Bill Bowker, Sculptor of the Sonoma County Sound, Signs Off

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Bill Bowker looks confidently into the camera.
Bill Bowker sits in his office at the studios of KRSH-FM, Nov. 22, 2021. After over 50 years on the air, the Sonoma County DJ will retire from full-time radio on Dec. 15, his 78th birthday. (Gabe Meline/KQED)

The studio phone doesn’t ring much anymore at The Krush. Here in the radio station’s small room, Bill Bowker tells me, it’s a quiet, solitary job, especially since texting took over calling as the preferred form of communication, and even more so since the pandemic.

But on Nov. 10, the studio phone lines suddenly lit up. Bowker, who has been a constant presence on the radio in Sonoma County since 1979, announced on the air that he was retiring from KRSH-FM and leaving the full-time airwaves after a 52-year-career. The calls came in for the rest of his afternoon shift. They continued for days afterward. Weeks afterward. They’re still coming in.

“So yeah, people tell me I’m gonna miss doing it,” Bill says to me on a recent visit to KRSH’s studio, with shelves of CDs behind him and a collection of signed photos on the wall nearby. “And I still feel conflicted about it. But it’s just time.”

Bowker and Pinetop, wearing a purple suit, share an embrace.
Bill Bowker and Pinetop Perkins at the Sonoma County Blues Festival, an annual fair tradition for 30 years. (Courtesy Bill Bowker)

When Bowker signs off for the last time on Dec. 15, his 78th birthday, he’ll do so as the current longest-running full-time radio DJ in the county. During his remarkable 42-year run here, which started after a decade spent in Los Angeles, he’s not only become one of the most recognizable voices in Sonoma County—he’s also been the godfather and number-one champion of what one could justifiably call the Sonoma County sound.

Roots music, Americana, folk, blues, country rock: it practically floats in the air of Sonoma County, from winery events on the hill to street-level block parties. Touring singer-songwriters and blues musicians regularly bypass San Francisco and come straight to Santa Rosa, Sebastopol or Petaluma. And it’s been Bowker who’s interviewed them, and played, promoted, discussed, and given airtime to their music for over four decades.

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Now, in the KRSH studio, as he back-announces a block of songs from Townes Van Zandt, Fred Eaglesmith and Emmylou Harris, telling an anecdote or offering some analysis about each artist, it strikes me that Sonoma County radio without Bill Bowker is going to be very strange. Here he is in a tiny room on the outskirts of town, doing his job alone, for thousands and yet nobody at the same time. His world might not change much. But ours will.

A young Bill Bowker sits in a radio booth, cigarette in hand.
In his early days in Ventura, Bill Bowker regularly finished his 6pm-midnight shift at KUDU, then went next door to begin another shift at KBBY, playing freeform radio in the middle of the night. (Ron West/Courtesy Bill Bowker)

‘That’s What Music Should Do’

As a teenager in late-1950s New Jersey, Bowker tuned into a local station late one night, and heard a song that would change his life: “Evil,” by Howlin’ Wolf.

“It scared me,” Bowker says. “And I thought to myself, ‘That’s what music should do.’”

A love affair with the blues was born. Well before the British Invasion reintroduced America to its overlooked Black blues musicians, Bowker absorbed as much of their music he could find on the radio and in record stores, recognizing its dignity and importance and committing himself to promoting it. “I hear music that I like,” Bowker says, “and I immediately go, ‘If I could in any way help them, I would.”

He took a chance and wrote to one of his favorite radio personalities, Al “Jazzbo” Collins, and asked for advice on getting into radio. Collins wrote back, and said to start by getting his broadcasting license.

So, after being drafted and stationed in Germany in the mid-’60s, Bowker enrolled at an L.A. broadcasting school on the G.I. Bill. On Aug. 15, 1969, the same day that Woodstock kicked off in upstate New York and cemented a countercultural revolution, Bowker clocked in for his first-ever radio shift at KUDU, a country station in Ventura, playing old Bob Wills and Patsy Cline songs from 6pm to midnight.

A man and a woman embrace in a photo in a wooden frame next to a boombox.
A framed photo of Bill and Lavonna Bowker sits in Bill's office at KRSH-FM. (Gabe Meline/KQED)

After he took a second shift starting at midnight playing freeform radio (under the handle “Bill Phoxx”) for KBBY, the station next door, he met a young traffic announcer named Lavonna. She kept setting him up on dates with her friends. He had other plans.

