City radio.
“In this business, being a DJ means you’re like a filter of pop culture—you prepare for it—read newspapers, watch TV,” Keller says modestly.
While Keller’s easygoing style, delivered in a buddy-next-door kind of voice, can account for some of his longevity, a chunk of his success has to ride on his other “job”—as a restaurateur and originator of the Café Rock, “a theater of the mind” show. With his staff of Chef Ptomaine, waitress Betty Varicose, busboy Sal Monella and the honorary pooch-mascot Scraps, Keller has dished out prime noontime rock ’n’ roll to musically ravenous Sacramento audiences since 1981.
Keller launched the Café at KZAP, Sacramento’s late, great, innovative, freeform rock ’n’ roll (and a whole lot more) station that was born in the late ’60s, before the radio industry’s corporate consolidation.
“I came up with the Cafe Rock in stages,” Keller recalls. “It started with a program called the Electric Lunch, and evolved into the Café Rock. I had a crowd and diner’s sounds and a picture in my mind of what a career waitress would be like.” (Artist Eric DeCetis’ renditions of the Café’s staff can be found online at www.eagle969.com/caferock.html.) Keller added a daily “blue plate special” centering around music from a featured artist or band, and the popular radio game show he calls, for lack of a better name, “Know Your Fish.”
When Keller left the coveted midday slot at KZAP in 1992 to take the morning drive-time slot at the musically adventurous station KQPT 100.5 The Point (now KZZO 100.5 The Zone), it was too early in the day for the Café to dish out a lunch musical menu. So, in 1995, the Café moved with Keller to its present digs at The Eagle, a local component of the national chain Entercom’s group of radio stations, which also include KSSJ 94.7 (Smooth Jazz), KRXQ 98.5 (98 Rock), KDND 107.9 (The End) and KCTC 1320-AM.
“The Café Rock sort of took on a life of its own,” Keller says. “It’s been copied in other markets, on at least seven different stations.”
“But it’s my signature show,” he adds.
As tongue in cheek and irreverent as it is, the Café Rock couldn’t collect and keep its faithful clientele without Keller’s inherent love of rock, which comes across on the show. No wonder—even though the San Francisco native holds a degree in psychology, he attended his own musical college carved out by the late rock impresario Bill Graham.
“When I was a kid,” Keller recalls, “come the weekend, me and my buddies would go to the Fillmore Auditorium for about eight bucks and have the time of our life. Bill Graham came into it as an older person and just booked good music. He’d mix the music—sometimes it was Miles Davis and the Grateful Dead on the same bill. Bill Graham and his rock shows guided me through my years and influenced my taste.”
It’s no surprise that Graham ranks as Keller’s favorite of all the 100-plus celebrities he’s interviewed, which include Van Morrison, B.B. King, Tony Bennett, Dr. Ruth, Vida Blue and Ronnie Spector, along with members of the Rolling Stones, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Little Feat.
“I did several interviews with Bill,” Keller says. “I loved telling him, ‘I’ve been going to your rock shows since I was a kid, and they’re a big part of my life.’ He was one of the greatest figures—nothing like the concert promoters today—and bigger than any of the bands he brought to the stage or that he had discovered. And he molded a lot of careers.”
So it was intensely poignant for Keller when he got the call, 10 years ago this month, to trek to San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park to do a live KZAP broadcast of the memorial concert for Graham after his death in a helicopter crash after a Huey Lewis concert at Concord Pavilion.
“It was very wonderful onstage, a continuous flow of talented people giving this big free concert [that included] Santana, Crosby, Stills Nash and Young, Robin Williams and Kris Kristofferson. Journey even reunited for the concert. It was a wonderful tribute to Bill Graham.”
Keller first flirted with radio in 1966 at a San Mateo college station. But his first commercial DJ job came in 1969, after an Air Force gig landed him in Florida.
“It was WBUS, but we called it the Magic Bus [after a song by the Who],” Keller remembers, “a business station in south Miami Beach with an owner who didn’t care when a band of renegade hippies took it over. The Republican National Convention was happening, and Abbie Hoffman and the Black Panthers used to come up to the station for interviews. That’s where I got my radio chops, through [the] freeform radio that was cropping up around the country, like KZAP and KSAN in the Bay Area.”
About a year later, Keller moved to then-undiscovered Key West.
“I worked at this freaking freeform station on an island inhabited by hippies, rednecks and Cubans,” he says. “What a mix! It was a wonderful experience, life-changing even, and the best decade of my life. We played everything we wanted.”
Radio even hooked Keller up with Shelly, his true love and wife of 23 years. As a recent transplant from Maryland, she was impressed when the local radio station played a Steely Dan tune, and then another, and then another. She told her best friend Claudia that she wanted to meet the guy playing so much of her favorite band on the air. Claudia told her, “I know him,” and the rest is history.
In the late ’70s, Keller was looking to get back to San Francisco, and after a short gig in Madison, Wisconsin, he landed at KZAP and never left Sacramento.
“The money was good, and it was so easy to get around, I just stayed here, even though I’ve had two offers to go to the Bay. I have longevity here—that’s valuable, with an on-air audience built in. I’m getting calls from people saying, ‘I used to listen to you when I was 16.’ It’s flattering and alarming.”
Perhaps it’s alarming for the DJ who declines to give his age, but his history—coupled by the silver that streaks through his hair and neatly groomed mustache and beard—gives his age away. At The Eagle, Keller presides in a sparsely furnished room that’s rendered fishbowl-ish by the windows that line two walls. A wall of CDs looms behind him, while a wide control panel and computer monitors perform magic on the airwaves under his fingertips. Long gone are the turntables and black-vinyl records that Keller spun in his early radio years. The music is now selected by a programming director, who targets adult males—specifically those aged 25-54.
Keller hits the button to play the Allman Brothers’ “Statesboro Blues,” which awakens his reflective side.
“I’m really a dinosaur,” he admits, “a throwback. I’m the last man standing as a DJ. It’s a lost art form.
“You need new skills,” he adds, gesturing at the control board. “And the ‘music generation’ has turned to talk and sport radio. Even though there’s no playlist—that’s a myth—everything’s so specialized and fine tuned, [and] marketed to the audience. But I love my job.”
Keller has no plans to retire soon, although he’s working hard on his golf game and practicing his casting to keep Shelly, the couple’s real fishing pro, company out in the wild.
But he still has an idea for the perfect radio station.
“My station would be totally unique,” Keller muses. “I know exactly how it would sound, with interesting personalities, great music of all genres, the best of what ’60s radio was, but not as self-indulgent and undisciplined.”