Q&A with BEN FONG-TORRES -The Legendary Journalist, Author and Broadcaster Talks About MOONALICE RADIO, Writing For ROLLING STONE and More!
Posted On 09 Mar 2016
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Benjamin “Ben” Fong-Torres is an American rock journalist, author and broadcaster best known for his association with Rolling Stone magazine (through 1981) nearly from the magazine’s inception as well as the San Francisco Chronicle (from around 1982). He conducted interviews for Rolling Stone of entertainment figures including Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones and Linda Ronstadt‘s first cover story in 1975. He also profiled Marvin Gaye, Sly and the Family Stone, Bonnie Raitt and Paul McCartney. A Fong-Torres interview with Ray Charles was awarded the Deems Taylor Award for Magazine Writing in 1974.
Fong-Torres was also a rock DJ for San Francisco radio station KSAN-FM in the 1970s. He later hosted a live, weekly entertainment and talk show, Fog City Radio, on NPR affiliate KQED-FM.
Ben Fong-Torres was portrayed in the 2000 film Almost Famous by actor Terry Chen. The fictional version of Fong-Torres is the lead character William Miller’s editor at Rolling Stone.
In recent years, he has published several books, including: Hickory Wind, a biography of Gram Parsons; The Rice Room, a memoir; The Hits Just Keep on Coming, a history of Top 40 radio, and two compilations of past articles, Not Fade Away and Becoming Almost Famous (published in May 2006). His book with The Doors (The Doors By The Doors) was published by Hyperion in November 2006, and he published The Grateful Dead Scrapbook (Chronicle Books) in 2009. In 2013, he published Willin': The Story of Little Feat.
Most recently, Ben Fong-Torres created the station, Moonalice Radio featuring the Moonalice band members and their favorite songs, 420 news and music, old and new, representing the spirit of the 60’s.
Moonalice was formed by Silicon Valley investor Roger McNamee and the brainchild of the great producer, T Bone Burnett in 2007 because they wanted to create a band with a San Francisco 60’s sound. Moonalice band members (Pete Sears, Barry Sless, Roger McNamee, & John Molo) are the focal point of the online station, Moonalice Radio.
All Access Music writer, Nicole DeRosa had the great pleasure of catching up with Mr. Fong-Torres to chat about his latest endeavor with Moonalice Radio and lots more. Enjoy their chat below!
Hey there Ben! Where does our interview find you and what’s on your agenda today besides our interview?
Hi Nicole! As I begin our interview, I’m wrapping up my radio column, Radio Waves, for the San Francisco Chronicle. That appears every other week in the Sunday Datebook, and is usually a mix of profiles of local shows and personalities, and news about stations, ratings, and whatever else I pick up.
For those that have been living under a rock and not as familiar with you and your work as a veteran radio broadcaster and DJ on KSAN, the pioneer free-form rock station in San Francisco in the ‘70’s AND editor and writer at Rolling Stone, who or what was the catalyst or inspiration for you to want to live the life of a rock n roll musical gypsy?
OK, I got into music and radio because that’s all I had to keep me sane when I was growing up in Chinatown in Oakland, pretty much trapped in our family restaurant. The radio was an escape and the music, in the 50’s and 60’s, was just getting interesting. I also enjoyed reading, and that led into writing. In schools in Oakland and San Francisco, I got the opportunity to write for campus papers, and do DJ work, and it led me to Rolling Stone and KSAN. Not a bad combo of gigs from the late ‘60s into the ‘80s.
I understand that while doing a biography of Moonalice , Roger McNamee (the multitalented & multifaceted musician who formed the band) challenged you by saying, “I’ll do a station, if you’ll build it!” Is that how Moonalice Radio was “born”?
Yep, that’s how it happened. I noted that Moonalice, his band, was heavy into social media, and ahead of most bands in letting fans hear and see their shows online. But they didn’t have a radio station, which I thought could appeal to its fanbase. When I mentioned that, he did ask me to build it. So I did. Hey, why not?
How does Moonalice Radio set itself apart from other stations?
Well, for one thing, it’s free-form. I’m programming music reflecting the band’s and my tastes, which are all over the place – classic rock, but also today’s artists; not just rock, but blues, R&B, reggae, country, singer-songwriters, jam bands, jazz…really, just about anything.
And while many stations devoted to an artist or band plays tons of their music, but don’t have those artists’ voices on the air that much, we play Moonalice and affiliated acts (like the Doobie Decibel System) a couple of times an hour; the rest of the time is given to music they like or were influenced by. And listeners hear Roger, Pete Sears (vocalist and keyboardist), Barry Sless (guitarist) and John Molo (drummer), through the magic of voice tracks. “Moongirl” and I do shows on the weekend, the legendary Dead roadie, Big Steve Parish, now Moonalice’s “Road Scholar” and MC, pops in, and we carry a podcast from TheHash.org, which dispenses news and features about marijuana. (Moonalice’s song, “It’s 4:20 Somewhere,” has been downloaded over 4.6 million times.) I’d call that a “hit,” if ya know what I mean…
Speaking of favorites, do you have a particular favorite interview from your time at Rolling Stone and of course…why?
From my years at Rolling Stone, my favorite interview subjects include Marvin Gaye (he was vulnerable, fragile, and candid. Right after What’s Going On, he was absolutely uncertain about what he might do next), and Ray Charles, who was angry about being bypassed in the early 70’s by younger R&B artists, and by white singers who sounded like him (like Joe Cocker). But he was also appreciative that Rolling Stone would feature him, and he gave me an interview that wound up winning a national magazine award.
I also loved Linda Ronstadt, Diane Keaton (it wasn’t always music), Steve Martin, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Bonnie Raitt, Tina Turner, and others.
Nowadays, everything is so instant…you press a button and it’s yours ala Spotify, Soundcloud, iTunes etc. What was the first album you saved up your hard earned money as a kid and bought for yourself?
I don’t remember, but my first 45 rpm single probably was Elvis; my first album, the Beatles’ first Capitol album.
What was the first song you fell in love with (or made a lasting impact) on you and why?
I don’t recall falling in love with a song, but when I think back to those evenings of listening to countdown shows in the mid-‘50s (Yes, I’m that old), I can clearly hear the majesty of the Platters and “My Prayer” all over again.
Who is in your current playlist? What artists or bands are in current rotation for you?
I listen more to radio, on air, online, and via satellite, than playlists. But I generally love women. Shelby Lynne, k.d. lang, Adele, Pink, Amy Winehouse, Lady Gaga and Beyonce are all right with me. So are dozens of others, enough for a Top 40 and more.
What’s on tap next for you Ben? What are you most excited about for this year?
This year, my main thing is to keep Moonalice Radio going and growing. It’s been a challenge, dealing with the changes brought on by the Copyright Royalty Board’s increase of royalty rates. We had to scramble to find and adapt to a new platform (Radionomy), and I’m still learning the new system.
I also write for Qello, which streams music concerts and documentaries (it’s a musical version of Netflix, you might say), and for Billboard and The Hollywood Reporter. Oh, and there’s a documentary being produced about me, by Suzanne Joe Kai. So there’s plenty to be excited about.
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