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May 30-June 6, 2007

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Laura Ellen Hopper

Lost icon: KPIG's Laura Ellen Hopper died Monday at age 57.


Laura Ellen Hopper, R.I.P.

By Steve Palopoli

In 15 years of writing about this community, trying to explain what Laura Ellen Hopper meant to it is one of the hardest things I've ever had to do. As someone who looked up to her, and has seen how she opened thousands upon thousands of ears and minds both here in Santa Cruz and across the country and the world, it seems impossible.

But one thing that her husband and longtime KPIG accomplice Frank Caprista told me has burned itself into my brain:

"She was probably the most honest person I ever met."

She certainly kept radio honest. It wasn't just that she was the founder, program director and music director for the best commercial radio station in the country. She was the iconoclast. She was true north. She could singlehandly make you feel like FM was going to be OK, like music was going to be OK.

Anyone who knew Laura Ellen remembers the intensity in her eyes, that burn that made you think "nothing can stop this woman."

And nothing did, really, until Monday morning. Early on Memorial Day, Laura Ellen died of complications from lung cancer, at age 57. As I write this, her friends and loved ones are still in utter shock. It was just two weeks ago that she was first diagnosed with cancer, after having sought treatment for a bothersome cough. She had dealt with health problems in the past, including chronic rheumatoid arthritis, but even late last week she was considering plans for treatment. Then her liver started to shut down on Friday--the cancer had spread there, too. Suddenly, she was gone.

As of this morning, the KPIG faithful have just heard the news, and the outpouring is incredible. Hundreds of emails have flooded the station, and the phones are ringing off the hook. Her longtime friend "Sleepy" John Sandidge, who has worked with her as a DJ for years, is one of those trying to keep up with the response. It doesn't surprise him, but you can hear in his voice that he's overwhelmed by the sheer power of listeners' affection for Laura Ellen.

"She defined a genre of music," he says. "Just like Bill Monroe defined bluegrass, Laura Ellen put together a genre called Americana."

Indeed, before Laura Ellen, maverick country on the radio was like the weather--lots of people talked about it, but no one did anything about it. Born in Springfield, Ill., she actually started at a classical station, but her connection to the anti-Nashville-pop movement goes all the way back to the mid-"70s, before anyone knew to call it "Americana," or anything else. After moving to California, Hopper helped found KFAT in Gilroy, and was its program director. KFAT evolved into KPIG, which she founded with attorney Leo Kesselman in 1988. By then, the tribes were beginning to unite, and within a few years Americana was an emerging phenomenon. She was its champion on radio, and fought tooth and nail for the artists whose music she truly believed in, from Robert Earl Keen to the Subdudes, Todd Snider to James McMurtry, and on down the line. Snider perhaps says it best: "I don't think anybody just 'did business' with Laura."

"Laura has always felt like a parent to me," he says. "I called her with my new lyrics, I just always felt so close to her. I loved her so much."

"She always knew what she wanted," says Caprista. "She knew the sound she wanted. She had her own way of doing things and her own way of talking to people, and she stuck to her guns."

Through her years of doing just that--of playing what she believed in rather than what labels appointed the "hit," of saying no when there was so much pressure to say yes, of being willing to say what she thought even when her closest friends disagreed--she made KPIG into a radio station unlike any other, the envy of music lovers everywhere. She will be missed. She will be mourned. She will never be replaced.

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