Some disc jockeys spin tunes. Others create a whole world on the air, projecting a personality and a vibe that listeners look forward to as much as the music.
For 30 years, Dick Stein has been doing the latter at the Seattle area’s National Public Radio news and jazz station, KNKX 88.5, spinning various versions of the soulful jazz standard, “Jeannine,” and greeting his fans with a hearty “Hi-ho, jazzoids” from behind what he called “the big red switch.”
Last month, Stein, 75, announced that he was turning the big red switch to “off.”
With typically self-deprecating good humor, Stein says of his departure, “I’d rather be asked why I retired than why I don’t. I don’t want to wear out my welcome.”
Few would say that he has. Since the announcement, fans have swamped the station’s Facebook page with warm comments. Stein is one of the station’s most popular personalities and his style is a major part of its identity. His departure will leave a big hole as well as a hefty legacy.
His popularity has stemmed not only from his morning show, “Midday Jazz,” but from a variety of zany extracurricular projects, such as “Jazz Kitchen,” which eventually became “Food For Thought,” a weekly cooking show with former Seattle Times food writer Nancy Leson; his Jimmy Jazzoid radio plays; and his goofy fund drive stunts.
“We’d get these cockamamie ideas,” recalls Leson. “Stein and I made Scotch eggs once, and I made them out of quail eggs. I didn’t even know what Scotch eggs were.”
The radio plays — “DJ by day, courageous crime fighter by night!” — were high-quality affairs, with a band, backup singers, tongue-in-cheek dialogue and old-fashioned radio sound effects. Stein brought the same quirky humor to the station’s fund drives. He crafted surreal ads for the station tote bag — “Tired of old-fashioned bags that take forever to open to portals of parallel universes?” — and touted the “sturdiness” of the station mug. That last antic got him in a pack of trouble when he smashed a mug against his desk and it shattered.
“Robin Lloyd (a fellow DJ) still has that mug mounted on a plaque,” says Stein, who recalled that he immediately recovered, saying, “Yes, that’s what happens with other, cheaper mugs!”
The idea that jazz should be fun was central to Stein’s vision.
“Nobody wants to eat their spinach,” he says, referring to jazz stations that take themselves too seriously.
Nick Morrison, production manager and former music director at the station, agrees.
“We both thought the music got short shrift because it was often not presented in a welcoming manner,” he says. “That’s really what his big value was in my book.”
Stein came to his puckish approach and knowledge of jazz by way of suburban New Rochelle, near Manhattan, where he grew up listening to great jazz DJs like Mort Fega, Billy Taylor and Symphony Sid, as well as radio humorists Jean Shepherd and Bob and Ray. Weekends, Stein frequented Manhattan clubs, taking in John Coltrane at Birdland, as well other jazz greats at the Village Gate and Village Vanguard. After a stint in the Air Force, he landed his first jobs on the air in Anchorage, Alaska, where he spun Top 40, country and easy listening formats, then hosted a call-in show.
“It was the ’70s, during the Nixon administration, and my leanings were pretty much at odds with the general population,” he recalls. “After five years, I’d had enough.”
In 1976, Stein took a break from radio, moving to Parkland, near Tacoma, and for a couple of years ran his own business as a chimney sweep, of all things. Gradually, however, he drifted away from the soot and back to media, doing voice-overs and freelance copywriting, and in 1980, thanks to a tip from Morrison, snagged a job as a late-night jock at KPLU (the former call letters of KNKX).
“He had that playground in the middle of the night, where he could develop all his signature things,” says Morrison of the all-night gig.
For all of Stein’s theatrical hijinks, his on-air vibe was intimate and soft-spoken. He has a classic radio voice — resonant and raspy — and he creates a welcoming atmosphere.
“It’s very personal and warm,” says Seattle jazz singer Gail Pettis, who worked on the radio plays.
Morrison regards Stein’s warmth, intimacy, light touch and quirky humor as “foundational pieces of what you might call the station’s personality.”
At a more nuts-and-bolts level, says current music director Carol Handley, Stein’s legacy also has been to “transform a public radio fund drive into something that people look forward to. That’s a very big deal.”
Replacing Stein will be not be easy. Handley foresees a national search that will take several months.
In the meantime, it’s probably a safe bet that fans will stick with the station, big red switch or no. After all, these are the jazz lovers who four years ago contributed $7 million to save KPLU from getting sold, turning it into KNKX. They’re a loyal bunch.
As for Stein, he says he’s looking forward to more weekday cooking, some travel and “a life without deadlines.”
Oh, and if he’s asked, which Handley says he likely will be, Stein says he just might be flogging those tote bags and sturdy mugs, as well.
At 9 a.m. on Friday, Dec. 4, KNKX will offer a three-hour, on-air tribute to Stein, with music and remembrances from his colleagues. Listeners may send their own goodbyes to Stein at firstname.lastname@example.org.