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Photo by Ted Soqui
If you had landed on KRLA-AM 870 at half past 10 one recent Sunday night, you would have heard “Long Haired Radical Socialist Jew,” a new song about Jesus by Coventry, Connecticut, folk sensation Hugh Blumenfeld. At the same time, in KRLA’s studio on the fifth floor of a Glendale office building, Jimmy “Kay” Kalmenson, the host of Sunday Night Folk — the show responsible for sending Blumenfeld over the airwaves — was waving around a copy of Sing Out!magazine with Blumenfeld’s byline on the cover under folk singer Greg Brown’s face. “See, he’s a writer too!” announced Kalmenson, a curly-haired man in a denim shirt whose jovial blue eyes and ruddy face seem always on the verge of a wisecrack. “That’s a big deal, to get a story on the cover of Sing Out!Isn’t it?”
Blumenfeld’s song continued: “Jesus lived in troubled times/the religious right was on the rise/What could have saved him from his terrible fate?/Separation of church and state!”
KRLA is, by the way, a conservative talk station, owned by Salem Communications Corporation, which counts the station among the few secular anomalies in its nationwide network of Christian broadcasting outlets. Knowing all of this, I sat in the studio during Blumenfeld’s song with Kalmenson and his sidekick-producer Jeffrey Smart, real name Schwartz, trying to keep my mouth shut. Kalmenson beamed with mischief. Smart peered up through his glasses. “My advice to you?” said Smart/Schwartz to Jimmy Kay when the song ended. “Keep your day job.”
As it happens, the real, 44-year-old Jim Kalmenson has a pretty good day job — since 1986 he’s been the general manager of the Spanish-language KWKW-AM, which owns exclusive rights to the Dodgers and Lakers Spanish broadcasts. KWKW is owned by Kalmenson’s father’s company, Lotus Communications, a “privately held and debt-free” radio corporation that, unlike Clear Channel or Infinity, doesn’t have to sell a bottom line to investors. It’s not ethical to have a show on your own network, says Kalmenson, but running a radio station does give you big ideas about what radio should be like — ideas that, on Sunday Night Folk, he tries to make real.
To that end, airing Blumenfeld is the least of his offenses. Although he began the night with Lucinda Williams and Big Bill Broonzy (“the greatest version of ‘Frankie & Johnny’ I’ve ever heard”), a little later in the show he’s piling on trouble: a song called “It’s About Oil” by Amy Martin (a “total unknown, total unknown”), Anne Feeney’s “Have You Been to Jail for Justice,” and Tom Paxton’s ’77 folk classic “Born on the Fourth of July,” inspired by Ron Kovic’s book. On a mid-March show the week the war on Iraq began its TV ratings sweep, he played a ’91 tune mocking George Bush Sr.’s military aims (“Only one question remains: Hussein, Hussein, Hussein,” goes the chorus) next to John Prine’s ode to dope, “Illegal Smile,” and the Austin Lounge Lizards’ rouser “Bust the High School Students.” Even on more radical places along the FM dial, where idiosyncratic deejaying is still commonplace, such a lineup would sound subversive.
Somehow, though, it never leads to trouble — or at least, it hasn’t yet, unless you call trouble the listener who complained that Kalmenson was neglecting African tribal folk. Kalmenson calls these baldly political anthems “topical music,” an extension of the genre known to him as “singable classics,” which is itself a code word for all-American folk. He presents it all sort of whimsically, like he doesn’t really mean it, introducing sets with, “Now, I’m a non-political person” or “You know, some people have strong feelings about what’s happening overseas, and I’m just interested in what they have to say.” It bewilders him that anyone might take offense, which is maybe why almost nobody does. Phone calls that come in during the show are unfailingly supportive. In December, his Arbitron ratings shot up to 1.6 — matching KNX-AM 1070 (“Traffic every six minutes!”) for the same time slot. Filmmaker Christopher Guest’s new comic homage to the culture of folk, The Mighty Wind, could boost that number a few points higher.
“I just like to play things that reflect what’s going on in the world,” says Kalmenson without a hint of combativeness. “And I’ll certainly play both sides of an issue if both sides exist.” To prove it, he queues up Tom Glazer’s “I’m Gonna Put My Name Down,” a patriotic song about going to war — written in 1941.
“Look,” he says, holding up the star-spangled CD cover whence Glazer’s tune came, Patriotic Songs That Moved America.
“The listening audience can’t see that,” Schwartz reminds him.
Next door to KRLA’s Glendale studio is an all-night diner where Armenian nightclubbers mix with Glendale cops, and where Kalmenson and I head for a drink after the show. Kalmenson is worried that I’m going to write about the moment toward the beginning of the hour when Schwartz accidentally let the Big Bill Broonzy CD spin for a minute or two of dead air. I tell him I’d forgotten the lapse happened, which was true at the time. “I guess, yeah,” he allows. “I mean, there are so many big things happening in the world that what does it matter, right?” But the gaffe still weighs on him. Sunday Night Folk is meant to sound casual but not amateurish; Kalmenson’s off-the-cuff ease is deliberate. He doesn’t want to sound like a bush-league idiot, just a real guy.