Radio DJ Helen Borgers, L.A.'s longtime voice of jazz, dies at 60

For decades Helen Borgers was a leading voice of jazz in L.A., a drive-time radio personality with a booming voice and an easy laugh.

On air, Borgers explored both the legends and the up-and-comers who — with some luck and a bit of airplay — might arrive at the threshold of fame.

But her voice vanished from the airwaves in June when she was unexpectedly laid off by K-Jazz after 38 years, halting a career that stretched from the days of vinyl and turntables to the more sterile environment of punching buttons on a console.

On Nov. 12, after months of health problems, she died following surgery for a tumor. She was 60.

“Being in LA won’t be the same without Helen on my car radio,” wrote Kenneth Koenig, one of the hundreds who posted condolences and memories on Borgers’ Facebook page.

Borgers was born in Kansas City, Mo., on Aug. 9, 1957, and spent nearly all of her life in Long Beach.

A free-thinking student, she circulated an underground newspaper in junior high school that advocated greater individual freedoms for students. At Long Beach Polytechnic High, she designed her own curriculum and taught a study class on Shakespeare.

Raised in the era of the Beatles and the Stones, Borgers became a jazz convert when she was a teen, listening to Ella Fitzgerald in a “meditation room” her parents built for her in the garage.

“She was into Ella, and I — being more the angry young man — was into John Coltrane,” said her brother Ken, a longtime Southern California broadcaster and a deejay at KSDS Jazz 88.3 in San Diego.

Borgers began doing volunteer work at K-Jazz, then known as KLON, while studying literature at Cal State Long Beach. Her brother, who was program director at the station, said he asked her one day to fill in for a deejay who was ill. The deejay never returned, and she never left.

Through the years and the changes — new call letters, new owners, tightening budgets — Borgers was a radio constant, playing Mose Allison and Herbie Mann, interviewing artists such as Diana Krall and Stanley Turrentine and occasionally mixing it up with studio guests.

In a video that captures her showing off her digs to a radio station contest winner, she explains what she did behind the mic.

“I used to have two turntables, and now I have this,” she says, waving to a soundboard. “But as long as the music’s good, who cares. That’s the deal.”

Outside the studio, Borgers poured her time and resources into the Long Beach Shakespeare Company, an ambitious if financially challenged outfit that performs out of a 37-seat theater.

Borgers fell for Shakespeare after seeing Franco Zeffirelli’s “Romeo and Juliet” and had memorized all of Shakespeare’s sonnets and most of his plays by the time she was in high school, her brother said.

Borgers wrote on Facebook that it was a “bolt from the blue” when she was let go by K-Jazz, which the station at the time said was for budgetary reasons. Some listeners, though, thought it marked a cultural shifting, where station-selected music would be played in a rotation rather than left to the imagination and impulse of the deejay.

Before her health declined, Borgers was planning to join her brother at KSDS in San Diego.

“She gave her life to jazz — Shakespeare and jazz,” he said.

Borgers is survived by a sister, Carol Roland; two brothers, Dave and Ken, and her partner, Cannon Coccellato.

steve.marble@latimes.com

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