A volunteer army of DJs does the eclectic programming on KBCS, giving voice to parts of the Eastside community you’ve maybe never heard from before.

“When I was ten or eleven, I used to play jazz records in my living room, but only when no one else was home,” says John Gilbreath, executive director of Earshot Jazz and a DJ on radio station KBCS. “Chuck Smart first invited me to KBCS in 1996, as a guest on his jazz show. Then he invited me to be a guest DJ.” By 1999, Gilbreath had his own show, which is still on today. Airing Friday mornings, nine a.m. to noon, Caravan encompasses jazz and jazz-inspired tunes from around the world, from familiar groups like Medeski Martin & Wood to less well-known musicians like Tunisian oud player Anouar Brahem.

Gilbreath is such an established figure in the radio world (he also has a long-running jazz spot on KEXP), it’s difficult to imagine him walking into a studio for the first time. He credits KBCS for opening the door. “It got me into radio,” he says of the Bellevue-based station. “I never told them I’d been thinking about this all my life. For this I am so grateful.”

Stories like Gilbreath’s — and the listening pleasure that’s come out of such enthusiasts finding their way to broadcasting on the station — are as numerous as the styles of music you hear on KBCS every day.

Located at 91.3 FM, KBCS is a community-minded grass-roots radio station licensed to Bellevue Community College. More than sixty different music and news programs air weekly, practically all of it produced in-house. From Rus Thompson’s alt country Road Songs to DJ B-Girl’s Fresh Coast Radio hip-hop show, KBCS both reflects and reaches out to the rapidly growing and increasingly diverse population on the Eastside. Most of the station’s programming is created by a large group of dedicated volunteer DJs who bring their musical preoccupations, connections to the creative community and vast knowledge of oftentimes little-known musical genres to the local airwaves.

Samia Panni, a longtime volunteer DJ, embodies the KCBS ethos of the passionately music-obsessed personality behind the mike. Born in Bangladesh, Panni has lived in the Philippines, Indonesia, east Africa and Argentina. She’s a vocalist and percussionist with the group Abrace; she sings in fourteen different languages. Panni is the founder of the Brazilian music radio show Raizes (“roots,” in Portuguese), which airs every Saturday from two to four p.m. “In October,” she says proudly, “it’ll be twenty-one years.” Her show is focused on Brazilian music — from jazz to African beats, including samba, bossa nova, hip-hop and what sounds like, to hear Panni say it, em pay bay: MPB, or modern popular Brazilian music. Swinging and percussive, the music you hear on Raizes has lyrics in Spanish, Portuguese and any number of African languages.

I witnessed Panni in action, choreographing her show on the fly. She poured through three duffle bags of CDs brought from home, searching for just the right song to play next. Seated at a control panel equipped with three CD players, a computer database to help her build the playlist, a touch screen monitor to select prerecorded segments (like station identifications) and a mixing board with sliding keys to control the volume for each sound input, Panni put the show together. Between figuring out what she was going to play, updating the playlist, providing on-air information about the artists being heard and announcements of upcoming events — plus answering the phone — it was a bit of a dance. And Panni was dancing, her hips swinging in the chair. Sometimes she’d sing along, too. This was one DJ made visibly happy by the music she was putting out over the airwaves.

Panni turned up the volume on CD three, playing a track inside the studio and testing it against the music currently on the air to make sure the two tunes would flow one to the next. Looking for something from Mozambique, she kept rejecting various tracks, one after another. “Too electric,” she explained. “I want something unplugged, but not too unplugged.” She finally settled on a piece by Valdimar Djingo Mbenzane, whose acoustic guitar stylings fit well with her featured artist, Stewart Sukuma, who performs African music with traditional Brazilian beats. Panni’s radio show provides an aural connection to a range of cultures, both for herself and for her listeners. It’s a volunteer gig she’s been enjoying for decades. “For just about everybody who hosts a show here,” she says, “it’s about the passion.”

KBCS started thirty-five years ago as a tiny ten-watt student-run training center and has since expanded and become a community-supported radio station with an eight-thousand-watt signal. Earlier this year, the station went online with up-to-the-minute playlists, live streaming programming and a number of regularly scheduled shows available as podcasts. Radio, as it’s evolving, seems to happily occupy an intersection between low and high tech, relying on one-hundred-year-old broadcast technology to get the sound out over the airwaves, while shaping itself to be heard using digital listening devices of all kinds.

“Radio is such an intimate way of communicating,” says Jonathan Lawson, a KBCS DJ. “It’s very immediate.

The quality of disembodied voices coming into your house or your car makes for a very close connection.” Lawson’s segment of KBCS airtime is on Sunday nights (ten p.m. to midnight) when Flotation Device airs. It’s an innovative music show playing what he calls “creative music and improvised music.” Lawson names several local musicians he deems central to this genre which spans jazz to folk to Indonesian Gamelan and beyond: Robin Holcomb, Wayne Horvitz, Jarrad Powell and Stewart Dempster. Lawson alternates hosting duties with Chris DeLaurenti, who writes The Stranger’s column “The Score,” which also focuses on this genre. “Chris has an encyclopedic knowledge of creative music,” Lawson asserts.

