[It] was the kind of station I used to listen to late at night growing up, and it brought me back to the trials of my youth and touched the spirit of it. Back then when something was wrong the radio could lay hands on you and you’d be all right. – Bob Dylan (1941–)
Basically, radio hasn’t changed over the years. Despite all the technical improvements, it still boils down to a man or a woman and a microphone, playing music, sharing stories, talking about issues – communicating with an audience. – Casey Kasem (1932–2014)
Radio has always struck me as nothing short of a miracle, a Tesla magic trick of divine proportions. Where does that invisible waveform come from? With a simple box and a sound hole, a few tubes and circuits strung together with wire, radio is capable of bridging continents and forming connections, turning the world into a global village that asks little in return beyond paying attention, and allowing yourself to be swept away by the currents.
Despite the stylistic fashion shifts and our ideas of how to utilize the medium, radio ultimately boils down to the act of communicating with an audience and rewarding them with something deserving of their time. With limitless entertainment options cascading through our culture, there is a musical oasis within San Diego offering a respite from the pablum found on 99% of all commercial airwaves, and its name is Jazz 88.
Located on the City College campus in downtown San Diego, KSDS is heard terrestrially at 88.3 on your FM dial as well as through its website online. As the premier campus of the San Diego Community College District, City College is celebrating its centennial this year. The station was established in 1951, and last year KSDS celebrated its fourtieth anniversary as a jazz station. One of the announcers who has been with the station the longest, T, is retiring after 35 years, creating the opportunity to stir things up a bit with the Every Shade of Blue program, broadcast every Saturday evening from 8pm to midnight. Handpicked by T to be his replacement is none other than Michael Kinsman, venerated journalist and founder of the San Diego Blues Festival.
“I am really excited about Michael Kinsman coming in,” says program director and on-air host Claudia Russell. “He’s going to start on October 4. And after talking with T we decided to keep that title for the program. It’s a great descriptor of the show because you hear everything – gutbucket stuff; ripping Chicago live stuff; you’ll hear things straight out of Memphis or wherever it’s happening. Michael comes with the full support and recognition of T, which is cool.”
While Kinsman hasn’t held down a DJ slot before, he’s been on the air quite a bit in the past. “Michael is in the know,” says Russell. “He digs all of the music; he’s very well connected to musicians and the International Blues Challenge, so he can represent blues for KSDS very well across the country and around the world if necessary. He also has a journalism background as you well know, so he’s very comfortable talking to people about music.”
As a native of Covina, California, Kinsman has called San Diego home for 31 years. After graduating with a B.A. in Communications from Cal State Fullerton, Kinsman became a noted journalist at the San Gabriel Valley Tribune, the Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Virginia, the San Diego Daily Transcript, and the San Diego Reader, as well as serving as a business and music writer for 25 years at the San Diego Union-Tribune. His work has received numerous awards and he was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 1988.
These days Kinsman writes for Blues Music magazine, saying that he likes all music “but the blues is really what I stand by. When I started at the U-T, I was a business writer. I wrote a column about workplace issues and that to me was interesting because I learned about real people and the things that affected them. I enjoyed that, but I also enjoyed music and I would talk to the entertainment guys and George [Varga]. I was at the Tribune and George was at the Union and the Tribune guys said, ‘Why don’t you write some stuff?’ I did blues, some R&B, some roots music – anything that I happened to like.”
Kinsman is at a loss to explain why the blues has impacted him so much. “It doesn’t make sense in my life,” he says. “I grew up in suburban L.A. in a little Wonder Bread community. While I enjoyed music from a very early age, I didn’t know what the blues was. My father had some Ray Charles records around, so I got a little exposure to R&B. But nothing was ever formalized, and I remember when I was 16 I heard B.B. King’s ‘The Thrill Is Gone’ and I think that was really the first time I recognized that there was a genre called blues. I gravitated toward it and it became my primary music that I liked, even though I have very eclectic tastes.
“I’ve been to the International Blues Challenge in Memphis for probably 16 years, where these bands from all over the world come and I see some really crappy bands. This is my big generality: middle-aged white guys in fedoras who think they’re cool shit because they dress like they should have been bluesman instead of accountants. Be that as it may, I found a really interesting thing: a band from New York; all the musicians would be great, but they had no soul, they had no feel for the music. They were great musicians but they had no feel for the music. Musicians from the South, generally there are some pretty good ones. The Midwest? Not so much, pretty rare. The West Coast actually has some pretty decent representation, but there would be Canadians and people from other parts of the world and it was kind of painful. I kind of locked into this whole ‘Canadians can’t play the blues,’ which is like ‘white guys can’t play the blues’ and several years ago I told myself ‘wait a minute.’ John Hammond Jr. is as white as anybody walking the Earth, and he plays the blues, so why can’t a Canadian play the blues? I’ve broadened my horizons; I still find that there are a lot of mimickers out there, they’re just going through the motions and they’re very refined and they do it very well but it’s not really heartfelt.
