The voice of Sue Delany on KGB-FM every weekday afternoon between 3:00 and 7:00 p.m. (the coveted afternoon drive slot) is one of the most distinctive on the airwaves in San Diego. Slightly hoarse and more than a little sexy, the whisky, upbeat rasp that is at once soothing and exciting belongs to the most popular disc jockey in the market, according to the Arbitron book, a Nielsen-like rating system that gauges the success or failure of radio programs around the country. Whether it’s the appeal of the hard-rocking cheerleader who sounds as if she’s been up all night at a beach party with Rod Stewart and Eddie Van Halen or the 976 “fantasex” quality she brings to the rush-hour commute, San Diegans listen. They also talk back.
Steve Winwood finished up “Roll with It” on the CD, and the digital clock counted down 03…02…01. Delany jammed a commercial tape cartridge into a deck on her left, selected another CD with her right hand, and mounted it in position. Then she spun on her seat and thumbed a microphone switch. “Hi. KGB!”
“Can I ask you a question?” A young girl’s disembodied voice sounded in the studio from speakers mounted on the console.
“Sure, baby, what’s up?” Delany’s left hand pulled the 30-second commercial spot, tossed it on top of the machine, and lined up another cartridge. The energy level in the room was high, considering there was no one in it except me, Delany, and about as much technology as you would find in the transporter room of the Enterprise.
“Bryan Adams. Was he with a band before? Was he with the Eagles?”
“No. He was never with the Eagles. You’re probably thinking of Don Henley, right?” She named the other members of the Eagles. “Bryan Adams has always been a writer and solo artist, some garage bands, that’s about it. Want some Adams on soon?”
“You got it! Take care, baby.”
With that burning issue resolved, the girl giggled and said goodbye. Delany spun around on her seat to face me, popping in the CD with a Phil Collins tune cued up electronically. Her long, shaggy blonde hair is almost as much of a trademark as her voice to those who know her from shopping-mall openings and Mad Jack’s commercials on local television. She leaned against the console, still working tapes, one eye toward the digital clock, rifling through the playlist while appearing attentive and explaining the computerized equipment. “I can’t really go into detail because of the competition,” she said. She wore a black, long-sleeved shirt flecked with metallic sparkles that clung to a trim figure and tight-fitting black Levi’s above high-heeled black boots. Around her shoulders was a black leather Hard Rock Cafe San Diego jacket. Laugh lines appeared at the corners of her eyes when she smiled or laughed, which was often.
When asked about the playlist, she said, “I can change things about, and we can give a little bit, but this is basically what they like. Demographics. Market analysis…” she waved at the concept vaguely as if it were all a part of the machinery that surrounded her. “I like to think I helped to break [introduce unknowns] a couple of bands like Bad English, Giant, and Living Colour.” I noticed San Diego’s Beat Farmers on the playlist. “The bands I worship are basically Zeppelin, the Eagles, and Aerosmith, in case people want to know what my flavor is. I love everything though. I love jazz; I like to be flexible. Even country. I’m originally from Dallas, so I got a little bit of the roots in me. Jerry Jeff Walker ‘Up against the wall, redneck mother,’ you know. Stuff like that. I can handle it for a little while. I don’t ever say I hate it, but I’m basically a rocker.”
When asked to describe her average listener, she squinted as if picturing one. “Let’s see, between 18 and 35, male oriented. It’s really a pleasure to have lady listeners because I’m a lady rocker myself, and I get really thrilled when women call me up asking for a song because women are becoming, of course, very mainstream in the sense of getting involved with the same work as men, and they’re not as much in the closet or housewives, even though there are, of course, housewives who call. They’re trying to get through the household chores, and it’s kind of fun to rock and roll and get through it faster. The average age of women listeners varies, but on the whole, my listeners are working people. We’re talking lawyers to people who work at Pizza Hut. Major military — I’m always playing a song for the U.S.S. Whatever. I love to make their day. The majority of my listeners are just goodhearted people. I’ve really lucked out. I don’t know if it’s just San Diego or what.”
