DJ has personality as big as his voice

Posted: Sunday, February 29, 2004

It's happened to you. It's happened to all of us. The alarm clock shocks you awake at 6:30 a.m. with the sound of your favorite radio station. It's always a little too loud. Bleary-eyed, you fight the urge to hit the snooze bar a third or fourth time. But you're eventually roused by the preternaturally resonant, booming and obscenely cheery chatter of someone who could stand in as the voice of the Almighty. It's a morning drive time disc jockey, and he's there to get you out of bed and on the road to work. In broadcast lingo, that guy's got one heckuva set of pipes.

Enter Jimmy "J.R." Kitchens, whose pipes rustle up the country music lovers of the central Kenai Peninsula every weekday morning from 6 to 10 a.m. on KWHQ in Kenai. Or, as he bellows a dozen or three times every morning, "The Best of the New and the Gold, Big-Q Country, 100.1 FM!" Only louder than that.

"I love getting people going in the morning. They may hate me for it, but I love to be upbeat, and I love playing the music that gets them going," Kitchens said in an interview at the WHQ studio on Kalifornsky Beach Road last week.

Save for part-time volunteers at public radio, Kitchens is the only live disc jockey in the central peninsula, and perhaps on all of the Kenai Peninsula. Of course, there are other live announcers, such as the wake-up duo of Steve Holloway and coach Dan Gensel on WHQ's sister station KSRM, but Kitchens is the only one spinning the hits in the a.m.

Known for his on-the-edge sense of humor, Kitchens is at first a tough character to read. He jokes and joshes so much it's hard to tell when he's being serious. A co-worker has developed a technique to get serious with him, which is necessary when talking to him about producing advertisements. She touches her nose and has him do the same. That way she's confident he's listening to her and being serious. Well, as serious as he can get.

"He's one of the main reasons I like coming to work," said Kathy Berriochoa, a sales associate with the radio group. "I stick my head in his office, and he sets my mood for the day. I listen to him every morning."

Kitchens is a homegrown talent, coming to Alaska in 1957 at the age of 7 and to Soldotna in '61.

His love of country music came to him honestly. His father and mother loved it, and little J.R. was exposed to it at home and in the family businesses growing up. His slightly southern accent and down-home colloquialisms come from another environment. Not from his Arkansas-raised father, who he said didn't have an accent, but from the Texas roughnecks flooding the state in the early oil days.

Kitchens attended school in Soldotna, but at 16 quit and joined the Navy at the height of the Vietnam War in 1967. After a stint as a small craft bosun's mate in San Diego, he was transferred to the aircraft carrier Coral Sea, stationed in the South China Sea, where he spent much of his time below deck. Working for a time watching over eight huge, hot boilers, he made the mistake of getting some ice from the officer's ice machine and was sent to the galley for three months.

"Enlisted men didn't get ice," he explained.

His three years, nine months and 27 days (not that he counted them), in the Navy wasn't all bad. His chief played guitar and found out Kitchens could, too.

"Often the squad chief would order me out of the deep sink and we'd grab our guitars and play for hours in the squad HQ," he laughed.

 

Photo by Jay Barrett

Once discharged, some friends from the peninsula met him in California and the three drove a 1966 Chevy Bel Air 2,500 miles up the West Coast and the Alaska Highway in the dead of winter.

"The trip was uneventful until we got to the old bridge at the Hope cut-off. I can still see us riding that guardrail all the way around," Kitchens said with a nervous laugh.

After returning home, he started in the oil patch, roughnecking in the Swanson River Field and on the Cook Inlet platforms Shell A and C, Dolly Varden and Texaco A.

"I was spinning chain, pulling slips, working with drill pipe. It was 12 years of hard work."

He also spent three years working on an onshore rig in Bakersfield, Calif.

Upon returning home from there, he became a partner in Peninsula Four-by-Four with his father and mother, Bill and Mary Kitchens, and his brother Willy.

The company was a full-service gas station, sold tires and parts, but specialized in work on four-wheel-drive trucks, installing lift kits and accessories.

"My brother was more of a maestro than a mere mechanic," Kitchens said. "He could make anything run real pretty."

In the meantime, Bill Kitchens started Alaska Oil Field Mechanical Maintenance Services, which J.R. and his brother soon joined. The company provided crane operators, welders, meter technicians, roustabouts, bull cooks and all other manner of oil field workers. Most of their work was with Shell Western Exploration and Production Inc. When the recession of 1986 continued for too long, Kitchens retired from the company in 1990 after serving as the general manager and then the safety officer.

"We had an excellent safety record," he said. "We had zero loss-time accidents in five years."

While helping to run the family companies, Kitchens found the radio bug an commuted to Anchorage for the weekends to pull on-air shifts at KYAK starting in 1982.

"My worst experience was my very first second I ever went on the air," he said. "I turned on the mic like I was taught, but forgot to turn up its volume. So I just talked and talked while nothing went out over the air.

 

All disc jockeys are said to work for two radio stations, the one that pays them and KTNM, a broadcaster's acronym for "Keep The Needle Moving." Silence, or dead air, is an athema to an announcer. Kitchens keeps the needles on his control board at Big-Q Country jumping from 6 to 10 a.m. every weekday.

Photo by Jay Barrett

"The guy who was training me came in afterwards, laughing, and said, 'sometimes it helps to pot up (turn up) the mic.'"

Kitchens got the Nashville bug after winning the Alaska portion of the Wrangler Jeans Star Search for his singing.

"I lost my (behind) in Nashville, and it did hurt a bit, but it didn't kill my love for it," Kitchens said of his first Nashville experience.

