If you’ve never met Ira Gordon, well, what you heard on KBAC every weekday afternoon for the past 23 years is what you get.
Some people were just born with buttery voices that sound right on the radio, but it’s more than that. Gordon was himself on air — Ira G. A person, not a persona or a personality.
The same guy with a gray goatee wearing a loud macaw-print shirt and making a burrito disappear at Baja Tacos on Cerrillos Road. A guy with a twinkle in his eye, not taking himself too seriously as he talks about a career that earned him a plaque in the New Mexico Broadcasting Association Hall of Fame.
After two decades of working to make KBAC (98.1 FM) Santa Fe’s hometown rock station, as afternoon drive-time jock and program director, the 65-year-old Gordon signed off at the end of January after 45 years in radio.
“During that last month I was on the air, I felt so loved by the community — listeners, people on the street — it was astounding to me,” he says. “Then on February 1st the phone doesn’t ring and it’s all over.”
Not that he’s singing the blues.
“I’m loving retirement,” Gordon says. “The first thing I did was take the trim off the bedroom wallpaper and repaint. It took six days.”
Rock on, Ira G.
Gordon’s exit and the line of succession at KBAC prompted some concern among people who follow the business.
Would the new guy be able to fill Gordon’s shoes both as the program director ultimately responsible for all on-air content, and as the dependable afternoon drive-time DJ with the easygoing manner and great ear for music?
Will the station — or rock radio itself — be able to hold ground when anyone with a smart device can stack their own playlists or just ask Siri and Alexa to DJ for them?
Will a station geared to older listeners be able to attract new ones in a town that’s simultaneously aging out — like Gordon himself going off air — and undergoing a cultural shift from Boomerville toward what we might start calling the Meow Wolf Generation?
“I always say we’re lucky to have a cool little radio station playing progressive, interesting music,” says Jamie Lenfestey, a prolific local concert promoter who advertises on the station. “That’s not common for a town our size.”
But he frets the station’s reach is “not growing” and confesses to some confusion about where to target his advertising budget in a media environment that offers a slew of opportunities where there used to be just a handful of go-to’s.
Gordon, a Californian who came to town in 1995 from Denver in order to be near a son in Albuquerque, says he developed the station’s identity by getting a feel for the peculiarities of the Santa Fe populace. He discovered a town that was artsy, gay, Hispanic, with a reputation as “a place where hippies retire.”
The audience was raised on rock ’n’ roll, but still interested in hearing new music. The station’s modest signal dictated a hyperlocal format that Gordon parlayed into a community radio, pirate station identity: “Radio Free Santa Fe.”
The competition was playing classic rock, so he adopted a Triple-A (adult album alternative) format that relies on a mix of ’80s new wave, modern rock, blues, Americana, reggae and folk rock.
Gordon, who is single, says he took dozens of new CDs home every weekend to listen to while football and baseball games played silently on TV, to find songs that fit.
He’d veer to the left sometimes, but always come back to core artists like Peter Gabriel, Bonnie Raitt, U2, Los Lobos, Bob Marley, the Grateful Dead and their jam band spawn.
Classic rock has always had a high-testosterone count, so Gordon leaned KBAC female. His first hire was Honey Harris, the DJ who remains a fixture in the mornings.
“Listening to Honey is like listening to a member of your immediate family,” says Gordon. (Lenfestey says something similar about Gordon: “He was your affable uncle who knew all the cool bands.’’)
“Musically, Honey has her own ideas,” says Gordon, “so at one point I said to her, ‘I know your taste and how it fits. From now on you’re in charge of your own show.’ ”
A recent 8 a.m. session by Harris featured songs from ’80s and ’90s artists like REM, Talking Heads and Beck, and, for something completely different, a Ray Charles chestnut from 1958.
Harris plans to keep holding down the mornings, but because of Gordon’s imprint on every aspect of the programming after 11 a.m., one local music/media maven, who preferred to remain anonymous, wondered: “When Ira leaves, does the soul go away?” He reckoned it will take a year to find out.
KBAC is the flagship of Hutton Broadcasting, which airs five other local stations in various formats. Company leader Scott Hutton, a 47-year-old Grateful Dead fan, says the station can remain relevant and competitive by maintaining its connections to the local community. But he’s hedging his bet. Even his own kids won’t let him tune in the car radio in favor of streaming, so he’s diversifying the company’s portfolio of media products.
For KBAC, he searched nationally for a new program director and wound up promoting an insider who’s shared an office with Gordon for the past 10 years.
“It was an important decision,” Hutton says. “I don’t want the public to feel it has changed. The choice was clear.”
The choice was Chris Diestler.
It’s a weary Diestler who slides his tall, square-shouldered frame into the booth at Blue Corn Brewery on the south side, between the end of his afternoon broadcast and his long-running Toast-n-Jam show, which airs from 8 to 10 on Thursday nights. Another long day, which had started with a morning staff meeting.
“I suspect Ira never slept,” he says. “My ears are tired.”
Not that he’s complaining. Much. He is a radio veteran who’s worn various hats at Hutton, including several years of playing a “cartoon character” named Uncle Jesse on 107.5 Outlaw Country, a format he learned on the job as program director and jock.
“I’ve been in love with KBAC since I moved here in ’97,” Diestler says. He moved frequently in childhood and has lived in Santa Fe longer than anywhere else. So it’s home and he knows how to talk the local talk on air.
In his scant free time, Diestler plays saxophone in a local jam band called Pigment, whose album was a finalist for Best Rock CD in this year’s New Mexico Music Awards.
Diestler says he isn’t concerned about radio surviving the plethora of listening options these days — “They said radio was gonna die when TV came along” — but that doesn’t mean he isn’t worried.
“Rock ’n’ roll radio is almost extinct,” he says, alluding to an industry trend away from freewheeling Triple-A in favor of “all-hits” programming. So he’s on a mission to keep it alive. The good news is that there’s so much good music being made, nationally and locally. “It’s my job to filter it for people who don’t have time to listen to 100 new albums a week.”
Diestler wrestles with the dilemma of how to calibrate that filter to maintain KBAC’s appeal to its older audience while also attracting new listeners. “I can only go by my own intuition,” he says, echoing Gordon’s early approach to the role.
While Diestler sticks with tried-and-true station favorites — he added a daily “4:20 Flashback” to ’60s and ’70s icons like Jefferson Airplane and Cat Stevens — he’s excited about a new album by the guitar-rock duo The Black Keys, and a couple of neo-soul singers their members produce, Yola and Jessy Wilson.
He’s leaning forward, too. In recognition of the venue’s robust concert schedule, Diestler started a program called Meow Wolf Mondays to educate the station’s core audience about bands coming to play there. He figures he has a better shot at invigorating the older audience rather than converting a younger one.
Concert booker Lenfestey, who calls himself “a die-hard KBAC listener,” naturally appreciates Diestler’s commitment to promoting new bands and live shows. And he’s pleasantly surprised by his music selections.
“I always thought of him as a jam band, Grateful Dead guy,” Lenfestey says. “But I’m impressed with his breadth of knowledge and adventurousness.
“Chris has done a great job sliding into big shoes,” he continues. “Ira was a defining force for two decades, but Chris is bringing new energy to the station.”
Gordon says Hutton asked him to hang on for one more year as a consultant, but he told him that Diestler didn’t need the coaching. After all, Diestler himself is a seasoned pro — he turns 52 next month.
“I told Chris, ‘Here’s the ball, it’s your job now,’ ” says Ira G., “and the starter went to the bullpen to have a beer.”
And peel some wallpaper.