At noon on Feb.14, 2012, Don Davis and the team behind The Oasis were set to launch a new, independent radio station. After years of waiting to revive smooth jazz on local airwaves—and an ill-timed computer crash that morning that nearly scrubbed the launch—they pushed play on Pat Metheny’s “Last Train Home” and never looked back.
Five years later, the radio station has cemented its place in the hearts and ears of Albuquerque listeners tuning in to 103.7 at any given time for jazz, Latin guitar and chill music. Shortly before its fifth birthday, the station made Santa Fe’s version, broadcasting at 95.9 FM, distinct. The frequencies share a similar music stream and hosts, but the Santa Fe station transmits specific events to devoted City Different listeners.
“The question was never were we going to make it,” founder and owner Don Davis says. “The question was how are we going to do it.”
The station has thrived largely thanks to its fundamental character. It’s hyper-local, independent, responsive to its audience, and it exudes passion for its now hard-to-find format. That identity grows from Don himself, an early radio disciple who has spent his decades-long career in the medium, often fighting for a musical genre that, for many, went out with stonewash jeans. (They’re back, too!)
“Something deep within me was wired to be in radio from an early age. I always wanted to be in radio, even at younger than 10,” Don says. He was fascinated by “the technical aspects where you generate a signal, and it magically appears on radios a considerable distance away. I understand the physics of it quite well, but the magic of it is astounding. I also like the mass-media aspect of radio in that everything we do touches a lot of people.”
The genesis of The Oasis dates to the mid-1980s, when rock artists began creating music with a more relaxing vibe. Don was a similar convert. “I’m an old hair-band rocker,” he says. A fan of White Snake and Metallica who worked at 94 ROCK (among other Albuquerque stations), Don heard “Last Train Home” and had a life-changing experience. “I’m touched emotionally by the music in a way that is very, very deep,” Don says.
He and a business partner started an independent station, The Horizon, based on the format in 1994. In 1996, Don accepted an offer from the Simmons Media Group to purchase The Horizon. Over the next 10 years, The Horizon changed owners and locations on the dial, and went on and off the air in a game of corporate-format musical chairs that often left listeners disappointed.
In perhaps the only win from that corporate shuffle, Don met Jeff Young, now business manager at The Oasis, and reconnected with Katy Cole, a high school friend, now Jill-of-all-trades charged with “making The Oasis great every day.”
Even when The Horizon went off the air for the last time eight years ago, Don and Katy never gave up their dream of bringing the smooth jazz format they loved back to New Mexico. In 2011, a Federal Communications Commission rule change allowed Don to translate an AM signal (which he owned) onto an FM channel. He snatched the opportunity.
103.7 The Oasis went on the air two months later, with Katy, Jeff, Steve Hibbard (who’d been on board since The Horizon’s origins and is now music director) and Blake Williams forming the core on-air talent. In another unusual move for radio, an industry that often changes hosts as often as you change your shirt, this group has remained intact five years later, with the additions of Barbara Fox, Jeff Gelder,and Tony Wise.
To some, it might seem a leap to start an independent station in an era when corporations rule the airwaves. To Don, it was natural. “I can’t be kept underneath someone’s thumb,” he says. The Oasis team is similar, each independent, driven and ready to take on whatever needs doing to make the station a success. And most of all, each shares Don’s—and their listeners’—passion for music.
Katy, who grew up in a musical household and plays music herself, appreciates the genre’s musicianship. “In radio, this is the only format I would consider doing.… The music just speaks to me,” she says. “There’s so much creativity and so much knowledge these musicians have. These are astonishing brilliant musicians that we’re presenting on the air.”
“We’re dramatically more experimental in our music than stations that are corporate stations,” Don says. He blames corporate consultancies for the format’s death; as they recommended stations play only the top-performing music in focus groups, the stations lost their identity and local personalities. The DJ’s role—introducing audiences to new music—was also lost.
The Oasis plays the greats—including guitarist and singer/songwriter George Benson, saxophonist David Sanborn, Sting, Brazilian jazz pianist Eliane Elias, and nouveau flamenco guitarist Ottmar Liebert—and introduces its listeners to new talents, such as vocalist Lindsey Webster and instrumentalist Vincent Ingala. Bands and musicians must meet a high bar to get on the airwaves. Steve Hibbard and the hosts levy their collective 200 years in radio and deep passion for the format when choosing whom to play. “We’re not the same station we were five years ago,” Don says. “The music keeps evolving.”
They also get the audience involved, hosting monthly preview parties at Mykonos Café during which the listeners can rate their favorites. And the station listens, galvanizing a level of adaptability out of reach for many mainstream stations.
“We love our listeners,” adds Katy, who along with Jeff leads the Mykonos gatherings. “We know many of [the listeners] personally. We’ll take the time to meet with them.”. Often, these meetings take place at the four or five concerts the station produces each year, including its fifth birthday celebration this month.
“We have a responsibility to treat our listeners with the very highest respect.… We do the best we can to treat them with love, respect and care, and to make their day a little bit better,” Don says. “This is not something we just show up and do, this is a labor of love.”
Once on the air, the songs are often bookended with expert commentary from the hosts—a quality lost in today’s streaming music services like Pandora and Spotify.
In addition to a challenging media environment, the station launched in 2012 in the midst of the Great Recession, and Don doesn’t pull any punches about the station’s struggle to navigate the state’s dire economy, even as other top-100 markets elsewhere in the U.S. have recovered. “We have [advertising] clients that have been with us day one, hour one,” Don says. These staples, like Brothers Electro Mechanical, Monroe’s restaurant and New Mexico Bank and Trust, have benefited from The Oasis’s uniquely engaged audience.
After years in the industry and five on the air as The Oasis, Don, Katy, Jeff and the others behind The Oasis feel lucky to be making it work. As Don said, “Think of it: We get to come play radio every day!”
Listen to The Oasis at 103.7 in Albuquerque and 95.9 in Santa Fe. Celebrate the station’s fifth birthday with its Love & Romance Concert featuring saxophonist Jeff Kashiwa and electro-jazz collective Four80East Feb. 12 at 7 p.m. at Albuquerque Marriott Pyramid North.
Story by Ashley M. Biggers