The Wahkiakum County Eagle - Established as The Skamokawa Eagle in 1891

By Diana Zimmerman
Wah. Co. Eagle 

Love of music leads to radio programming


Jim Roberts and his wife, Sally, haven’t lived in Wahkiakum County all that long, but they love the place and particularly the local music so much that Jim promotes it on the radio.

Roberts is almost 71 and a self-professed independent cuss. He grew up in Clark County, graduated from high school and joined the Marine Corps that same year, but was out before Vietnam.

“I just rattled around for a while,” Roberts said. “I kind of dropped out. I had a lot of odd jobs and some were odder than others.”

One day he passed a nursing home that was hiring. Knowing he liked older people he took a chance and walked in and applied to be a nurse’s aid. On the first day, he was told to give a woman a bath. He wheeled her into the bathroom, rolled up his sleeves and got her into the tub.

“I was young,” Roberts said, “and strong enough.”

It wasn’t long before he realized that the other workers were watching. He bathed and dressed the woman and then got called to the office.

“You are the first person to be able to get that woman into a bath without a struggle,” he was told. It was the first inkling that he’d found a calling.

A few years passed and at 37, he decided to go back to school and get a degree in nursing.

In 1988, he met Sally. They moved to Honolulu for what he called a “working honeymoon.” It was a beautiful place to be, but it was so expensive that despite working all the time, they could never get ahead or buy a house.

“We moved to Anchorage, which seems counterintuitive,” he said, “but it was actually cheaper than Hawaii. And there were seasons. Granted one of them is winter and that goes on for about seven months. I got really tired of shoveling snow.”

He worked at Providence Alaska Medical Center for 19 years, first as a float nurse and spent the final three years of his career as a telephone triage nurse.

It was during their time in Alaska that he picked up the harmonica. He’s been playing for a little over 10 years now, practicing on his own or jamming with others. He owns seven harmonicas, also called harps.

“I listen to music,” he thought. “Why don’t I make it too?”

Eventually he retired and they headed back to SW Washington to be closer to family. They have four kids and several grandkids. They all live in the Vancouver area.

It was the harmonica that helped him make his first connection in Cathlamet.

“I went to the farmer’s market,” Roberts said, “and here were these guys I didn’t know playing on the stage. I went up to talk to them and one of them told me it was an open mic. I came back the next week with my harmonica.”

He found the same group playing again the next week. He asked one of the musicians for the key they were playing in and joined them on stage, standing next to the man he now knows as Jerry Ledtke. When Ledtke stepped back, Roberts stepped in.

You are the only guy I know who will jump up on a stage, not knowing anyone and just go for it, Ledtke told him later.

“Once a marine,” Roberts laughed, “always a marine.”

Roberts met other local musicians and became enamored with the local music scene.

He never watches TV and he won’t listen to commercial radio. They had a TV in Hawaii, but only because it came with the place.

Sally asked him once if they could watch "Murder, She Wrote" on Sundays, so they would turn the TV, which usually faced the wall and acted as a kind of shelf, for the hour and then return it to its original position.

"I’ve always loved radio," he said. However, if he can only find commercial stations, he would prefer to listen to the birds.

“I don’t like the repetitiveness,” he said, “or people telling me what they think I need. I’m 71 almost. I know what I want. I know what I need, I know where to get both those things. I’ve also come to the conclusion that you pretty much get what you need though you don’t always get what you want. Like that Rolling Stones tune.”

It was while looking for a radio station that he first heard the shipping report. That’s when the two started listening to KMUN, Coast Community Radio out of Astoria. And one year at Farmstock he recognized a voice or two, and started to put faces to names.

He became curious about Wayne Downey, who is the host of a program called "In the Mood" on Tuesday afternoons

“He has the most unique voice I’ve ever heard on the radio,” Roberts said.

So on a whim, Roberts rode his Harley Davidson down to the station in Astoria just to see what Downey looked like.

He started calling in. One day he requested the Everly Brothers and told the DJ a little story.

“I was Marine Corps boot camp with the Everly brothers in the summer of 1961,” he said. “I didn’t know them, but they were in the platoon next to us and we knew they were there. I remember hearing them harmonizing down by the dumpster one day. They got in trouble and were doing pushups for like forever after that.”

Sadly, the powers that be didn’t want to boost morale in the boot camp. They wanted obedience.

On a Monday afternoon during a KMUN blues program, the DJ announced that a new programmer class was set to begin if anyone was interested.

“I was on the line before he was off the mic,” Roberts said. He was accepted in the program with five other people and joined them for five Wednesday classes from 4-5:30 p.m. At the end of the session, he had to make a demo. He got the job.

“Being in radio in some degree does the same thing to the heart as being a bedside nurse did,” Roberts said. “I’m giving people things that make them feel good.”

Like his nursing job, he works as a sub, though he has had a show every other Saturday night for the last three months.

“It’s all volunteer,” he said. “It costs me money. But I love it. It’s really fun. I have people in Germany listening to me. All over the world. I play all our own music that we’ve collected over the years. The station has a phenomenal amount of music available. But I fancy that I’m sharing what Sally and I have.”

He likes folk, blues, rock.

“One night on the ‘Saturday Night Party,' which I call ‘Tripping with Jimmy and the 420 Club,' I played some killer rock n’ roll. I got three phone calls, three of which were from programmers. One was on a fishing boat on the east coast. Two called to tell me they were canning and that the music was great for canning. And then I got a call from some guy that said, ‘$$%#@ing A, dude, $$%#@ing A!’ and hung up.”

Roberts laughed.

“I think my favorite part of it is featuring our local musicians,” he said. “Kyleen Austin. Jerry Ledtke. Bruce Satterlund, His mom’s stuff. Layton Elliott. That’s what community radio is for.

“There is a lot of good music in this little community. Wahkiakum County is the musical center of the universe.”

He will continue volunteering at KMUN for as long as he can.

“I’m forever pushing KMUN,” Roberts said.


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