SALT LAKE CITY — When Joe McQueen, the 98-year-old jazz saxophone legend from Ogden, accidentally pinned Brad Wheeler’s body between two cars, Wheeler’s whole life changed.
“And my leg exploded from behind my knee down to my calf,” Wheeler recalled. “You want to see it?”
Pulling up his pant leg, Wheeler revealed the scars from the accident. Streaks of purple-maroon skin run down his right calf. He and McQueen were on their way to a radio fundraiser when it happened. When Wheeler's leg was first sewn up, it didn’t take, and he got gangrene. He then received a skin graft and spent weeks recuperating in a hospital burn unit.
“I mean, there’s stuff that you see in the burn unit,” Wheeler said. “People are burnt from head to toe, you know — people that you get to be good friends with, and people that you watch pass away. It’s an eye-opening experience.”
Monday marks two years since that accident. It’s what led Wheeler, widely recognized in Utah by his radio DJ name, “Bad Brad,” to the new office where he now sits. No, it’s not at 90.9 KRCL, where Wheeler was the station’s drive time DJ for a decade. Now he’s at 99.9 KUAA, the Utah Arts Alliance's new multilingual radio station that launched in October. Wheeler joined KUAA earlier this year as director of programming.
The accident and its accompanying stint in the burn unit was a wake-up call, Wheeler said. He began studying meditation, and he left KRCL last June after realizing he and the station were going in different directions.
Talking to Wheeler now, he seems fairly Zen — phrases like “sometimes you hold on to something too tight, it doesn’t help you” and “with good intentions, good things happen” regularly escape his lips, albeit in the blue collar, radio DJ tone for which he’s become so recognizable.
At this point, Wheeler’s KUAA office still feels like an incomplete sketch: A few microphones, monitors and CD decks are scattered about with an old mixing console sitting atop a large desk. Most of that equipment was donated by fans and well-wishers.
“Literally, this radio station feels like Johnny Cash’s ‘One Piece At A Time,’” he said. “It’s all slowly coming together.”
The Cash reference is fitting, especially for someone like Wheeler. He’s handpicked KUAA’s current song list, which has 10,906 songs. It’s a staggeringly diverse mix of old blues, rock and country from all over the world. KUAA’s programming is one-third English music and one-third Spanish music with the other third dedicated to songs in other languages.
Wheeler doesn’t claim to be a world music expert, however.
“I feel like I need to create something for everyone, but I also know that I’m just one guy,” he said.
The task in front of him is fairly tough: Play diverse bilingual music that will entice folks who don’t normally listen to it, stay cohesive and create “stationality,” as he calls it, meaning station identity, and drum up interest throughout Salt Lake City.
His solution? Much of the music in his 10,906-song playlist is foreign-language versions of classic American pop songs. Wheeler said he’s got 25 versions of Duke Ellington's “Caravan” and 13 versions of “Louie Louie.”
“There’s probably no other radio station in America that plays ‘Wooly Bully’ in as many languages as we do,” he said. “And who even knows what they’re saying in ‘Wooly Bully’ in any language? But it’s a universal feeling that you feel — ‘wooly buuuuullllyyyy!’
“It creates nostalgia in you,” he continued. “But it’s not real because you’ve never heard it before, yet you know that melody.”
KUAA’s current sound will evolve, though, as Wheeler and other Utah Arts Alliance members incorporate new DJs, hosts and programs. Wheeler said he’s excited to get audition tapes and show pitches. He’s also prepping to helm his drive-time show again.
As for how the station will divvy up its time exactly, he’s still not sure. Salt Lake City’s demographics, Wheeler said, have changed a lot in the past five years. Doing a true multicultural radio station has perhaps never been more difficult in Utah.
“How do you tackle it?” Wheeler asked. “Is it like the United Nations, does every country get a show?”2 comments on this story
Wheeler has his share of international experience. He was actually born in England. A station like KUAA, he said, feels culturally important right now.
“I believe in humanity, I believe in culture, I believe that we are all citizens of one planet,” he said. “It is kind of an exciting time to listen to the radio, isn’t it?”
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly attributed the song “Caravan” to Van Morrison. The song was originally written by Duke Ellington and Juan Tizol.