By Zach Dugdale
As I drove towards the Salt Lake City International Airport, which is neighbors with the KRCL 90.9 FM station, Devon Russell’s song “Jah Will See” blasted through my car’s speakers. The sound of Reggae music is what I have come accustomed to hearing on Saturday afternoon at 4 o’clock after discovering the radio show Smile Jamaica many years ago. Almost every Saturday from 4 to 6 o’clock, I listen to the Jamaican roots reggae and mutant dub spun by Robert Nelson, the host of Smile Jamaica. Driving down the freeway at 75 miles per hour, it became very surreal to me that I was on my way to interview the very deejay who plays music that brings joy to not only me, but hundreds of others who tune in to the show.
Robert and I had exchanged multiple emails after I approached him about an interview. He had seemed excited about the idea, and I, being a huge fan of the show, was even more so. I pulled into the back parking lot of the studio, and Robert let me in the back door while Rita Marley’s “The Beauty of God’s Plan” played for all of those fortunate enough to be listening to 90.9 FM. Robert greeted me with a warm smile and a firm handshake, and then led me into the studio.
In the studio, piled around the multiple turn-tables, CD and cassette players, and microphones were hundreds of vinyl and CD recordings of reggae and dub music. Robert is one of the very few radio deejays who only uses CDs, vinyl records, and cassette tapes to play all of the music on his show, claiming that the enriched personal musical experience is well worth the extra work. As he hurriedly readied the CD containing the next track he was going to play, Robert told me of his vast collection of reggae music, which includes about 20,000 records and CDs. His collection comes mostly from Southern California and Las Vegas, and is constantly growing.
Growing up in a small town in Montana, Robert was not exposed to reggae until he moved to Salt Lake City in 1986 to attend the University of Utah, from which he received a degree in Middle Eastern Studies. After moving to Salt Lake, he heard Smile Jamaica on his radio and has been captivated by reggae since. He first became involved at KRCL by volunteering to be an early morning host of a reggae program, and when Jon, the deejay of Smile Jamaica previous to Robert, left, he asked Robert if he would like to take over the show.
Robert continued to tell me about the history of the show while everything from Bunny Wailer to Peter Tosh played in the background. Originally called Dreadlock Holiday after an old rock song, the show has been playing on KRCL since 1980, and was originally at 1 o’clock on Saturdays, but moved to the time slot it keeps today around 1990. The first deejay of the show was a woman named Margie, who was succeeded by Myron, then followed by John, who finally gave Robert control of the show in 1986 . Since then, Robert has not only been the volunteer deejay of Smile Jamaica, but has previously hosted Radio Active, a left wing politics talk show, and is a Librarian at the University of Utah’s Marriott Library doing sound editing and managing the Digital Scholarship Lab’s audio studio.
Robert concluded the interview by speaking about the changing role of broadcast in the face of digital media. I asked Robert his thoughts on how technological advances such as the internet have influenced broadcast, to which he responded, “It’s helped me because I’ve made it a focus of branching out the show…Here’s a way to get your show out there.” Although Robert does not use any streaming or digital music services to play his show, he records all of his shows and uploads them, commercial free and with a playlist, to the internet. By utilizing digital media to further the station’s reach, Robert has helped people from all over the world, even as far as Japan, listen to his signature “all killer, no filler” Reggae music show. Robert loves to share his music collection with all who will listen, and through his utilization of the internet to help the show grow, he continues to spread positivity and good music.