Thursday, August 25, 2011

Tribute to a lovely lady

I got some news last night that left me saddened and bone-weary.

You probably never heard of Shawn Bates unless you were an aficionado of the San Francisco indie music scene in the 1980s and 1990s. I wasn't such an aficionado until the late '80s, but by way of compensation, when I did get into the scene it was through the hard-driving, tumultuous, and to this sheltered soul, deeply weird world of KUSF, the onetime FM outlet of the University of San Francisco.

KUSF, as most who have volunteered there will tell you, was a tough place in which to find one's niche. It took me ages, and at times I wondered why in the hell I was bothering with this bunch of people who, at best, appeared not to care whether I was around or not. Aside from my fellow newbies, it took a while for me to make even a scraping acquaintance with any of the veterans. One of the first was Shawn Bates.

Shawn didn't go out of her way to befriend me, and I certainly don't fault her, or anyone else, for that: a lot of people passed through the doors and most of them didn't stick around for long. It made good sense not to fall all over new arrivals. However, once I started doing a (very) little real work around the station and interacting with the veterans, Shawn was possibly the first to smile and look me in the eye. A little thing, but it was the first crack in the ice.

Eventually I was trained to be on the air. After a few sessions alongside the resident trainer, the unflappable Marisa, it was time to fly solo for one or two more shows. At the time, the training shift was on Sunday afternoons, so a lot of people potentially could listen.

If memory serves, it was during the second solo shift that I finished backannouncing a set, then haltingly started the next. Or that's what I meant to do, anyway. What actually happened was that I started the wrong record, the one I had just played. In disgust with myself, I uttered an expletive, potted the playing song down and started the correct one. And then I noticed that there were not one, but two active pots (inputs) on the board: the one marked "TT 2" and the one marked "Board Mic".

In short, I had forgotten to shut off the microphone.

The expletive I had uttered was one of the Forbidden Seven immortalized in George Carlin's well-known routine, the ones that get broadcasters into deep trouble. After slowly shutting off the mike, I stood there for a moment, absolutely frozen, not knowing what to do. The only thought going through my head was that I would be the first DJ in history to lose an FCC license before it had even been issued.

At that moment, the staff phone line started blinking.

I had visions of the program director apologetically but firmly telling me to clear out of the studio. I thought it might even be the station's general manager, the usually genial Steve Runyon, calling in to scream at me for destroying the station he had founded. I imagined having to squirrel away every cent of my miniscule salary for twenty years to pay off an FCC fine for indecent language.

I finally realized that no matter who was on the other end, it would do me no good to ignore the call. Slowly I picked up the receiver.

The first thing I heard was a gale of laughter. With difficulty the woman choked down her amusement just long enough to sputter out something that I interpreted as, "We've all done something like that", then hung up.

It was, of course, Shawn. And with her brief call, she unparalyzed my brain so I was able to go on with the show.

This was just one little act of kindness from a kind, lovely woman. And note that it was enough of an act of kindness merely to have listened at all. Training shifts were seldom pretty: raw DJs had no knowledge of mike levels, tended either to babble witlessly or to say virtually nothing at all, and often made dubious musical choices. I was no exception.

I enjoyed Shawn's own show: it consisted of pretty accessible alternative music coupled with her own sense of older tunes that would fit. Ramsay Lewis' rendition of "The In Crowd" and the term "Cocktail Corner" will always bring Shawn's laid-back, joyful show to mind.

Shawn left the station years ago, and unfortunately we didn't stay in touch. I found out last night that she passed away three weeks ago at the cruelly early age of fifty. Well, all right, I suppose that objectively speaking "fifty" isn't cruelly early: that term is usually reserved for one who dies before hitting, let's say, thirty. But as far as I'm concerned, it's the right way to describe the premature passing of a woman who was such a warm, often joyous presence.


  1. Her laugh was amazing. She was amazing.

    Signed, a fellow late 80s dj

  2. I meant to mention her laugh, easily what I remember best about her. Thanks for correcting my oversight.

    [Sorry for the late approval -- connectivity problems.]