In episode two of Bent By Nature, co-producer Bob Carlson explores the life of influential and enigmatic DJ Deirdre O’Donoghue behind the mic. Born in New York City and DJing across the country before landing at KCRW, O’Donoghue didn’t talk much about her past or private life — even in the face of personal demons, and eventually, her deteriorating health. But O’Donoghue’s fierce passion for music manifested in close friendships with those who came through her studio and beyond, from artists like Michael Stipe and Julian Cope, to record store owners, to young station volunteers she nurtured and mentored. Even amidst a kind of self-appointed solitude, O’Donoghue devoted herself to those she chose to let in, coming to the aid of artists in dire straits and offering solace within her record-filled apartment alongside a cup of tea and her cherished pet birds.
Her presence could, and did, change lives. On this episode, some of O’Donoghue’s closest friends, including Concrete Blonde’s Johnette Napolitano, Tricia Halloran, and the late Pat Fish of the Jazz Butcher, reflect on O’Donoghue’s life away from the studio and the many stories they shared.
“I’ll bail you out.”
“No one knows this, it’s a little known fact, but Deirdre bailed me outta jail,” says Concrete Blonde’s Jonhnette Napolitano. In 1987, following a show at Santa Monica’s Texas Records, a barefoot and slip-clad Napolitano made a wrong turn on a one-way street and was immediately pulled over. She didn’t have her license or insurance, so she was arrested, and her Oldsmobile Cutlass was towed. O’Donoghue, who attended the show, saw the musician being hauled away.
“I have $200 in a jar in the refrigerator at home,” she said. “I’ll bail you out.” And so, she did.
“Who was the last one in the room with a jar of cash? That is your friend, my friend,” Napolitano says. “And we were very good friends after that.”
O’Donoghue forged a personal connection with the musicians who played on “SNAP!” by making the interviews informal and intimate. “There’s that wonderful sense of wallowing… it’s like being in a bathtub of hot chocolate, you know?” she once mused on air during an interview. “It feels kind of good, but it’s going to be sticky, the odd negative side of love: the heartbreak. I won’t be your dog, but I’m still deeply in love with you.”
“[Deirdre] thought like a songwriter. She saw things like a songwriter, and she phrased things like a songwriter,” says Napolitano. “I had never been aware … of how vulnerable I was in my writing. It was embarrassing, really. But I think that is probably what she did understand and hear, because that's what connects with people when you're naked … And that's why I think that she approached me from a self care kind of place, like a warm blanket.”
That connectedness allowed O’Donoghue to become friends with many musicians, from the most underground unknowns to luminaries like Elizabeth Fraser of the Cocteau Twins and Michael Stipe of R.E.M.
“She just became best friends with all of them,” recalls her close friend and former KCRW DJ Tricia Halloran, who began as a volunteer on SNAP! answering listeners’ phone calls.
Off the air, O’Donoghue helped many musicians during their darkest times. “I was going through some fairly extreme, not just making my own life of misery, but making everybody else's life a misery. I was having a little episode,” recalls the late Pat Fish of The Jazz Butcher. “[We] started talking on the phone, Deirdre and me, and she was a little rock. She really, really helped my brain.”
But she also made friends with non-musicians. Michael Meister, who co-owned Texas Records in Santa Monica, became a huge influence on O’Donoghue’s musical taste. “We became truly good great friends over this love of music,” Meister says.
Bob Carlson, then a young recording engineer on “SNAP!,” remembers O’Donoghue’s respect for the work he did — and her sly nurturing touches. “I was such a nerd, straight-arrow at the time that Deirdre gave me a persona, to lend me an air of dangerous mystery: ‘Bob Carlson of Carlson Chemical Industries,’” he recalls.
“I enjoy the solitude.”
Within her small circle of close friends, O’Donoghue didn’t talk much about her past. Every once in a while, she would let her feelings slip on the air.
“Well there’s that difference between loneliness and solitude. I mean, I think there are times when you really feel alone. I enjoy the solitude. This is a philosophy, this is a way of life,” she confided to Brian Wilson during a 1988 interview.
Not much is known about her private life. In an email, her sister Teri shared that Deirdre was born in New York City and was the oldest of eight children. She went to Catholic school and then attended Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, graduating in 1968 with a degree in microbiology. She then became a DJ and worked in radio in Boston, Detroit, Dallas, and Pasadena, until former KCRW Music Director Tom Schnabel offered her a show on the station called “Saturday Night's A Party,” which O’Donoghue alternately called “Saturday Night Avant Pop.”
Eventually called simply “SNAP!,” the show ran for nine years on KCRW, from 1982 until 1991. During that time, Deirdre inspired listeners, but also impacted the lives of those working with her. “She gave me advice on how to negotiate and how to ask for things and how to be a creative person and still make a living for yourself in a man's world,” recalls Halloran, now a music supervisor, who was quite literally pushed into the DJ chair when O’Donoghue asked her to take over the show one night while she stepped out.
“I had been working with her for a while. I don't even think I thought I could be a DJ,” Halloran says. “She ... put the headphones on [me] and turned the mic on. That was my first time on the air. It definitely changed my entire life.” Halloran would go on to host her own DJ show on KCRW, “Brave New World,” for 15 years.
But by the early ‘90s, O’Donoghue had weathered on and off battles with her KCRW bosses. At the same time, she began to develop health problems. She was convinced there was something in KCRW’s basement studios, which were undergoing construction at the time, that was making her sick. She asked if she could do her show from home but was denied, so she quit.
After KCRW, O’Donoghue hosted a derivative version of “SNAP!” called “SNAP Judgements” on San Diego’s commercial station, 91x, and continued to do a weekend version of her other show, “Breakfast with the Beatles” on a Los Angeles commercial radio station, a job which had paid most of her bills even while she was at KCRW.
In the following years of her life, O’Donoghue spent time with a community of close friends in Ireland and England. “She was in a bad place, it was as though she knew that LA was killing her. It was physically killing her,” recalls singer, historian, and writer Julian Cope. “It was very clear that she should escape.” At one point, O’Donoghue lived with Cope at his estate in the ancient village of Yeatsbury.
She eventually came back to her apartment in Santa Monica, where her health continued to deteriorate and she withdrew from many of her friends. Deirdre O’donoghue died on January 21, 2001. The cause of her death was never disclosed.
“[Deirdre] was a great friend, great friend, and I just miss having that kind of love around me,” says artist Lawrence Bogle, one of her closest friends from London. “I was very honored to have known her.”
“[Deirdre] lived music 24 seven. It was such a huge part of her life, and it showed me that could be my life too,” Halloran says.
In the next eight episodes of Bent By Nature, Halloran takes the helm as host to tell many other stories in the musical universe around “SNAP!” and O’Donoghue, including long-unheard cuts from the live performance archives of the show. Stay tuned for more episodes and digital exclusives from the archives at the Bent By Nature website.