"I could have felt bad, but you look at a glass and wonder if it's half full or half empty, and I'm just damn happy it's got water in it."

He went back two years later, and instead of losing big, he came in second.

"That time, I decided to be myself, to have fun while I was there. It was great," he said. "(Country music star) David Frizzel was one of the judges, and he said if he were permitted to judge me on personality, too, I would have won."

Kitchens moved to Nashville in 1990 and in two years, he appeared on several country talent shows, and even cohosted the Wrangler Star Search with Jim Ed Brown. Brown was lead singer in the group The Browns with his two sisters when they reached the number one spot in both the country and pop charts with "The Three Bells," in 1958.

During almost 10 years between Nashville and Arizona working at radio and television stations, he rubbed shoulders with a who's who of country music personalities, including Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Tom T. Hall, Reba McEntire, Sawyer Brown, Chris LeDoux, Ricky Skaggs, The Kendalls and Randy Travis.

"Chatting back stage with Randy Travis at the Flamingo Hilton in Laughlin, Nev., was the best time I've had in the business," Kitchens said. "We said hello and I figured he was busy, so I said I better move along, but he said, 'No, let's hang out and talk.' Everybody I met in country music was super."

Kitchens said in all those years mixing with the wild, rich and famous, the Nashville lifestyle was just starting to catch up to him around the time he turned 50. "It was just wearing me down," he said.

"I've been clean and sober for four years, and I feel great."

This is Kitchens' second year back at the KSRM radio group. The first year he did afternoon drive, "The Goin' Home Show."

 

J.R. Kitchens on stage at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tenn.

Photo courtesy of J.R. Kitchens

KSRM News Director Jim Heim jokes that it was his opening of his heart to Kitchens that brought him back from Arizona.

"When I had my open-heart surgery," Heim said, "we called him to come up and fill in on the news."

After doing that for a couple months, Kitchens went to afternoons on WHQ and then to morning drive a year ago.

That's when he convinced management that WHQ could do better in the ratings by switching from an all-hits format to a mainstream country mix, and with him going to mornings.

"We play more of a variety now, the best of the new and gold," he said.

He said the mix has "top 20 powerplays once every four hours, more recurrents, golds and silvers," which is more radio jargon for a current big hit played a dozen times a day, hits from within the last three to six months, classics and other good songs from the past.

He said the mainstream format appeals to a wider variety of listeners and keeps them listening longer. During the last ratings period, Kitchens said WHQ's only competition, KPEN, was ahead, but he expects the next "book" to show a closing gap.

"I am hearing my station on in more and more stores and offices," he said. "And I'm always asking folks what they have on the radio and telling them about WHQ."

 

A pair of outlaws, Kitchens with Willie Nelson back in the '80s. He won't say what kind of trouble they got into together.

Photo courtesy of J.R. Kitchens

He points out that his is the only station with a live local DJ (others who sound live are often down-linked by satellite from the Lower 48), and that WHQ plays a broader mix of music all day long.

"This is a local station, with local concerns," Kitchens said. "I love my listeners.

"Somebody else may sign my paycheck, but I work for the audience."

"He really cares about his listeners," adds Berriochoa. "He's happy, crisp and dependable."

Kitchens said he welcomes requests and loves to take calls from his listeners, even first thing in the morning.

Local Spotlight is another feature of his "Shake 'em and Wake 'em Show." Every Friday at 9 a.m. he and co-host Mike Silba feature the music of Kenai Peninsula country musicians and often have them in the studio. Past guests have included the Spur Highway Spankers, Hobo Jim and Butch Leman.

"These people are great, and they deserve the air time," Kitchens said. "They work real hard."

Kitchens credits his wife, Jawana, for making him the happy guy he is today and for making his life easier. "They say behind every great man is a great woman, but I believe my great woman is in front of me, leading the way. Without her, I couldn't achieve anything."

The pair used to pull the morning drive shift together, until Jawana left the station last year. She still gets up before 5 a.m. with him and they sit and talk over a cup of coffee together before he hits the road from their Sterling home. Monday, the couple celebrated their second anniversary of eloping to Las Vegas.

"They were a great team in the mornings," Berriochoa said. "Jawana is a sweetie. She's my buddy."

Jawana handles their home audio production business, scheduling the spots he does every afternoon when he comes home and has started voicing spots herself. Thanks to the Internet, they can live near their families on the Kenai and do work for anybody, anywhere. The couple produces a number of spots for a production agency in Lake Havasu, Ariz., and advertising agencies and stations all across the western states.

Some of their clients include Dunlap Tires, Dairy Queen and other agencies in Texas and Idaho. They do more than 50 spots a month, charging up to a dollar a second for voice work. The rate goes up if they have to write the spot and mix it down with music.

 

Traffic Manager Amy Cutsforth and Tradio host Debbie Wells don't have to try hard to make Kitchens' laugh. The 53-year-old announcer has been described as the life of the party, with his jovial demeanor, despite having to be at work before 5:30 a.m.

Photo by Jay Barrett

"Sometimes I'm up late, but taking on a job like this, you can't just not do it," Kitchens said. "Whether you're feeling good or bad, you've got to get the job done."

That comes easy to Kitchens. The strong work ethic he picked up in the family businesses as a youth has stuck with him.

"You've always got to give the customer a little extra. It's like when I was pumping gas at Howard's Y Chevron as a kid you always wash the windows with a fill up. You always have to take pride in your work."

With all the professions Kitchens has tried, it's obvious that radio is his true love.

"I'd do it 100 hours a day if I could, but then my wife wouldn't feed me any more."

Jay Barrett is a freelance writer who lives in Kenai.



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