THE caller was a regular, with a slightly irregular request.
“Hocus-Pocus‚ by Focus?” asked Dave “The Dude” Scott, raising a silvery eyebrow.
He cradled the phone on one ear and scrolled through his computerized database of songs until he found what the listener was looking for. After a brief exchange, prompting his raspy, veteran smoker’s laugh, Scott repositioned his earphones and swiveled back to the control panel.
“You’re rockin‚ with the Dude,” he said suavely, leaning into the mike. “Up next: Weezer, with ‘Island of the Sun.’”
It was 9 a.m. Tuesday at “Real Rock” 107.5 FM, Central America’s first English language radio station, and Scott, who was there at its inception, had been broadcasting for three hours already. He sipped coffee and gazed out the control room’s plate-glass window, which affords a second-story view of the mountains in the distance and a Persian rug store in the foreground.
THE station broadcasts to 95% of Costa Rica with 5,000 watts of power from the western San José suburb of Escazú; it averages 50 callers an hour, and between handling the phones, Scott readied requests (classic rock, all English, no boy bands, no Madonna) and commercial spots (English and Spanish), as station employees began to file in and mill around the coffee pot.
According to Scott, 107.5 was founded in 1996 by Andreas Herb, a former radio newsman from Germany. When he came to Costa Rica, he discovered a radio audience of English-speaking ex-pats and locals in his adopted homeland. Four years later, he sold the station to Canadian Nicholas Shaw.
Scott (a ringer for Bill Nighy’s rock star in “Love, Actually”) is, like Herb and Shaw, a wanderer of sorts. A 62-year-old British native, he landed in San Francisco in 1969 lured by the Beat-poet mystique. He stayed for the music, working as a roadie, DJ, and booker for David Crosby and Maria Muldar.
He also ran a blues café, did time as a cabdriver and dishwasher, and took the requisite cross-country VW bus trek.
But the druggy excesses of the time, the deaths of friends and the decline of the music scene gave him pause.
“My American Dream went away,” he said ruefully. He went with it. A cousin who was working as wardrobe master for a film shooting in Costa Rica invited him to visit –that was 14 years ago.
ECHOES of Scott’s formative years are evident in 107.5’s office – hung with posters of Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin – and in its programming. It broadcasts BBC World Service news three times daily, and follows the U.S. classic rock radio format, with CDs from Scott’s own collection.
Since March 2001, the station has shot up in ratings, reaching 4.6 in September last year in the 25-40 segment, not taking into account foreign listeners. (Top Spanish stations hover around 8 or 9).
Listener preference typically divides along cultural and generational lines: Most Costa Ricans and older North Americans, said Scott, gravitate toward the uber-classic (The Rolling Stones, The Beatles), and ’70s hitmakers, such as Creedence Clearwater Revival and the Doobie Brothers.
“Classic rock is where this country is kind of stuck at,” he explained, although a growing afternoon audience of Costa Ricans and younger North Americans favor newer bands, such as Coldplay, the Strokes, and Counting Crows.
Of course, there are always exceptions to the rules, added DJ Margie Flaum, and listeners tune in for various reasons.
“I had a teacher who called to request Billy Joel, because she was using it for a test. And people call to test you, just to see if you have something. We have tourists who listen and call to say, “We have this in the States – do you have it here?’”
And there are the regulars – the “Hocus-Pocus” guy, the “Sunday, Bloody Sunday” guy, and so on, who expect a certain amount of recognition.
“They call up and say, ‘Hi, it’s me and I wanna hear my favorite song.’” Flaum said, shaking her head as the other DJs nodded knowingly.
“REAL Rock” has a small staff, with a Costa Rican business side, but its DJs cover most of the English-speaking world and, like Scott, arrived at 107.5 in round about fashion: Flaum, a tanned, husky-voiced former New York ad agency proprietor, closed her agency and ventured south after a friend vacationing in Costa Rica broke an ankle and couldn’t be moved.
Tom Rollo, a long-maned Scottish native with a burly Northern accent, arrived in Costa Rica as an exchange student and stayed on as an owner of a Rolling Stones theme bar – with less than two months broadcasting experience, he is a recent addition.
The marriage of Tena Jackson, aka Tena the Queena, to a licensed sexologist livens up her 6-10 p.m. show. Ephraim Kawdlo, aka DJ Effie the Aussie (10-2 a.m.), rounds out the English-speaking diaspora.
The station has staged promotions with English-language acts (most recently the reconstituted Misfits), and the DJs, whose collective DJ-ing experience is fairly limited, follow international music news, and have strong opinions about what’s good and what their listeners will like.
“No normal person goes into this business,” Scott said, but for as far as he and his cohorts are concerned, “Real rock” still beats the real world.
Said Flaum, “We say what we want, we play what we want, and we have fun.” To request a song, call 228-2159 or 228-2167.