Local radio man left big city for gold country
Jon Neff relaxes during a commercial break for his “Roaring Road Radio” show on KFOK FM radio in Georgetown. Courtesy photo
By James Gledhill
By all accounts, Jon Neff had a good life growing up in New York, long before he became a general manager, board trustee and on-air personality at Georgetown’s community radio station, KFOK 95.1 FM. He was born in “da Bronx” and raised in blue-collar Yonkers, N.Y., adjacent to New York City on the Hudson River.
But like many area music figures, his life’s journey was deeply affected by music in his formative years and it changed his ambitions.
“The Beatles was my first real love of music at age 7 and I loved the British Invasion bands like the Yardbirds, Rolling Stones, Animals and Kinks,” said Neff. “But I grew up on California psychedelic music as a teenager, which helped fuel my thirst to move out West someday.”
In the meantime, growing up in the Grassy Sprain section of Yonkers, he attended school and studied classical piano from a neighbor who had graduated the Julliard Academy.
“I remember performing at his students’ end-of-year recital and it was a great experience,” Neff added.
In his formative years, Neff was a neighbor of soon-to-be rock legend Steven Tyler, and his older brother actually co-founded the legendary band Aerosmith.
“My brother Ray was best friends with Steven in high school. After graduating, he moved to Boston where they formed the band, but he was eventually replaced by bassist Brad Whitford,” Neff said.
Neff said his favorite memory of the band was going backstage at Aerosmith’s first Madison Square Garden appearance in 1975, when Ray was the road manager.
“I met several A-list celebrities at the after-party in the hotel, including a very intoxicated and soon-to-be famous young actress who was badgering Steve to the point that he tried to get her interested in me,” he said laughing.
His father, John, was a World War II veteran who participated in perhaps the most notorious campaign in U.S. history.
“My dad was on the beach at Normandy. He was a machine gunner on an armored personnel carrier and a combat mechanic — could fix anything quickly,” Neff said proudly. “He somehow made it through without a scratch on him and received service medals for North Africa, Italy and Normandy.”
Neff is the proud father of two twin daughters, Kayleigh and Jemma, who are also finding their musical roots.
Kayleigh is graduating this spring from Boston University with dual degrees in classical trumpet performance and economics. She was a drum major at Union Mine High School and played in its jazz band. Jemma marched flute and played saxophone in jazz band alongside her sister.
“Both of my daughters have remarkable natural music ability that transcends their dad’s,” Neff boasted proudly.
Jon Neff enjoys a light moment with old neighborhood friend Steven Tyler of Aerosmith before a 2012 concert at Staples Center in Los Angeles. Courtesy photo
Remembering the music
After receiving his bachelor of science from State University of New York, Neff was recruited by Bechtel Power Corporation in San Francisco as an engineering consultant to the power generation industry. With the musical influences of his childhood ringing in his ears, Neff made the big move out West.
“It was a life-changing decision for sure,” he said. “I was already interested in California from the music and when the job offer presented itself I knew I had to take it.”
Neff eventually settled in the Sierra Springs community more than 30 years ago, after contracting as an engineering consultant for SMUD.
“I enjoyed my career, and my last job was working as a college administrator for facility management,” he added.
Still, Neff continued to pursue his own musical passions, both inside and outside of the radio station.
“I play acoustic, rhythm guitar and I love to sing — even if it’s off-key,” he said. “I sang in glee club for six years, so what I might lack in pitch control I make up for in youthful enthusiasm.”
Neff said he enjoys most all genres of music.
“I love listening to and hosting local musical artists, especially those expressing the rock and folk-rock genres,” he said. “Outlaw country is indigenous to our region and has special appeal to me too.”
Inside the radio station, Neff is the host of his weekly radio program called “Roaring Road Radio” on KFOK. He has been building the program on-air for almost three years since he retired in 2016.
“I was operating a drive-thru coffee shop in Placerville and one day ‘Runaway Heather’ (host of the Melting Pot program on KFOK) discovered me, saying I had a good face for radio,” said Neff. “She asked me to DJ in the booth one Saturday and I was hooked.”
About the station
The goal of Roaring Road Radio, Neff explained, is to provide an open, community performance platform for local and regional musical artists, poets, comedians, writers, producers and lovers of the arts.
“‘Roaring Road’ is slang the pioneers used to describe the wagon trains roaring down our Western Slope,” he said.
Neff said he gets great personal joy and satisfaction from hosting his program on the all-volunteer station each week, with help from his program technician, Dee. To date, he’s hosted 109 episodes of his show live on the air, including live performances by about 40 acts.
“I feel honored and privileged that the local music community has been so supportive of my show and helped me to enhance each broadcast,” he said. “Most importantly, I also hope that my encouragement and exposure of the artists helps them along in their musical journeys.
“Although I don’t have great ratings (yet), I appreciate every one of my listeners, especially my mom, my friend Merle and my dog, Darcy,” he added.
When asked what makes the local music scene so unique and vibrant, Neff had an insightful answer: “Because we are geographically isolated in the Sierra, our local music is less influenced by major media markets and therefore more organic and original than more densely-populated regions.”
As a KFOK board trustee, Neff has ambitious plans for the radio station.
“Our goals for 2019 are to improve our content, obtain more participation from our members, enhance our public image and expand our exposure to new listeners for our underwriters,” he said.
When he’s not involved with music, Neff enjoys exploring the region he calls home.
“I raft every season on the American River — it’s my passion,” he said. “I like to ride my motorcycle year round. I also love swimming in the summer at our community pool and playing in the fields with my wild dog (and radio show ‘co-host’), Darcy.”
Even in his spare time, Neff keeps music close by his side.
“I love being on the radio, hanging out at open mics and listening to local live music wherever it’s played,” Neff said. “I’ve developed a deep appreciation for local musicians and their music and I’m humbled to be a part of their community.”
For more information on “Roaring Road Radio,” visit kfok.org.