Snow's first experience at KDHX was somewhere around 20 years ago, and for the past 10 years, he's been hosting "Rocket 88." For three hours Darren spins a fun mix of new releases and some older favorites, with the occasional Tuesday Morning Dance Party to liven things up and get people dancing wherever they may be.
When I met with Snow on a Tuesday morning at MoKaBe's cafe following one of his radio shows, he confessed that our meeting snuck up on him and he had been hoping to prepare some talking points. Despite this, conversation flowed as he shared stories of not hating the right music growing up, his inability to pinpoint where his interest and love of music emerged from and thoughts on radio today.
Mariam Shahsavarani: How did you get started at KDHX?
Darren Snow: I had some experience in college radio -- actually, Rob Levy [host of Juxtaposition] and I both came up through KCFV at the community college -- and I had done some writing for a music zine called "Jet Lag" that Steve Pick was editor of. He though I could probably do a good radio show and asked me to put in a demo tape. This was about 20 years ago. I've been at KDHX on and off for about 20 years. The show was originally called "The Beat Escape."
When did it become "Rocket 88"?
I was off the air for a little while and when I came back I thought it would be a good time to change it. I just thought we should have a show called "Rocket 88." No one else had used the name and I just thought it would be a perfect name. It's named after arguably the first rock 'n' roll song, which I've never played on the show.
How would you describe your show to someone who has never heard it before?
If I throw the word "indie rock" at them, and they know what I'm talking about, we're off to a good start. I've been a music fan all my life, so along with the new releases I throw in a lot of oldies to catch the dial scanners. Some people might not even know KDHX exists, but they might have their radio on scan and catch a good old song by Blondie or Rod Stewart or Bob Dylan that they haven't heard in ages and maybe stick around.
Do you have a typical format for the show?
Yeah, it's probably the only thing I'm OCD about. I found out you can fit about 42 songs in 3 hours and I try to play 24 new songs and 18 old ones. It keeps a good balance.
You've mentioned a notebook on air. Do you actually keep a physical notebook of music?
Yeah, I do. There's so much good stuff out right now. Next week's playlist is almost full, and the week after is getting pretty full, too.
How do you put together a typical playlist for a show?
When I hear a song I like on a new release, I'll just grab my notebook and write it down for the next show. It's perpetually developing. I just have to make sure that I have about 42 songs on the list by Monday night and I'm good.
In addition to listening to new releases, how do you choose the music for the show?
I have an iPod with most of the older music on it, and when I'm at home or in the car and have that on shuffle, sometimes something will come up and I'll say, "Have I played that recently?" and I'll check the Spinitron database, and if it's something I haven't played in the past few months, I'll program it.
My number-one rule is: Is it catchy? Is it something you're going to find yourself humming later? I think that's something that keeps people tuned in. And sometimes in the middle of a song I'll forget that it has a really raucous guitar break or something; I'll think, "I'm losing them." I hope I'm not losing people.
What are some ways that you typically discover music?
There are two or three websites that list all the forthcoming releases for the next couple of months, and I'll put those in a database, and I'll try to make sure that I sample all of them. I'll give the first few songs a verse and a chorus to see if it grabs me or if it's the kind of thing that fits, isn't too weird or too raucous for a morning drive-time show. Fortunately, every week there's a few new things that fit the bill and I'll slap them on the air.
When you seek out new music are you looking for things to play on the air or things you're interested in, or are those the same thing?
If it's an artist I'm familiar with I'm always anxious to hear their new stuff. Sometimes there'll be a really nice surprise from someone I haven't heard of before, like I'm really excited right now about Big Harp. It's something that caught me by surprise that I hadn't heard before, and I've been playing the heck out of it. It's always great to discover new things.
How has the show changed since its inception? It's named "Rocket 88," and I was a little surprised by what it sounded like because of the name. Was it previously more older rock 'n' roll focused, or has it always been the mix that it now is?
It's always been about the same mix of old and new. Ideally every show will contain at least one song from every decade of the rock era, which is like seven decades now. '50s, '60s, '70s, '80s, '90s, '00s, '10s. Isn't that crazy?
