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Flying High on the Airwaves : Veteran Radio DJ Steve Downes Pursues His Passion at a Grueling Pace

March 09, 1995|BARBARA TONE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

". . . and I'm Steve Downes. Seeeya!"

With his signature sign-off, Steve Downes, Westlake resident and veteran rock DJ, wrapped up a grueling 30 hours that began the night before when he hosted the syndicated interview show "Rockline" and ended with his new morning-drive gig on adult-rock KTYD-FM, the Santa Barbara station serving Ventura County.

Downes' work week began with a 4 a.m. wake-up: coffee, a bagel and an in-the-dark drive to KTYD's cinder-block building in Goleta. "It's probably a beautiful drive," he said. "But even if it were light, I'm still working on this a.m. thing, so I probably wouldn't notice."

The pre-dawn drive was filled with lots of button pushing. "I listen to KNX, KFI, KABC, KMPC, KFMB out of San Diego and KCBS out of San Francisco--each for about five minutes--to find out what's happened overnight, what people are talking about," said Downes, whose 20-plus year history in rock radio. "I have one of those little dashboard-suction-notepad things that I scribble on when I'm not sipping from the non-spill coffee cup my wife gave me."

Almost awake by his 5:15 arrival, he dusted bagel crumbs from his lap, got out of the car and groped in the dark for the security code. Once inside the station, Downes checked the wire service for weather, spread out The Los Angeles Times, the Santa Barbara News-Press, USA Today and began making notes.

"There's a lot more preparation for a morning show than for the other shifts," said Downes, who is probably best known in Southern California for his 10 years as evening-drive personality on KLOS.

"I try to keep up on magazines and TV, I listen to talk radio and the news, read three papers and talk with John (Palminteri, KTYD news anchor)," he added. "Having John here has been invaluable. He's so on top of things and so plugged in, especially locally, that it's made this much easier for me."

Just before 6, with yet another cup of coffee in hand, Downes takes his notes, newspapers clippings and assorted other papers into the studio. The studio, the size of a large walk-in closet, is equipped with two huge mikes, four computer terminals, a waist-high console with too many buttons, a telephone and two chairs that neither Downes nor Palminteri warmed once in four hours.

"I've always preferred standing during my shows," said Downes, who started his KTYD job Feb 13. "It helps keep you up--no pun intended--and besides, there's a lot more moving around required than most people imagine."

The show began with a usual "Hi, how ya doin'?" and went right to Palminteri's first newscast. "Almost intentionally, John and I don't really talk before we go on," said Downes. "We exchange bleary glances and grunt at each other about 5:58 a.m., but we don't review or rehearse--we'd rather share that spontaneity with the audience. Our first encounter with each other is sort of like that moment when you turn off the alarm, turn on the bathroom light and get your first look in the mirror.

"So, how are you, John? How was your evening?" Downes said.

"It was good, Steve," Palminteri replied. 'I went to (local restaurant). It was nice. It wasn't like, well, like the usual. . . ."

"Meat market?" asked Downes.

"Yeah," Palminteri said. "So, I left after a beer and a half."

The morning was filled with other light banter, a couple of serious-issue discussions, a call from Mike, locksmith to the stars--all of it interspersed with KTYD favorites from such groups as Pearl Jam, Rolling Stones, Toad the Wet Sprocket and Santana.

In addition to his other duties, Downes often answers the listener call-in line.

"This is still a work-in-progress," Downes said. "My goal the first week was to get here and stay awake. Now, I'm working on figuring out all the buttons."

More banter, more music, an on-air chat with former Laker Don Ford, who's representing KTYD in a charity basketball game, and . . . more coffee. "The real reason I took this job," he joked, "is that KTYD has the best radio-station coffee in the country. Really--everybody knows it. And it's the only station I've ever been in where the coffee cups are clean. Usually, you just look for the one with the least amount of fungus."

By 10 a.m., there were big "X's" on the myriad papers Downes brought to the studio. He passed the baton to oncoming David Perry and went to meet with the program director for information on the next day's broadcast, and a review of the morning's show--what worked and what didn't. "We look at things we might want to do again, things I better never do again," he said. "It's kind of a post-mortem--sometimes an autopsy."

He headed to his car, squinting at his first exposure to the day's sunlight, and left to finish preparation for "Rockline."

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