A Santa Cruz singer/songwriter with wild hair and a brown beard is sitting in front of a blockade of CDs 10 feet high with his eyes closed. He is plunking away on his banjo, singing a new tune. Thumb-tacked pictures of Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Robert Earl Keen, and marijuana blanket the walls and ceiling of KPIG Radio’s Watsonville studio, affectionately dubbed “the Sty.”
Just moments ago, today’s singer, Joe Kaplow, was trading playful jabs on the air with radio personality “Sleepy” John Sandidge, the host of “Please Stand By,” the live-music show which celebrates its 1,000th episode Sunday, March 13 at 10 a.m.
It’s the same radio show that has welcomed four acts every week for over 15 years, including Kenny Loggins, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Robert Earl Keen, Greg Brown, Guy Clark, and Todd Snider. Like many disk jockeys at KPIG, Sandidge doesn’t have the typical booming register honed by years of voiceover training, and he jokes that he found his radio voice “in the bargain bin of a hardware store.”
As Kaplow serenades audiences on 107.5 FM, Sandidge leans forward, listening attentively, and sound engineer Geoff Childers watches the levels on the microphones. Danny Paisley and the Southern Grass, the morning’s previous act, is in the next room packing up and getting ready for an afternoon performance at Don Quixote’s, and then a flight back to Maryland. Paisley, a 56-year-old with a warm, crooked smile, says he loved performing their first-ever set on “Please Stand By.”
“There’s nothing better than live music of any kind for me. Right away, you get that energy and that warmth, I call it, of live music, and you can’t capture that in digital recordings,” Paisley says in an Appalachian drawl. “You can capture the fun in great music, but live music—there’s just nothing better. It can change everyday variations on the same song you’ve played for 20 years. Every day, you can play it slightly different.”
“Please Stand By” will stray away from its one-artist-per-half-hour format—and from the Sty—Sunday for show number 1,000. Airing live from Kuumbwa Jazz Center, the broadcast will showcase 18 different acts—16 of them local artists—with each getting five to 15 minutes.
One time, local multi-instrumentalist Bruce Wandmayer came out of the bathroom shirtless with his bass slung low. When Sandidge realized Wandmayer also wasn’t wearing any pants, the two seasoned performers began bantering with one another on air, with Sandidge telling him, “I see you’re using the small guitar today. A mandolin would have worked.”
Also on board will be the show’s recurring guest hosts, who fill in whenever Sandidge travels: comedian Richard Stockton, Santa Cruz Sentinel columnist Wallace Baine, and Good Times editor Steve Palopoli. Sandidge is also featuring the music of the show’s volunteers, who have been helping out every week—some of them for more than a decade. Sandidge, also a live music booker and the owner of Snazzy Productions, admits that he’s the only one on the radio show without much musical ability to speak of. “None,” he says. “But I’m OK at putting people together and getting places to play.”
Some notable guests this week include the Carolyn Sills Combo, Sherry Austin and Hen House, and the Desert Dream Raqs Band, a belly-dancing troupe featuring Childers on drums.
Obviously, live radio sounds like an odd venue for belly dancing, but KPIG’s show actually has a history of broadcasting visual-oriented acts and shenanigans on air—often to a hilarious extreme.
Austin and her partner Dave Gordon, who provides microphones for “Please Stand By,” say their all-time favorite act on the show was a touring 13-piece vaudevillian group with a herald trumpet called Circus Contraption. The troupe came to the Sty a few times and had to perform in the parking lot because they were so massive. Circus Contraption featured a lot of aerial work and even played “Hava Nagila” on glass bottles.
Another time, “Please Stand By” welcomed a baton twirler to the studio, prompting Sandidge and his fellow co-hosts to provide a play-by-play for listeners at home, announcing every move like it was a basketball game.
Now and again, something more unpredictable unfolds. One time, local multi-instrumentalist Bruce Wandmayer came out of the bathroom shirtless with his bass slung low. When Sandidge realized Wandmayer also wasn’t wearing any pants, the two seasoned performers began bantering with one another on air, with Sandidge telling him, “I see you’re using the small guitar today. A mandolin would have worked.”
“Those are perfect for me, because when I work, the best is playing off of what somebody else is doing, rather than knowing jokes or telling stories,” Sandidge adds. “I don’t do that at all. Whenever I’m doing interviews, it’s pretty much off the cuff.”
When Sandidge talks about Sunday as his 1,000th “Please Stand By” show, he’s also counting the 200 live music shows he did previously at KUSP and, prior to that, at KHIP. Shortly after the show launched at KHIP in the 1980s, Jerry Kay, a local feed store owner, offered to move it to his shop, and the show became the “General Feed and Seed Live Music Show.” Kay bought the microphones and broadcasting equipment. He got an upright piano and built a large stage for audiences to come and listen. People sat on stacks of hay, old pews and bags of dog food.
