British Deejay Finds Freedom On U.s. Radio

November 07, 1986|THOMAS K. ARNOLD

SAN DIEGO — Steve West and new wave radio came to San Diego on almost the very same day.

In January, 1983, radio station XTRA-FM (91X) replaced its traditional album-oriented rock format with something radically different: the latest punk-rock and techno-pop records by such new wave bands as the Sex Pistols, the Ramones and Soft Cell.

Since most new wave bands at the time were from England, it made perfect sense to station management to usher in the change with a British disc jockey who had arrived in this country just a few years before.

The new wave-only format didn't last long, however, and within 18 months 91X had brought back many of the same traditional rock records it had originally thrown out.

But West's English accent has never worn thin. To this day, he remains one of the station's most popular personalities.

Aside from West's on-air duties (he's heard weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.), he has found time to make an average of three public appearances every week.

He has emceed dozens of concerts by bands such as Simple Minds and General Public, and he has hosted "91X Club Nights" at such local nightclubs as Club Diego's and Confetti.

He has also served stints as music director and host of the station's experiment with an MTV-like television show.

But dig deep into his background and you'll find that Steve West is nothing more than a rehabilitated pirate. Like the swashbuckling buccaneers who roamed the Seven Seas hundreds of years ago, West was once the scourge of the Establishment. The Broadcasting Establishment, that is.

His first radio job, nearly 20 years ago, was with Radio Essex, a pirate station that operated illegally from a creaky World War II warship anchored 11 miles from the British coast near London.

"Radio is a lot more restrictive in Great Britain than it is in the United States," West said. "Because of bureaucratic regulations and the musicians union, the legitimate stations--both government-owned and commercial--can't play more than 9 1/2 hours of recorded music per day.

"This frustrating situation led to the birth of pirate radio. Starting in the middle 1960s, disgruntled broadcasters began buying cheap equipment and setting up makeshift studios aboard old abandoned warships off the coast, gunnery forts in the North Sea, and even areas of open space in the middle of nowhere.

"And they were basically free to play whatever they wanted to--as long as the government didn't find them."

When the government did locate a pirate radio station, West added, the equipment was confiscated and the owner was fined heavily.

"But in most cases, the owner simply went out, bought more equipment, and started all over again," West said. "That's why the government has been unable to stop this 'free radio' movement, as it's called.

"Today, there are more pirate radio stations than ever before, with London alone being served by at least a dozen."

Less than two years after West, at the time only 16, first went on the air, Radio Essex was discovered by government authorities and unceremoniously shut down.

West, however, decided he would rather switch than fight, so he moved back to London and spent another two years doing voice-over work for commercials and working nights as a deejay in discotheques and nightclubs.

Eventually, he landed a series of air shifts on legitimate radio stations, but soon found the restrictive environment too stifling.

"Everything's so tied up that it's easy to see why the pirate stations have continued to flourish," West said. "Aside from the limited amount of music you can play, you aren't allowed to inject very much of your own personality, as you are out here.

"And on top of that, there are no real formats. Because of the strict control, there are only a few radio stations serving each market. And a typical station, for example, will play two hours of Top 40 in the afternoon, two hours of jazz in the evening, and mainly traffic, weather and news in the morning."

So West sought greener pastures in the United States. After spending two years with a small adult-contemporary station in San Clemente, West was hired by 91X nearly four years ago--and any plans he may have had about returning to England were soon forgotten amid the popularity he quickly found among local listeners.

"I realize that what got me on 91X in the first place was the way I speak," West said. "But I think there's more to it than that--any kind of a novelty usually wears off within a couple of months.

"But what my English background has done for me is given me a greater awareness of new music, since so many English hits turn up on the American charts months later.

"And my delivery, too, is free of the overbearing hype that you hear so often on American radio. English radio is so restrictive that it almost forces you to find some way to communicate better with your listeners--and I quickly learned that the best thing for a deejay to do is to not talk down at his listeners, but to treat them as human beings."

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