Radio has been a steadfast companion from earliest memories. As a young child, I’d run home from school so I could scooch my rump to the edge of the taller-than-me Zenith. The sinister voice of actor Frank Readick, JR. would vibrate right through my back: “Only the shadow knows.”
Music was a constant. My favorite programs had DJs that seemed to be speaking right to me. They would pick just the song that excited my most fervent lusts and mirrored my social outrages.
There aren’t too many of those DJs left or stations to yoke them with. Richard Martin and Chuck Runyon, co-founders of Gulch Radio, beamed out of Jerome, Arizona, are among what is rapidly becoming an endangered species.
Richard does two shows—a morning show from 5-to 8 a.m. and “The Geezer Rock Show” from 4-6 p.m. on Sundays—choosing songs of the throb and break of love. Rooting through his memory bank of thousands enables him to gracefully segue from song to song.
Many evening shows are programmed by Chuck Runyon who favors guitar wizards, old and contemporary. And then there’s the secret old hermit who lives in the Gulch and culls his collection of psychedelic music on vintage vinyl, scratches and all.
Jerome, AZ: The Fabulously Wealthy Mining City that Became a Famous Ghost City that Became a Renowned Arts Mecca that is Becoming…
Gulch Radio owners Chuck Runyon and Richard Martin moved to Jerome in the seventies and helped restore a dilapidated ghost-looking city that had gone to pot—a broken down sewer system spilling crap into the hillsides, a leaky sixteen-mile water pipeline that sometimes left the town without water, a fire department without adequate equipment and trained firefighters and buildings that were sagging down the hillside.
Both bought broken-down houses in a neighborhood known as The Gulch, built on the steep side of a craggy canyon, whose rocks are 1.8 billion years old, almost one-third the age of our planet earth.
“In those days, Jerome was man against the mountain,” said Richard Martin, who became Jerome’s first hippie mayor in 1978. ”You couldn’t live here without participating or the mountain was going to push the town off the side of the hill. I think that is the thing that made us different from a lot of other hippie communities. We couldn’t just sit around and party all the time. We had to pitch in.”
Music was integral to their lives. Radio accompanied their workdays. Most parties, funerals and fund-raising events had live music from more than twenty-five musicians that moved to Jerome.
Gulch Radio’s Ragged Beginnings
Chuck and Richard started Gulch Radio in 2002 because they couldn’t get good radio reception in the spectacular canyon hillside they lived on. They wanted to treat themselves and their neighbors to music that they could work by—just as they did when they listened to music during their early days in Jerome.
Funding was right out of their pockets—the antenna, transmitter, Apple computer, i-Pod, a DVD player and more than 15,000 songs purchased from i-Tunes. A spend-only budget doesn’t make them any money and maybe this is why the station stays so free of commercial attachment and so close to their musical passions.
They loaded the i-Pod with tunes and hooked it up through the transmitter and their computer, all of which sat on a large desk. They found an unused frequency and started playing music they liked a few hours a day and learned to become DJs. The radio signal could only be heard by people living in sight of the antenna, in their case about 50 people.
After a few months, Richard and Chuck discovered the radio signal was getting weaker and weaker. Listeners complained of the deteriorating sound quality. The computer began unexpectedly crashing. So they bought a new computer and i-Pod. When the same things began happening, they finally discovered why. The transmitter put out a magnetic field that attacked the computer’s hard drive and destroyed it and the i-Pod. $1500 went out the windows for a passion that was taking up more and more time.
When they decided to reach a wider audience with Internet streaming in 2006, another layer was added to an ever-widening spiral.
“There was a lot to learn,” said Richard. “Not just about the electronics and computer interface, but why some music sounded really bad on the radio and why some of the DJs that volunteered to do shows were great and others sucked. When Gulch Radio started streaming, we could watch when listeners just went away. We had to learn how to make our listeners ‘stick.’
“One of our earlier volunteers did a few shows of the worst music he could find,” Richard said. “After a few shows, we told him people really didn’t want to listen to crap. He got mad and said it was inhibiting his creativity. Another guy wanted to just play music he liked and not say anything at all. Why be there, I asked? What’s wrong with personality. People like personality; they like to know why you are making the choices of music you play.”
Gulch Radio’s Link to Jerome’s Radio History
Jerome’s history threads and weaves into the lives of new Jerome residents. History bumps right up against them until it beelines into their hearts.
Richard and Chuck became fascinated with the town’s history when they began to make friends with some of the old timers and listen to their stories as they helped restore old buildings and repair leaky water lines with rubber inner tubing from old tires. Richard has a collection of railroad spikes that he picked up during his walks on Perkinsville Road, part of which used to be the bed for the old narrow gauge railroad that was built by mining tycoon William Andrews Clark. Chuck collects Jerome photos and memorabilia from the mining era.
It is no accident that Richard and Chuck adopted the call letters KCRJ from the Jerome radio station that existed from 1928-1944.