“We did a lot of innovation. We had a lot of spontaneity too,” Kay says. “I liked radio, because you could be anywhere. You can listen to it in your car or the garden. It’s not like watching TV or reading a book or sitting in a movie theater. Radio is more than background music, and live radio is even better than that, because it’s not canned, and you never know what’s going to happen.”
Often Kay would write skits for the musical acts to perform and let them rehearse just before they went on. On his typewriter, he drafted up a story called “Robert Earl Keen’s Nightmare,” in which the Austin singer-songwriter dreams what it would be like if he ever became famous.
“This was before he became famous,” says Kay of Keen, who gladly took part in the skit. “Anything we wanted to do, they were up for it, and that’s what I was trying to create.”
Eventually, the “General Feed and Seed Live Music Show” switched over to KUSP and after episode 200, Sandidge said he wanted to take a break to go for a long drive around the country with his dog. After he moved back to town, he helped KPIG launch “Please Stand By” on Sunday mornings.
BACK TO THE GOLDEN AGE
Michael Keith, an associate professor at Boston College and the author of The Quieted Voice: The Rise and Demise of Localism in American Radio, says live weekly shows like “Please Stand By” are nearly impossible to find outside of college radio stations these days. Such shows, reminiscent of “the golden era of radio,” might appear on a public station or possibly even an AM station, Keith says, but almost never on a commercial FM station.
“That’s a super rarity. They may be the only ones in the country doing such a thing. Who knows? It would be hard to find that out conclusively because you’d have to be in touch with 4,000 other for-profit radio stations,” says Keith. “But let’s just put it this way, it’s extremely rare and unusual.”
“Please Stand By” is one of several elements that makes KPIG an anomaly in today’s commercial radio world, with a long list of local advertisers and live DJs almost 24 hours a day, who choose their songs one at a time. Keith says that as young listeners turn away from radio in favor of streaming and downloading, stations that want to survive should be doing what KPIG does, providing community benefits and doing what it can to hold onto its listeners over the age of 25.
“Please Stand By” has provided a launch pad for dozens of artists trying to get their careers started or just share songs with the community. (Sandidge has even let me come on the air so I could play guitar and sing songs about Santa Cruz, girls and dive bars.) Some are world-class, some are just fine, and some don’t have any chops at all. He knows full well that when he treats a lousy singer like they’ve just given a Grammy-winning performance, it sounds to the listener like he doesn’t know the difference between a good song and an atrocious one, but he believes in staying positive.
“That happens, and I always try to keep a stiff upper lip and say, ‘Well, thanks a lot! That was great,’ because I can’t say ‘That really sucked.’ I’ve got to keep the façade up. And you don’t want to make people feel bad,“ he says.
He’s aired child performers, including actors from Kids on Broadway, and many groups who might not normally get played on KPIG, from jazz musicians to Tuvan throat singers.
“My favorite part of the show is getting world music acts in here,” Childers says. “Especially, every once in a while, we get a musician playing an instrument that I’ve never even seen before, and it’s like, ‘Can you make some noise on that thing, so I know what it sounds like?’”
At the Sty, the show is over for the day. Childers and volunteer sound technician Eric Parson are unplugging microphones and putting them in cases, while Sandidge picks out songs on the KPIG computer to play. The three men are chiding one another, with Childers suggesting the show would work better from midnight to 2 a.m. rather than 10 in the morning. “That’s musicians’ time,” he says.
Childers, a fan of harder rock music, doesn’t stop there, teasing Sandidge about his taste in music, and suggesting that the show would be improved with metal versions of bluegrass songs—although he admits that he’d settle for “bluegrass versions of metal songs.”
“The way God intended it,” Sandidge responds.
There has been chatter around the Sty that Sandidge might hang it all up soon, but the longtime host says he doesn’t plan to slow down anytime soon.
“I talked to everyone about it. I said, here’s a place if we want to stop, it’s a good place to stop: 1,000 shows. And everybody said, ‘no.’ Unanimous,” Sandidge says. “I’m fine doing it. I have a great time, but I just wanted to make sure everyone was still up for it. So, we’ll do 1,002 shows, and then—.“
Sandidge crosses his hands as if to indicate nada. Leaning back in his DJ station chair, he folds his arms, gazes across the room at Childers—who’s walking out through the door—and laughs heartily.
Then, the host spins around in his chair and starts looking for his next song.
KPIG’s “Please Stand By”: 1000th Anniversary Show will air live on 107.5 FM at 10 a.m. Sunday, March 13, going until about 1 p.m. The show will broadcast from Kuumbwa Jazz Center at 320 Cedar St., Santa Cruz. Tickets for the free show are all gone.