Published March 12th, 2021 at 6:00 AM
He likes to call it his “little music show.”
Even so, Robert Moore’s “Sonic Spectrum,” a show as admirably accessible to the masses as it remains intensely personal to its creator/host, has spanned more than 19 years at three successive Kansas City radio stations, including the show’s latest incarnation from 6 to 8 p.m. Saturdays on listener-supported public station KTBG-FM, 90.9 The Bridge. (The Bridge is the radio operation of Kansas City PBS, parent of Flatland.)
Moore kicked off his show’s much anticipated Jan. 9 debut on the Bridge with the Ramones’ rollicking “Do You Remember Rock ’n’ Roll Radio?” Then came his mission statement to listeners, whether they were longstanding or brand new, older or younger, musically cultivated or merely curious about the adventurous amalgam of tunes that would be shared over the next two unpredictable hours.
“I am beyond thrilled to bring my show to the Bridge, a progressive and well-respected non-commercial radio station … ” Moore began, although his signature low-key delivery belied any excitement. “For those of you who haven’t heard ‘Sonic Spectrum’ before, the show started back in 2002 on a public radio station, then later moved to commercial alternative (radio) for many years — same name, but slightly different formats. The show will now return to its freeform roots, eventually adding interviews and in-studio performances. I hope you enjoy it. Okay, enough of me. Here’s David Bowie.”
Cue Bowie’s slyly cynical ode, “D.J.” (“I am a D.J., I am what I play/I’ve got believers/Believing in me”), which commenced Moore’s first-hour tribute to Bowie on the eve of the fifth anniversary of his death. In addition to tasty tracks by the Thin White Duke, there was a kaleidoscope of Bowie covers by Bauhaus, the Hot Rats, the Church, Warpaint and Black Box Recorder.
The show’s second-hour playlist explored numerous other styles and textures encompassing but not limited to rock, pop, folk, country, reggae, soul, jazz, punk and spoken word by way of the Replacements, Fever Ray, Althea & Donna, Bessie Jones & the Georgia Sea Island Singers, Lee Hazlewood, Sneaks, Issa Bagayogo, Gil Scott-Heron, Archers of Loaf and the Damned.
“I look at myself, basically, as a docent,” Moore, 54, told “KC Studio.” “I’m just presenting the art and, hopefully, you like it. My show is about the music, not the host, in my opinion.”
Despite Moore’s humble self-appraisal, the music on “Sonic Spectrum” neither curates itself nor offers the insightful commentary that the seasoned host routinely provides. To stay in the groove, Moore lends his ears to probably 100 new albums a week, even as he draws upon his substantial archive of 75,000 songs on computer, 5,000 compact discs and 2,000 vinyl records — all to make each show as much of an absorbing aural vision as he can.
“Some of the show is driven by new releases,” Moore said, “but a lot is driven by what I’m going through and my own emotions. If it’s a thematic show, I’ll delve into an artist or a year or a scene or a city.
“It actually takes quite a bit of time for me to come up with just two hours of music. I could spend three or four hours putting together one five-or-six-song set. Then, when I’m done, I’m bored with it and I throw it out and start over. It doesn’t pay to be an ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) host. I’ve never been really diagnosed, but, yes, I have it.”
Even as a young child growing up in Los Angeles, Moore was obsessed with music. At age 2, he was given his first two records: “Roger Miller’s Greatest Hits” and Gene Autry’s “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” He wore out both platters by age 3, and his parents supplied replacement copies.
“My dad influenced my taste quite a bit and made me appreciate not just the music of a song, but the lyrics, as well, especially the old honkytonk,” Moore recalled. “My mom was a Neil Diamond fanatic from day one and still is. So I lean towards the balladeer types. I love Nick Cave and the early Morrissey with the Smiths, and that appreciation definitely comes from my Mom’s love of crooners. And I also love jazz.”
A 16-year-old Moore tackled his first on-air moment in 1982 when he called into legendary L.A. alternative rock station KROQ-FM to gamely grill members of the English ska band Bad Manners, who were live in-studio guests.
“You could call in and ask a question,” Moore said. “So I called in and I had three questions ready — and I wasn’t letting them off until I asked all three. And I remember my dad came to me and said, ‘You’re going into radio.’ And I go, ‘I hope so.’ It just felt comfortable for me to do that.”
Although he “messed around” on bass guitar in some upstart bands, Moore steered clear of a serious music career, if only because of the “constant drama” he saw his musician friends endure with record labels. Still, in the late 1980s, he caught on at I.R.S. Records, where he promoted such bands as R.E.M., Fine Young Cannibals, Wall of Voodoo, Concrete Blonde and Timbuk 3. He moved up to Artists and Repertoire at Virgin Records, but eventually soured on the commercial grind.
“The recording industry just looks at artists as product, not people,” Moore said. “Coming from the musician’s standpoint and being a lover of music, I couldn’t do it anymore. It definitely turned me off from what I thought was my ambition — to sign great bands. It’s the same reason I do the radio show — to turn people onto music and find those hidden gems.”
