UNLV radio DJ Donald Hickey has been a household name in the Las Vegas music scene since his on-air days working at the landmark 91.5 KUNV college radio show Rock Avenue. After an 11-year indie-rock radio hiatus, Hickey returned to the airwaves in 2009 with his own show, Neon Reverb. Now in his fourth season, Hickey sat down with us to talk about the Vegas scene and what you might hear when you tune in to UNLV’s only indie-rock radio show.
Neon Reverb Radio launched on KUNV in 2009. Why did a show like yours need to happen? Well, at some point I had let go of the idea of any sort of return to the great music show on 91.5.
You’re referring to UNLV’s original college radio show, Rock Avenue. Right. I had lost my bitterness about it. But at the same time, positive pressure, maybe my own subconscious and my friends, were like, “God, it would be great if you could go back to what you originally did on Rock Avenue.” So, I guess that was the original seed.
You graduated from UNLV in 1995, but you continued to DJ for Rock Avenue until the show ended in 1998. To the very end.
How did you bring an indie show back to UNLV radio? For about two years, [Nevada Broadcasters Hall of Famer] Ginger Bruner and I just talked about it and went back and forth. I don’t remember what the catalyst was, but we did a pilot [after being shut down once before] and we pitched to the station again.
Besides co-host Meghan Larmore, the show doesn’t have much outside involvement, especially from students. That’s a stark contrast to the student-programmed Rock Avenue. Nothing is student programmed or run.
Do you think that’s odd? Yes, I feel a little bit lost and maybe caught in the crossfire. When [Rock Avenue ended], all of us were mortified. It was, in a way, akin to losing a parent or something. It was horrible. But what happened to 91.5 in 1998 happened across the country a lot. College radio stations don’t exist in their original cocoons; they’ve become public radio.
You’ve said previously that a lot of people didn’t think Neon Reverb would be popular. I didn’t know if it was going to succeed, either. I mean, there’s only one way you can find out. Vegas is a cultural center now. Something has changed, and the people that are going to drive public radio in the future are hanging out Downtown. This is what they want to hear.
How did the show end up with the same name as the indie music festival, Neon Reverb? I was on the toilet actually, (laughs), literally having one of those moments, and I was like, man, f*ckin’ James Woodbridge. He has the best name, Neon Reverb. ... They said just go for it. Plus, we do cross-promote each other.
The March edition of the Neon Reverb festival is right around the corner. Is there anything in the works right now between the show and the fest? Not more than our usual festival preview show the week before, but we hope to eventually have the show become an electronic venue in and of itself.
What are your top five local bands right now? My favorite right now is Rusty Maples. I literally walked in when they opened for Stephen Malkmus—I was pretty trashed—and I had no idea who was onstage. Just listening to these guys in the background, I was like, “Wow, these guys sound really tight.” Other than that? Dusty Sunshine, Kid Meets Cougar and Close to Modern. They just make me smile. And no question, Dude City. That guy [Jack Johnson] is very savvy.
For those tuning in for the first time, what won’t they ever hear on Neon Reverb? Nothing that’s totally safe for my mom’s house. No Jason Mraz, Katy Perry or ’90s alternative. And no white-dude-with-a-guitar-and-a-latte adult contemporary. F*ck that sh*t. Also, Meghan and I are losing patience with beards.
How has technology, specifically the Internet and iPods, affected radio? It totally changed my strategy. The show had to create its own Facebook presence and Twitter presence. Without being able to archive your shows and podcast them, there is no point in doing this. You can’t exist in today’s day and age without a web-streaming podcast. There’s a sort of romantic notion—when people say “college radio,” they’re thinking of a sound. And even if you listen to it on a Wednesday, even when Meghan and I f*cked up … it’s like, “Okay, here we are. Live radio.”