Sound & Vision: John Richards on the Evolution of the Mom Show

Sound and Vision
Emily Fox
photo by Brittney Bush Bollay

Coming up on Wednesday, November 13th, KEXP presents our annual Death and Music event at Town Hall, an evening of special musical guests, personal stories from past years of the program, and an exploration into the intersection of these two distinct veins of life and how they feed into one another. The event evolved out of the Mom Show. Now in its 15th year, DJ John Richards will broadcast this year's Mom Show on Thursday, November 14th from 6-10 AM PST. 

For KEXP's Sound & Vision, Emily Fox spoke with Richards about the origins of the Mom Show and how it's grown over the years. This special interview will air this Saturday, November 16th but you can read excerpts from their chat below beforehand.

KEXP: I understand that this started from something that organically happened about 15 years ago?

John Richards: Yeah. And you could even go further back to 2000 when we were — I think we were still KCMU, maybe we were KEXP — but my dad had been battling cancer for years. We had a strained relationship. And then he remarried. But at the end of his life, you know, my brother and I, we were pretty much it, like everybody else was gone. And so we'd be out there quite a bit seeing my father as he was getting sicker and sicker. And after leaving his home that day, that night I was hosting the local music show. I was on the air like six, seven days a week then. And he died. And I got word that he had died. And so I got on the air... 

During your shift? You were just going to power through it? 

Yeah, it was right before that. And so I was young and kind of dumb and naive and just thought, "What do you do? I guess I'll just get on the air." Because I've been dealing with the dying, the process for so long that for me, his death was a bit of a relief that he wasn't suffering. He suffered a lot near the end. But, yeah, I didn't think to take it off. So, I got on the air. And I have to say, it was that night that I really became who I am on the air. 

How so? 

Well, I was myself a bit, but I still was trying to be a "DJ." There's only so much I could try. You know, I wasn't very good. So that didn't really work for me, like trying to be a "pro DJ."

Like a "DJ persona" versus like just being really open and vulnerable and honest? 

Yeah. And then I was struggling with like, "am I supposed to sound a little more commercial or am I suppose to be more NPR?" I wasn't quite sure. I've always kind of been in the middle of that.

And so I got on the air and I started the show off, "hey, this is Audioasis and I'm John Richards and my dad died. He died today. And I'm just going to play local music songs that I think means something." And I picked a bunch of songs out before the show, and that is the most response I've ever gotten at the time. It was just phones at the time 'cause it's 2000 and we're in the basement of Kane Hall, I'll never forget it. And I just thought, wow, I guess I can be myself.

And so fast forward again, a few more years, and unfortunately, my mom was diagnosed with lung cancer just after my dad's passing. I didn't talk that openly about it. I kept my mom's privacy a bit, but she was a listener, too. She streamed over in Spokane. I'd been going over to chemo and stuff, but she had her lungs drained. And then that day I got a call from my brother and he said, "She's dying. You need to get here now." I had just had a baby two weeks prior to that. So, my first son Arlie had just been born and we're here. I didn't pack, we just got in the car, like a movie. Got in the car. I think I made the difference in speeding with a baby in your car and seeing your mom in time before she was dead. And I remember that. Like, which do I do? So, I straddled that 70 mile per hour line. I had made that drive a lot over the course of the last few years, especially when she was dying. So I sped over there, we got to the hospital, same hospital my brother was born in, in Spokane, where I grew up. I walked in and she had a big community there. She worked for the police department. And everybody knew my mom. And so we were there. And I walked in with a baby. And the chaplain, the police chaplain, you know, had the whole uniform on. It was so crowded he was giving her last rites, holding on to her big toe. I'll never forget that. That's the only area he could reach, you know, kind of looking over her as they were. She was going to, you know, pass. And so I was able to get into the crowd and kind of say goodbye. And then I remember walking out of that into the hallway and I just burst into tears. And a nurse just came walking up and just hugged me. And I'll never forget that woman. And I just thought, "man, this is it." But it wasn't! She woke up and she asked what everyone was doing there. I'll never forget that. "What are you all doing here?" That's kind of where I got a little bit of my sarcasm, was from her. We were really close. She was my best friend. So it was hard to see that.