“At one point he told me I was gonna marry him someday,” Lavonna tells me, “and I thought he was out of his mind.” The two eventually got married at the Santa Barbara Courthouse; they celebrate their 50th anniversary next June.

But the radio business is rocky. Bowker himself bounced around from station to station, and despite the Hollywood thrill of running into Frank Zappa or Farrah Fawcett around workplaces like KWST in Los Angeles, the young couple wanted to settle down somewhere. Raising their young daughter, and craving an escape from L.A.’s smog, they got a call about an opportunity in Santa Rosa: a small station run out of a shack on Farmers Lane called KVRE.

A miniature billboard with Bill Bowker's image sits on a bookshelf.
A 'Bill' board advertising Bowker's afternoon show on KVRE-FM. (Gabe Meline/KQED)

With its eclectic playlists and even more eclectic DJs like Scott Kinzey, Bob Sala, Daisy, Dick Thyne and Scott Murray, KVRE was “where the rules were meant to be broken,” Bowker says. It was a perfect fit for his “Blues With Bowker” program, which shared air time with the Grateful Dead, David Lindley, Los Lobos and whatever B-side oddities its DJs happened to be obsessed with on any given week. Like KFOG to longtime San Franciscans, or KPIG south of the Bay, the station still holds a special place in locals’ hearts.

“We were lucky. All the people at KVRE, we had a vision, and we did it for years together,” Bowker says. “That doesn’t happen too often.”

A photo of SMith and Bowker on the walls at the KRSH studios.
Doug Smith and Bill Bowker met in the late 1980s and promoted live music in Sonoma County for 14 years together. (Gabe Meline/KQED)

A Constellation of Live Music

Another thing that doesn’t happen too often is meeting a musical soulmate. Bowker found his in Doug Smith, a lover of live music who first came across Bowker at the cable-station-slash-nightclub Studio KAFE, one of Bowker’s short-lived gigs after KVRE was sold in 1988. Together, they started Smith & Bowker Productions, booking and promoting shows all over the county for the next 14 years.

For a representative sampling of their reach, look no further than the trail left by Blasters guitarist and solo songwriter Dave Alvin (who says of Bowker that “the good people of Sonoma County couldn’t have asked for a better, more passionate or hipper guide through the worlds of blues and roots music”). With Smith & Bowker’s promotion, Alvin’s played at the El Rancho Tropicana hotel, the Cotati Cabaret, the Studio KAFE, Cafe This, the Powerhouse, the Inn of the Beginning, and—the only one still open—the Mystic Theatre.

Smith also assisted Bowker with the Sonoma County Blues Festival, which for 30 years at the Sonoma County Fair boasted headliners like Junior Kimbrough, R.L. Burnside, Pinetop Perkins, Joe Louis Walker, W.C. Clark and Shuggie Otis. Not to mention Bowker’s annual “Evolution of the Blues” concerts at Santa Rosa Junior College, the “Full Moon Blues” series at Mark West Vineyards in Forestville, and the “Almost Blues Cruise” aboard a large paddleboat, the Petaluma Queen.

Tragically, Smith died in a motorcycle crash in 2005. A photo of the two still hangs in the KRSH studio. “Doug was a wonderful human being,” Bowker says. “I haven't talked about him in a while, hold on,” excusing himself, his voice choking up.

“He really cared about music,” Bowker adds. “We didn't have the same taste, but we complemented each other well. And we became really close friends.”

At these shows, Bowker often took the stage to introduce the acts, and honored his original teenage impulse to help those who made the music he loved. Lynn Newton, who worked the Sonoma County Blues Festival as well as later Bowker productions like Earlefest, is one who’s had a front-row seat to Bowker’s first-class treatment of musicians, both big and small.

“He’s such a champion of musicians who are starting out. It’s really something to watch—he fosters people so beautifully,” Newton says. “He makes people feel like, ‘Wow, I can really do this!’ It’s uncanny, his ability to do that.”

A file cabinet covered in stickers from musicians and radio stations.
The file cabinet in Bill Bowker's office at KRSH-FM. A listener campaign to restore KVRE to the air resulted in a bumper-sticker blitz—as well as the short-lived station KRVE. (Gabe Meline/KQED)

‘Everyone Can Relate to Him’

After KVRE, Bowker hopped around—a short-lived AM resurrection of KVRE called KRVE, the work at Studio KAFE—until KRSH came calling in 1994. Several KVRE alumni joined him, and his casual but informed personality has been a staple at the station ever since.

