More than a voice behind the microphone

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Photo courtesy of Sterling James

Tiffany James, Staff Writer

Sterling James — “The Bay Baby” — is a breath of fresh air. Her contagious smile is disarming and her greeting reveals her down-to-earth nature: “How are you doing cousin?”

In the age of COVID-19, her bedroom serves a dual purpose — a resting place by night and a studio by day — and provides guests visiting remotely the opportunity to get a glimpse of who she is on and off the air. 

Lips inches away from her microphone, she grabs her headphones as her head starts rocking, waiting for the song “Return of the Mack” by Mark Morrison to end so that she can do her thing.

“The Coronavirus radio show in action from the house during a food bank radiothon” she quipped, noting that it had two of her passions colliding at once — music and community. 

Music has been a part of her world for as long as she can remember.

“I was a music junky, a music junky” James assertively proclaimed as she recalled her mom taking her to her first concert at the age of 12.

Although she loved music, James stumbled into radio after transferring to Clayton Valley High School for woodworking, since she was quite good at it. However, she learned they had a rock radio station — KVHS 90.5 FM — and soon became a DJ. She was recruited by Los Medanos College for its Recording Arts program, and thus began her career in radio. 

“I always been a bit of a talker and happened to also have a deep voice, so you put music, personality, and voice together — you kind of naturally get radio” said James.

And 35 years later radio is still what she does, and much more. Radio has allowed her to do many fascinating things — the breakdown on some of the fashions after the American Music Awards, GRAMMYs, and Oscars all on local television. She has also hosted and emceed numerous radio station events over the years. 

Although James loves these and other big stage events hosted by KBLX with artists like Frankie Beverly and Maze or Whodini, what she really loves doing are small local events. Most of those are non-profit, and she aligns herself with people, organizations, and community activists she appreciates, supports, and can lend her name to. 

“It gives me an opportunity to get fed if you know what I mean” said James as she twisted both of her two long ponytails that fell underneath her black Crown Biz hat she is proud to rock. It was made by a 13-year-old boy named Pharroh, she said, highlighting that advertising local artists’ and designers’ clothes and products is yet another way she supports her community. 

James loves that she can use her name, position, and platform for good.

“It puts me in a community that I love and adore, and they feed my soul, too, and that is a gift”

When it comes to community, there is another aspect of radio many might not think of regarding the responsibility of a DJ — providing listeners with pertinent information. 

“We have had to become news providers as well as music and entertainers” said James.

“Terrestrial radio has had its competitors, of course, going all the way back when television tried to bump us — to all the streaming services and other media places where you can get news” James added, explaining that required radio announcers to be quick and on trend or they will lose their audience to other mediums. 

But, “I try to stay light” she said, because there is so much weight when it comes to news that she does not want to pull herself or her listeners down. To do this and keep listeners informed she explained, “you want to make sure you have your finger on the moral compass of your audience”

Although it is challenging to find a balance of entertainment and breaking news, James is fully equipped at home with everything she needs to run her show — iPad, iPhone, laptop, headphones, and a microphone. She is used to having two or three televisions at the studio broadcasting the local and national breaking news around the clock. She can get the same news from the streaming devices she has at home, but it is ideal to have those multiple visual mediums available to get news within seconds for her listeners. It may look easy, but it takes a lot of skill and behind-the-scenes work. 

James wants those who are interested in being a DJ to realize there is much more to it than being a jock on the radio, showing up, and clocking out. You must build your skill set in many different areas.

“It’s not just about the voice or a personality,” she said.

James explained DJs must know how to run equipment at the studio and at home.

“You must be in front of clients, produce events, juggle management styles and personalities like any other job,” she said.

It also requires a presence on social media, doing Facebook lives, writing blogs, and administration work such as verifying information online and on air. She knows since she has had to produce her own show for as long as she has been in radio.  

As career-driven as she has been since she started in radio, James said producing her own show means finding balance in her personal life.

She is married and the mother of a beautiful 8-year-old daughter she calls “baby girl” As assertive as James is about her passion for community, she is equally passionate when she speaks of “baby girl” who was born on Valentine’s Day. She describes her as a brilliant kid — a water dragon and a tornado of awesomeness. Baby girl is James’ milestone. She gave birth at the age of 41 after trying for more than five years to get pregnant. 

As with everything else, James did what she had to, from acupuncture to obtaining a personal trainer. She stopped drinking and smoking to prime her body to be worthy to conceive. Her hard work paid off.  Baby girl is the center of her world, she said, and she does what she can to protect her — especially with the exposure that comes from being a DJ. However, she is grateful for the job she loves because it affords her the opportunity to walk her daughter to school in the morning, and be home at a decent hour to do homework, cook, and read to her.  

This is her legacy — music, community, and family. James said she would never leave the Bay Area — not even for radio. It would mean she would have to leave family and community. And although she lives in two different worlds, she is the same person. James said she wants to be remembered as a woman who always showed up, who was fun, encouraging, and honest. 

“You knew what you would get with Sterling,” said James. 

And that, for those who know her personally, is a woman who shows up for baby blessings, album releases, when a friend’s mother is sick, and for benefit shows. She is accessible to her listeners, acknowledges the people she meets by name, gives her audience time and energy, and helps serve her community through some tough times with music and information. 

It has been a hell of a ride for James, but she is not going anywhere. Although, she said, she might consider a part-time show when she is about 65 or 70. 

“I will do radio until they throw me out.”