And then we spent the rest of our time getting her the hell out of there. She didn't want to die in hospital, so we managed to get her a police escort. She had some connections there. A police escort to the streets of Spokane. I remember her telling me when we were driving in the ambulance and she said, this is the last drive I'll ever make. You know, moments like that, that nobody prepares you for. And so we got to the home I grew up in. Put her in living room. Set up a bed. You know, did everything. And I was there for two months. She lived two months actually. It was the most pretty amazing time. And I had to tell listeners where I was. So I really opened up about it. We used to do e-mail playlists. We didn't have social media. Way back '04, you know, the old days. Isn't that crazy? But I got on my MySpace and I got on my Friendster and I told people. [laughs] But really, I still have that e-mail and said, hey, you know, my mom's dying and here's where I'm at. I went back and forth a lot. And she passed. And then I came back for the funeral. My mom, when she dying on her deathbed, we had a lot of conversations. It was different than my dad. We didn't have regrets. We didn't have issues. We had great conversations. You know, and she gave me advice for when she's gone. And I still remember it. And we talked a lot about music. And she really got into music listening to my show, which was a really nice compliment. She'd be like, "who are those Echo and the Bunny People?" "Echo and the Bunnymen?" "Yeah. Yeah, I really like them." Or Sigur Ros. "Who are they?" And she discovered a lot of stuff. And so we went over and we made her playlist for her funeral. 

Together? You and your mother? 

Yeah, and I gave the eulogy. We kind of worked that out together and then we worked out the music together. That was kind of my role in the family. I have an older brother and younger sister, but we all had our roles. You know, Eric, my brother, he's the one kind of in charge of the estate, doing all the important stuff. You don't want me doing that. My sister was there kind of for the day-to-day, delivering morphine and things like that for my mom. And then I was like her buddy, you know, who worked with her, just where she was mentally, and talking about life after death and things like that. So we talked music and we created the whole playlist together and got it approved by her. And I remember going to the church and church music was playing. I became, just, you know, pissed. In my mind, I kicked open the door. I didn't. But in my mind, I kicked open the church door. And this nice 80-year-old woman is sitting there. And I'm just, "Why is this playing? Music is so important to us! What is happening? I have music." And she goes, "oh, no one told me." The first song I had on that list from her was The Jayhawks' "Will I See You in Heaven." We're not a religious family. You know, we weren't talking about heaven or life after. There was never, ever discussion about this kind of stuff. But my mom really liked The Jayhawks. She discovered them on the show. And I remember that song meant so much to me that she had found the Jayhawks on my show. I will give you some advice, Emily, if you interview a band for the first time, maybe don't start with, "hey, I played your music at my mom's funeral" 'cause it kinda killed the mood. 

Are you saying you did that? 

I did that. I totally did that because I had a chance to thank them and I did.

So, we played these songs. And then I came back to Seattle, doing the show. And then, you know, the year kind of passes. November 13th was the day she passed. And so I was on the air November 13th. I don't think I even woke up in the morning and went, "oh, it's the anniversary." I always think of her birthday. I think of July 17th more because she was born then. And then it just hit me. And so I start playing songs that year about her funeral, like the songs that were played at her funeral and songs that meant something to me. And then in that first show, I remember playing the song that I was listening to a lot. So it wasn't just about her funeral. This was the different part, right? I started with, "oh, we'll just play songs in her funeral." I wasn't a speaker on death or grief or anything. I was just grieving on the air and there was a song I kept playing when I was driving back and forth. And it just... We've even asked this on Sound and Vision, like "what song was written for you?"

You feel like the lyrics were about you or exactly what you're going through? 

And I realize a lot of these are. I get a chill just saying it. And the song is Snow Patrol's "Run." And there was a moment I was listening to it so much and I've said this before on the air, like it seemed like every time I was driving back and forth, it was pouring rain and my joke is like "John-Cusack-in-a-movie rain" because if you ever watch him in the rain, it's just been dumped on and it's just like not natural rain. And I thought of myself as him sort of in a movie because it would just pour rain as I'm driving across the state of Washington. And there was a particular time I hadn't been emotional and I was on my own on this drive with my baby, with Arlie. And I played this song, Snow Patrol's "Run" really loud. And I remember cry-singing to this song, like yelling the lyrics to this this amazing song. It's one of those where I thought it was written for me. And there's another one that has a home on every Mom Show. 

So the Mom Show continues each year to get sort of official. This is how it goes here. And so the next year, I started thinking more, more. And there is a song that, again, I creepily thought was written for me, and it was by Alexi Murdoch. And actually the Live at KEXP version to me is actually even better. It's more emotional, is more stripped down, and it's about standing there with your brother and sister and just how emotional you are. And I don't necessarily know what he's singing about. I just know there's loss in the song and he has his brother and sister standing by. And like I'm shocked a song like that exists. So I play this every year on the Mom Show. And it has become a song that other people who go through death with their siblings have kind of latched on to. So, the Mom Show continues each year and I think each year I get more comfortable talking about it. Right. So now we're a couple of years after 2004. It's becoming more about listeners, becoming more about their grief and their cause. You know, everyone's going to face it if they haven't already. So more and more songs started to come up around situations. And one of them is the loss of someone who's not gone yet. Dementia, Alzheimer's. Dealing with that loss that they're still here. And I actually count myself. My father-in-law is currently going through dementia. It's pretty brutal, because it's hard for him to remember who he is and who is my wife and his grandkids are, though he still lights up when he sees our little one. So I hadn't had experience with that. And I got a lot of people who had been dealing with this loss that's not gone. And they feel like nobody's talking about it. Right. So this song I play is from Chocolate Genius. It is hard. It is hard for people to listen to sometimes. But "My Mom" is a song that for people deal with dementia. It's meant a lot because again, with the Mom Show and with music — I talk about this all the time — sometimes you can't come up with those words that you need or you can't form the things you need to say. And so maybe these songs aren't written about you, but maybe written for you. 