As Doug Jayne, a DJ on KRCB in Rohnert Park, says, “The thing about Bill is, everybody loves him, and it’s not like he’s Mr. Slick, he’s just your average dude. He encouraged me, and told me, ‘You don’t have to go to radio broadcasting school and learn to talk like a professional announcer to be on the radio.’ He’s an everyman. Everyone can relate to him.”

Jayne opened the area’s longest-running record store, the Last Record Store, in 1983, after stumbling across KVRE's broad, sophisticated programming. “I can honestly say that hearing Bill on KVRE in the early 1980s helped me decide to open a record store in Santa Rosa,” he says.

Two men stand with arms around each other's shoulders.
Bill Bowker cracks a smile with with country icon Billy Joe Shaver. (Courtesy Bill Bowker)

Another longtime DJ on the local radio waves is Steve Jaxon, who started as a part-timer under Bowker at KVRE in 1982. “Bill’s a wonderful guy who has worked so hard over the years, perfecting not only his work, but so much that he’s given to the area on the radio,” Jaxon says. “He’s one of my favorite people on the planet.”

Andre DeChannes, program director at KRSH, often assisted Bowker with the station’s long-running backyard concerts—free outdoor shows in the grassy area behind the old-time railroad train cars where the station makes its headquarters. DeChannes says that in an industry that’s often competitive, Bowker gave him nothing but support after they met.

“We became fast friends, and he’s been my mentor all this time, and there was never this ‘You’re after my job’ kind of feeling that a lot of people in radio can have,” DeChannes says.

DeChannes has continued the KRSH tradition of allowing Bowker complete control over what he plays on his show. It’s also his job now to rehire for Bill’s position at The Krush, and he admits it will be hard.

“He’s just a great guy,” DeChannes says, “and I don’t know how we’re gonna fill his shoes.”

Wearinga brown shirt, Bill Bowker sits at a microphone with shelves of CDs and equipment in the background.
Bill Bowker broadcasts from the KRSH studios, Nov. 22, 2021. (Gabe Meline/KQED)

Honesty and Perseverance

In a corner of the Bowker home is Bill’s den, decorated with gold record awards from Howlin’ Wolf and B.B King, handwritten lyrics by Lucinda Williams, and dozens of photos of him with folk and blues luminaries, including close friends Charlie Musselwhite and Doyle Bramhall II.

It’s a testament to a career that might not be fully over just yet.

“It’s not like I’m going to leave music,” Bowker tells me, reclining in a chair at his house. He’s talking with local booking dynamo Shelia Groves, his co-conspirator on Earlefest, about promoting more live shows. And he’ll continue his streaming radio show on XRDS, an internet radio station in Clarksdale, Mississippi, the site of Robert Johnson’s famous “crossroads” and the home of the delta blues. His friend Musselwhite recently moved to Clarksdale, and he has numerous connections to the city. “But family’s here,” he says, brushing aside suggestions that he would ever leave Sonoma County.

A man in a suit and fedora shakes hands with Musselwhite, in shades and slicked-back hair.
Homesick James, Bill Bowker and close friend Charlie Musselwhite share a moment in this undated photo. (Courtesy Bill Bowker)

Since his announcement, Bowker’s been more reflective on his drive-time radio show. He’ll reminisce about old friends like Kate Wolf, the late, esteemed folksinger who also had a show on KVRE, or Audrey Auld, whose music is still a staple on his show six years after her death from cancer. He’s allowed himself “heartbreak sets”—blocks of slow, sad songs, which his program directors have always discouraged playing.

“But why not? Maybe it’s just that kind of day, and you need it,” Bowker says, before giving a mini-mission statement about his five decades in music.

“I like great songwriters. I like that honesty. And that’s what the blues is. It’s just honest music. When music is made expressly for the idea of hit radio, or to sell something, it doesn’t intrigue me. And I still feel that way, after all these years.”

It’s for that reason that Bowker’s dedication, passion and perseverance have affected so many. And while the comments online keep piling up, the tributes in local media pour in and the phone at the KRSH studio keeps ringing, Bowker feels grateful for it all.

“I’m amazed, the amount of people whose lives I’ve touched,” he says. “It does my heart good.”

Sponsored

Bill Bowker broadcasts his final show on KRSH on Wednesday, Dec. 15, at Hopmonk Tavern in Sebastopol. The party runs 4-7pm, and is free and open to the public. Details here.