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Local songwriters featured in new radio show

New show on KSKQ built around original songs written by Rogue Valley musicians
Gus Johnson prepares to record a radio show for KSKQ at his home studio in Jacksonville. [Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune]
John Bartolero, left, and Steve Yungen warm up before the show “KSKQ Presents — Southern Oregon Songwriters.” [Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune]

The sun was settling behind the mountains in Jacksonville last Wednesday, and crickets were preparing to sing as Gus Johnson listened to his guests warming up their guitars on his back patio.

John Bartolero and Steve Yungen, members of Southern Oregon Songwriters Association, were preparing to go into Johnson’s home studio, where he hosts the new radio show “KSKQ Presents — Southern Oregon Songwriters.”

Every Wednesday at 6 p.m., original songs written by Rogue Valley musicians will be featured on KSKQ airwaves, introduced by Johnson’s warm, gravelly voice.

The first show, which can be heard at 89.5 FM in Ashland and 94.1 FM in Medford, is scheduled to air Oct. 5.

The program is something of a return to a vital service for KSKQ, said Jeff Westergaard, the nonprofit station’s volunteer program director and a full-time third-grade teacher.

“Especially after the pandemic, it’s so important to support musicians — and to support local musicians using the most local form of media, which is community radio,” he said.

The station used to have a program, “Hear My Song,” Westergaard said, but it collapsed during COVID-19 because it wasn’t possible to have people in the studio.

Now, social distancing restrictions have eased, and Johnson has his own home studio, where he can record the whole show, package it and send it to the station.

Johnson and his friends walked through the house with their guitars last week and stepped into a back room artfully lined with carpets and fabric, floor to ceiling. Stepping into the room elicited a sinking sensation from the soft, dense carpet. The colors are warm, and the sounds of voices and guitars are warmer.

For his third studio, Johnson explained, he leveraged all his knowledge of how to control the way sound can ricochet around a room. With no bare walls to create that boxy sound common in home recordings and podcasts, the softness of the room sharpens and sweetens sound.

As Bartolero warmed up, Johnson turned to a tablet set up beside a keyboard, his controls for the show.

“It’s a long ways away from the uh, spinning tables,” he said.

Johnson opened with two songs from YouTube uploads, played through speakers on a computer and captured by a microphone in the studio. Bartolero followed the YouTube recordings and played his own work live in the studio.

The finished session, Johnson explained, will be edited through the software on his tablet. Once he’s sure it’s clean of any coughs and one surprise YouTube ad, it will be sent to the radio station to air.

This hybrid recording style allows him to capture a wide range of new and long-since recorded music. Johnson said he hopes the show will be a spotlight for local songwriters. While it’s never been easier to record music and put it out there, he said, being heard and found is still challenging.

“It’s wide-open for musicians; the opportunity is there to publish. Getting people to hear it is a whole different story,” he said.

Interested local songwriters can submit recordings to the show through an online form, found at https://bit.ly/3M7xYzt.

Johnson said he likes to think of himself as tolerant, and he wants the show to have a wide range of genres, styles and voices.

“There are bad songs,” he said. “I will put up with a bunch of things. Sometimes I’ll think OK, but other times I’ll think no, I honestly cannot take two more minutes of you playing that E chord.”

Radio-readiness is the most important thing he’s listening for, aside from a defined melody and staying on key. Technical problems like soft vocals, too much reverb or mumbling likely will result in a song’s rejection, he explained.

Johnson pointed to a pile of CDs on his electronic keyboard and said he’s also “mining” music — ripping CDs he’s collected from local songwriters over the years. He’s also sent information about the show to local recording studios, and he’s using his own records to try to locate musicians previously affiliated with Southern Oregon Songwriters Association.

Every song played on the show goes into a spreadsheet, which helps guide the show as Johnson works through playing submitted songs, and it gives him the skeleton for an archive he envisions.

Once he has them all — artist, genre, song title and artist bio — in his spreadsheet, he’ll convert it to the appropriate software and create a searchable database of local musical creativity.

“Eventually, there’ll be an access to it — an archive that’s specific to songwriters of Southern Oregon,” he said. “I hope to work my way through most of the valley artists over the next years.”

Johnson is comfortable and content with big black headphones on his head, nodding along to the music as he plays each song. This show is a return to the passion of his early years, he explained.

In high school, he started working in radio. In the Air Force, he had a gig as a disc jockey in Klamath Falls. When he went to Southern Oregon College (now Southern Oregon University), he earned a degree in music. He graduated in 1976, the same year Patty Hearst was found guilty of armed robbery and “Frampton Comes Alive!” topped the charts.

“Once computers called to me, I was gone,” he said.

After spending most of his life with computers, Johnson retired in December and returned to his first love.

His joyful energy comfortably coexists with thoughts about what it means to be 75. His little white dog — Spike the Wonder Dog — is likely his last dog, and his house may be his last home.

“When I was in high school, I had this job cleaning apartment houses, and it was full of old people,” he said. “I found there were old people who were bitter at the world; there were others who sat around doing nothing, some who were constantly running around doing something, involved in all kinds of things. Then there were some who were just having fun all the time. I decided I wanted to have fun.

“The more you enjoy yourself, the freer you are to follow your interests.”

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Morgan Rothborne at mrothborne@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4487. Follow her on Twitter @MRothborne.