Interview with Radio Host Jona Denz-Hamilton

by Alex Cosper

Conducted July 15, 2015 on Facebook

Ladies & gentlemen, today I'm with Jona Denz-Hamilton, who is the midday host at KBAY in San Jose. She also programmed the legendary Sacramento station KROY in the 80s and Carmel/Monterey rock station KLRB. One of her most remembered radio gigs was on the air at the legendary San Jose rock station KOME 1974-1982. Jona, thanks for joining me today.

Jona: Hi Alex--It's great to talk to you. I need to point out that KLRB was in Carmel/Monterey -- working with some of the best radio people ever!

Alex: Nice picture of you with Van Halen in the early days. Tell us about that picture at KOME.

Jona: Haha. Dana Jang just stepped in the studio to add a factoid that I never knew. Van Halen enjoyed McDonald's burgers before stopping by the station! This was such a fun day back in 1978. The KOME jocks had been at Villa Montalvo to shoot some promo photos. Van Halen was getting ready to perform its first Bay Area show (San Jose Center For the Performing Arts). They popped in before the concert to "say hi."

They were even up to do a 30 second TV spot for KOME that day--just for fun! Of course we got the friendliest welcome from the band backstage that night--especially from cute Eddie.

Alex: Tell Dana Jang hi. I learned a lot about San Jose radio from my interview with him. I do want to talk about KOME, but Jona let's go back to how you got into radio. Weren't you one of the first woman station managers?

Jona: My couple of years at KFJC were so wonderful. My group still gets together; a good number of us went pro. I joined Foothill's campus station in '73 and quickly became addicted to the fun. Within about a year the Station Manager election was held, and I decided to run at the urging of a bunch of the staff. It was heavy competition--9 of us were on the ballot. I think I was the only girl, still a teen. So I won and orchestrated a few really fun and successful fundraisers that got the station to finally go stereo. The first was a concert with the Sons of Champlin--and it was so successful that we exceeded our goal!

Alex: Explain how you came to work for KOME in 1974, just as rock radio was becoming amazingly popular.

Jona: I started listening to KOME as soon as it went on the air, and split my time between KSJO and KSAN. But KOME turned me on the most. Our college radio class gave us the assignment to write a resume--so I decided it was time to try it out at a professional station. My goal was to get hired while I was still a teenager. It worked, and I got to sit in the front office of KOME sticking labels on albums and other intern-y type things. After a few months of begging to be given a chance on the air, I got to do weekend mornings--what a high!

Actually, I had made some very funky concert reviews when KOME was still in its first year--and one of the jocks, Victor Boc, actually played it on the air--on KOME. He became a bit of a mentor. I was given the producer job for his Sunday morning talkshow, The Expresway. This was a little before I was actually given any airshifts.

Alex: At the time wasn't it rare for women to be on the air?

Jona: Were women a rarity on the air--not in Progressive Rock. KSAN had several great ladies, and KOME already had a couple who came before me. In college, there was an explosion of female announcers. I attribute it to the concept of free-form radio--it opened doors and minds.

Alex: Yes, I agree that freeform radio deserves a lot of credit for opening the door for many creative people. What are some memories of KOME that stand out for you? It seemed like that was a very exciting time for rock stations.

Jona: Oh .. SO So many! KOME had the following and the aura and the staff and the vibe! The KOME Facebook page has tens of thousands of followers--unsolicited. Those days were magical. If I had to pick out some highlights I'd start with my friendship with Dennis Erectus. He was hired a few years after me and rocketed to stardom. He would be at the station all hours, recording bits for his shows, and often included me, asking me to play a character in one of his silly, nasty little productions. He became a great friend over the years. There was the time that our company (we were the first Infinity station) bought WBCN in Boston and fired a couple (like two) people. The entire staff staged a union walkout. I was sent to Boston to keep the station on the air. OMG--what a cultural shock with the death threats and all! But I had a great time because the audience was great--and actually knew me from California! Funny--some of the mad-guys said I'd never work in radio again .. that was 1979. Another highlight is the fun I had doing all nights and creating the 4 O'Clock Crazies. I came up with a theme and played a set of comedy bits with a coordinating song. It could get really out there! I still have listener friends in real life from those days.

Don't let me forget to mention our bossist, Mikel Hunter. He was the most creative, crazy, more tirelassly creative motivator I've ever known. You know--the staff from thos years is still very very tight!

Alex: How much freedom did you have on the air at KOME in terms of music selection and what you chose to talk about?

Jona: When I started, a new system by Program Director , Ed Romig had just begun--and it pissed off a fair amount of jocks who'd had really free-reign. It was a card-file format. Pick a few from the box, then fill the rest of the hour with your own picks. I was fine with it, just got creative with it--even though the guys kept leaving all the Joni Mitchell tracks unmplayed! The station did take on a less-than-progressive sound, but that changed with the hiring of Mikel Hunter. His first change was to get rid of the cards and make us un-holy. Haha -- I don't know why that word comes to mind, but it fits! We had categories of new and older music and we were expected to balance the hours using our own discretion. It worked amazingly well--except when we got carried away. I was scolded for playing a little too much Genesis--sigh--but I always took his advice.

