If San Diego has a voice, it may be the plummy bass of Chris Cantore. Until December 2007, the Brooklyn native was an audible fixture on 91X’s Cantore in the Morning, his 5:00–10:00 a.m. show, an anchor of alternative rock and San Diego bands for 11 years. Cantore’s timbre is startling; he’s often ID’d as “somebody famous” at a drive-through or checkout counter. It — he — sounds like a baritone sax, more Gerry Mulligan than Lisa Simpson. Its long-boarder’s cool stretches those mellifluous o’s: “I’m so-o stoked, man.” Cantore’s been compared to the snarky chafe of Adam Carolla, host of a morning show on CBS Radio in Los Angeles and former cohost of radio and TV’s Loveline and TV’s Man Show. But Cantore’s tone is lighter, lacks bitterness, steers clear of cheeky judgment. His optimism is irrepressible; it has the buoyancy of a surfer expecting that the next wave will be the one.
It’s summer and I’ve got a ringside seat with His Resonance at a café in Little Italy. Chewing a raisin muffin in between sips of a wild berry and green tea smoothie topped with whipped cream, the 38-year-old is wearing knee-length cargo shorts and flat leather slip-ons. On one calf there’s a gnarly bruise-blue tattoo. He’s parked his Beemer across the street, surfboard roped on top. He needs to keep an eye on it. “Although,” he says, “stealing a surfboard is the worst karma of all.”
Right now, Cantore is in soft-landing mode. Being dumped by 91X messed with his head; like most current radio castaways, he’s reinventing himself. Cantore went to high school in Los Angeles, but he later graduated from San Diego State, and the area’s coastal vibe and small-town feel convinced him to stay. He says he “made a commitment to myself that, because I was so in love with this town, especially 20-plus years ago, I never wanted to leave and go back to L.A.” For work, he wanted the “creative energy” of entertainment, be it screenwriting, acting, music, or the music biz. He applied at all media outlets — the Reader, the Union-Tribune, every TV and radio station. Only one music promoter called, and he was hired as a gofer: “I’d do the [Smashing] Pumpkins’ laundry, take the Beastie Boys out for camera equipment, get Henry Rollins his vegetarian food. It was awesome. I thought I’d made it when I did that stuff. I was making five bucks an hour.”
At Star 100.7, Cantore answered the a.m. phones. “I knew nothing about morning radio, ‘Jeff and Jer,’ ‘Dave, Shelley, and Chainsaw.’ Like, I was sleeping.” But on air, Cantore’s attitude was “fearless.” Having acted in local productions, he says he understood the “theater of being on the air.” The stint at Star put him on the Ear Map. He carried the local persona — good guy, but a bit trashy — to fine ratings and reviews.
In 1997, Cantore got on board 91X. Back in the day, 91X was San Diego’s music citadel, built on grunge music and anything smelling “like teen spirit.” Cantore recalls the hallowed halls of the station on Pacific Highway, where he began working. “That studio reeked of the radio station’s history: It was the most disgusting space — spit, vomit, semen — stained into the carpet and the couch, postcards, dust, ghetto mikes, dirt on the board, razorblade marks from friggin’ jocks of years past doing friggin’ lines of coke off the friggin’ board.”
Cantore had a great run. He attributes success at 91X “not to my talent — there were plenty of people who did it way better than me — but it was my passion for this town. I never put myself above the listeners.” It was also his ability for self-parody, a contemporary version of which, in a 5:57 video, is available on YouTube: “Whatever Happened to Chris Cantore?” In it he asks everyday folks (those coming in and out of a 7-Eleven) how their world has changed since Cantore in the Morning is no longer on the air. The flummoxed looks and dopey rejoinders are worthy of Leno’s “Jaywalking” on The Tonight Show.
Why is radio under duress these days? Cantore gives a perfect example. This past September, Street Scene, San Diego’s annual weekend outdoor live-music bash, returned to the street. It had been hijacked by corporate overlords and moved to what used to be Coors Amphitheater. “I hated it,” Cantore says, that Street Scene, a homegrown entity, was sold on the cultural marketplace to the highest bidder. “What was wrong is that they blew off the flippin’ core. They told the core to go to hell and just focused on the masses. Once you lose your core, you’re done. Done.”
Clear Channel Communications, which today owns some 900 radio stations across America, bought 91X in 1999; the company moved the station to Granite Ridge Road in 2005, “and it changed overnight,” Cantore says. “Suddenly there were too many cooks in the kitchen.” He says that “We” — including his good friend Hilary Chambers, another local veteran, canned this June from another Clear Channel holding — “just got lost in a sea of white walls and cubicles. And policies that were like…What? I was asked to talk about a car wash, some new sales program. You get all these programs forced on you. ‘Here’s a new policy; we’re doing this every Friday; all the stations in the entire cluster are going to do Coupon Fridays.’ ” Cantore laughs, as much at his mimicking the brass as the idiocy of their policies. “I’m, like, ‘Wow. We’re blowing off the core. We’re allowing anyone we want to swoop in on the action.’ ”
Prior to the corporate takeover, Cantore says, “We blew it up, we were killing it” — “blowing” and “killing” being, in radio jive, good things. Then came the suits. “Trust me, man,” he continues, “there were so many jocks in this market who were grabbing their ankles and telling management, “ ‘Yes, yes. I’ll do whatever you want.’ Not me, man.”