Yet you've never played "Rocket 88"?
Yeah, it's kind of like my little in-joke that I've never played the song. If I ever have to stop doing the show, that'll probably be the last song I ever play on the show.
Do you dance during your Tuesday morning dance parties?
I have to be typing up the playlist on the website at the same time, so the best I can do is wiggle a little.
At any given time I usually have a regular gig DJing at one bar or another, but it's usually a place without a dance floor. I was at the Royale, now I'm at the Cabin Inn at the City Museum. People want to dance but there's no space. It's frustrating to be a DJ who wants to make people dance but there's no room for them to do so. I can only hope that people out there in radio land are dancing on Tuesday mornings while brushing their teeth or toweling off rhythmically.
What's your favorite thing about having a show on KDHX?
It's surprising and fun to be recognized by my voice. When somebody says, "Hey, you're the guy from Rocket 88." I'll always say, "Wow, do I sound the same on the air as I do when I'm awake?" That always surprises me.
It's a legacy. I've never had kids, so what I'll be leaving behind when I go is 20 -- well, hopefully a lot more than 20 -- years of pretty decent radio and some of my graphic design work.
Did you have a background in music prior to your involvement in college radio?
It all started when my folks bought me a tape recorder for Christmas when I was 11. It was just one of those little Panasonic monophonic piano-key tape recorders, and I started just taping things off the radio. To this day, that time, 1977 and 1978, is just magical. That's when I discovered music, and I have no critical faculties when it comes to that era. I love everything from 1977 and 1978, even when I kind of know in my heart that it sort of sucks. I've just been trying to keep on top of music ever since then.
The late '70s was an interesting time for a kid to get into music because there were a lot of divisive forces in pop music at the time. You had punk rock, which a lot of people hated. You had disco, which a lot of people hated. I loved everything and I lived in kind of a heavy-metal neighborhood, and I was kind of surprised to find out that it wasn't what you liked that made you cool, but you had to hate the right things. I didn't hate the right things. As I became acquainted with what I guess you would call the "hipster mentality" of the time, I became disappointed that you weren't allowed to like Elvis Costello and Eddie Money. It was either-or: You liked classic rock or you liked new wave. I'm glad that over the last 30 years there's been critical reassessment of bands like ELO and Fleetwood Mac. I think the Eagles deserve a critical reassessment.
What was your first record?
A few years before I really got into music my parents bought me a John Denver album and an acoustic guitar. The results were not what they probably expected. I failed to love John Denver or to learn to play the guitar.
The first album I bought with my own money was REO Speedwagon's "Nine Lives" and the first 45 was "Feels So Good" by Chuck Mangione. My first concert was a lot cooler; it was Elvis Costello. (laughs)
Someone called the show last week and asked me where I got my love for music, if it was something I got from my parents. I had to tell them, "No, my parents stopped paying attention to popular music seven years before I was born. Their record collection stops in 1961." So I don't know where I got it, but I'm glad I got it.
Do you think it came from listening to the radio?
It was just listening to the radio. I've always been fascinated by the evolution of formats and commercial radio. I'm fascinated by demographics. When I was growing up, say in the '80s, 15-year-olds were listening to the same music as 40-year-olds. Fleetwood Mac and Bruce Springsteen and Billy Joel were having huge hit singles, and people of all ages were buying them, and now it seems like there's a real divide. Anything that makes the pop chart is very youth oriented, and that seems to go in waves.
It's actually really exciting to me right now that the local country station is playing one of the same bands the commercial alternative station is playing. I'm not a fan of Mumford & Sons, but I think it's just exciting culturally that their fan base spans from country to alternative-rock. To me that's exciting because it means things are opening up and anything can happen. And I think it's exciting that the number one song right now is "Harlem Shake," which is pretty much a techno song that goes nowhere and includes a sample of another song called "Harlem Shake" that has something to do with a real dance called the Harlem Shake, but the dance that everybody is filming themselves doing to the new Harlem Shake has nothing to do with the old Harlem Shake. It's one of those glitches in pop history that's going to be fun to look back on and say, "What the hell was going on there?"
