For the DJs at KMHD Jazz Radio, the Show Must Go On
As operations coordinator and morning DJ at community-supported KMHD jazz radio, Derek Smith is used to being in the studio around sunrise, picking songs that help get Portlanders through their early routines and commutes with his weekday show The Morning Session. Now his own routine and commute are upended, along with those of most of his listeners. But thanks to a home studio, a digital music library, and the magic of the internet, Smith—along with fellow full-time staffers Isabel Zacharias and Matt Fleeger, plus a few part-timers and a small army of volunteer DJs—is able to keep the tunes flowing and (mostly) fresh for the OPB affiliate, a partnership with Mt Hood Community College, at 89.1 FM. We asked Smith how his days have changed amid stay-at-home orders during the coronavirus pandemic.
“A normal day in my life, I get up about 5:30 a.m. and get the coffee going. I go into my record room and pull maybe 15 LPs from my collection to play on the air that morning. I go down to the station at about 6:30, kind of get into a good space, a good energy, and then I’m on the air live from 7 until 10. The show is not really planned out. I sort of feel where the day is and where the music’s going. I’ll have that stack of records, and I’ll pull stuff from the KMHD library, and maybe a few other places. I’m [also the station’s] operations coordinator, so after that I keep the shows sort of dialed in from all our amazing volunteers. I would be done with work about 2:30 or 2:45, and then I would go home and liberate my dog from her homeboundness and would pick up my son, Mingus, from aftercare—he’s a first grader—later in the day, and we’d do some adventuring.
“That would be a normal day. Now, I sleep later, so that’s kind of cool. Coffee, of course, is still an essential ingredient to start the day, but the show, and my work flow, is much, much different. I am recording in a home studio here in Kenton, and we’re calling it KMHD North. It’s a much more labor-intensive process now to create radio, versus an improvisational, sort of in-the-spirit-of-the-moment and actually listening to the music with the audience, which is what I usually do. Now I’m having to build the show inside Adobe Audition. I’m not using any records, which is a drag. I’m pulling from my digital library—which is cool, there’s tons of music in there, but it’s a little less warm and cuddly.
“I want it to sound good. I want the songs to go together, so there’s a lot of listening to the ends of things and the beginnings of things. Put all that into Adobe, and then put all the files in and adjust them and figure out where I’m going to speak. I set up one window with Adobe, one window with my iTunes library so I know what it is I’m playing so I can do the backsell, tell the audience what they heard, what they’re gonna hear, and then I record all the voice tracks. And then I take all the voice tracks and move them to the laptop, because it’s on a Marantz field recorder, and then I put them on the laptop and put them all into place where they need to be and adjust all the levels on the voice tracks to match the audio. It takes a long time. And then after that’s all done I tighten it all up so it sounds like I’m in the studio doing it, and then I export it into a wav file, and then I VPN into our system. It takes me about three to four hours every day to record this three-hour show. My internet connection’s slow, so it’ll take about an hour for me to put my show into the system.
“I’m continuing to schedule all of our shows, so I’m also coordinating with our hosts. Some of our hosts are recording in their own home studios and sending me the files, and I’m putting them into our system. We have about 30 volunteer hosts. Many of them are not creating content, because they don’t have the equipment. A lot of them, fortunately, have enough content backed up that’s in our system that we can schedule stuff that’s run before, and that’s fine. DJ Action Slacks (host of Travelin’ the Tracks) is sending me shows. Lynn Darroch (Bright Moments), he’s sending me his shows. Tom D’Antoni (I Like It Like That), he’s sending me his shows from his home studio. It’s pretty beautiful. Everybody is trying to continue to make our listeners feel good and hopeful. We like to think of KMHD as a refuge—always, but especially right now. I know we’re all compulsively checking the news, and that can really wear us out. So we like our listeners to know they can tune into KMHD, and it’s a place wear they’re gonna hear stuff that’s gonna uplift them. Give them some hope.
“My son’s home, and we need to make sure that this isn’t damaging him, that he’s having a good childhood still, and he’s still learning. My wife has lost her job—temporarily, hopefully—so she, Aiyana, is kind of leading that, but I’m helping because I can’t not help. It’s a blessing because I’m getting to hang out with my family a lot more, but it’s challenging to stay on point and get all the work done. So what happens is I’m working all the time, I’m working weird hours, I’m working in the middle of the night, I work seven days a week. But little things like just being together—our lives are so complicated and busy and regimented with our schedules that we’ve all as a society adopted, you don’t see each other except when you’re burnt out, when you get home and you’re both tired and your kid’s tired from school, and you’re just not at your best selves. So now we have moments where we’re kind of in the moment in a much clearer way, and it’s nice. Just reconnecting in our neighborhoods, walking and really experiencing them and appreciating them. And finding new ways to educate our son. He built a giant fort, he took over our whole living room yesterday, sort of a tactile creation project. Then he did a video tour of it and sent it to all his classmates on Seesaw, and it’s really cool. He’s going to sleep in it tonight.”