Hosting his own radio show wasn’t in the offing when Moore moved to Kansas City in 1992 to be close to his parents, who had relocated to the region. By the mid-’90s, he was working at used record store/midtown hipster hub Recycled Sounds, operated by joyful KC music-scene advocate, the late Anne Winter. She introduced Moore to the board of directors at community radio station KKFI-FM, 90.1, where he became general manager. And she gave him the confidence to take his radio game to the next level at public station KCUR-FM, where he became the “Take Five” jazz show host. But Moore wanted to create something of his own — a totally freeform music show. In 2002, he pitched the idea to KCUR management, and “Sonic Spectrum” was born.
“I’d told Annie about it forever, and she said, ‘Just do it then, just do it,’” he recalled. “I’m kind of a shy, reserved person, but I finally said, ‘What the hell,’ and it worked. Annie was my mentor in so many ways. She would do anything she could to help people find their connection.”
In 2007, Moore parted ways with KCUR, taking “Sonic Spectrum” to commercial alternative music station KRBZ-FM, 94.5 the Buzz. Although he could no longer play literally anything he wanted, the change allowed him to reach a larger audience. At the same time, Moore’s upstart Oxblood Records label was releasing new sounds by Kansas City bands.
It was a good run for Moore at the Buzz until last fall, when the station changed formats and became mostly automated, sending Moore packing. What would become of “Sonic Spectrum?”
“Honestly, I was at the point where I was going to do a podcast for fun, just put it out there, and then quietly end the show,” Moore said. “I was ready to walk away. And then I got a couple people from different stations interested, and I was like, ‘Wow, this is surprising.’ I was hoping for The Bridge, because it was public radio, but I didn’t know how that would work. And then Bryan Truta reached out to me.”
Truta, senior director of radio operations and morning host at The Bridge, was a fan of “Sonic Spectrum” and believed it would make a great fit with his station’s flexible adult-album-alternative format.
“To me, it was a no-brainer,” Truta said. “I loved that show when it was on KCUR, and I felt that it belonged in the public radio space. Robert’s going for bands who are not in the mainstream. They’re underrepresented voices, who are maybe indie artists or on independent labels. And that’s exactly what we look for and play all day long.
“As a programmer, I won’t get involved with his show. I told him, ‘Abide by the language guidelines of the FCC.’ But, other than that, he knows what he wants to play, and he knows his audience.”
One of the reasons Moore started “Sonic Spectrum” was to highlight the links and progressions that can be identified in music history to enhance the music-listening experience.
“I might play a Velvet Underground song (from the ’60s) and then go into the Modern Lovers (from the ’70s) and then go into the Strokes,” Moore said. “I mean, they’re all the same kind of DIY attitude or sound or style. It’s like, ‘Hey, what you’re into right now traces back a bit, and you’ll be into this, too.’
“I remember when the band Interpol came around, that sound was so big when I was a kid in the ’80s. So I’ll play the Chameleons, who now sound exactly like Interpol did. Then kids can go, ‘Oh, this is where that came from. I get this now.’ That’s important to me. It’s showing the story, the timeline of music.”
There’s also been Moore’s edifying impact on the local live music scene, both directly and indirectly over the years.
“At a club, you would see the physical proof coming through the door after a band had gotten a little airtime on ‘Sonic Spectrum,’” said Kansas City musician and former concert promoter Billy Smith. “Ticket sales would go from what would normally be a 125-person-a-night type of band into a near sell-out. We all get to pick and choose what we like. He just kind of helps you do that a little bit. And that’s such a cool gift.”
When Moore teamed with local musician and recordBar co-owner Steve Tulipana to present a series of tribute concerts to some of Moore’s favorite artists — from Leonard Cohen to the Clash to the Cars to the Minutemen to Slade to Bowie and beyond — the shows proved more than entertaining to audiences. They also fueled future collaborations between the musicians onstage.
“We’d get different local bands to pick a handful of songs and make a night of it once a month,” Tulipana said. “And it was interesting to see how sometimes those things would, in turn, produce new bands. Because some of these people who had played with each other would continue to play with each other and start new things. We found that digging into these catalogs of iconic artists stimulated people’s creativity.”
Perhaps the best-received of Moore’s tribute concerts at recordBar was his Bowie show, which eventually led musician and frequent tribute player Michelle Bacon to assemble her own 13-member group, The Band That Fell to Earth, which began performing annual Bowie tributes in 2016.
“I had done many ‘Sonic Spectrum’ showcases throughout the years,” said Bacon, who now also works at The Bridge. “And I met so many great artists through that, I guess I took the template of what Robert was doing with those to put my own Bowie tribute band together. What he’s done with his program and outside of it has been expanding people’s horizons to different levels of music discovery.”
Just don’t tell Moore that there’s anything too special about him. He may be the guy who makes his “little music show” happen, but it’s always been all about the music.
“The Bridge is perfect for ‘Sonic Spectrum,’” Moore said. “I can’t describe how lucky I feel. I wanted to go back to public radio and get that freedom to be able to open up my show even more, and the support I’ve received there is more than I’ve ever received. It’s just been amazing. And I hope to be there a long time.”
Brian McTavish is a Kansas City-based freelance writer specializing in the arts and pop culture.