Among Richard’s personal collection of Jerome artifacts is a copy of a letter written in 1938 from the owner of KCRJ to a new advertising sales representative. The letter outlined the terms of payment and described something about the community that was served by the station. “Keep in mind that 40% of the population that listens to KCRJ are Spanish speaking and they enjoy our daily Spanish hour; our Spanish announcer has quite an influence upon them. Play upon this fact; lots of them buy flour, cooking compounds, meats, etc. They have to have their teeth fixed at reduced prices. . . We have a very fine program of Hillbilly entertainment. that is unsold at this time; good for a flour account or the Tovrea people [well-known meat packers in Phoenix].”
Jerome residents Flossie McClellan, Mary Evelyn Starkovitch and Zella Davis were three KCRJ employees that found it easy to get jobs at KCRJ because most of the men worked for the mine. They were still attending Jerome’s Mingus Union High School when they were hired.
Flossie lived on my street when I moved to Jerome in 1980. Every day, she used to come out of her house in a tattered pink bathrobe and walk up and down the street calling her cat. Zella helped start the Community Service Organization in the nineteen sixties that held historic home tours to help raise funds for town projects, just about the time that hippies started moved on masse into Jerome. Mary Evelyn’s father was a mining foreman and the family was relocated to another mine when it closed.
Mary Evelyn offered this reminiscence of the old KCRJ’s last broadcast in 1946. It is a mournful prelude to the dying mining city. “I don’t remember what I had on… but I know there was this lump in the throat feeling that you just didn’t want this day to happen…You knew it was coming, you had known for a while, but you didn’t want to admit that today was the deadline… today was D-Day so to speak…. and there was sadness.. and when people are sad they don’t quite know what to say to each other…. so we said nothing… you do what you have to do and perform in a robot like atmosphere…. and then you cry…. It was sad because it was like a little part of Jerome was dying along with the rest of Jerome, which was a very thriving community for many years prior to the time that the town did start closing the doors…the mines had closed.. the people were moving away…the war was over…and the people that had come back from the service, had gone on to colleges elsewhere or moved on to make their lives elsewhere. The radio station was one of the last toe-holds so to speak in the past, and when I gave the final broadcast it was with tears in my eyes as I bade farewell to all of my friends…. because we knew that the station would not be coming back, because the town as we knew it was not coming back. But it was a tearful closing because there was as I say a lot of history and memories being closed behind those doors.”
With the closure of KCRJ in 1944, a major source of local news for the Jerome community disappeared. As people moved and the population dwindled from its high of 15,000 to mere hundreds in the early nineteen fifties, Jerome increasingly became an isolated, derelict village surrounded by a treeless mountain and scantly populated valley.
Gulch Radio Today
Jerome came back to life as an eclectic community resurrected on the twin pillars of history and art. Gulch Radio is at the heart of the new Jerome, a throwback to old-fashioned radio at its best. There are no advertising or corporate sponsors. No begging for bucks.
After a decade of experimentation, mistakes and successes, the owners have identified their community of listeners. At first they were the hippies that lived in the Gulch, many who had moved there when Richard and Chuck did, dissidents of the Vietnam War and segregation. Irreverent as many of them were, most were looking to create a more positive world. As Gulch Radio began to branch out with a slightly stronger signal and stream music over the Internet, Richard and Chuck found that the community they grew up with was a microcosm of like-minded people all over the world.
When the station went to streaming, Gulch Radio became a link back to a town that some had moved away from or had visited. “It was their way of staying connected to a community that they loved,” said Richard.
Today, Gulch Radio mostly airs the music of the generation that grew up with it in the sixties and seventies. There’s “The Grateful Dead Hour” with David Gans on Sat nights; blues from Beale Street Caravan and Memphis home of Sun Studios, the recording home of Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, B.B. King, Ray Orbison and Carl Perkins; “Motown Memories,” with producer Tom Fallon featuring greats like Diana Ross, the Supremes, Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye . Weekdays after 9 p.m., listeners are treated to contemporary tunes of Gregg McVicker’s program “UnderCurrents.”
A few times a day, Gulch Radio provides vital local news about nearby fire and smoke hazards, road closures that affect Jerome, emergencies, dates of town council meetings and so on. Richard and Chuck bought a weather station from Ambient Weather, an Arizona company, so it could provide daily weather news and hazardous weather updates. “To be a community station, means to serve the community,” Richard said.
To reach further into the local community, owners have applied to the FCC for a Low Powered FM (LPFM) license.
“The most valuable thing I’ve learned over the years is that people cluster together for common interests, whether it’s rafting, quilting, motorcycles or music,” Richard said. “These subculture communities are like family substitutes, intentional communities of like-minded folks. So having a radio station means building a community of people that are drawn to the music you play and the personalities of your DJs. It’s your listeners’ connection to your subculture universe that keeps them tuned in.”
“What about programs like Spotify and Pandora,” I asked. “People seem to really like them.”
“Only for awhile,” said Richard. “Before long, listeners are trying something else out. They want to feel a personal connection to you and the music you choose. They don’t want record company and ad-driven music. It’s what makes a free-form station like Gulch Radio viable. The best DJs provide a link to the best of new artists that their listeners might never get to hear. It’s what makes Gulch Radio fun to listen to.
“I’ve also found that no matter what the subculture is, many share in common the love of family and children and the hope for a life without strife and war. If we share our commonalities then perhaps we might find the ways to stop the infliction of suffering that we see around us and make the world a better place to live.”