So I came back after a few years of the Mom Show and I was able to deal with my mom's death more than my father's because she and I were buddies. And we talked a lot about it. Whereas my dad — and people relate to this, when I talk about it — my dad and I had just this totally strained relationship. And for me, this song's kind of interesting because in Michael Franti's "Never Too Late" — again, this is a live at KEXP version, too — I found it to be just... it's just, you know...

I mean, Michael Franti, as a person, is all about positivity. 

Yeah. And so he sits down to KEXP, starts singing about his father. And so in the song "Never Too Late" for him, it's about that. It's never too late for his father, who just was not a good father, not a good man. And then he was. And I couldn't relate to that because my dad never really came out of it. But what happened for me, when my dad died is, is that instead of waiting for him to say "I'm sorry for being absent, for being an alcoholic," for many, many abusive things he said and did... There was never an apology and I realized he couldn't. And so the best thing I ever did. The best advice I have for any of you out there, if you can find it somewhere in you, forgive these people. And so when he passed, I've never looked back on that and thought I wish we'd reconciled because we couldn't. And so for me, this song came and I thought, well, this is both of the people who can forgive and it's also for the people who can change. 

What do you want people to take out of Death & Music and the Mom Show? 

Well, it's that message — you hear it a thousand times from me — "you're not alone." I think the most lonely you feel is when someone dies because they're gone. You know, I don't know how else to put it, they're gone. And no matter what you believe in, they're not with you. And so what I want you to feel is you're not alone, that there's other people dealing with grief, while everyone's situation is unique. You're absolutely dealing with different grief. Amy and I deal with completely different areas of grief in different relationships. And the main thing is, I want you to feel that there's hope for you, that your loved one or the person you're missing would want you to continue on. I know I would want that around the people around me. I know it's easier said than done. But I would want that of everyone around me. And so I think when we talk about it, we normalize grief. That to me is the main thing. You normalize these feelings that you have 20 years after someone dies. My mom died 15 years ago, the "get over it" syndrome or, you know, "oh, she lived such a long life," you know? No, I want her here. That's dumb. I want her alive. I want these people alive. This is stupid. And I want people just to feel like we can be together and both to grieve no matter how long it's been or what your relationship is, that you don't have to apologize like, "oh, they're my grandpa, they're 98," OK? Well, they were always around. So, of course, you're sad. And maybe they raised you. You don't know a person's relationship to the person they lost. So, be it your friend or your family member, whatever. I just want people to feel like no matter how you're grieving, that you're not alone. 

And listeners are a part of the equation as well. 

Big time and all year now, too. It's funny. We talk about the Mom Show and the Death & Music event. And it's two days out of the year. I probably get a message every day, Emily, like every day, like someone passed and could you play a song? Or, someone passed, I'm finally able to talk about it. I just got an e-mail the other day that I haven't even talked about. Someone who actually volunteered here years ago and I had written him back and forth, he's having a real struggle with mental health. And we just had a nice conversation and he thanked me for helping him and moved on. Well, his Mom wrote me to say he died just the other day and and that she had gone through his e-mail and saw our exchanges and said, "you know, you're like the only other person he opened up to besides me. And thank you for giving him hope. The way you talked about not being alone and your show, your Music Heals shows, meant so much to him."

Yeah, I mean, that's what it's become. I'm not saying there's silver lining. They're gone. I'd rather my mom here than any of this to have happened. OK, but they are gone. And, what can you do with this? And so for me, you know, at the end of the day, how proud would she be that her legacy has caused all of these people to feel less alone and all of these people to be able to talk about death and all of these musicians and artists to connect and KEXP as an organization — which I firmly believe is super important in our world — is better because of it. So, yeah, it's really grown. That's crazy to think about. 

KEXP's Sound & Vision airs every Saturday morning from 7-9 AM PT, featuring interviews, artistry, commentary, insight, and conversation to that tell broader stories through music, and illustrate why music and art matter. You can also hear more stories in the new Sound & Vision Podcast. New episodes are out every Tuesday. Subscribe now.