Drive On

Steve Jaxon's 40-year love affair with radio

When longtime fans are introduced to radio host Steve Jaxon for the first time, they often notice something interesting. Having listened to Jaxon on one of the many radio programs he’s hosted over the last four decades—the last seven of those years spent as the award-winning host of The Drive on KSRO 103.5-FM and 1350-AM they tend to make the same observation when finally meeting Jaxon face-to-face: Wow! You don’t look like your voice sounds.

“Yeah, I get that one all the time,” laughs Jaxon, his recognizably deep-toned rumble rolling out like boulders bouncing off a snare drum. “People love to tell me, ‘You don’t look anything like your voice!’ Some people think I’m younger than I am. Maybe they picture me thinner.

“A lot of people think I’m African American,” he adds, grinning. “Paul Mercurio, the writer for The Daily Show, has been doing The Drive as a frequent call-in guest for years, calling in from New York—and for a long time he just assumed that I was a black guy. I love it! Let people have whatever pictures of me they want. That’s part of the fun of radio.

“It happens in our ears, with the sound of what you’re hearing, but it also happens in our minds and imaginations. You picture these people behind the mic, talking to each other, and what you don’t know, your mind fills in for you. That’s got to be good for you. Listening to the radio probably delays Alzheimer’s.

“And I wouldn’t be a bit surprised,” Jaxon shrugs, “if that turned out to be true.”

It’s classic Jaxon. In less time than it takes most people to form a single thought, he’s covered the sound of his own voice, analyzed the necessity of imagination while listening to the radio, and even suggested a cure for Alzheimer’s. Over coffee this morning, he’ll more than once demonstrate this multidirectional skill, launching an array of verbal excursions into conversational territories hitherto uncharted, the kind his listening audience and on-air guests are generally, and always happily, a little bit unprepared for.

“I cracked up Jimmy Carter live on the air once,” Jaxon proudly admits. “I’m able to do that, but I’m not sure how. I don’t pre-think anything, I just start talking. And what comes out of my mouth, comes out. Even when I’m talking to big-shot people, discussing very serious subjects, I’ll still throw something in that makes them laugh.

“It’s fun,” he continues. “That’s what my show is supposed to be. For the guest, for the listeners, and for me, it’s just a lot of fun—even where we’re talking about subjects that are not all that fun, like Ebola. Somehow, when the mood is right, I can actually make Ebola seem almost amusing.”

Taking a global epidemic and turning it into something we can all laugh at—that’s just part of what’s makes Jaxon one of the most popular and beloved radio voices in Sonoma County, and what has turned The Drive with Steve Jaxon into one of the most listened-to prime-time radio programs in the Bay Area.

The show—usually featuring a dozen or so guests discussing as many separate topics—is a hard-to-describe but highly entertaining mishmash, a blend of local news, celebrity and newsmaker interviews, live musical performances, food and drink segments, standup comics doing their thing from around the country, wacky improvisational comedy, and the occasional diversion into such bizarro topics as Batboy, alien abduction and the secret addictions of Santa Claus.

A slightly wacky thread of eccentricity and WTF giddiness runs through the show. Longtime listeners have come to expect certain things: regular reports from the country’s strangest website, The Weekly World News; Jaxon teasing producer Mike DeWald on the air about his sex life and his passion for playing ice hockey; a tendency to nominate regulars to the Drive Hall of Fame, something most baffled recipients say they’d never dreamt of.

And then there’s the food. Not only do local restaurateurs come on frequently with samples of their best dishes, inspiring Jaxon to offer improvisational poetry when describing each flavorful offering. Once a week, the award-winning “Wine Wednesday” segment brings in winemakers from all over the region to swirl and sip and engage in in-depth conversation on what separates good wines from great wines. On Thursdays, he does the same thing with beer, unleashing a segment called “Brew Haha.”

And holding it all together is Jaxon. Somehow, he always manages to sound amiable and engaged while also seeming a tad surly, a bit cantankerous and always stunningly candid.

‘The Steve Jaxon you hear on the air is the real Steve Jaxon,” says DeWald, who produces the show and juggles the numerous incoming calls and studio guests with the grace and ease of a circus acrobat. Even while simultaneously answering a call, sending an email and slipping messages to Jaxon, DeWald pays attention to the crazy things coming from his star’s seat by the studio window. As big a Steve Jaxon fan as anyone listening at home or in their car, DeWald—from 3pm to 6pm every weekday—can almost always be seen smiling at whatever just happened, if not doubled over in fits of laughter.

“There’s no filter, no act with Steve,” he says. “Whatever’s happening in his life at the time, positive or negative, is reflected on the air. I think there is a rawness and realness to that, and it resonates with people. It builds trust with the audience and makes them feel like they are part of the family.”

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Growing up in Lansing, Mich., where his earliest dreams were to become a jazz or rock ‘n’ roll drummer, Jaxon (his pre-radio name was Steve Vicario) was encouraged by his parents to consider a possible fallback job.

It was an option he had never seriously considered.

