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Publication Date: Wednesday, January 01, 2003

Bygone era lives on at KCEA-FM Bygone era lives on at KCEA-FM (January 01, 2003)

It's evening radio -- as it used to be

By David Boyce

Almanac Staff Writer

Sales pitches for Ivory Soap and Pepsodent toothpaste may be gone from broadcast radio, but in Atherton, dance music from the 1930s and 1940s is still tickling the air waves.

KCEA, the FM radio station on the campus of Menlo-Atherton High School, broadcasts commercial-free swing music around the clock, with live DJs in the evenings.

The station has been on the air for 23 years, the last seven under the guiding hand of general manager Michael Isaacs. During his tenure, Mr. Isaacs has upgraded the technology of the station while continuing to offer an old-time ambience.

At most musical stops along the radio dial, live disc jockeys are uncommon if not rare, Mr. Isaacs says. At KCEA, the all-volunteer squad of DJs come on in the evenings and have the run of the station's library of 2,400 long-playing vinyl records and 200 compact discs, as well as the option of playing from their own personal libraries.

During the day and after midnight, the station is on autopilot, broadcasting music, mostly big-band sounds, arranged so as not to be repetitive, Mr. Isaacs explains. In the evenings, live DJs bring a personal touch, taking requests by phone and soon via e-mail.

Although KCEA is not academically associated with the high school, M-A owns the station's broadcasting license, provides the space and pays the station's utility bills.

KCEA returns the favor to M-A by broadcasting the school's football and basketball games, both home and away. Play-by-play is done by volunteers from M-A who have shown an interest in radio broadcasting, Mr. Isaacs says.

Mr. Isaacs splits his time between teaching radio broadcasting at the College of San Mateo and running the station in the way radio stations used to be run. "It's the best of both worlds," he says. And some day, he adds, he would like to teach a broadcasting class at M-A.

About swing

Swing is a kind of jazz that has a hard-driving dance beat and a format in which individual musicians improvise with "musically fresh, technically complex" solos, according to the online All Music Guide. Popular swinging big bands of the era when swing was king were led by men like Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Tommy Dorsey.

Also popular at that time were the big bands of Glenn Miller, Wayne Knight and Guy Lombardo, but their music is called "sweet" because it has less improvisation and an easier rhythm.

KCEA plays swing and only swing, Mr. Isaacs says. The station does not play so-called standards, a genre that includes well-known songs like "Strangers in the Night" sung by singers like Tony Bennett and Frank Sinatra.

Mike Thompson, who hosts the evening show on Fridays and the annual New Year's Eve program, said he includes in his play lists music from swinging small bands and other tunes from the "swing era." "We play a lot more than big band," he says. "But whether it's recorded then or now, we try to make sure it's in [the swing] style."

Old and new

Swing has made a definite comeback among younger generations who like to dance. Finding a Bay Area teacher to pass on the secrets of steps like the Lindy Hop or the Jitterbug is as easy as using a search engine on the Web.

The site for the Northern California Lindy Society, for example, shows an up-to-date calendar that includes links to dance venues, instructors, weekend workshops and lists of like-minded dance groups in other countries. To visit the site, go to

For listeners from older generations, people who were around when swing music made its debut, KCEA and its request line can be an oasis.

Mr. Thompson, 67, works during the day as a contract administrator for Lockheed Martin Missiles and Space. He's been a long-time volunteer DJ with the station and recently recalled his first New Year's Eve program. The program ran from 8 p.m. to midnight, as it will for the 16th time this year.

At around 11 p.m., after three hours of silence on the request line, a woman called saying that she and her elderly bed-ridden husband had been listening to the entire show. She thanked him for "the nicest New Year's Eve they'd had in years," he recalls.

"That call made the whole evening worthwhile," Mr. Thompson says. "That lady's call has been the biggest single reason I've done the show all these years, just in case there are others who celebrate New Year's Eve listening to KCEA and, hopefully, enjoying the music and chuckling at all the miscues and flubs I make on the air."

With a Veterans Hospital nearby, Mr. Thompson says, he has many loyal listeners among the patients. He remembered one veteran who called to say that he was being moved to another facility outside the broadcast area. "He sounded like he was about to start crying," Mr. Thompson says.

The station has six DJs, each with one evening shift a week. Mr. Isaacs says they tend to be in their 60s or their early 20s. The older DJs are very knowledgeable and love the music, he said, while the younger ones are interested in radio the way it used to be.

KCEA's DJs are free to concentrate on the music, Mr. Isaacs says, adding that popularity ratings and sales pitches are not everyday concerns for them.

"Radio stations are no longer owned by people who love radio," Mr. Isaacs says, noting that at KCEA, DJs and other staff experience a bygone era. "It's enjoyment. It's pleasing the audience. That's what we're there for," he says.

Running the station

Regarding changes brought to KCEA in the seven years of Mr. Isaacs' tenure, he points to the sports broadcasting, the regular programming, the presence of female DJs, improved financial management and equipment upgrades.

"We play the best big band/swing around," Mr. Isaacs says. "We're the only big band/swing station around. You're not interrupted by commercials, you can make requests, we have knowledgeable people and fun people on the air. But in order to stay on the air, we need the financial support of those listeners as well."

The nonprofit station costs about $28,000 a year to run, Mr. Isaacs says. The station occasionally does fundraising drives, he says, but with 60-second pledge breaks once or twice an hour. "We don't beg," he says, adding that the station's message is, "we're still here and we need your support."

KCEA broadcasts on the frequency of 89.1 FM, sending its 100-watt signal via microwave to a transmitter tower located on the campus of Heather Elementary School in San Carlos. On a good day, Mr. Isaacs says the signal reaches Berkeley, Gilroy and San Mateo.

In February, the station plans to go online as it begins streaming audio over the World Wide Web from

The station can be heard online now at either or, and people are already listening. Mr. Isaacs says he's received e-mail messages from New York, Los Angeles, Nova Scotia and Finland.

KCEA facts

KCEA-FM, 89.1 , broadcasting mostly big-band swing music 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Request line : 306-8822

Web site: (The e-mail request form is not operating at this time, but should be operational in February when the station begins broadcasting online.)

New Year's Eve show: 8 p.m. to midnight, with Mike Thompson.

On-air personalities :

Robert Costa: Mondays 7 - 10 p.m.

Susan Wann: Tuesdays 6 - 9 p.m.

Angie Kwan: Wednesdays 2 - 5 p.m.

Woody's Hot Club: Wednesdays 7 - 10 p.m.

Mike Thompson: Fridays 6 - 9 p.m.

Rebecca Greeley: Saturdays 7 - 10 p.m.


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