Lesley James

Local alternative radio station CD102.5 has long been the cred feather in the city’s cap.

In fact, every time some smartmouth hipster who failed to successfully move to Portland is bending my ear about their amazing public transportation or organic mothballs or the proliferation of those little bicycle-messenger hats they have out there, all I have to do is turn on the radio.

“Yeah, awesome. I’m glad Portland’s got fair-trade blowflies. We’ve got independent radio. Suck it.”

And while alternative radio isn’t for every listener, it kind of is. If it weren’t for the hard work done at the old Swiss Chalet on S Front St., if it weren’t for the manic hours and the broken ice cream trucks and the stolen lawnmowers, then radio across the country would suffer.

That’s right: if you didn’t have somebody actually listening to new music and finding new bands, then all you would get to hear from Clear Channel and the other big boys on the dial would be the hottest new hip-hop/country/killmyself hybrid. Some of the most popular recent acts in the country, from Pete Yorn to Fitz and the Tantrums, might have made it without CD102.5…maybe.

They could also have ended up mere farts in the whirlwind.

Not that it’s been all Jeni’s Splendid and roses for the station. A perennial underdog, the station has gone through a lot in the last years, from changing the location of station to the devastating loss of programming director, alternative godfather, and king of the good-times John “Andyman” Davis, who died unexpectedly in 2010. Picking up both the pieces and the reins, DJ Lesley James took on Andyman’s yoke after his passing. Now, nearly four years later, James has found her groove in the endless backbeat of alternative radio.

Lesley…Lesley…LESLEY! What are we going to talk about, Lesley?
What do you want to talk about? It’s been an incredible year for all of us here at CD102.5! We can talk about my tattoos, my love for dogs, my identical twin sister…

(Sensing my surprise at the revelation of her twin, James smiled broadly and sang out, “Whaaaaat?!” You didn’t know I had an identical twin sister, did you?,” obviously pleased with herself.)

You have an identical twin sister?
I have an identical twin sister. I’m six minutes older, and she lives in London, England.

James recounted that a childhood friend used to liken her sister to Posh Spice (of Spice Girls fame), while Lesley herself was more of a “Sporty” Spice.

The Spice Girls, eh.
I was never a fan. No.

So your sister’s in England. Spice Girls. Depeche Mode, Oasis, Joy Division, New Order…you seem to have a real boner for English rock.
(Protests) Aw! I love the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, from New York City; I love Arcade Fire. But yeah, I’m drawn to British rock.

I want you to answer the next few questions in a British accent, then.
Oh, gosh.

Long story short: no British accent happened. She struggled with the task for a few minutes, eyes wide as she hunted around in her brain for whatever a British accent sounds like, eventually giving up. Doesn’t matter anyway; this interview’s in print. Pointless exercise, really.

I can’t do the accent. If my sister’s around, it might come out.

Summerfest really blew up this year.
It really expanded, didn’t it? It was our biggest station show ev-ver. It really blossomed. We were working on the lineup with our amazing partner, Promowest…and as we were pulling in acts, they came to us and said ‘Hey, we think we can really blow this one up. What are you thoughts are expanding to 10,000?’ From 5,200 to 10,000 attendees…so yeah, we went for it 100 percent, and that’s when we decided to seek out – we always have local bands, you know, but this time we were like, let’s make it more festival-like, then. Let’s bring in some comedians, let’s bring in Columbus’ most popular and legendary drag queen, Nina West. And believe it or not, it all came together pretty darn fast.

How much more work is 10,000 people than 5,200?
For us, we’re all already working, especially the promotion team, [CD102.5 Marketing Manager] Kara [Jones] has 20-plus interns on board all the time, and we’re all putting in 12-hour days leading up to the event and then, on the day of, 14 to 16 hours, you know, making sure things run smooth. My number one priority was to get the DJs on stage and make sure the live remotes were going smoothly. It’s a well-oiled machine here, you know. Yeah, we expanded, we doubled capacity, but it’s always a team effort and we come together and this one really ran pretty smooth.

And a lot of it has to do with our partners at Promowest, because they’re pros at it. We team up really, really well.

You came from the old Brewery District office and now made the move to the new location on S Front St. How has the new location impacted the way the station runs?
We’re a small company. We are a family; everybody knows each other’s business. You’ve been around this building: sales is right outside my door. Programming, I can hear what Brian Phillips is playing right now. Being in this building has brought us even closer together because in the [old location] – don’t get me wrong, it was a gorgeous space, just incredible, but programming was shoved in a corner, sales was upstairs. We were all kind of scattered throughout the building, so we didn’t connect as much as we have since moving into this place. I really feel like this place has brought us all together, and we’re stronger because of it.

What’s next?
We’re always looking ahead. Right now, I’m working on CD102.5 Day, making sure that we’ve got the best upcoming talent on the bill. That’s what I’m working on right now, besides the annual countdowns and the January air stuff schedule. That’s my number one priority, to make sure that we put on one of the best shows for our fans.

What about you, personally?
I haven’t even thought about it, to be honest. Work’s a big part of my life. Oh I know what I’d like to do! I’d like to finish my other sleeve.