“I don’t think there is any qualification. I can’t even tell you what the blues is. My definition of the blues is: ‘I know it when I hear it.’ It’s very loose, but it works for me. It could be the lyrical content or the chord structure or it could just be the feel of the music for me.
“I started the San Diego Blues Festival in ’98. I did it for six years and then I lost it. I was a small-time guy and I was doing it on a shoestring. I owned it at that time and I had some partners and we lost a lot of money. We had a great little festival, but we had bad weather, ticket fraud. I didn’t do it for eight years and then we resurrected it. The San Diego Food Bank actually owns it and they hired me to run it, so I don’t have to mortgage my house when the festival is done, which is kind of a nice feeling. With the Food Bank we raised $25,000 the first year, then $75,000, and then $125,000. The Food Bank is kind of a magical institution for raising money. That’s their mission: to go out and raise money for the festival.
“If I was going to find a bluesy place, it would not be San Diego [laughs]. But I love the music and I love exposing it to my friends. That’s why I’m delighted about the radio show because I’ll be able to play some stuff that T never played, not that it’s better than anything he played, it’ll just be different. The general population today, outside of certain regional pockets, does not get exposed to the blues. In San Diego, unless you happen upon Jazz 88 or something happening in a club, you’re probably not going to hear much blues. But then if you watch a TV commercial, there’s blues music on every fifth TV commercial. It’s not an accident, being put in there by marketing people. Blues is put in there because it has an immediate, magnetic force that pulls people in right away. It’s a very gut level thing. And it doesn’t matter what product you’re selling – it pulls you in and makes you lean toward it and then you’re more receptive at looking at their product.”
As a non-profit radio station that is not affiliated with the National Public Radio network, KSDS is a true independent. “I like mission-driven radio,” says Russell. “I like the local things that are done. I love Cathryn Beeks’ The Homegrown Hour on KPRI, because she’s digging deeper into San Diego than just what the big record labels want us to play. And that’s the difference with KSDS too, we’re digging deeper, we’re playing local musicians because they’re great, not just because they’re in our backyard. Commercial radio, not just in San Diego, but in general, is very predictable for me. I don’t hear songs that surprise me much anymore. I’m not looking to radio other than some of those locally programmed stations to give me my new music and that makes me a little different from the typical consumer. Most people tune into us because 1) they want a companion or 2) they want to be hip to new music. We know that everybody has thousands of choices now with their music. If you have a Smartphone in your pocket you can listen to music anywhere in the world. But what we’re striving to do is to still be that buddy you hung out with in high school who said, ‘Man, you’ve got to hear this!’ We still want to be that friend that turns you on to the cool music.
As KSDS’s program director, Russell is also on the air every Monday through Friday from 4 – 6pm with The Jazz Ride Home. “We try to do as much of our programming live as possible,” she says. “It keeps our spontaneity as programmers but it also gives us an opportunity to interact with people. That’s what built radio, the interaction.
“What I enjoy is connecting audiences and artists. Our announcers have really good ears. And the thing that we have most of here is passion. Everyone here is very passionate about the music. Think about what we’re doing: we’re championing jazz and blues in a radio environment and that’s a nearly impossible task in this day and age.”
With other staff changes afoot at KSDS currently (general manager Mark DeBoskey also retired on September 30), Russell speaks with great admiration for the departing T, who has dealt with the physical challenge of gradually losing his eyesight over the past two decades.
“When T started working at this radio station he was a perfectly sighted person,” says Russell. “And he had a lot of opportunities along the way to give up and stop doing it as his sight deteriorated and eventually left him. And he didn’t. I’ve always had a lot of respect for that because running a radio station studio board with all the music and what’s going on, and the phones and everything, that’s a challenge for anyone with full capacity. I sat in with him many, many times with fundraising and things like that and he engineered the whole thing. And that’s really impressive to me, because it’s not just ‘oh, he’s able to do this’ but it says a lot about – again, being a passion-driven person. And the music driving him and the desire to share that music and be that connector. And that’s what I tell people; I view my role as kind of a ‘found artist.’ I take all these elements that other people have put together and then I create a cohesive two-hour journey with that music.
“And speaking of T’s retirement, we will have a final celebration for him on December 9. Our December Jazz Live is going to be Earl Thomas and the original Rum Boogie in the Saville Theatre and that’s going to be super fun. So everyone should come out for that.”