This statement can be applied to any of the DJs you hear on KBCS: all exhibit undeniable expertise and enthusiasm for the music they play. It’s tangible as they rattle off musician biographies, album release dates and, oftentimes, the cultural history behind the music. “There’s nothing better than having a guide to something you don’t know about,” Lawson explains, “someone with insider knowledge pointing you to the cream of the crop.” Think of DJs at KBCS as specialized music listeners who have amassed collections they are sharing with listeners. One of the best ways to learn about a new genre, Lawson says, is listening to a DJ “who is an absolute enthusiast about this one strange thing.”

For many KBCS listeners, Hawaiian music might be just that strange thing, a genre we hear rarely and understand little. I met with two of the many rotating hosts of Hawaiian Radio Connection (Saturdays, noon to two p.m.) who call themselves Uncle Gregg and Aunt Manono. They met years ago while taking hula lessons. Gregg Porter has been on the air since 1976 and Manono McMillan joined him in 2001. He’s a musician from Iowa who plays in several Hawaiian bands; she grew up with this music on the Islands. The pair sprinkle their on-air banter with Hawaiian expressions, offering language lessons as well as both vintage and new takes on such Hawaiian standards as the slide guitar.

They arrive with their own playlists and alternate sets of songs. Interspersed with the music are the hosts’ thoughts on the tunes and the news of upcoming local Hawaiian-music-related events. There are more than you might expect. “This area has a really large Hawaiian population,” McMillan explains, “second only to California.” In addition to playing both local and native Hawaiian music, Uncle Gregg and Aunt Manono offer an insider’s peek at a very active but little-known community.

As the source for such culturally-specific programming, KBCS occupies a unique niche within an enormously competitive radio market. Steve Ramsey, the station’s general manager, appreciates what other local stations have achieved. “KEXP is the most listened-to rock station in the world,” he points out, “and the first to stream online. And KUOW [the NPR affiliate] is the most popular station in the Seattle area. Usually that’s a commercial station.”

As a community radio station, KBCS has a very different mission. “We produce all this programming in-house,” Ramsey explains, “and offer wide access to the microphone.” The enormously broad spectrum of programming is largely a function of the station’s deep pool of volunteer DJs; most of the few paid station staffers, including Ramsey and Christine Linde, KBCS’s Americana music director, also put in time behind the mike each week.

Maybe the most popular program on the station that’s not homemade is Amy Goodman’s lefty Democracy Now! (weekdays, six to seven a.m. and five to six p.m.), a long-format show offering in-depth news, with more politically pointed commentary than you’ll hear on NPR. Aired through KBCS’s affiliation with the Pacifica Radio Network, this commitment to progressive public-affairs programming says something about how KBCS delivers on its promise of serving the community. And, oh yes, this is the only station in the area offering hands-on radio training to the public.

Currently, KBCS programming is produced in and broadcast from two repurposed houses on the edge of the Bellevue Community College campus. Steve Ramsey and outreach director Sabrina Roach’s offices are both sited in what still look like suburban bedrooms. One radio host was at work inside what’s called the “meat locker,” a tiny, metal-walled space.  It’s not literally a food storage unit, but it’s so claustrophobic a workspace that it could be one. The station’s main broadcast booth is located in what once was a bedroom. Across the street, in another ’70s-era house, two new, roomier studios were being wired and a larger newsroom is being created. When I visited, foam soundproofing insulation was being installed on the walls of the former living room.

KBCS is developing a strategic plan to strengthen the connection between the station and Bellevue Community College. For many years, the station has operated independently:  though Ramsey reports to the dean of communications, the link to the academic program has not been a strong one. The college purchased and renovated the two houses out of which KBCS operates, but the station has otherwise been financially self-sustaining, funded by donations, grants and sponsor underwriting.

“The strategic plan,” Ramsey explains, “includes our being more integrated with the college communications department, offering hands-on media training to journalism students.”

One of the three HD channels being planned by the station will be entirely student run. Right now, there is only one locally produced news program on KBCS. One World Report airs Thursdays from six to seven p.m. When I visited the station recently, Cahil Panni, a seventeen-year-old BCC Running Start student (and son of KBCS DJ Samia Panni), was working on a segment for the show, using interviews to tell the stories of South Seattle’s culturally diverse populations. His project is part of KBCS’s effort to expand its news lineup, incorporating more local voices from a broad range of backgrounds. 

This initiative will not only impact news and information, but also bring more storytelling into the station’s entertainment programming. I asked Sabrina Roach if she sees the station developing its own locally produced version of This American Life, the hugely popular NPR program. She says no. “We’re talking cultural determinism here. The reporter has all the power. The reporter shapes the story. We’d like to see, for example, people from the local Iraqi community coming to the station to volunteer. They’d learn to operate the equipment and they’d develop their own programming.”

KBCS is very proud of its small army of independent-minded DJs, which may provide a strong foundation for growth in areas of programming beyond music. The station has ambitious plans, which depend on the present and future contributions of volunteers.

“It’s real people saying real things,” boasts DJ John Gilbreath. “Speaking with their own voices, programming their own music.” 


Photos (in order from top) of John Gilbreath, Samia Panni, Manono McMillan and Cahil Panni by Richard Darbonne for City Arts.