“When I was 13, I told my mom and dad I wanted to play music for the rest of my life, and skip things like getting a job,” he recalls. “I loved music. Through my dad, I’d even developed a love for Frank Sinatra, and I played the single of ‘Witchcraft’ so many times my dad kept having to replace the record. I learned to play the drums, and I wanted to play music. That was all I wanted to do. My dad eventually convinced me that I didn’t want to end up some 35-year-old drummer, with a wife and two kids, playing in some second-rate band in a broken-down bar somewhere. That possibility really hit home.

“I realized that my dreams of playing with Eric Clapton were maybe a little beyond the realm of possibility, but I didn’t know what else to do. Playing music was all I cared about. My dad said, ‘Listen. You’ve got a great voice and a great personality! You should check out radio.'”

“I’d never thought about that,” Jaxon says. “We did listen to the radio all the time. And I admired the DJs I heard on the air. They were like heroes to me. I mentioned to one of my teachers that my dad suggested I get into radio, and she said, ‘Oh yeah. You’ve got a spectacular voice.'”

Just like that, at the age of 13, Jaxon knew what he would do with his life. He’d play music whenever possible, for fun, and as for making a living, he would find a way to use the sound of his voice.

“You use what you have, right? Well, at 13, my voice was the best thing I had going for me.”

As it so happened, Jaxon’s dad played golf with a man who had connections to a local radio station in Lansing. One thing led to another, and in 1972, while still a teenager, Jaxon was hired as a radio reporter for WITF, filing pieces about the Lansing City Hall, the board of supervisors and the like. He still has vivid memories of walking up to local politicians, his hair down to his waist, asking them for a quote. Hanging out with cigar-smoking, hard-drinking newsmen, he had to fight hard to be accepted as a legitimate journalist, and if it hadn’t been for the news director’s staunch support, he might have given in to pressure to clean up and get a haircut.

“The news director was hardcore about no one telling anyone else how to live,” Jaxon says. “He threatened to quit if the owner made me cut my hair. He was a great guy. I loved him. I learned a lot from that experience. But through it all, I was still basically a music guy.”

After a series of jobs at stations around the country, Jaxon eventually became a disc jockey on a major country rock station in Austin, Texas, in 1975.

“I stayed in Austin for five years,” he says, “had the time of my life. But for years I’d been thinking I wanted to check out Northern California, and in 1980 I finally made the move.”

All this time, he continued to play in a series of bands—including one stint as a drummer for a blues band called the Bombay Pistons—steadily building his chops while earning a solid reputation as a guy who knew music—and people—like nobody else.

In the North Bay, after a brief stint at Prairie Sun Studios, all while touring hard with his band, Jaxon found himself hungering for the relative stability and calm of radio. He landed some overnight DJ gigs at KBRE, and in 1986, moved to KREO, launching a morning music and comedy show with Randy Wells.

The rest of the story is basically a list of major North Bay and San Francisco radio stations. Along the way, he created the show Swingin’ with Sinatra, for local jazz station KJZY, expressing his long hidden affection for Sinatra. That show, which he hosts, is now syndicated and heard all over the country, and still runs weekly on KJZY.

In the late ’80s he teamed up with Blair Hardman to create the Studio KAFE in conjunction with the new cable station KAFE. The project, which combined the best of FM radio with a live comedy and music venue, was such a crazy idea that Jaxon couldn’t resist. He accepted a job running the station and the cafe.

“It was a blast!” he says. “I was running a nightclub and a cable radio station. We had shows every night. It was crazy, and I loved every minute of it.”

About eight years ago KSRO was looking for a replacement for David Glass, who’d been hosting the afternoon drive-time show, but had decided to leave the job to run for mayor of Petaluma. Glass’ producer was DeWald, working his first gig as producer of a major radio show. Jaxon, who by then was doing news reports on KSRO, pitched a new idea for a radio show to take over the afternoon slot. Described as a variety show for the airwaves, the station took a shot, and The Drive with Steve Jaxon, with DeWald as producer, was born on Aug. 8, 2008.

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‘Variety is the key to [The Drive],” says Jaxon. “Variety, as in lots of different things all crammed into one three-hour program. If someone would have come up with this idea and put it on paper, or tried to explain it to someone on radio 20 years ago, no one would have gotten it. Even today, they’d say you can’t pull that off, not every day. It’s too much work. Even DeWald can’t figure out how we pull it off, and I don’t have a clue. Every day, those three hours are so intense. It’s a huge workout, because we’re talking to about 12 guests in three hours, each on a different topic. It’s incredibly taxing.”

One of the key elements that sets The Drive apart from other radio talk shows is that Jaxon makes sure not to let the balance tip toward any one focus. Few other shows would put an interview with the local fire department chief in between segments about a popular new bartender and an interview with Jimmy Carter. You never know what you’re going to get when you tune into The Drive.

