Our friend John Hell? Brilliant DJ at Radio Valencia and history teacher extraordinaire. Since he does have a strong gift of gab, we’ll let him tell his own dang story.
Haight Street Voice: Here we are at Radio Valencia with John Hell, aka Michael Rosenberg, talking about his life. Let’s start with where you’re from, how it all started.
John Hell: I was born in the Midwest in Ohio. My family moved around a lot. I went to 10 schools kindergarten through senior year of high school. Lived in Ohio, North Carolina, back to Ohio, Southern California, the Bay Area mostly.
HSV: And what was your thing? Was it always music?
JH: The very first thing I ever wanted to be was a radio DJ. I was 5 — that’s my memory of it. I used to have a tape recorder that I would put up right to a speaker to play the song, and then I would do the announcing at, like, 5 years old, and it was so much fun. I was like, “This is great!” I was listening to radio, my dad always had a radio on. My sisters were 7 and 8 years older than me, so in the ’70s they had on all the hot tunes of the day and I was listening to that stuff. My dad was listening to a lot of blues and jazz, so I had a lot of that mix. And my mom was listening to Tom Jones.
HSV: Did she throw her underwear at him?
JH: He had a TV show, and we used to joke with her, “Mom, are you going to throw your panties at the TV?”
[John stops to segue into a new song on his radio show, “Hell’s Kitchen”] Hold please. I’m going to every so often have to step in and do my job.
I got my first DJ job as a mobile DJ. I went to my prom junior year but I didn’t go with a date because I was too shy, I never had dates. I had a lot of friends but I was never gonna ask people out. Yeah, me, shy, isn’t it amazing? When did that end?
So I met the DJs at the proms and I helped them set up, and I loved it so much they hired me. I ended becoming a mobile DJ at the age of 16 doing weekend weddings and high school dances and backyard parties.
HSV: What year is this?
JH: 1986. I was so excited, even if I wasn’t always so into the music, to get onto the turntables and just do my thing, and learn about it. Even though I wasn’t into the music, I was into what I was doing. And then I also got a job DJing at the Ice Capades Chalet at Fashion Island Mall in Foster City. I DJ’d there from ’86 to ’93. That was a crazy job because I’m playing music for people to skate to, but nobody told me what to play. I played whatever I wanted to play! So I was like, I’m gonna play Madonna, and then I’m playing Metallica. And I’ll play Debbie Gibson, and then I’m playing Iron Maiden. And I’ll play the Grateful Dead and I’m gonna play Creedence. And that was super fun. I did that for 6 years part time because I had other jobs. I still did the mobile DJ thing, and I worked at Tower Records in San Mateo. And then I ended up working at a record label as a promotions director — Tandem Records and the Remix Club down in Burlingame/Millbrae.
HSV: What was your first concert?
JH: My first concert was … Hold please. [stops to segue into next song on radio show]. My first concert was Dio, November 30, 1984 at Oakland Coliseum, with Dokken opening. It was the Last in Line tour for Dio, and Tooth & Nail tour for Dokken. I remember this. Living in San Mateo, we had The Pony Express, which was a pizza parlor that had all-ages nights for bands to come in and play. The City had The Farm, which I used to go to. But before I went to the Farm, I was going to the Pony Express. I was 15 thinking, “This is rad” because all the local punk and metal bands were playing there. I thought, “This is awesome. This is what I want.” Then I found the Farm two years before they closed, and I was coming up here for that.
It was so much fun being here in the City and the Peninsula in the ’80s.
HSV: What was your look? Did you have long hair?
JH: By the late-’80s, I had very long hair, all the way down to my ass. Denim jacket, lots of patches. I was the Deadhead who was also the punk and the metal head. It was really weird. My friends never knew what to make of me but I didn’t care. I liked all of it — and I’m still like that.
Part of it was, when I moved to the Bay Area in ’82, I was 12 and I knew exactly where I was moving. I was living in Orange County for a few years and I knew that the Bay Area was all about the music scene and I knew the history of the music, so I was so excited to be in San Francisco. I would take the train into the City a few times a month at the age of 14 just so I could run all over the City.
