“Commercial radio today is like a fast-food franchise,” he complains. “Everyone sounds the same, and it’s almost completely mechanized. But I wanted to just be myself, nothing fancy, just a real fan of folk music sharing the stuff I love.”
He shopped the show around to various stations with three sponsors already in tow, including Vanguard Records, Toyota of Hollywood (they hoped folk-music fans would buy electric cars) and Amoeba Records. KRLA was the only taker, and the station’s management didn’t seem to care what it got. Money trumps politics every time.
“For the first month I was nervous,” says Kalmenson, “but after that I found I could look inside of myself and just be who I am.” When he segues into commercial spots without a seam, he sounds — and this is a compliment — like nothing so much as Garrison Keillor on A Prairie Home Companion shilling for Powdermilk Biscuits. When I tell him the Amoeba promotion comes off as naturally as a tip from a good friend, Kalmenson lights up. “That’s the best thing you could say to me, because I really domean it — isn’t that the best record store in the world?” He isn’t kidding. Really.
It’s fan radio, the old-fashioned way — Kalmenson is still like a kid with a stack of Johnny Cash 8-tracks he wants to play for his friends, except his friends are too bored or stoned to pay attention, so he goes and gets himself a radio show. “I wish I could wake up everyone in the city of Los Angeles with one hour of Woody Guthrie,” Kalmenson admitted on his show a month ago. “I don’t know why he’s gotten to me so deeply.”
In the bar, he explains a little more about how he appreciates music: “I heard this woman, Sonia, at this folk-music convention singing about her father who comes home from Vietnam thinking he fought for tradition, and she has to tell him she’s in love with the girl next door. I fell in love with her over that, I really did, even though I knew she was a lesbian. But music doesn’t have to be counterculture for me to like it,” he adds. “I have an affinity for Merle Haggard, too.”
At 2 in the morning, Kalmenson takes us out to his car to hear Haggard’s “Fightin’ Side of Me,” an earnest complaint against anti-war protesters in the Vietnam era. “It’s not about being for or against the war,” Kalmenson explains. “It’s about freedom.” Still, for the sake of balance, I counter with Billy Bragg’s “Help Save the Youth of America” and Steve Earle’s “Jerusalem,” interpreting Earle’s growl for Kalmenson as the song plays: “There’ll be no barricades then/There’ll be no wires or walls/And we can wash this blood from our hands/and all this hatred from our souls.” Somehow it feels like we’ve found ourselves in a profoundly political moment. He lends me Haggard and takes Earle.
“You don’t have to stand in front of the Federal Building to make a point,” Kalmenson insists as he advises me to look out for the Glendale police on my way home. Not, that is, if you can find an audience for the music you think might change the world.