How Former Gawker Writer Ken Layne Became Joshua Tree’s Desert Oracle – Press Enterprise
Ken Layne moved to the Mojave Desert about fifteen years ago, settling in a place that had fascinated him since childhood.
“Joshua Tree back then was a lot more eccentric than it is now,” says Layne, founder of Desert Oracle, which started as a zine, became a radio show and more recently arrived as a book now. in the pocket. “I mean, you hear this about every place: ‘It used to be cool.’ But it was really quirky.
“It was really cheap to live here,” he says. “And so there were a lot of exiles from the punk and art scenes, from Los Angeles and the Bay Area. There were a lot of interesting characters that were here.
And it turned out that a lot of those people had stories that intrigued him.
“The longer I stayed here, the more weird stories I heard,” Layne says. “I would talk to someone at a garden party in a tiny house in Joshua Tree, and someone would casually mention, ‘Oh, Donovan lived here for 10 years and raised his family. You know, the English pop star.
“Or you would talk to a real estate agent, who would also be a painter and a second-hand dealer, and the usual five things people would do casually to make a living here,” he says. “And he casually mentioned that he had binders full of newsletters from this UFO contact from the 1950s.
“I just realized there was stuff everywhere, interesting stuff,” Layne says. And I was fascinated by that kind of stuff and the kind of unlimited possibility of doing something that wasn’t about the desert as a landscape or an environment or national parks. But just wide open. Anything that catches my eye.
Layne moved to the California desert to live while working for East Coast online publications. He wrote for the New York-based Gawker and then its sister publication, the clever political website Wonkette, which he eventually bought and then later sold.
But all these desert stories kept coming, and Layne says 10 or 11 years ago he started thinking about sharing them on the radio.
“I loved – I still love – playing late night, weird desert radio,” he says. “Art Bell, broadcasting from Pahrump, Nevada was king.”
Then, seven years ago, given Layne’s roots in print and online journalism, he produced the first issue of the Desert Oracle zine, which then began appearing in every gas station, bookstore, market in proximity and other outlets he could persuade to distribute it.
“I wanted it in print, and I never put any online,” Layne says. “I thought it would give it a kind of mystery, just because it would have to be researched a bit. You’d have to subscribe to it or find it in one of our strange little shops in the high desert.
Her look – a bold yellow blanket with a striking black print – was inspired by old desert guides Layne remembered buying in the past. And the stories inside were inspired by everything from early western folktales and folklore, Mark Twain, the gold rush and ghost mines, and all those word of mouth threads that other desert people have transmitted.
“It’s kind of what takes up all the space in my mind where I’ve never learned a foreign language properly,” Layne laughs. “So you accumulate stuff like that for a lifetime.”
This first issue contained stories with titles such as “When Tatooine was Death Valley” and “Dr. Jaeger’s Hibernating Bird” and “Desert Trailers and Hippie Hot Springs in Nevada of the 1970s”, making it abundantly clear that Sunset Magazine or Palm Springs Life was not.
Late night radio
After a few years of the printed version of Desert Oracle, Layne decided to go back to his original idea. He called the owners of independent KCDZ-FM (107.7) in Joshua Tree and asked to meet the owners, Gary and Cindy Daigneault.
“Gary, him and his wife, sat down and I told them what I wanted to do,” Layne says. “He said, ‘You know, I don’t know if I completely understand, but I subscribe to the magazine and I love the magazine. So if you do something that gets that across, I think it’ll be awesome.
Layne says he suggested a Sunday afternoon time slot, where some of the station’s locally produced programs were scheduled.
“He’s like, ‘No, no, no, it can’t be in the day,'” Layne says. “‘It must be a Friday night when people are driving up the hill to come to the desert, and when you start to be able to pick it up on 107.7, you’ll know you’re almost there.'”
Daigneault was so clear that “Desert Oracle Radio” needed to be on at night that he was eventually convinced to cut a popular syndicated Slow Jams show from the Friday 10 p.m. spot.
“He said, ‘We have to deal with this because people are having sex with this,’ Layne said. “And I said, ‘Gary, I don’t know if your listeners are having a lot of sex, you know. , they are older people.
“Maybe they are. Maybe everyone has a much more exciting life than I think.
The program usually opens with a monologue of sorts, with Layne recounting some aspect of the desert and his life. Some weeks there are guests: recent interviews include authors such as Kendra Atleework, whose book “Miracle Country” is a memoir about growing up in the Owens Valley and Eastern Sierra, and Tod Goldberg, whose most recent book, “The Low Desert,” is a collection of short stories that take place exactly where you think.
The show is now syndicated on about 14 radio stations, mostly in the West, Layne says. It’s also available as a podcast on streaming platforms, all of which have expanded the reach of Layne’s idiosyncratic desert chronicles.
“A lot of the show’s listeners aren’t radio listeners,” he says. “So they come intentionally. It’s date radio. They light it at a certain time, they put a fire in the garden, make a joint, whatever.
“I love that part. And it sounds better on radios. you get the little scratches and pops and things like that.
It may not be a show like Slow Jams, but Layne knows that part of his audience listens in bed.
“What I’m often told, and I’ve gotten used to it, I take it as a compliment now, people say, ‘Oh, I love putting on your show when I’m asleep,'” he says. “I’m like, ‘Oh, that’s engaging storytelling.’ But they’re kind of mesmerized by it.
The living desert
Seven years in Desert Oracle and 15 in life in the high desert, Layne says the desert continues to change in good and bad ways.
Instagram-ready views of Joshua trees and rock formations drew younger crowds. Activities such as hiking and mountain biking have attracted more outdoor activities.
“The desert got really interesting, especially for millennials, just when I started doing this,” Layne says. “All of a sudden there were Airbnbs everywhere and Instagram accounts focused on desert stuff.
“I’ve told friends I’ve known for a long time here: I don’t have any places to walk my dog now,” he says. “Sometimes I come back to one and it’s filled with all these fit people on mountain bikes, where, you know, I haven’t seen a soul for years and years.”
There are trade-offs, he says. Many newcomers to the desert are enthusiastic supporters of environmental protection and public lands. But some of the old joys of just being left alone to do whatever you want are getting harder and harder to find.
Layne recently embarked on a live tour for his book that took him from New Orleans, where he lived as a child, to Memphis and across the Southwest to Los Angeles.
While this all benefits his modest Desert Oracle media empire, he says not everyone appreciates him for his attention to the high desert.
“Some people say I helped make it bad,” he says.
A few years ago, on a trip to British Columbia, Layne says he was surprised when he passed three or four expensive boutiques that each had Joshua trees as a backdrop in their displays of fashionable clothes. “All of a sudden it was Joshua trees, and Joshua trees are weird things,” he says.
“People used to say it was a hellscape where nothing good could live, but now people think it’s beautiful,” Layne says. “It’s kind of weird to see it becoming more mainstream, I guess.”