HSV: You are playing music for the City — what’s your vision in doing that? What does that mean to you, the value of that when you’ve got crap radio everywhere?
JH: If you’ve listened to my show, you’ve heard me say this a million times: bastards.
I graduated high school in 1988 and I was working at Tower Records and I started at CSM when they had the jazz station, or KCSM, and one of my colleagues at Tower Records said, “You don’t wanna be there.” She was super Goth, I love her to death. Back then she was hardcore Goth and the height of Goth, right? She said, “You wanna come to KFJC”, where she was. I said, “Yeah I do, but why would you guys want me?” I ended up being there 9 years. So KFJC, 89.7fm at Foothill College. It is one of the best non-commercial radio stations in the country. It’s always put up there as one of the finest because they’re always breaking new ground. That was the greatest musical education I got for radio.
There were two trains of thought: You either play music that constantly challenges the listener like hardcore challenges the listener, where they’re like, “Ugggghhh!” Or you mix it with accessible sounds, and that’s more what I do. So I was there for 9 years and then I co-founded and was program director at Radio-Free Burning Man from ’94 to ’98. That was my last year at Burning Man — that’s a whole other book.
I got my broadcasting degree from SF State, and I tried commercial radio and realized that it’s the absolute bitch-goddess that we all know it to be. I was at KRQR 97.3 and then I was at Alice 97.3. In fact, I was in the radio station on the 32nd story of Embarcadero #1 in KRQR when the earthquake hit in ’89 — 32nd story in the radio station — that was really ridiculous. It was an amazing moment. We were totally swaying, we were absolutely swaying. We were sure we were gonna die, but we didn’t. I was in the studio with Mercy Hawkes, the DJ at the time.
How about some Monkees? [plays a tune on the airwaves …]
HSV: Jimi Hendrix opened for them.
JH: Damn straight. You know that story, Michael Nesmith said, “I quit. I’m done.” They had to talk him back into the Monkees. He said, “No, this is ridiculous. Why is this guy opening for us? We shouldn’t even be opening for this guy! We’re not good enough for this at all.”
HSV: So how did you end up here at Radio Valencia?
JH: I was doing early morning Sunday mornings, getting my feet wet at Alice because that’s all they’d let me do, and it was pissing me off. I was there a year and they said, “Oh yeah, the person you’ve been filling in for is coming back from maternity leave.” I never knew I was filling in for somebody.
And they said, “Oh, but you can do over-nights”. And I said, “No, but I want to thank you for a really good education for why I will never be in commercial radio. Here’s what you’re gonna play, here’s what you’re gonna say, don’t deviate from that.” I was like, “This is not art”.
Radio is an art form, and that’s a big part why I’m in radio. Every week I’m given a two-hour empty canvas that I get to paint with the sounds that I choose to tell some kind of a story. Some shows are amazing, some shows are shit. I think most of my shows, because of the amount of years I’ve been doing this — going on 30 years — are definitely above par, right? I do put in the effort to really bring my best.
HSV: And you really know your stuff.
JH: After I got out of the commercial game, which didn’t take that long, I got on the air with San Francisco Liberation Radio, which was a long-running pirate radio station in the City, and at the time very legendary. We got busted in 2003 by the Feds because we were very political and very outspoken about the war. They came in with guns to take all of our equipment. We said, “We’re radio DJs, asshole.” I was not there at the time, I was not in the studio. But I was involved with the federal court case and we sued them and we made it up to the 9th circuit court, one step below the U.S. Supreme Court, so we were doing something right.
After that, I ended up at Pirate Cat Radio. I was there for a couple of years, including helping build that studio on 21st and Alabama.
Let me segue … How about some Dylan?
So I left that station and I started at FCC-Free Radio, which is still going on at fccfreeradio.com, but my partner there just wanted to do classic rock, and that’s not community radio. I wanted to do a free-form community radio station that will challenge the listeners but not in a harsh way, more like turning them on to new sounds, interview a lot of people, talk about the community and be a part of it. So I got a call from Chicken John one day who I’ve known forever, and he said [impersonating his voice]: “You wanna do this thing you keep talking about?” cuz he knew what I wanted to do. And I said, “Yeah, but it can’t be Radio Chicken like it became Radio Monkey or Radio John Miller at FCC-free.” He said, “I don’t care. I don’t know radio.” We were at his place for two years, and then we came here.
