Bill Bowker, KRSH DJ and music promoter
By Greg Cahill
He’s a man on a mission. Bill Bowker, the silver-haired DJ and music promoter, is a ubiquitous presence on the Sonoma County entertainment scene, spreading the gospel of blues and roots music. He is at once a serious music fan and a mover and shaker who works year-round to book world-class acts (including shows in Petaluma, Healdsburg, Forestville and Santa Rosa) and uses the local airwaves to help the rest of us keep our cool during the afternoon commuter crunch.
Where else on commercial radio are you going to hear the folksy filigree of Celtic-rocker Richard Thompson, the homespun humor of troubadour Todd Snider and the gritty growl of blues giant Howlin’ Wolf in a single set?
And he’s been doing this for 25 years.
These days, Bowker’s familiar voice can be heard seven days a week on KRSH FM-95.9, where he hosts the coveted weekday afternoon drive-time spot. An early supporter of Americana (American roots music based on the traditions of country, including progressive country, alt-country, bluegrass and new-grass), the 60-year-old broadcaster eschews the chance to sleep in on Saturday mornings in order to host the seminal KRSH Americana program from 8am to 10am. On Sunday evenings, he provides the soulful sounds of the popular Blues with Bowker program from 7pm to 10pm.
He’s also the driving force behind the Sonoma County Blues Festival, serves as the genial host at the annual Blues on the River fest and frequently handles those same duties from the Luther Burbank Center’s stage. True to the old blues adage “I’ll sleep when I’m dead,” Bowker can be seen several nights a month emceeing, along with longtime business partner and fellow KRSH DJ Doug Smith, at the red-hot Roots at Los Robles concert series.
Raised in Southern California, Bowker is a New Jersey native who developed a passion for music and radio at a time when ’60s rock altered the airwaves with the advent of so-called underground FM, which boasted free-form programming focused not on singles but album sides.
Shortly after high school and a stint at broadcasting school, Bowker joined KUDU, a small Ventura radio station. His first day on the job was Aug. 15, 1969, the opening day of the three-day Woodstock Music Festival held in upstate New York. KUDU broadcast country music on its AM side; the automated FM side was devoted to Top 40. Bowker and others soon convinced the station owner to experiment with a looser format from 7pm to 3am each day. “It was all album cuts. The first thing I played was Cream’s ‘Crossroads,'” he recalls, “and from there, we went into everything that was the antithesis of Top 40 radio: John Coltrane, John Lee Hooker–anything that would upset authority.”
With the increasing corporatization of FM radio in Los Angeles, Bowker later turned his back on “the big bucks and politics” that began to dominate the industry. In 1979 he and his family moved to Santa Rosa.
“I was just glad to get out of there,” he says.
In laid-back Sonoma County, he went on the air at the legendary North Bay under-ground FM station KVRE (now the Fox), one of the region’s last, where he stayed for 10 years.
It was in 1990, during a stint DJ-ing at the short-lived Studio KAFE, that Smith and Bowker soon started booking blues shows together. Smith and Bowker Productions began producing roots and blues shows at the Mystic Theatre, the Raven and other local venues. Today it is one of the top booking agencies in the North Bay–scarcely a week goes by without a Smith and Bowker show somewhere–and the duo are known for hosting affordable concerts that are often accessible to fans of all ages.
“We kept saying, ‘We’re not going to do this anymore,'” says Bowker of the early hassles he and Smith encountered. “But we kept coming back to it.”
Since joining KRSH in 1993, Bowker has become one of the area’s best-known air personalities, championing the blues and roots music that is closest to his heart.
“I’m still drawn by the rawness, honesty and authenticity of it,” he says. “This music is very vital and very important, and it needs to be out there. It’s the stuff I really care about, and I find that once others become aware of it, they also fall in love with it. The reward is having someone who’s never heard of a particular artist come up to you at a show or call you at the station and say, ‘Hey, man, thanks for making me aware of this artist.’
“That’s the gratifying part.”
From the September 22-28, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.