Past guests have included Colin Powell, Rob and Carl Reiner, Jerry Brown, Uma Thurman, Ryan Reynolds, Gavin Newsom, Phil Donahue, Lewis Black, John Oliver, Daniel Ellsberg, Larry the Cable Guy and many others, including fairly regular appearances by local heroes from Food Channel guru Guy Fieri to Pearls Before Swine cartoonist Stephan Pastis.

By any measure, that level of star power is impressive.

“Mike somehow gets them on the show, and I keep them coming back,” says Jaxon. “Our whole trip is that the show is live from the heart of wine country, with a huge signal that can be heard across the North Bay and into San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley. We’re huge in the East Bay. When we get someone big on the air, they have a good time, and they always say, ‘Call anytime.’ And we do.”

With The Drive ending up on so many famous folks’ radars, it was only a matter of time before Jaxon’s work became noticed outside the Bay Area. For the last few years, “Wine Wednesday” has been annually nominated for a Taste Award. Known in the broadcast industry as “the Tasties,” the award honors outstanding achievement in the world of lifestyle journalism, radio, web and television shows focusing on food, fashion and home.

Last year, “Wine Wednesday” was once again nominated for Best Critic or Review Series. This time, it won. The awards were held in Hollywood, and the Drive staff and supporters all attended.

“It was great,” says Jaxon. “They played this cool video about The Drive and ‘Wine Wednesday.’ I got up, and I spoke a little too long, probably, but everyone ahead of us was so boring I decided to just liven things up a little. I couldn’t help it. I got the crowd going. It was a blast!”

The day after the event, Jaxon says, he “stalked Al Pacino. That was one of my goals, since I was there in Hollywood and I know his address. My son Nick has got shots of me outside Al Pacino’s gate. ‘Hi Al. It’s Steve. I’m here for lunch!’

“He didn’t come out or anything, which would have been cool, but at least I didn’t get arrested.”

Al Pacino, as it so happens, is one of the people on Jaxon’s current “bucket list” of guests he’d most like to have on the show. The list also includes Hillary and Bill Clinton.

“I think we’ll get Hillary this year, or maybe next. I think Bill is totally getable. And Pacino—that would be so cool. And it could happen. Hey, I know where he lives.”

Though Jaxon is currently enjoying the success his years of hard work and perseverance have brought him, he’s the first to point out the various setbacks and disappointments he’s also encountered, including a couple of marriages that ended, a number of health-related problems and the occasional radio gig that ended unhappily. True to form, Jaxon even spins the setbacks in a positive way.

“My ex-wife Cathy is still one of my best friends,” he says. “And even when marriages don’t work out, there’s always something good that comes from it, if you let yourself go there. My son Nick, for example. He’s the best thing that ever happened to me.”

That son, Nick Vicario, is a member of the alternative rock band the Wild Ones, based in Portland, Ore. The band has toured the world and is rapidly rising in popularity. Jaxon proudly points out that his son is now living the successful musician’s life he once dreamed for himself.

As for those bumps on the road, one major one occurred a few yeas back, when the previous owners of KSRO briefly canceled The Drive, replacing it with a non-local syndicated talk show. The public outcry was enormous.

Jaxon didn’t wait long before coming up with a way back on the air. He pitched the station the idea that instead of working for them, he’d buy the airspace and pay for it through sponsors and advertisers landed by his hardworking team, which includes ex-wife Cathy, the executive director of Vicario Productions. Within a few weeks, The Drive with Steve Jaxon was back on the air.

It was a major moment for Jaxon, and for the show itself.

“I noticed a huge change in perception during the period that Steve was off the air and then got the show back,” says DeWald. “After that, we started getting this almost underdog mentality from listeners, a collective feeling of ‘us against the world’ that has kind of stuck ever since. I can’t really explain it, but Steve losing the show and getting it back just seemed to strike this universal chord that everyone could root for.”

In early 2013, KSRO and its affiliate stations were acquired by Sonoma Media Group, and a new contract was drawn up, with Jaxon once again assured of a space on the air for a long time to come. Though the station, under general manager Michael O’Shea, was largely turned over to an all-conservative format, the unapologetically liberal Jaxon remains as the station’s afternoon anchor.

“Michael O’Shea is a genius,” says Jaxon. “He totally gets what it is we’re doing with The Drive. He understands the uniqueness of the show.”

At 62, the veteran radioman is as excited as ever.

“I told Mike the other day,” laughs Jaxon, “I should really quit smoking, because I want to do this another 20 years. I call this my retirement gig. I’ve been in radio for over 40 years, and this is the dream gig of my entire career. I’m having more fun than I’ve ever had in my life, and let me tell you, I’ve had a lot of fun.”

Jaxon isn’t kidding when he says he wants to keep doing The Drive until the day he dies.

“I really do hope I croak on the air,” he grins. “In about 20 years, when I’m 81 or 82, I’ll be doing the show one afternoon, and I’ll say, ‘This is Steve Jaxon, and we’ll be right ba— Auuugh!‘ And that’ll be it.

“I really hope that’s how I go,” says Jaxon. “I’d love that.”

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