As far as being interested in how media works and how it affects the pop charts, "Harlem Shake" debuted at number one, and what it unseated is a novelty rap record about thrift shopping, which is also exciting because that's just weird. The weirder pop is, the happier I am. The more unexpected a hit record is, just the more exciting it is.
The one thing I would like to see happen is for commercial radio to reflect record sales more. Bands like Bright Eyes, for instance, will have a top 5 album the week of release, but commercial alternative radio is afraid to pay attention to that because they don't know how to program that next to Chevelle and 30 Seconds to Mars and all the angst-rock bands they've been stuck on for the last 10 years. I'd love to hear commercial alternative radio be more for smart kids. When the Point first came on the air they were playing Matthew Sweet and R.E.M. and XTC, music for the kids who used to get beat up. And somewhere along the way commercial alternative music became more of the music for bullies. It's barbed-wire, bicep-tattoo music. It's Ed Hardy t-shirt music.
I've noticed that the Modern Rock Tracks chart in Billboard...looks exactly like the playlist of XM's Alternative Nation. And once in a while something will cross over to commercial alternative radio, like Grouplove. That crossed-over [to Top 40], and I'm always happy when something like that happens. I'm happy when somebody from the poppier end of alternative music kicks the door open. I kept hoping that one of my favorite bands from last year, Family of the Year, would go through that door that Grouplove kicked open because they were kind of similar.
I don't like to be a music snob. I'd like to see the bands I like become popular. I don't abandon them when they get too popular. I still love the Black Keys and I'm so happy that they're huge now.
Some artists that are the biggest concert draws can't get played on commercial radio because there's not a format for them. Rock radio is too kick-ass to play Bruce Springsteen or Tom Petty anymore, so these huge artists almost by default have become KDHX artists. They are what you call "heritage artists," but commercial radio won't give their new records the time of day. You'll hear their old stuff, but Tom Petty comes out with a new record: totally ignored by commercial radio. It's up to us now.
What do you do with your time outside of KDHX?
I love to travel and take photos. Big cities, small towns, doesn't matter. I especially like photographing things I think might not be around much longer: drive-in theaters, a drugstore with a soda fountain. I like the age I am because so much has changed in my lifetime that I have memories of a lot of things that are gone now. The downtown single-screen movie theater, the five and dime, and I'm glad I live in the time I do because there's been so much cultural change, and it's just been fascinating to watch. I forget what culture it's from, but there's a curse that goes, "May you live in interesting times." I don't think that's a curse, I think that's a privilege.
Any final words?
I used to want to do commercial radio when I was a kid. Back as late as the late '70s, DJs still got to pick some of their music. Even when things got really rigidly formatted by consultants, the nuts and bolts of it were still interesting. In the '80s I could picture working on a Top 40 station and play not necessarily interesting stuff, like Bryan Adams and Whitney Houston, and just enjoying the mechanics of being a DJ. And that's changed now. I had a friend who worked at a commercial station a few years ago and it was all in a stream on a computer, and rather than playing the songs, he had to make the stream stop to talk. If he had to do a traffic report or back announce, he would stop the prerecorded stream of music. That's when I became totally disillusioned with commercial radio. I'm so glad we still have KDHX.
The Internet has democratized music so much. We're back in a singles market or singles mentality rather than an album mentality, and commercial radio rather than using that as an agent of change is resisting it, kicking and screaming. I just think that's interesting.
Satellite radio is interesting. I learned a lot from satellite radio. I had a job where I spent a lot of time in cars where all I had to listen to was the radio or the satellite, and that's where I first heard Lana Del Rey and Grouplove and Family of the Year. I picked up on a lot of my bands from satellite radio, which I'm not ashamed to admit. They've got some pretty savvy people programming their stations, and I wish commercial radio was more like that, but then again, if it was, KDHX wouldn't be so special, would it?