The second life of Rosemary Chalmers: A local media personality looks beyond KSCO

KSCO radio host Rosemary Chalmers
KSCO radio host Rosemary Chalmers.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

After KSCO announced that it was laying off its staff and ending live local programming, Rosemary Chalmers, one of the Santa Cruz radio station’s most high-profile on-air hosts took a deep breath and decided to branch off into a new media entity.

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As 2023 dawns in Santa Cruz County, change is afoot in the local news media. KSBW-TV, based in Salinas, recently closed its office in Santa Cruz, though the station says that Santa Cruz County coverage has not been affected. KSBW’s Phil Gomez, perhaps the most prominent news-media figure in Santa Cruz, retired in October and the station has yet to hire his replacement. After a decade in local journalism, former Watsonville Pajaronian editor Tony Nuñez left his position as a news editor at Good Times to become the communications manager at local nonprofit Community Bridges. The Santa Cruz Sentinel replaced its departed managing editor, Melissa Murphy, in November with the hiring of ex-Monterey Herald reporter Tom Wright. The mass exodus at Twitter now includes one high-profile local player: UC Santa Cruz’s official Twitter account is leaving the platform.

And in what might be the biggest news of all, KSCO, a beacon in Santa Cruz on the AM radio dial since 1947, will likely end local live programming at the end of December. The station’s owner, Michael Zwerling, is trying to sell the station and has so far found no takers. If a sale is not completed by Jan. 1, Zwerling said he’ll switch over to nationally syndicated programming, bringing an end to a long chapter in Santa Cruz’s local-media history.

But at least one prominent voice from KSCO isn’t ready to recede into retirement. If all goes according to plan, she will continue to do what she’s been doing for years for her local listeners. The content will, she believes, remain the same. Only the medium will change.

It’s 3:30 a.m. on a typical weekday morning in Ben Lomond, and at least one creature is stirring. Rosemary Chalmers is just now waking up, as she has done for more than three decades. “I no longer use an alarm,” she said. By 5 a.m., she and her beloved dog, Hula, are on the way down Highway 9 toward Santa Cruz, on the way to KSCO’s distinctive building on Portola Drive in Live Oak.

“I like it,” she said of her morning routine. “There’s no traffic. There’s no people. There’s nothing.”

According to KSCO owner Michael Zwerling, local programming at the Santa Cruz AM radio station could be coming to an...

All of that will come later, in a couple of hours when the night begins to lift. By 6 a.m., Chalmers — well known for her warm, British-accented voice — is on the air at KSCO, telling people about the traffic situation that she avoids with the early hours. She’s the co-host of “Good Morning Monterey Bay” with Bill Wolverton until 9 a.m. every weekday. After her on-air shift, she hangs around the station, planning for the next day until she kicks off at 1 p.m. By 6:30 p.m., she’s usually climbing in bed, only to rise again in the wee hours.

Chalmers was one of the dozen or so employees at KSCO to face the news that the station’s staff was being let go at the end of 2022. At 68, she had never experienced anything like a layoff: “I’ve never been fired for anything in my life, ever.”

Radio is a famously volatile industry, particularly when it comes to holding down a job. But Chalmers had weathered the industry’s ups and downs for 30 years by remaining consistent, day after day, year after year. Until the moment she learned that she was being let go with the rest of the KSCO staff, she had always had faith in her boss and friend, Michael Zwerling. “Michael was the maverick in the industry,” she said. “Consequently, I figured we were safe.”

For a couple of days, she absorbed the shock, which melted into anger and grief. Then she announced her new status on social media and what followed surprised her. It was what she called a “hurricane” of well wishes and kind words from friends and strangers.

“I was blown away, because when you’re sitting at the microphone, you don’t see your listeners.”

KSCO radio host Rosemary Chalmers
KSCO’s Rosemary Chalmers and her beloved dog, Hula, are up at 3:30 a.m. each weekday morning to begin their day.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

The upwelling of emotional support, of outrage at the news on her behalf, it turned a switch in her mind. Obviously, she didn’t have the resources to buy the radio station. But in this age of decentralized media, why couldn’t she just continue what she had always done?

“I am taking the program, and my guests, and I am moving it to another platform.”

The KSCO chapter of her life might be coming to an end. But as a live, streaming show to be accessed by anyone with an internet connection, her show will outlive the station where it’s lived for 30 years.

So much for sleeping past 3:30 a.m.

Michael Zwerling bought KSCO in 1991, and it was only a couple of months after he had taken ownership that British-born Rosemary Chalmers wandered into his office. She had recently moved to Capitola from Santa Barbara and was bored to tears by her job as a receptionist. She talked herself into a job at KSCO at a time when local radio legend “Sleepy John” Sandidge was hosting the morning drive-time show. Soon enough, Chalmers was brought on the air as the “traffic babe,” as she remembered. When Sandidge was fired, Chalmers moved into the chair as co-host, where she’s remained ever since, outlasting several co-hosts along the way.

“Good Morning Monterey Bay” is a reflection of the woman everyone knows around town as “Rosie.” She takes seriously the show’s primary mission — weather, traffic, news, the primary elements that people need to begin their workday. But she’s evolved a number of other segments and regular guests to take on food, health, surfing, animals, gardening, science and business. The vibe is informal but fast-moving. The show is known for its interplay between its hosts, and its variety of voices, always creating a momentum toward the next segment, the next guest. It’s an on-air representation of the jolt you might find in your morning coffee.

For years, “Good Morning Monterey Bay” has co-existed alongside KSCO’s news/talk format, which has often tilted in an overtly political direction, sometimes from the left, but more often from the right. The station was a touchstone for a generation or two of Santa Cruz conservatives because it was the local home of Rush Limbaugh. The station’s right-wing orientation manifested itself in several notorious local talk hosts and even with the station’s support of infamous conspiracy theorist Alex Jones of Infowars fame.

But for three decades, Chalmers has kept all that stuff at arm’s length.

KSCO radio host Rosemary Chalmers
“I am taking the program, and my guests, and I am moving it to another platform,” Rosemary Chalmers says of her post-KSCO path.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

“No politics at all,” she said flatly of her show’s orientation. “I have my politics, of course. That’s private. I mean, you can have politics all day long. But on this show, we don’t need it. Now, I talk to politicians, senators, mayors, elected officials. But we don’t talk politics per se. We talk legislation, how it’s affecting people on the Central Coast. We don’t need to hear political takes. That’s the way it’s always been with me, and that’s the way it will be into the future.”

Chalmers then is looking to take the three hours of “Good Morning Monterey Bay” and transplant it entirely, with as little change as possible, into an online, livestreaming format. But her ambition is even grander than that. She hopes to establish other live shows to go along with hers in the morning, an entire slate of programming to take listeners through the day. She’s yet to come up with a name for her new entity. She’s working to find a proper office space. She is negotiating with other broadcasters to join her new venture, and figuring out how to present breaking news. And she’s leveraging her copious local contacts, some of whom would love to be on the air with Rosie, but have avoided KSCO for political reasons. She also has valuable connections with advertisers that she’s cultivated over the years.

Is it a risky move to create something in an uncertain local media environment? Chalmers recognizes that it is risky. But her body is going to continue to rise out of bed at 3:30 a.m. Her body tells her she’s not ready to stop just yet.

“It’s something new for Santa Cruz,” she said. “And if people know someone involved in it, and how to access it, I think they’ll embrace it. I know it’s a bit of a big undertaking. But why not? What am I going to do, sit around and twiddle my thumbs every day. I’ve still got a lot to do.”

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