One Love

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Posted November 19, 2009 in Feature Story

Housed in the Thatcher Music Building at Pomona College in Claremont is the headquarters for one of the Inland Empire’s most popular college radio stations, KSPC 88.7FM. Situated towards the leftmost edge of the radio dial, the station’s showcased a vast array of music artists and styles over its half-century stay on Southern California’s airwaves.

 

Sharing in this responsibility is reggae radio DJ, event MC, print journalist, former community organizer and live concert promoter Junor Francis, whose weekly program, the matter-of-factly dubbed “Reggae Connection,” has been showcasing some of the most important Jamaican musical exports without fail for over two decades. And those who have crossed paths with the genre genius will vouch that reggae connections via Francis have definitely been made.

 

The Jamaica-born Francis, a Pomona resident since the late ’80s, is a Pitzer College political science graduate and also a fifty-something ambassador of all that’s reggae in the region. And his trademark style on the airwaves at KSPC (full disclosure: the author was a DJ at the station)—and at several other stations throughout Southern California—has given the area a vastly positive feel of the Caribbean nation’s melodies.

 

STRICTLY ROOTS

Francis has invested and devoted much of his life to his love for reggae music and the radio. It’s an affair that launched as a child growing up in the Jamaican countryside. He says that, back then, the qualifications and standards to become a radio DJ in Jamaica were rather lofty. For starters, the DJ had to meet certain competency standards and be certified for broadcasting. 

 

“You’d be surprised to know how professional the radio stations were,” Francis recalls with a smile, sipping on some hot tea at a café in the Claremont Village. “Practically everything I know about radio I learned in Jamaica, just listening to the DJs. There were only two stations—JBC and RJR—one was government run and one was private. People would really scrutinize you if you weren’t good.”

 

Part of the Jamaican radio listening experience included the 15-minute spot, which was often paid for by record labels to promote their latest releases. “In that 15-minute spot the DJ had to feature all the songs that came out that week,” says Francis. “So they’d go like a minute-and-a-half, and then into the next song, and into the next song.”

 

Listening to the “Reggae Connection” (which airs every Monday from 6PM to 8PM on KSPC), one will encounter a similar style—sans the record label payments—via quick cuts in and out of songs, never failing to air music at all times. His commanding, enthusiastic voice—rapid, eloquent and beautifully accented—cuts through the speakers with ebullient ease; you can almost see him smiling. And Francis’ “no dead air” policy, adopted from radio programs back home, is in full effect, ramming single after single together in solid, bass-driven blasts. “At the radio stations [in Jamaica], it’s like this is their 15 minutes and you have all these songs you have to fit in,” he explains. “You had to be ready.” 

 

THE KSPC YEARS BEGIN

Francis has been ready—for decades. After leaving Jamaica, Francis’ first stop was in New York, where he lived for 13 years and became involved in community organizing. His brother opened a record store in Brooklyn around 1981, and while managing the store, Francis’ was able to meet a number of prominent reggae artists.

 

A friend convinced him to move to California, urging him to enroll in school. Francis landed in Los Angeles first, then made it to the Inland Empire on the advice of another friend, who had told him that he had more radio opportunities out east. Francis moved to Pomona and eventually signed up at Mount San Antonio College’s broadcasting program in 1986. A short time later, he connected with the staff at KSPC, and by 1988, was on the air.

 

“I remember specifically that I told them I came from New York to be on the radio,” he recalls. “And if you want to go back further, I came from Jamaica to be on the radio. And they said, ‘Junor, you have a show.’”

 

Reggae wasn’t the only thing Francis hosted on the air. In fact, his academic prowess of politics found him well suited as the host of a public affairs show on KSPC for over 10 years. And Francis knew that heading such a show would be advantageous to a career broadcasting music. 

 

“I thought that by doing a public affairs show it would help to sharpen my skills when I have to interview artists,” he says. “Everything in life I used to become a good DJ—there would never be a need for me to think of the next question.”

 

“IT WAS UNBELIEVABLE”

The early ’90s found Francis testing the commercial radio waves. Through the concept of brokered time, where DJs could purchase blocks of time from radio stations to broadcast their shows, Francis took his first shot, joining mainstream radio via KMAX with his show, “The Reggae Connection Part 2.” Despite having to pay for airtime, Francis notes that he was still able to produce a show to his liking. “I think it’s a myth that there’s no freedom on commercial radio,” he says. “When I did KMAX, even though it’s a music show, I played whatever because I brokered the time. I was able to play what I wanted.” 

