DJ “Jivin’” Johnny Etheredge. Photo by Bassett Studios

Radio, Radio

In the time of COVID-19, popular Eugene DJ keeps KRVM on the air

From quarantine, KRVM radio DJ “Jivin’” Johnny Etheredge has kept himself busy, producing off-site the majority of the community-supported radio station’s most popular programming since the COVID-19 shutdown. In operation since 1947, KRVM broadcasts at 91.9 FM from Sheldon High School in north Eugene.

Despite Oregon schools closing to all but essential personnel through the end of this school year, Etheredge is keeping the station on the air. Usually, about 50 volunteers cover KRVM’s early mornings, evenings, weekends and late nights. “All the sudden they’re not doing their shows,” Etheredge says. “I’ve been doing about 20-some odd hours every weekend.”

He isn’t hosting the shows live, the DJ explains, but instead, producing them in his home studio, going on-site once a week to slot them all into the station’s automated system. That includes shows like Breakfast with the Blues, Soul City, and The Beatles Hour, as well as two of Etheredge’s best-known shows, Country Classics and Son of Saturday Gold.

Once KRVM’s program director, Etheredge is semi-retired and is now the station’s underwriting representative and mentor for students, many of whom host their own shows on the channel. The station was once funded in part by Eugene School District 4J, but it is now completely self-sufficient, Etheredge says.

Etheredge, 68, speaks with a wide, central-Texas accent — a voice for radio, you could say. He was born in Waco before leaving Texas in high school to join his mother in Southern California. His earliest musical memories involve Elvis Presley, but The Beach Boys were the first group he really became obsessed with. Radio from the heyday of celebrity radio DJs like the late Wolfman Jack provided the soundtrack to his youth.

“I became enamored with twisting the dial late at night,” Etheredge recalls. “You could pick up stations you couldn’t pick up in the daytime,” out of places like Chicago and New Orleans. Stations playing rock ‘n’ roll and rhythm and blues and soul music, he says.

His radio shows, like much of KRVM’s programming, are a reminder of how radio was once a powerful cultural force, but also what’s been lost in an era of corporatized mainstream radio and music-picking algorithms.

“The stations made their own programming decisions and played what they thought their listeners wanted to hear,” Etheredge says, “and that varied from city to city.”

At that time, stations would publish top-30 playlists and, unlike now, they didn’t have to conform to some national norm.

“They’d play oddball records all the time,” Etheredge continues, adding this freedom not only made radio more interesting but also helped support local music scenes. “That’s what’s missing, that local flavor, that regional flavor is just not there anymore.”

Missing, but not completely gone. Etheredge remains dedicated to keep on the radio well-curated tributes to 20th-century pop music, from swing to bluegrass and country.

“I’m always thinking music,” Etheredge says, “and there’s always music at hand to play with, but now, especially, I’m having to scramble to get so much stuff on the air.”

With COVID-19 on their mind, Etheredge and his wife have been almost completely self-quarantined. Nevertheless, he feels safe going back to the school grounds to help keep KRVM running. As a media outlet, the station is allowed to remain in operation.

“Everyone is maintaining their distance from each other,” he says.