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Flying High on the Airwaves : Veteran Radio DJ Steve Downes Pursues His Passion at a Grueling Pace

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

”. . . and I’m Steve Downes. Seeeya!”

With his signature sign-off, Steve Downes, Westlake resident and veteran rock DJ, wrapped up a grueling 30 hours that began the night before when he hosted the syndicated interview show “Rockline” and ended with his new morning-drive gig on adult-rock KTYD-FM, the Santa Barbara station serving Ventura County.

Downes’ work week began with a 4 a.m. wake-up: coffee, a bagel and an in-the-dark drive to KTYD’s cinder-block building in Goleta. “It’s probably a beautiful drive,” he said. “But even if it were light, I’m still working on this a.m. thing, so I probably wouldn’t notice.”

The pre-dawn drive was filled with lots of button pushing. “I listen to KNX, KFI, KABC, KMPC, KFMB out of San Diego and KCBS out of San Francisco--each for about five minutes--to find out what’s happened overnight, what people are talking about,” said Downes, whose 20-plus year history in rock radio. “I have one of those little dashboard-suction-notepad things that I scribble on when I’m not sipping from the non-spill coffee cup my wife gave me.”

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Almost awake by his 5:15 arrival, he dusted bagel crumbs from his lap, got out of the car and groped in the dark for the security code. Once inside the station, Downes checked the wire service for weather, spread out The Los Angeles Times, the Santa Barbara News-Press, USA Today and began making notes.

“There’s a lot more preparation for a morning show than for the other shifts,” said Downes, who is probably best known in Southern California for his 10 years as evening-drive personality on KLOS.

“I try to keep up on magazines and TV, I listen to talk radio and the news, read three papers and talk with John (Palminteri, KTYD news anchor),” he added. “Having John here has been invaluable. He’s so on top of things and so plugged in, especially locally, that it’s made this much easier for me.”

Just before 6, with yet another cup of coffee in hand, Downes takes his notes, newspapers clippings and assorted other papers into the studio. The studio, the size of a large walk-in closet, is equipped with two huge mikes, four computer terminals, a waist-high console with too many buttons, a telephone and two chairs that neither Downes nor Palminteri warmed once in four hours.

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“I’ve always preferred standing during my shows,” said Downes, who started his KTYD job Feb 13. “It helps keep you up--no pun intended--and besides, there’s a lot more moving around required than most people imagine.”

The show began with a usual “Hi, how ya doin’?” and went right to Palminteri’s first newscast. “Almost intentionally, John and I don’t really talk before we go on,” said Downes. “We exchange bleary glances and grunt at each other about 5:58 a.m., but we don’t review or rehearse--we’d rather share that spontaneity with the audience. Our first encounter with each other is sort of like that moment when you turn off the alarm, turn on the bathroom light and get your first look in the mirror.

“So, how are you, John? How was your evening?” Downes said.

“It was good, Steve,” Palminteri replied. ‘I went to (local restaurant). It was nice. It wasn’t like, well, like the usual. . . .”

“Meat market?” asked Downes.

“Yeah,” Palminteri said. “So, I left after a beer and a half.”

The morning was filled with other light banter, a couple of serious-issue discussions, a call from Mike, locksmith to the stars--all of it interspersed with KTYD favorites from such groups as Pearl Jam, Rolling Stones, Toad the Wet Sprocket and Santana.

In addition to his other duties, Downes often answers the listener call-in line.

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“This is still a work-in-progress,” Downes said. “My goal the first week was to get here and stay awake. Now, I’m working on figuring out all the buttons.”

More banter, more music, an on-air chat with former Laker Don Ford, who’s representing KTYD in a charity basketball game, and . . . more coffee. “The real reason I took this job,” he joked, “is that KTYD has the best radio-station coffee in the country. Really--everybody knows it. And it’s the only station I’ve ever been in where the coffee cups are clean. Usually, you just look for the one with the least amount of fungus.”

By 10 a.m., there were big “X’s” on the myriad papers Downes brought to the studio. He passed the baton to oncoming David Perry and went to meet with the program director for information on the next day’s broadcast, and a review of the morning’s show--what worked and what didn’t. “We look at things we might want to do again, things I better never do again,” he said. “It’s kind of a post-mortem--sometimes an autopsy.”

He headed to his car, squinting at his first exposure to the day’s sunlight, and left to finish preparation for “Rockline.”

Downes, 44, grew up in Ohio, and was one of those kids who went to sleep with the transistor under his pillow, listening to the early days of what was then called “progressive-FM” radio. “After I got past the ‘I’m going to be a football player, I’m going to be a rock star’ phase, I got hooked on radio,” he said.

He graduated from the University of Dayton in 1972 and had his first DJ job at the university’s station, then went on to cut his professional broadcast teeth in the Midwest. “When I started,” he said, “you walked into the studio with a stack of records under your arm, and that was the show. Those are now affectionately known as the ‘good old days.’ ”

After two years as a DJ in Athens, Ohio--"Our slogan was ‘We’re the only station in town,’ because we were--Downes sent out 400 demonstration tapes to “every known corner of the world.”

The Pittsburgh corner replied and Downes spent four years as DJ and program director at WYDD. In 1978 he got an opportunity to move to Los Angeles, the No. 2 market in the country, as program director at KWST (now Power 106). This, Downes said, was his first experience with losing a job to the now-popular “format change,” where everything goes but the furniture.

