Quick Take:

In her Sunday show, KPIG programmer Kiana Lee mixes boomer touchstones with Americana voices from a younger generation.

Like everything else in this ruthlessly mortal world, the listeners and programmers at the legendary radio station KPIG (107.5 FM) are getting older. Laurie Roberts, the station’s operations manager and most prominent on-air personality who died in May, certainly knew that. In her final years running KPIG, Roberts worked to cultivate a younger audience for the station lest it slip into the demographic sunset.

Now that she’s gone, one of her most immediate legacies is in the younger programmers and the championing of younger local bands, most notably weeknight DJ Jamie Coffis, who fronts the popular local band the Coffis Brothers.

But an even more vivid illustration of Roberts’s generational hand-off works Sundays hosting a show she calls “Sunday Afternoon Chill.”

Meet Kiana Lee.

At 24, Lee is, as the station’s website says, “the youngest pig in the sty.” At many radio stations, a 24-year-old programmer would be unremarkable. But KPIG’s cultural power — throughout Northern California — comes from its fabled history, its deeply embedded brand, and its consistency in an industry known for constant and often abrupt change and turnover. Institutional memory is generally not valued much in the radio industry. KPIG is an exception, drawing much of its market loyalty from familiar jocks playing familiar artists, year after year after year.

Despite her youth, Lee is quite comfortable in the KPIG terrarium. She grew up in Scotts Valley with parents who were loyal KPIG listeners.

“Laurie said that I was ‘raised on the lap of the Pig,’” she said. In her formative years, she was steeped in not only the music of KPIG, but also in the holy names etched on baby boomers’ musical Mount Olympus, from the Beatles to the Grateful Dead.

Four years ago, Roberts recognized a kindred spirit, though one young enough to be her daughter. Lee was hired as an intern, then soon landed the Sunday shift.

“It was like my dream job,” she said. “I was so excited that I jumped at the opportunity.”

Roberts’s mandate to her programmers was always “play what you want, but stay in your lane,” striking a balance between maintaining a DJ’s independence and personality, and staying true to KPIG’s format, the uniquely rootsy country sound known as “Americana.” Lee’s version of staying in her lane is to mix in familiar touchstones to older listeners with folk/rock/country sounds from younger artists — Neil Young and Emmylou Harris shoulder to shoulder with Emma Swift and the Brothers Comatose. And she always ends her show with a song by a band all the young folks are grooving to these days, the Beatles.

Kiana Lee broadcasting at the KPIG studio.
Kiana Lee broadcasting at the KPIG studio Credit: Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz

Eighty-something “Sleepy John” Sandidge is the lead-in to Lee’s “Chill” on Sunday mornings. He’s been a guiding hand in helping her get settled at the mike. “I get calls about her from other people,” said Sandidge. “And they’re always complimentary.”

Lee’s on-air voice is not as broadcast-polished and modulated as that of radio veterans. “At first, I was hearing, ‘Who is that? And what’s wrong with her voice?’” said Sandidge. “But then people started getting used to it, and now she’s got a huge fan base, no doubt about it.”

“Listen to what she plays,” KPIG programmer Michael Gaither said in response to Lee’s unusual on-air delivery. “She really knows her stuff.”

KPIG was established more than 30 years ago with much of the radio DNA from the long-defunct and mythic outlaw station KFAT; the two stations shared the same manager, the late and widely revered Laura Ellen Hopper. Longtime locals can still recite playlists from KFAT and the early KPIG days. Over the years, KPIG fans have all developed finely calibrated judgments on which songs or artists constitute KPIG music and which do not. It can be an intimidating environment for a younger programmer.

“There’s some stuff in our database,” said Gaither, “that I think, that’s not really the Pig, so I won’t play it. For me, I always throw in some (John) Prine, some Guy Clark and I lean toward area bands and singer/songwriters that I connect to, but it’s all kind of traditional KPIG. And that’s kinda what Kiana does too.”

Before coming to KPIG, Laurie Roberts had been a widely popular DJ for several high-profile Bay Area radio stations, and her sweet spot was in the classic-rock genre. As a mentor to Lee, her goal was to establish new artists to a discerning and demanding listenership.

“She was really impressed that I knew a lot of younger artists that weren’t on KPIG at the time,” said Lee. “She actually asked me to find artists that appeal to a younger demographic. That was my job as an intern, to look for new music, and I always thought was really cool.”

In a recent show, Lee turned listeners on to the bi-continental folk group the Burnt Pines, as well as roots rocker Nora Jane Struthers and the Los Angeles indie-rock trio the Shelters. But also on the show were boomer jewels as Bob Dylan’s “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat” and Bonnie Raitt’s “Nick of Time.” It was the kind of blend that Roberts had in mind when she first hired Lee.

“She always did encourage me to play stuff that I wanted to play and to use my fresh perspective,” Lee said of her late mentor. “I remember right before my first show, she kinda put me on the spot, ‘OK, you’re in the driver’s seat now. What are you going to pick?’ We figured out my first couple of sets together. And I thought it was really cool that she had me pick what I thought was good for my first set and didn’t tell me what to play.”

“At some point, you have to bring young listeners if you’re going to remain a viable commercial station,” said Gaither. “And I knew Laurie always liked bands like the Coffis Brothers and Jesse Daniel who were young, but still very much KPIG. And Kiana is definitely part of that wave.”

Listen to one of Lee’s playlists below:

Wallace reports and writes not only across his familiar areas of deep interest — including arts, entertainment and culture — but also is chronicling for Lookout the challenges the people of Santa Cruz...