Bastions Of Independence
JT Mason and Robin Roberts keep the old spirit of KAZU alive one morning at a time.
Thursday, August 8, 2002
Photo by Randy Tunnell.
Photo: Sister Act-JT Mason and Robin Roberts combined two radio shows almost four years ago to launch The Roadside Café, which is still on the air despite changes at KAZU.
It''s 10:30 on a Tuesday morning, and JT Mason is fielding telephone calls as fast as they come into the KAZU studio she shares with Robin Roberts. Robin had planned an on-air surprise birthday show for her buddy-behind-the-mic on their weekday morning program, The Roadside Café. Flowers and presents have been pouring in all morning.
"Hello, this is the Roadside Café," JT says to one caller, then pauses and smiles. "Thanks, we need to hear that right now. It''s been tough."
Hanging up, she says, "That was Shawndor from Boony Doon. He hopes we stay on the air."
So do a lot of people. When KAZU''s management announced a massive format change last month for Pacific Grove''s public radio station, and axed virtually every volunteer-hosted show overnight, the groans could be heard from Big Sur to Boulder Creek. Sunday Celtic music, late-night jazz, Friday afternoon blues-it all went away. Loyal fans endured morning commutes without JT and Robin.
Two weeks later, JT and Robin were back on the air-albeit in a slightly shortened format, 9am to 11am instead of noon-and after the initial sighs of relief, the question became: How long will they stay? Won''t these two feisty women, champions of free speech and independent media, find the tight new corporate chains too rough to bear?
Not if they can help it.
"I got a call from someone who said it takes more courage to stay than to walk away," JT says. "I hope we can continue to do the kind of show that feeds us and the community. We''re both political and social activists, and access to the airwaves is exceedingly important to us. We''re trying to take a deep breath and not just do the knee-jerk stuff the mainstream media do."
No one could accuse them of that. The duo''s show, in which their own eclectic blend of folk and world music, much of it by lesser-known artists, is interspersed with live-in-the-studio interviews with visiting musicians or local activists, is so non-corporate, so label-unfriendly that it could only exist on public radio.
"When a radio station goes corporate, it''s like Borders coming in," Robin says. "Small record labels don''t get air play. Over time, that eliminates the voices the corporations don''t want to hear. If you ask people what music they like, they''ll say what they know. We have this amazing opportunity to educate people."
JT and Robin-it''s said in one breath. And sitting across from each other in the studio, they look remarkably alike-both are forty-something, with short brown hair, wire-rimmed glasses, and open, smiling faces.
But they''re quite different people. And although they have a rare on-air camaraderie, they don''t hang out together outside the studio. But their lives run on parallel tracks. Robin lives in Santa Cruz, with the same woman she''s been with for 19 years. JT lives in Carmel with her companion of 18 years and their four-year-old daughter Cassidy. "That proves we''re committed to things," Robin quips. It also means they know what it means to be outsiders, adds JT-a factor that colors their social activism.
Robin grew up with music a constant presence in the house-her parents loved folk and classical. She studied philosophy at UC Santa Barbara, and is today a practicing psychotherapist in Santa Cruz. "Trying to lead a meaningful life is a challenge," she says. "That''s why I''m attracted to music and humor; that''s why I do the work I do."
Eight years ago some friends suggested she fill an empty slot on KAZU, although she''d never DJ''d before, and she started hosting a Tuesday morning all-acoustic folk show. "I''ve always been a volunteer somewhere, since I was young, and being involved in a volunteer community station was a way for me to participate in my community," she says.
JT grew up in a politically active family. At six she was on her first picket line, protesting anti-ballistic missile policies in Washington, DC. She majored in Black studies at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, with a minor in film. "I do a lot of work around racism, and Robin does youth movement work," she notes. "We fit together."
JT has been with KAZU for 23 years, including five years as program manager. After years hosting "My Sister''s House," a woman-centered morning music show, along with a second folk-oriented show, she merged her shows with Robin''s three and a half years ago and formed The Roadside Café.
"I thoroughly enjoy working with Robin," JT says. "She''s got a funny sense of humor that''s different from mine. I trust her integrity-there''s a deep trust that we don''t need to talk about."
For her part, Robin is just as pleased with her co-host. "She''s the most clever person I know," she states. "She has a direct line to one-liners that amazes me. She works very hard and is deeply committed."
When they''re not on the air, Robin says, she listens to a lot of folk, Latin and African music, as well as hardcore and punk. "I love the Clash," she says. "I like to listen to music where you can''t understand the words."
JT prefers African and soul music. "I grew up near Cincinnati going to all the soul shows," she says. "Aretha Franklin is my all-time favorite." But these days, her four-year-old dictates much of her musical choice. "I''ve been listening to a lot of Sound of Music and Wizard of Oz."
Neither Robin nor JT knows what the future holds, for their show or for KAZU. But they want to stay on the air, bringing their music and their message to the community.
"Radio can make you feel connected in a way nothing else can," JT muses. "People take us into their cars, into their showers. I love the immediacy, the spontaneity. And people have been so kind to us-it''s one of the blessings of this show."
Back in the studio, it''s almost 11am and time to turn the airwaves over to NPR news. Another fan has just come into the room with a bouquet of flowers for JT and a birthday song request-"Forever Young," by Joan Baez.
JT laughs. "We''ll get that on as soon as we can," she promises, to which Robin counters, "You want to hear that one, don''t you?"
"You betcha!" JT grins.
It''s time to wrap up the show. Robin thanks all those listeners who took part in her birthday surprise. "Thanks for being glad we''re here," she tells them. "We''re glad we''re here."
The Roadside Café airs Monday through Friday, 9am to 11am on KAZU, 90.3 FM.