Bent By Nature - Ep. 1: This Is 'SNAP!'
Before Soundcloud and Bandcamp, there was Deirdre O'Donoghue and "SNAP!," the LA DJ and radio show that served as a waypoint for underground music, artists, and its fans — and helped shape the sound of independent and D.I.Y. culture today. In the first episode of "Bent By Nature," co-producer Bob Carlson introduces O’Donoghue and goes inside the community she cultivated, her passion for music, and the problems she had with KCRW’s management and staff. Featuring archival live performances by Camper Van Beethoven, the Meat Puppets, Glass Eye, Jazz Butcher, the Dream Syndicate, and more.
"She helped create the whole idea of live music on the radio."
From 1982 to 1991, DJ Deirdre O’Donoghue hosted KCRW's "SNAP!,"a freeform alternative and independent music and culture program in Los Angeles. Everything you’ll hear in this episode and on this podcast comes from O’Donoghue’s personal archive of hundreds of reel-to-reel tapes, DAT tapes, and hours and hours of tapes which are now over 30 years old. Most of it hasn’t been heard since it was originally broadcast on the airwaves of KCRW in the late 1980s. It’s a document of all the remarkable performances, interviews, and episodes of “SNAP!” that took place in KCRW’s performance studio.
At first, it’s overwhelming to look at so much sound and try to figure out what to do with it all. But after a while, the tapes start to tell a story ... and they create a portrait of the woman who created “SNAP!,” DJ Deirdre O’Donoghue.
That’s the story we’re telling over these first two episodes of this series. It’s Deirdre on and off the air. If you’ve never heard of the program, I want to introduce you to the world of “SNAP!” And if you were around to hear the show, get ready for some sonic déjà vu.
I have a personal connection to these tapes. These 30-year-old boxes literally have my handwriting on them with Sharpie. I recorded a lot of these shows during my earliest days at KCRW. I was the mix engineer in the studio for most of the “SNAP!” live performances in the late ‘80s.
Before that, I had very little experience as a music engineer, let alone mixing national bands live on the radio. But I was put into the “SNAP!” world, and I was part of the show.
In 1988, I had recently been hired as a production engineer at KCRW. Deirdre called me and asked if I could come in that night to mix a performance with two musicians. Her usual engineer was unavailable, and Deirdre didn’t care that I had literally never mixed live music before. She just said, “We’re gonna throw you into the deep end, Bob!”
The first time I ever met Deirdre was a few minutes before showtime. She walked down the steep cement stairs that led into KCRW’s basement studios with two canvas tote bags on each shoulder, filled to maximum with CDs and vinyl. And from that point forward, I recorded and mixed most of the SNAP live performances for the next three years, until “SNAP!” ended.
For a while, the show was a kind of center for alternative and independent music and culture in Los Angeles. But it was a pre-internet community, listening together at the same time. Whether alone at home or driving at night, everyone was drawn together by a big sister with impeccable taste.
“And that’s what she made you feel like,” says Annette Zilinskas, an LA-based musician who appeared on “SNAP!” with her band, The Ringling Sisters. “You’re entering her world, and she's going to take you on this journey with her music.”
"A big sister with impeccable taste"
“She was from that era where personality was part of the package,” recalls Robert Lloyd, a journalist and musician who appeared on “SNAP!” as a multi-instrumentalist backing Steve Wynn and John Wesley Harding.
Syd Straw, a vocalist and songwriter who appeared on “SNAP!” numerous times between 1986 and 1991, says: “If she loved your music, it was like she had a crush on it. I think that was part of her gift as a human and as a beloved DJ. Deirdre just … wow, she just put you right on her show!”
A regular part of SNAP! was the live performances that felt sincere and informal, and became memorable moments.
“I think she helped create the whole idea of live music on the radio, and this idea that music was a world of kindred spirits,” Lloyd says.
Bands would load into KCRW’s dingy basement performance studio and play long, meandering sets. R.E.M. played live on “SNAP!” in 1991, as did local LA favorites Downy Mildew.
“You come into town, and you would come to this place, and you would meet this interesting, semi-hippie-ish woman, and we'd have this kind of lovely experience in a very nice studio,” Lloyd continues. “It wasn't like you're just being hustled in and out with a bunch of people that didn't know your music or care about it. It was homey.”
Deirdre’s friends were the musicians. She held record companies at arm’s length, and didn’t let anyone tell her what to play on her show. She had battles with her bosses, and was fired and rehired at KCRW.
“Deirdre was feisty, and could be very hostile,” says Tom Schnabel, KCRW’s Music Director from 1979 to 1990 and original host of Morning Becomes Eclectic. “She wound up being very hostile to me.”
Johnette Napolitano was the lead singer and songwriter of LA’s Concrete Blonde, who appeared on “SNAP!” several times. “We would have a bottle of tequila under the console and we'd sit there and talk, and it was great,” she recalls.