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Following KWST’s change to soft rock, Downes spent a year at KEZY in Anaheim and in 1982 went to KLOS. After 10 years of evening-drive hours, Downes said he wanted more time with his family (he is married with two daughters), and saw no opportunities for a schedule changes at KLOS. Once again, the resumes went out and, in 1991, the Downes family moved to Fort Myers, Fla., with a family-friendly day gig as program director.

After renting for six month in Fort Myers, the family bought a home on nearby Sanibel Island. The boxes were barely emptied when Downes got a couldn’t-refuse offer from WYNF in Tampa. They packed up gain, sold their home and bought one in Tampa. In a short 11 months, WYNF was sold and the new owners promptly changed the format.

But, as they say, every cloud has a silver lining, and every format change a golden microphone. In the fall of 1993, Downes got the rock-DJ dream call: a job offer from “Rockline,” a weekly 90-minute show which airs Monday evenings and is syndicated in over 175 markets in North America. “Rockline” is the only interactive (listener call-in) rock radio show in the industry, it is syndicated throughout North America, and has been voted “best rock radio show” by Billboard magazine every year since 1987.

Downes has been hosting the show for 16 months. On this particular day he was preparing for a show with guests Eddie and Alex Van Halen, of the group Van Halen, which aired the last two Mondays in February.

“Doing ‘Rockline’ is really a dream come true for me,” he said. “When I was on KLOS, ‘Rockline’ played during my air time and I used to fantasize about hosting it.”

In his office at home, the computer hummed and the fax machine sent and received edited and re-edited material for the show--final stages of preparation, which began seven days ago. “The week before each show, I live with the music of the scheduled artist, Downes said. “I don’t even think about what’s after that--until Tuesday morning.”

When he’s not listening to the music, he said, he’s reading everything that he and the “Rockline” staff can find on the artists. Jim Villanueva, the show’s producer, has watched Downes prepare for shows for 18 months.

“Steve’s very diligent; he really devours the material,” he said.

When he can, Downes grabs a quick nap in the late afternoon before heading to the “Rockline” studio in Sherman Oaks.

Even after a year and a half, there is still an adrenaline rush before a show, he acknowledged.

“Doing a live, interactive show you have two uncontrolled elements--the artists and the audience,” he said. “This is live, which is simultaneously the most exciting, terrifying and difficult part. The key is to keep it just below the level of panic.”

Downes arrived in Sherman Oaks at 7 p.m. The first half-hour was spent talking with the Van Halen brothers.

At 7:30, Downes met with Villanueva and nailed down last-minute details:

“There goes that segue,” said Downes, as a song was cut from the show.

8:30 p.m. “Hi, how ya doin’? I’m Steve Downes and with us tonight. . . .”

The following 90 minutes were controlled chaos. Fox TV interview crews milled about, still photographers flashed in everyone’s faces, and a never-ending supply of program souvenirs to autograph was presented to the Van Halen brothers during every break and long-playing song.

In the midst of the chaos, Downes maintained the on-air illusion of three guys chatting. He asked a few of his own questions and then invited the listener calls. “This show is not about me or the interview,” Downes said later. “It’s about the artists and the audience. It is the one moment when a fan may get the chance to ask the question he or she wants to ask of their favorite musician.”

During breaks, Downes worked at keeping the flow of the show on track and maintaining a relaxed atmosphere. The 90 minutes moved smoothly through questions, answers, comments and music.

At 10 p.m., it was over. Headsets came off, a last sip of coffee was taken with an audible and visible sigh.

*

. . . less than eight hours later in the Goleta studio. After what had to pass for a night’s sleep, Downes was back at the KTYD console, ever-present coffee in hand, surprisingly alert. Still a little high from the Van Halen show, Downes began another one.

Some news, a few clips from last night’s show, some Hootie and the Blowfish, the surf report from Dave the Wave, some Eagles, more Downes-Palminteri repartee.

“Did you read about the air charter company that’s added a new service?” Downes asked.

“Uh, no, don’t think I did,” Palminteri replied.

“Seems that, for $275, you can join the Mile High Club, with better accommodations than the usual airplane lavatory,” Downes said, by way of an explanation.

Palminteri and Downes debated the relative merits of sex at several thousand feet and a listener called in. “Does that $275 include the partner?” he asked.

“No, I think that’s a whole different thing,” said Downes, “and there’s some legal stuff there, I believe.”

By 9:30 a.m., the show was winding down and so was Downes. For the first time in two days, he sat down, put his feet up, crossed his arms, and leaned back in the chair.

“My original motivation for getting into this business was never the money, the ‘show biz’ aspects of the job--though I like my ego stroked as much as the next guy--and it certainly wasn’t the job security,” he said with a laugh. “For me, it has always been about the music.”

Downes seems excited by this latest challenge. “I’m still sort of finding my way, but I hope to give the listeners things to think about, things to laugh at, things to argue about--and a lot of good music.”

It was 10 a.m. ". . . and I’m Steve Downes. Seeeya!”

Thirty hours had gone by and Downes had been on the air for 9 1/2 of them.

Taking his coffee cup to the kitchen, he contemplated what to do with the rest of a gorgeous day. “Maybe a little golf, get reacquainted with my family, try and figure out how the pool vac works, watch the ‘Frasier’ and ‘NYPD’ episodes I tape because I have to go to bed at 9.”

Outside, squinting again at the sunlight, he ambled to his car. Sticking out of a side pocket of his briefcase were CDs by “Collective Soul,” the “Rockline” guests for next week.

It’s still about the music.

FYI

Steve Downes can be heard weekday mornings, from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m., on KTYD, 99.9 FM.

“Rockline” airs locally every Monday evening from 8:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. on KTYD. Selected shows air periodically on KLSX, 97.1 FM.


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