My goal with Radio Valencia was to not have anybody be in charge. I wanted it community based, and that’s what we are. We are a 501 C3 non-profit connected with IndyFest, and they’re a really great organization and we have a board of directors and we have a program committee. So when I started, I said, “There’s not one person in charge, not even me. I don’t want it. Don’t give it to me, don’t let me have it.
Instead, we’ll be committee based, we’ll grow slowly but we’ll grow well. And we’ll be more discerning in how we’re going to choose the people who are gonna come in.”
We developed our mission and our vision, and everybody that comes in, it’s like, “Look, if you can’t do this, tell us now and go somewhere else. There are a lot of other radio stations in the City you can be a part of. But if you’re here, this is what we’re doing.” So we don’t really have much turnover. We have over 60 DJs on staff, we’ve got great shows.
HSV: So when you say “community radio” … like the Haight Street Voice, it’s not just for Haight Street, it’s about taking care of all our communities, and each other, whether you’re in the Haight or the Mission or wherever in the world. So when you say “community radio”, what does that mean to you?
JH: For me, it’s about being a voice in an area of the City that none of the other radio stations are talking about. We talk about homeless issues here, we talk about the merchants here, we bring in local people to talk about the things that are going on in this area. I brought in the local members of the Board of Supervisors to be on my show, I brought in members of the school board to be on my show, I brought in union people to be on the show, I’ve brought on activists on my show before … let’s talk about what’s going on, let’s get into debates.
I like playing music but there will be weeks that will go by where I don’t play any music because I’m just talking to people about things. I like Michael Krasny, he’s a really great guy, but that’s sort of the Bay Area wide. I want this to be more focused on what’s going on closer to home.
HSV: How and why did you become a teacher?
JH: The teaching happened because I found there’s no way I’m gonna have a radio career because I’m not going to do that.
Even in the ’70s there was still some semblance of locally controlled and programmed radio shows. I was looking at it looking to get a career there, and thinking, “Well, can’t we still do that?” And no, you can’t. Part of the idea when I was getting into it, I kept saying, “It’s not about today, it’s about 10 years from now when I’m the general manager, I’m calling the shots.” And then I realized, “No, no, no, no, no. The general manager doesn’t call the shots, it’s the owners.” And then Bill Clinton signed the Telecommunications Act in ’96 that just killed it. It made Clear Channel and all those consolidate and buy up everything. So it told me right then that that’s it. I’m not gonna have a commercial radio career. And I was fine with that.
So my next love was history and social sciences, and I decided I would go into teaching. I have no regrets. I love teaching. I love to work with the kids. A lot of projects. I’m a project teacher, big-time.
HSV: Sharing information and turning people on to ideas and information, and keeping that alive …
JH: Oh yeah, like all-the-time curious. Every day there’s something to be curious about. I’m curious! I want to hear what the kids bring in, we do a lot of family stuff. I’m always having them interview their families, and get out into the community. I have them do a San Francisco scavenger hunt where I have a list of 30 things, they only have to find 10 but it’s all over the City, they can’t just go to one area and find it. It’s fun. They always come back saying, “I never knew!” And I say, “Well, now ya know! Good for you.”
HSV: That kind of ties in with one thing we do in every interview for the magazine, which is ask: This is the Voice … What is it that you’d like to say to the people of San Francisco — and beyond?
JH: One of the things that I’m concerned about is that the City doesn’t like artists, the City is not good to artists any more — not at all. We can’t afford it, we can’t afford the rents anymore, we can’t afford the food any more, we can’t afford the transportation costs. It’s just not friendly to artists in any way, shape or form.
The City is built in a magical geographic space. It hid itself for a long time from the Europeans. They couldn’t find it! For over a hundred years, they heard about it and they were searching the coast and they couldn’t find it. Then they stumbled upon it accidentally. I think it was one of those things, like, “Uh, we don’t think we want you here.” The City was saying, “There’s some good stuff going on right here, and don’t mess it up.” It took a long time, but I think it’s gotten pretty messed up, and I hate to say that.