 

His next show, dubbed “3 O’Clock Reggae,” on Orange County-based KWIZ 96.7FM, eventually was broadcast five evenings a week. “We did live broadcasts from just about everywhere,” Francis recalls. “We didn’t have enough businesses that would sustain it. I remember when we did several shows at Tower Records, we had Burning Spear who came in, we had Yellowman, we had The Wailing Souls, and people came in from all over. It was unbelievable. We would interview them and it was really exciting.”

 

Francis also co-hosted a show on Hot 92 called “The Sound Lab” with Chris Loos. But the excitement of college radio again boiled about nine years ago when Francis caught wind of a reggae DJ who was vacating his position. This time it was at Loyola Marymount University’s KXLU, an influential station for Los Angeles proper. “I came home that night and I couldn’t sleep,” he recalls. “I said, ‘I want your show.’ And he said, ‘You’re the right man.’”

 

Francis’ time with commercial radio was comparatively brief, but he’s since maintained his hold on college radio at both KXLU and KSPC. (His slot at KXLU is currently being occupied by friends, as he’s been recently working evening shifts with his day job.) And it’s his electrifying, consistent performance behind the mic that has kept him in demand.

 

“I have had many wonderful experiences working with Junor, through his show and his involvement with station events—but some of my fondest experiences with Junor have been seeing him in the DJ booth dancing up a storm,” says Erica Tyron, Pomona College’s director of College Radio and Television. “He has a wonderful warm laugh and has a lot of fun with his show.”

 

HELPING THE BREDREN

Aside from working tirelessly on the airwaves, Francis has also placed his reggae knowledge and talent into print media, contributing to various publications, including Reggae Nucleus and Talawah. He’s also ubiquitous for MCing scores of reggae and ska events throughout the region, including several large festivals. And for Jamaican artists who don’t have booking agents, Francis often acts as the American liaison, making rounds of phone calls to assist in setting up shows.

 

In fact, Francis has also been involved in show promotion himself, stemming from his days in New York City. His first attempt was a comedy and music show, which yielded about a dozen ticket buyers. Such a turnout would’ve dissuaded most from continuing, but Francis soldiered on, promoting more events after moving to Southern California. In 1989, he threw his first local show on a weekday night in Montebello featuring Riverside-based ska legends The Skeletones. “I was relatively new to town, it was like my third or fourth year,” he recalls. “I didn’t know what I was doing.”

 

Francis certainly has more of a clue nowadays, and has since brought artists from Jamaica to local stages for two reasons: to expose American audiences to their music and to help these musicians sustain themselves as performers.

 

“A lot of artists in Jamaica can’t pay their rent or light bills or cell phones,” he says. “A lot of them want to come and perform, especially in L.A., so desperately.”

 

One of his most successful bookings was a gig with The Melodians, a band he had been listening to his whole life. But shortly thereafter, successful live reggae shows became hard to come by, with many just breaking even, if not money losers. Still, Francis sees the glass half full, noting that it’s something that he always wanted to do. He simply chalks it all up to a learning experience.

 

REGGAE 24/7

Francis says that other promoters have had recent local successes with live reggae shows, including a massive Barrington Levy show at Stinger’s in San Bernardino and a local Eek-A-Mouse show that, in his estimation, came close to the Levy gig. Still, he’s quick to admit that the Inland Empire’s a tough market for most Jamaican musical jewels. But that won’t dissuade him from his belief working for the music in which he so strongly believes.

 

“When I came to California at first, I realized that I had inherited something from perhaps my dad and on my mother’s side, my grandmother,” he says. “They were workaholics. So, I realized that I could go to school full-time, work full-time and be on the radio full-time. I would go to work energized without sleep and be just as energized as other people.” 

 

Or perhaps, even more energized—especially when it comes to reggae. In fact, others have taken notice of the zeal and fervor that Francis holds for the music genre.

 

“Based on the response that his show receives from listeners, I think that Junor’s contribution has been significant—not only to local reggae/ska scene, but he has often MCed events and worked with students here on the Claremont campuses,” says Tyron. “His continuous presence on the radio and at local shows certainly fosters enthusiasm for the scene, as his passion for the music is apparent and infectious.”

 

“Junor MCs many ska shows, and I remember him walking back and forth across the stage, sorta like a preacher in church, engaging the crowd, and spreading the good word of Jamaican music to introduce the legend Alton Ellis, along with his son,” recalls SP Radio One producer and music promoter Tazy Phyllipz. “It was very awesome and inspiring.”

 

And as for Francis’ inspiration, he needn’t look any further than the nearest reggae gig. “When I want to go out, I go to a reggae show,” he says. “So, my life is kind of a reggae life. I’m a fanatic.”

 

To make a reggae connection, go to www.myspace.com/junorfrancis.


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