We do not all recognize the particular good thing we are born to do in life, or are lucky enough or driven enough to go ahead and do it. Deirdre O’Donoghue, who died unexpectedly at home in Santa Monica the weekend before last, did. For more than a quarter century, first in Boston and from 1979 here in L.A., she played records she liked on the radio and talked (and talked and talked) about them, in a broadcast-ready voice at once husky and bright, intimate and open, sexy and sisterly. She made being a disc jockey seem a noble calling, made her listeners feel like family, gave important exposure to countless left-of-center bands, some of which would become very big and some more of which would not; she is the ultimate source of the substantial pop cred currently enjoyed by KCRW, where her show S*N*A*P* — which originally stood for Saturday Night Avant Pop — ran through the ’80s into the early ’90s, and established the station as a friendly, even essential, place for live performance. At the same time she hosted, until her death and with unfeigned interest and affection, the backward-looking, Sunday-morning Breakfast With the Beatles, which she began on KMET, then moved to KNX-FM and finally to KLSX, where it continued to develop a large, fiercely loyal following.
The mass media are not often instruments of love. They will sell you a fiction of romance, a hot movie, a sexy pop song; but neither they nor their agents are as a rule ruled by the heart, by a genuine desire to brighten your day, to improve your life. Deirdre — whose independent breed is, with her passing, and with the corporatization of even public radio, now one giant step closer to extinction — was all heart. All her sins, professionally speaking, were sins of love, of unbridled enthusiasm: She gushed, she raved, she hyperbolized outrageously, to the occasional dismay of her less extravagant listeners, but the way she treated pop musicians was just the way she treated her friends. (Many of whom, to be sure, are pop musicians, and one of whom, I’m happy to say, is me.) At the same time, she could not be schmoozed: She was immune to hype, deaf to buzz, unimpressed by stardom, yet ever a sucker for talent and a pushover for the person who could move her soul. She was curious about what she hadn’t heard and democratic in what she played, without ever being merely, lazily “eclectic,” but mostly she played what she felt you just had to hear. She wanted you to feel what she felt. She was the girl in the song the music frees whenever it starts. She believed in magic. Absolutely she did. And she really loved her job.