We had a period of time when the Spanish ruled here, and they subjugated the natives, who were very artistic and creative. But then in the end, the Spanish were kicked out and the Americans took over. And it really was the Gold Rush that brought everybody here. It really did bring the pioneers who were willing to take the risk. They came out here and they discovered the power center of San Francisco. They said, “There something really powerful and magical about this place.”
And all the people that started to come, following them in the 1880s and 1890s — the bohemians: Mark Twain, Brett Hart and all these remarkable writers that were coming out. They saw this as a ridiculously gorgeous place, and had to do something with it. And that kept going through the 1900s, into the 1950s and into the ’60s, and then people started realizing, “Hey, there’s money to be made here.”
The Haight in the 1970s into the early ’80s was just a horrible place. The stores were closing down, it was rough. I used to go to the Rock & Bowl, which is now the Amoeba, and I remember going up there as a kid and going, “Okay, alright, I’ll go.”
The art was still happening in the area. But again, it’s been a battle with capitalism. There’s money to be made and the City’s always had that battle: art and capitalism.
Unfortunately, a lot of these people who are coming out now — I call them, and you can quote me on this: “The Digi-douce-oise”. They don’t know shit about our culture, and they don’t care about our culture. A lot of them are coming out from the east coast, from Ivy League schools, wanting to get their millions with their new app, and “screw this town” — they don’t care because they don’t have to care.
HSV: Instead of complaining about all the “digi-douce-oise” coming in, how do we make it better?
JH: We really have to pay attention to our neighbors and who’s right around us. We have to say hello to people, be inclusive. You know, my dad always said, “Invite everybody to the party and let them decline the invitation. Let everyone come in and let’s see how great they are. Find the greatness in every single person.” But it’s really hard. It’s harder today.
I love this City so much, I love every corner of it. There’s so much awesomeness that exists here. I want to be a part of it all the time. That’s one reason why I’m still here every Monday night, and I still teach high school here in San Francisco — I’m not gonna stop doing that as long as I can. I wanna keep being a part of it. I love Golden Gate Park, I love the Haight, I love the Bayview. There are still these great corners of San Francisco that need to be discovered. If you haven’t read Cool Grey City of Love by Gary Kamiya yet, read it tomorrow. It’s so rad. It has 49 chapters, and each chapter is about a different neighborhood, and the chronological history told by neighborhoods. And then Season of the Witch by David Talbot, another great one.
HSV: Back to what you’d like to say to folks out there?
JH: They have to engage with each other, they have to be inclusive and they have to get off their damned devices. They’ve got to be right there with people, and they have to engage regularly, and they’ve got to use their best selves. They have to patronize the great merchants that are here, the local merchants.
The high school I teach at is close to a lot of locally owned restaurants, and I say to my students, “Don’t go to Burger King and Subway! Why would you do that when you’ve got 30 different restaurants owned by local people here? Why would you go to those and eat their food? They’re not keeping their dollars here. Go to the local people and tell them that you live here and you go to high school and enjoy the neighborhood.
We successfully fought off Starbucks moving into the Excelsior District a number of years ago, which I thought was one of the greatest successes of the Excelsior District. We don’t need Starbucks here. We have cafes.
This is a great City with so many amazing opportunities. The art is still here, it’s just so hard for the artists to survive. That’s the thing, right? Great artists doing great art, drinking good wine. I’m still harshly bitter about my move to Berkeley. Not only that, but by law my landlord had to get our deposit back within 21 days, and I think today is the 24th, she already said we’re gonna get it all back, well, then, where’s my deposit? If she doesn’t get it to us by the 30th, the law says I can get double my deposit back.
On August 11, Radio Valencia is celebrated its 7th birthday, we’re very excited about that. That’s the day we flipped the switch, went on the quasi-air. We’re internet-only, radiovalencia.fm. Maybe a fan or a listener might’ve put up a transmitter at some time in history, but I can’t speak to that. I can’t legally answer that.
HSV: What’s your reach?
JH: It’s internet, so we’re worldwide!