ALAMEDA -- Many Alameda residents recognize Diane Smithem as the featured singer for the USS Hornet Band.
She brings excellent vocal phrasing and syncopation to classic jazz and big band standards like "Stormy Weather," "I Thought About You" and "Summertime" to performances aboard the Hornet as well as other venues in Fremont and in Alameda. However, in addition to her singing, Smithem is also one of the first women licensed as a broadcast engineer.
"I think it's wonderful that Alameda will have a radio station for the first time since KJAZ," Smithem said. " I've always loved to sing, so when I moved to Alameda in 1977, I began singing in convalescent homes, then auditioned for the Hornet Band in 2002, and have been singing with them since. We have a great, well seasoned group of musicians directed by Ken Solomon (on sax) and co-directed by Bob Wiseman on stand up bass. We are so sad that trombonist and featured singer Bob Fitzgerald will be leaving the band soon."
When asked what motivated her to radio, she replied, "I knew from the time I was in high school I wanted to be a radio actress. I was a speech and drama major. I didn't want to go into television as an actress, it just didn't have the same magic for me as radio. Radio was called 'theater of the mind, and I loved theater, so radio was my choice."
After attending college at San Jose State, she worked as a copywriter for KSJO, San Jose during the 1960s. In order to work as a broadcast engineer, she attended a school in Los Angeles to earn her FCC license. She then moved to San Francisco during the early 1960s, hoping to work as a radio announcer for KSFR, "but they wouldn't hire a woman at that time as on-air talent, so my job was to take transmitter readings on San Bruno mountain," Smithem said.
Because she had her license, she was then hired at KNEW in Oakland in 1967.
"I finally did get a show on air entitled 'Date with Diane' while at KNEW, Oakland. I let our listeners know what events were going on in Oakland. That became my signature show, and it was lots of fun," she said.
Smithem was the first female broadcast engineer hired at KQED Channel 9 in 1969.
"The man who hired me said he needed me in order to keep the guys on their toes," she said. "I worked as broadcast engineer, camera, audio and some lighting. I was nervous, of course, as the first woman hired. Only one fellow really gave me a hard time, but that was because of jealousy. I had a first-class license and he didn't. Remember that women didn't work in pant suits or jeans in those days. We wore skirts and high heels to work, and he had me climbing ladders up on the roof, on very windy days to fix equipment."
After leaving KQED in 1972, Ms. Smithem joined KNBR radio in San Francisco. In addition to broadcast engineering, she became the KNBR "snow bunny" giving local ski reports and camping conditions for 32 different radio stations and some TV channels.
"While still working at KNBR, Don Sherwood of KSFO and I made many commercials for Shilling Spices. He was 'Super Spice Agent Number One' and I was his girl 'Rosemary' during the 1970s. It really was lots of fun, and I was finally on-air talent," she said.
During her career, Smithem has worked for KQED, KKHI, KFAX, KSFR, KNEW and KGO TV. In 1991, she became the voice for Pacific Bell telephone for 20 years, and has done extensive voice over work in film.
"One of the reasons I'm excited about Alameda Community Radio, is because it will provide experience for all ages and encourage the diversity of talent here in Alameda," she said.
Smithem can be heard singing with the USS Hornet Band from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday during Living Ship Day, as well as Memorial Day and Veterans Day. She will also be performing with "The Hornet Trio plus Diane" soon at the High Street Station.
Alameda Community Radio programs can be heard on the Internet at alamedacommunityradio.net. For information about programs and events, call 510-394-4227.