The KCRW performance studio in 1988 was like a big basement rec-room with a piano in it. It had a low ceiling, carpet, cushions, and loose foam sound baffles that were always falling off the walls.
Tricia Halloran is the host of “Bent By Nature” and a music supervisor for film and TV. She hosted the tastemking indie show “Brave New World” on KCRW for 15 years and started her career as a volunteer on “SNAP!” in 1989.
“Her ‘SNAP!’ volunteer slots were highly coveted,” says Halloran. “I started on a Friday. I just went to train, and halfway through the night, [her volunteer] just turned to me and said, ‘I've been thinking of giving up the shift. I've been doing it for a while. Would you want to take it?’ It was like offering me the Golden Apple. And I said, ‘Yes, I would love to take it.’ And that's how I ended up doing Friday nights with Deirdre.”
If the KCRW studio was a rec room, Deirdre was the den mother, hosting the bands like they were old friends … which they usually were.
“Everything exciting in my life happened at that station at that time,” Halloran remembers. “There would be a band there, and I would get there before Deirdre. She would take a cab there. She never drove anywhere.”
“One of my best experiences down there was when she called me because Neil and Tim Finn were doing a show and she just said, ‘Come down to the studio,’” Lloyd adds. “I had done a Crowded House piece for SPIN before that, so Neil knew who I was. So I sat in the studio there as they played together. And that was pretty exciting. I mean, the stuff that came out of that show is just phenomenal. Just beautiful performances.”
The music that Deirdre played had a style that was recognizable, but hard to describe. “SNAP!” had bands that could rock, but there was a sincere embrace of poetic, vulnerable, emotional music. The kind of music that felt created by humans playing instruments, and not assembled in a computer.
There was an element of happiness in her being in her place in the studio, sometimes accompanied by her pet birds, and often offering guests tea. “It felt very much like [an] earlier world,” Lloyd says. “So she brought a little of that into this kind of more cynical group of punk rock, new wave, post-new-wave, post-punk people.”
Steve Wynn was the leader of LA’s Dream Syndicate and, later, a solo artist. He performed on “SNAP!” under both auspices.
“You might get everything from a pop-punk band to Irish folk music, but it all felt like it belonged together somehow,” Wynn says. “So you could listen to her entire show [and] you would not feel thrown about and jarred from one thing to another.”
“And it was creative and exciting and fun,” Halloran adds. “She would play something she knew you would like. And if she had something challenging, she would sandwich it in between two things that she knew you would like. So she tried to take people along step by step.”
“She liked music that was literary,” says Wynn. “[That] to some extent had some kind of intellectual heft to it. I think she wanted something that had some ambition.”
Brian Beattie was the co-founder of Austin, TX band Glass Eye, who appeared numerous times on “SNAP!” from 1987 to 1990.
“The way she was so empathetic, but so detail-oriented,” Beattie says. “What a pleasure to have her interviewing you. She [knew] everything about it, and she was so enthusiastic. My feeling was more like, ‘This is how it should be.’”
There were certain bands that Deirdre played and hosted who weren’t very well-known in the mainstream world ... but on “SNAP!,” they were superstars.
“A ‘SNAP!’ band was a band that was irresistible, and yet not in the public eye,” says Halloran.
Pat Fish, aka The Jazz Butcher, was a friend and frequent guest on “SNAP!”. He died in October 2021. This was his last interview.
“I have very, very clear memories of playing [on SNAP!],” Fish recalled. “Of course, when you enter a studio to play, what do you do? You put on headphones. And the next thing you know, this voice is coming down the headphones. This extraordinary voice. And it's coming down and is saying all these outrageously nice things about you … You're kind of hypnotized into an attitude of, ‘Well, we'd better make this good.’”
Rather than control the performances, Deirdre gave artists free rein to do whatever they wanted to. “She basically turned over the length of the show to us,” Wynn says. “She gave us that freedom.”
The most common criticism of Deidre was that she gushed too much.
“You know, she was a proselytizer,” Lloyd explains. “She just loved things, and she wanted to share them with people. And it had nothing to do with anything that was trending, necessarily.”
I was around Deirdre a lot during live performances, and it always felt like this was the best part of her day. It was her sanctuary. And it always seemed like she was in it for the music, and that she cared about the musicians, but not so much the music industry.
“She'd been in regular commercial radio. She had met these promo guys, and she knew what they smelled like. She knew what that was all about, and she knew that a lot of it was just insincere bullshit. People throwing money around and favors around,” says Lloyd. “And there were always a lot of people who felt like it was about them, people that worked at record companies that felt like they were the center of things. The musicians were just secondary to them. I met those people in my job. And I think she had radar for that.”
