Laurie Roberts
The Here & Now

A comforting Bay Area voice stilled: Remembering KPIG’s Laurie Roberts

THE HERE & NOW: The leader at beloved KPIG, Roberts, 67, leaves behind a decades-long legacy of memorable radio, as evidenced by her induction into the Bay Area Radio Hall of Fame in 2011.

She had that voice, soothing, kitchen-table informal, and deeply familiar to regular listeners of KPIG 107.5-FM in Freedom. In fact, for many who had grown up in the Bay Area, that same voice was a touchstone of bygone eras in music and radio. It had been floating through the local FM airwaves like fog through the eucalyptus for decades.

Which is why it was such a treat to meet Laurie Roberts in person.

She was not a lot different than the person you heard on the air, the same wry warmth, the same burnished intonations from a lifetime in radio. But, in person, off duty, over a glass of wine, she often talked about different subjects, such as her beloved San Francisco Giants. In the same voice KPIG fans had heard time and again mentioning Bonnie Raitt or Todd Snider, off-air she might instead talk excitedly about Buster and Panda, Timmy and MadBum, like they were friends and neighbors. She loved the tell the story of how, back when she was at San Jose’s rock station behemoth KSJO, 1980s Giants legend Will Clark would call her on the air requesting she play AC/DC.

Laurie died Tuesday at age 67 after a year of severe health challenges and personal struggles. As the program director and operations manager at KPIG, she held one of the most influential radio jobs in northern California, carrying the torch first held aloft by the pioneering radio wizard Laura Ellen Hopper.

Long before she landed at KPIG, Laurie Roberts had attained a near legendary status in Bay Area radio as a disk jockey and on-air personality with stints on the South Bay’s most glamorous and powerful FM stations. She had even been inducted into the Bay Area Radio Hall of Fame.

Still, even with that kind of juice in the industry — how many of us make a Hall of Fame in anything? — she considered KPIG her dream job.

She had, in fact, been a fan of KPIG for years, admiring the station’s idiosyncratic musical personality and stability, an outlier in an industry of constantly shifting format changes and corporate reshufflings. Laurie never met the woman everybody at KPIG knew as Laura Ellen, but when she inherited Laura Ellen’s mantle, it seemed to make sense.

“She was the most natural person to fit into that category,” said Jodi Morgan, Laurie’s friend and the general manager at Stephens Media Group that owns KPIG. “She completely understood the feel of the station, the music, the direction and what types of bands and artists to put into that, to support the local music scene.”

In the Hopper era, KPIG had all but invented the format now known as Americana, a decidedly non-Nashville brand of country/folk music. Laurie Roberts was a fan of the genre, but her tenure at KPIG meant a leaning more toward the rock spectrum, a reflection of her own background in classic-rock programming. She also brought into the KPIG fold local musicians such as Jamie Coffis and Michael Gaither.

Laurie grew up in the East Bay as a fan of the now legendary station KSAN, which pioneered a kind of freeform FM style. That inspired her to study broadcasting at Cal State Chico, and then it was on to a years-long rollercoaster ride on many of the biggest stations in the region, KOME, KSJO and K-Fox. At each stop, she brought her own accessible just-folks style to the job.

“That voice, it was just so distinctive,” KPIG programmer Michael Gaither told me. “She didn’t sound like a stereotypical FM DJ. She was just so down-to-earth. She wanted to draw you in, and not just tell you what you just heard, but tell you about the song you just heard, y’know, this is why this song is particularly cool. Not everybody does that.”

Over the years, she had developed relationships with many Bay Area musicians, most notably ’80s rockers Huey Lewis and Greg Kihn. From her years at other stations, and connections throughout the radio industry, she brought a marketing muscle to KPIG as well.

Off the air, besides her abiding love for Giants baseball, Laurie was devoted to the welfare of animals, spearheading an annual fundraiser called “Days of Wine and Wet Noses” to benefit organizations that work with animal rescue, including the Santa Cruz County Animal Shelter.

The final year and a half of Laurie’s life was heartbreaking. It was so staggering awful that her friends and colleagues struggle to talk about it.

She had to have a leg amputated. Her marriage of 30 years ended in acrimony. Her dearly loved dog Seven died. She lost her longtime home in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

“It was really, really awful, and very difficult for her,” said Jodi Morgan. “But she always had this sunny disposition, and she was an eternal optimist, even when faced with things that I would have waved the white flag over, she just powered through. She was just a force of nature.”