Rolling up her sleeves, she proudly displays a right arm resplendent with the ink artistry of local tattoo legend Durb Morrison, depictions of records, jukeboxes, turntables, microphones, and the other paraphernalia of a music-crazed DJ. Her left has the beginnings of a full sleeve, that one depicting landmarks from her favorite cities.

Another project for Durb?
No, it’s a ‘her’! Her name is Muriel Zao, she’s based out of Phoenix, Arizona, and she comes here for the Hell City Tattoo Festival, but she recently had a baby and didn’t come out this last year, so it looks like I’m going to have to go out there and see her. I was thinking maybe a February trip, when it’s really cold here…landmarks, yeah! I’ve got Big Ben started here – surprise, right? – and the Golden Gate Bridge, I love San Fran…Buckingham Fountain from Chicago. I’m there every summer for Lollapalooza. It’s one of my favorite cities here in the States.

As programming director, you’re largely in charge of finding bands for us to listen to…but there’s SO MUCH music out there now. How do you even go about it? Is it some weird alchemy? How do you find the bands that you are playing for us?
It takes a lot of research. I stumble across websites, lots of music blogs, a lot of word-of-mouth. More so than ever before we’ve really involved our listeners. Don’t get me wrong, Andyman did that quite a bit, too, but I’ve really opened the door; I think our listeners play a key role in that.

You seem like a prospector wading a deep stream with a pan, hoping that something coming down that immense current is a big ol’ nugget of gold.
You know, a perfect example is Fitz and the Tantrums a few years ago. There was nothing like them on the radio. We took a chance on them, the single turned out to be a massive, massive hit, and they headlined our CD101.1 Day show. And now look at them! They’re playing arenas, they’re playing with Bruno Mars, they’re coming back here and selling out shows, they’re everywhere. It’s exciting!

I’ll tell you what, discovering new music is awesome. This year more so than in previous years, there’ve been a couple of hidden gems that we’ve found and we’ve put on air immediately. Jagwar Ma? Watch. 2014. I think it’s going to happen. Wild Cub, who just played our holiday show last week…Nashville-based quintet; the buzz surrounding them is key, getting really big…

I paused for a second, thinking about my next question, when suddenly James leaned in, eyes bright. She shook her fists in the air, rocking out and smiling. “It’s exciting!” she howls in a stage whisper, clearly excited. She looked like how I feel when, sitting at a red light, a favorite song comes on.

What’s it like when you hear a new band and know that they’re going to be awesome?
With Jagwar Mar, it’s like the Stone Roses meets Happy Mondays, and we’re like, ‘we’ve got to get this band, there’s nothing else like it on radio right now!’ You’ve got to go with your gut. I don’t want to have any regrets.

After Andyman passed, you picked up the reins. You’ve been doing it for a while now. How is your style as Programming Director different than his?
We’ve introduced a new music show, Sundays at 8:00 p.m., which is an hour of nothing other than new music that we’re considering adding to the playlist. We turn it over to our fans for feedback. Then, on Wednesday, we bring in one of those gems – we like to call it “diamond in the rough” – and we play it not once, not twice, not three times, but four times, hitting every important part of the day, and then we look for even more feedback. And I tell you, the feedback we’ve received this year alone on Lorde’s “Royals,” and, more recently, Phantogram’s “Fallen Love,” was so beyond positive that it was added to the playlist immediately. Immediately.

And let’s talk local music for a second. Obviously, Andyman was my mentor. I worked side-by-side with him for close to three years, so I learned a lot from him. He loved the local scene, and he also broke a lot of bands nationwide, and as his successor, that’s what I’m trying to do, too. But local music, the scene is so strong that I have dedicated not one but two new music slots to local bands. So, currently, in rotation, The Wet Darlings and Angela Perley and the Howling Moons are on the playlist. We’ve always done that Frontstage feature with Tom Butler at 9:00, where we feature two in a row from a local band. I thought it was extremely important that we branch out and showcase these artists throughout all major parts of the day. You can hear The Wet Darlings “Used To Be Better” at 3:00 a.m., you can hear it on your drive to work, you can hear it on your lunch break, your drive home. Local artists play all our shows, too. The scene is great.

You’re a very recognizable figure around here. Do you have a hard time coping with being Lesley James, Public Figure? Or do you even notice it?
I get nervous when I interview bands…I still get nervous going out on stage! The way I look at it, the day I don’t get nervous any more is the day I don’t care.

You have a lot of energy. It comes across strong on the radio; it’s apparent whenever I talk to you in person. I know your workweeks are insane, lots of hours, but you just seem indefatigable. Where does it come from? How do you maintain that level of output?
I think the “high energy” part of me comes from my passion. I’m a music fanatic. You know honestly, that’s where my passion was and still is. I am living a dream. I’m very, very lucky, and very, very thankful. I love the music we play on this station. I love our listeners.

What’s the secret to success?
I think it’s just that passion; that drive is key. You know, I’m passionate about music, and I know that’s helped. You’ve got to be driven. I don’t have any secrets, really…just passion and drive. I work with so many good people, and I love to come to work. I love my job. I never wake up and just want to stay in. I want to come to work! I love it!

Lesley James invites you to not only listen, but also to interact with the station and the songs you hear on air. So, if you’ve got a tip, send a link to your favorite about-to-be-discovered artist to Lesley@cd1025.com. And don’t forget to get your tickets early when CD102.5 Day is announced in March.