Growing pains and rising tensions
And sometimes Deirdre was at odds with her bosses at KCRW. Ruth Hirschman (later Seymour) was the Station Manager of KCRW at the time. But Ruth was also the person who put KCRW on the map, turning it from a low-powered college radio station to become one of the most well known radio stations in the world. (Full disclosure: she hired me!) Seymour was a boss that today we might call “old-school.”
“She could be either horribly nasty and demeaning, or she could be very maternal with people,” Schnabel says. “She had that side of her. When I had a health issue, kind of a bad one … she was just so loving with me. She was like a mother. She could also be Joseph Stalin if she felt like it. [Laughs] I don't mean that in a bad way. Ruth was a visionary, you know? She was amazing.”
Michael Meister co-founded the record store Texas Records and, later, Texas Hotel Records. He was a frequent guest and fill-in DJ on “SNAP!” and one of Deirdre’s closest confidants.
“Ruth tried to be Deirdre’s mother and guide her in a certain way that Deirdre didn't want to go,” he says. “And I think that kind of pissed off Ruth. But they had their battles going on.”
The first major battle was in October 1986, just after Deirdre had been chosen as a finalist for a New Music Award as best DJ of the year. Deirdre was fired, and “SNAP!” was taken off the air.
Seymour was asked to participate in this program, and she declined. But there is an LA Times story written at the time of the firing by writer Patrick Goldstein:
“It was a management decision which had nothing to do with Deirdre’s abilities as a music programmer,” said KCRW General Manager Ruth Hirschman. “We told Deirdre that when she put down a record that someone else here was playing, that it created bad feelings on the staff. Deirdre is an extremely talented person and she’s been a major contributor to the station. But she was there to play music, not review films or discuss the world situation.”
Meanwhile, in that LA Times article, Deirdre said that the only bad thing that she could think of was to give a bad review to a Peter Gabriel record.
Within a few months, Deirdre and SNAP! were back on the air. But there was sometimes an “us-vs.-them” feeling between Deirdre and KCRW’s music department.
Ariana Morgenstern was KCRW’s Assistant Music Director during Deirdre’s tenure. She is currently Executive Producer of Morning Becomes Eclectic.
“I think that Deirdre saw me as part of administration,” Morgenstern recalls. “I represented ‘the man’ to her, in some weird way.”
“SNAP!” was an outlier among the other KCRW music shows, which were mostly based around world music or jazz. But Deirdre had a huge and passionate fanbase on the radio. And she was influential.
“I think that one of the awards we got from CMJ — College Media Journal — was probably part, if not a great deal, because of her work,” says Schnabel. “‘Best Non-Commercial Station’ in the country, we got it twice. We got it in 1986. I picked it up at the Apollo Theater in New York City, and we got it again in 1990.”
KCRW would realize Deirdre’s big-ticket value to the station, but she was possessive about “SNAP!.” She felt that, since she wasn’t getting paid anything to do the show, she didn’t have to share her secret sauce. She didn’t want to give away her playlists — the handwritten lists of songs and artists she’d been playing on her show — and kept them close to her, only giving them out to her own personal mailing list of fans.
“[That] really bothered me, because those playlists were really important in terms of the music identity of the station and what we're doing,” Schnabel says. “And they were very progressive and modern. They balanced my world music, and they balanced [shows like] ‘Reggae Beat,’ ‘African Beat,’ Chuck Taggart’s ‘Gumbo Ya-Ya’ ... with this alternative pop.”
Deirdre’s resistance became a point of contention between the two of them.
“You have to turn in a playlist,” Schanbel says. “You do a daily program, it's really important. And she didn't want to do it.”
Deirdre was also protective of the tapes that were recorded on her show, and considered the physical tapes as part of her payment, an arrangement she seemed to have with the station. At the end of every interview and performance, she would make sure a cassette copy was given to the band. She made a cassette copy herself, and I handed her the reel-to-reel or DAT tape I made. Then she took them home to her Santa Monica apartment with her birds, and they didn’t come back to KCRW until over 30 years later.
Mystery off the mic
There’s a lot about Deidre that was mysterious. She was always hiding her face with her hair or a hat, and she didn’t like having her picture taken. It always felt like there was a lot going on in her head. And the “SNAP!” music, and the musicians who performed there, were her way of taking a break from all that.
“Being on the radio is a great way to express yourself, and to create a community if you don't want to actually be with a lot of people,” Lloyd says. “You're just a voice in a room, and you're creating a world. But you're not bound to be in it. You don't have to actually deal with a lot of people. You choose the people that you want to deal with, and then you deal with them.
In our second episode, we examine Deirdre's life away from the microphone. Then, later in the series, we’ll have deep dives into special sessions and moments from the “SNAP!” archives, plus interviews from Julian Cope and Michael Stipe, among many others.