Though born in Dallas, Delany grew up in Los Angeles and attended Grant High School in the San Fernando Valley. Her mother is the actress Pat Delany (“She’s one of those actresses you look at and say, ‘I know her!’ but you might not know her name”), and her father is a financial consultant living in Marina Del Rey. Her brother is a sheriff in Ventura County. She did well in school and was, not surprisingly, a cheerleader. “For the worst football team in all of the valley. The kids who went to school there, their parents were producers or directors or actors. Many of the kids who came out of the school became actors, and it’s funny to see them now on Lipton commercials and everything. Tom Selleck went there — a long time before I was there. Joan Jett, too. A lot of others I can’t think of right now.
“I went to Grossmont College for a year, which is highly rated for telecom, took some broadcasting courses. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to get into the news side, the rock and roll side, or what. It didn’t take me long to decide. I knew what I wanted within a year.”
Delany has been a disc jockey (or “Air Personality,” as her business card describes her) for 11 years. “I started out putting together three or four tapes and sent them out. I figured I’d just spend the summer on the beach, and I forgot about the tapes. Almost immediately, I got hired in Indiana, Anchorage, some place I never heard of, and Bakersfield. I took the job in Bakersfield, KKDJ. It was one of those things, ‘My God, I’m in the game. Take the ball and run.’ I was really scared ’cuz I was 18. Someone upstairs was watching over me. Fresno, KKXX, wooed me after nine weeks. I go, ‘Fresno, is that in California?’ But they had some tall buildings there, so I figured I was moving up.”
Delany started in San Diego at 91X in 1981 doing midday for two years and then moved to mornings. She’s been at KGB for seven years. As for advice she might lend aspiring DJs: “Females are still much in demand. You’ve got to be really persistent, really confident, and ready for rejection. Keep coming back.” Is she ever at a loss for words? Facing dead air? “Not yet. I’m a talkative person when I’m comfortable, and I’m comfortable with what I do. I absolutely love it. There’s nothing better than getting up in the morning and going, ‘Let’s rock and roll!’ ”
What about weirdos? Fans who are a little too ardent or familiar?
“I have three restraining orders. I got a zirconium diamond ring in the mail from a guy who is married. Women call up and say, ‘Leave my boyfriend alone.’ I don’t know who they are. There is a guy who thinks I talk to him when I’m not on the air. He gets subliminal messages from me. They’re out there. One guy was put away two weeks ago. I’d rather not go into it. It’s a police matter. They busted him following me home.”
Pointing to her rings, is she married or single? “Let’s just say there’s someone special in my life. I’m a rascal and I like to have fun; I don’t want to come across as this little angel. But I have a good heart, and I hope that people see that, that I don’t have to spell it out.”
She wouldn’t encourage a bad-girl image? Maybe just a little bit?
“I would say that there’s a borderline. That little edge. I’m mischievous, but I never, ever want to endorse or encourage someone being vicious or, you know, too cool for school, that kind of thing. I would like to be respected but not put up on a pedestal. I don’t like people taking things so damned serious.”
But there is a serious side to Sue Delany?
“My serious concerns are the abuse or neglect of the environment, cruelty to children or animals. They can’t speak for themselves, they’re so innocent. That eats me up. I do a lot of charity work on my own time for I Love a Clean Ocean, I’m involved with Greenpeace quite a bit, the San Diego Humane Society, the Helen Woodward Animal Center, Canine Companions…”
What is Canine Companions?
“I emceed their graduation ceremonies, which they have four times a year. They have this boot camp for the handicapped — hearing loss or other severe disabilities — where they train people to utilize the dogs who can answer phones…” She laughed. “Yes! They open elevator doors, it’s incredible. I’m there to kind of lighten things up. It’s very emotional as these people are given dogs who become their arms, their legs, their ears…”
Delaney described other activities like celebrity “cheffling,” or bartending, walking handicapped people around on horseback “…through this ring. Every time they complete a lap, money is donated. Horses and I go way back, so that’s a natural for me. That’s through the Helen Woodward Animal Center.”
She was anxious to shift the subject back to rock and roll. All right, if she were stranded on a desert island with one album?
“Physical Graffiti [Led Zeppelin]. You’re a rat. Terrible question.”
And one rock star?
Just as quickly: “Robert Plant.” (Lead singer for Led Zeppelin)
Last book read: Hammer of the Gods. (About Led Zeppelin)
Could she take a guess as to the popular perception of her personality in San Diego?