To summarize: we had a library full of rock, jazz-rock, country-rock, blues-rock, folk-rock, and comedy--and it was all well utilized!

Alex: Was mixing music part of the art at KOME? Did jocks talk to each other about how music flowed?

Jona: Of course! We had a lot of fun with that--especially the art-rock stuff. There were times I played songs on all 3 turntables at the same time mixing sound effects and rythyms. You know, like Pink Floyd with some jazz album like Herbie Hancock--just the ethereial pats blended--and mixing comedy drop-ins could be hilarious. All of us had this thing for "Blazing Saddles" bits. As far as the flow of songs in a regular sense, yes--it was very important because blending a variety without sounding jarring was always a goal. We also played a fair amount of local bands. When it came to gabbing about our shows, though I think we talked more about the goofy, fun off-the-wall promotions we were doing than the actual music. We were well-known for off-the-wall.

Alex: From KOME you went on to program rock station KLRB in Carmel/Monterey. Tell us about that experience.

Jona: The staff was strong and long-lasting at KOME, so I had little chance to move "up" and I was itching to grow. So I searched for stations that I felt could sound better - that I could build up. KLRB was perfect because it had some really talented air personalities, but it was getting crushed in the ratings by KSJO - an out-of-the-market station! Besides polishing their AlbumRock (AOR) format, I beefed up promotions - got more involvement with concerts and listener-attended events. I was told Monterey didn't get movie premiers - so we made our own! We beat KSJO in the ratings right away and things were rolling really great, but the owner was a country fan and wanted to go that direction, which killed everything. Dumb .. Too bad. But losing that opened more doors for me.

Alex: Turns out a lot of owners don't understand rock. So you're right, dumb move. But then you wound up in my hometown Sacramento to program KROY. What are your memories of that era, which was just as I was starting to intern at KWOD in 1984?

Jona: I was thrilled! Thank you, Dennis Newhall. It was a similar situation, except 97 KROY-FM was already sounding pretty well-programmed. I wanted to offer the audience an alternative to the long-time rocker, KZAP, which was pretty straight-ahead rock. So KROY took on a little more new wave and modern rock while maintaining a rock middle ground too. I was up against wanna-be radio management again, though. The Station Manager, believe it or not, would not allow me to program ANY Led Zeppelin on our ROCK station...because his girlfriend didn't like them. I still get floored by that ineptness. We had fun in spite of restrictions, and the ratings did great. Unfortunately there were several ownership, management, and format changes before I left--but I survived all of them--kinda funny! One great thing was that even though they changed the format to the sappiest Adult Contemporary format (there were 3 other A/Cs in town) and the ratings dropped to almost nothing, I finally had tapes of myself doing a format other than rock. Some Program Directors are unable to "hear" your talent when you send your actual on air sample "aircheck", if you're working a different format than theirs--so frustrating! All in all, it was a great experience, but my goal was to get back home to the Bay Area.

Alex: I can believe that manager's girlfriend story. So many of those guys are clueless about music. By the time you were at KROY, wouldn't you say rock radio everywhere was becoming more structured?

Jona: Yes. There seemed to be a lot more consultants being used. Some were good, from what I remember, but many were not in touch with the local area. That can make a big difference! I don't have anything against structure. It's important to program to get listeners to notice you and stay. There's an art in that - and a lot of statistical work.

Alex: So now you've been at KBAY for almost two decades, doing the midday show. Are there that many others in San Jose who have that much longevity at the same station?

Jona: Sure. At KBAY alone, there are several of us, like Lissa Kreisler and Sam Van Zandt. Then there's KRTY's Gary Scott Thomas and Julie Stevens and KLIV's John McCloud and Kim Vestal, and George Sampson. Our sister station, Mix 106.5 keeps its announcers like Marla Davies and Laurie Free too. And if you count longevity in South Bay radio in general, the list is longer - Laurie Roberts, Dana Jang, Karin Nakamura, Chris Jackson. All of the people I mentioned in this group were at KOME, KSJO, or KFOX, and I'm sure I left some great ones out, darn it.

Alex: That's interesting how much enduring talent has come from freeform radio. What do you think about all the nostalgia about freeform radio stations on Facebook?

Jona: That's a perfect place to re-surface. You can go for a niche audience and really play it up. I know that KZAP just went back on the actual airwaves in Sacramento, at a different frequency, 93.3FM and slightly different call letters. They stream too. They may not be really free-form, but it's a cool revival!

Alex: Yes, I think freeform can be successful if balanced with enough music that people want to hear. Jona, you've shared a lot of great memories about your career in radio. Any closing thoughts?

Jona: I wanted to give a little shout out to a couple of other stations I was on before KBAY. I spent two years with some wonderful talent on San Jose's KLOK-AM, working for a truly innovative manager who is credited with actually starting the "Oldies" radio trend way back when. I was there while he was playing the Yes-No format--fun! I also got to work at the historic KEEN Country Radio during its last couple of years, with the slogan, "Too Damn Country for FM"! Haha. It's a crazy business that's going though more growing pains in the modern world, but I look forward to going and growing with it. Thanks, Alex! like emoticon

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