Whether you know her name or not, if you’re really into music in this city, it’s not too big a stretch to say that Karen Leng has made your life better. Over three decades at 3RRR FM, Leng has done exactly what you’d hope a good radio DJ would, embodying the community broadcaster’s spirit by turning Melburnians onto incredible music we otherwise may never have heard.

If this sounds a little over the top, consider that the first time US indie heroes Yo La Tengo toured Australia in 1998, they had only sold 300 records in the entire country.

The reason the band could fly across a pre-iTunes, pre-Spotify and pre-Facebook world, and pack out the Punters Club (R.I.P) and the Corner Hotel, was the support it got from local radio DJs, particularly Leng. Yo La Tengo was one of many acts she introduced to Melbourne through her show Station to Station, which ran on 3RRR from 1986 through the ’90s, focusing on new releases from the US.

Speaking to Broadsheet, Leng takes pains to point out she was far from the only broadcaster filling this role. “After Station to Station finished, I realised a lot of people had found new bands through that program, but there were a lot of other programs on Triple R doing the same thing, a lot of announcers doing what I did,” she says. “I wasn’t unique in that on Triple R, but I do like to think there were a lot of bands I championed in those early days who were then able to tour.”

With the entire history of recorded music accessible to absolutely anyone with broadband, it’s hard to overstate just how much work went into discovering music before the internet.

“In the ’80s and ’90s I used to borrow import records from music stores for my show. A lot of radio DJs did,” Leng says. “A lot of my time was spent tracking down and buying imported music magazines, combing through NMEs, Melody Makers and fanzines, trying to find skerricks of info about the American bands I was focusing on at the time.”

“It’s always taken a huge chunk out of my week,” she continues. “Preparing for the show is so much faster now, but I still sometimes feel overwhelmed by the amount of music there is to listen to. I see my program as a curatorial service. I use my ears and my judgment to create an entertaining radio show, and I’m still working out the best ways to do that, even now. Once we were very reliant on record labels to filter music for us, but these days there’s less of that so you’ve got to find ways to do it yourself.”

Starting as a broadcaster on 3RRR in 1985, Leng has continued to volunteer at the station ever since, while working for the ABC as a TV producer, including on groundbreaking Saturday morning music show, Recovery.

“I’ve been lucky the ABC has been supportive of community radio,” Leng says. “A lot of people there understand the importance of Triple R, and have been really sympathetic toward giving me time and flexibility to keep presenting shows.”

Supportive, sympathetic, and now Leng’s sole employer. When the national broadcaster blew the dust off the Double J name and relaunched it as a digital music station in late April, they asked Leng to come along as both a presenter and a producer. Once she accepted the job, she soon realised it would not leave room for her current Triple R program, Kinky Afro.

“I initially took the gig without thinking what it would mean for Triple R,” she says. “It was a bit of a shock to realise I wouldn’t be able to do both, but it’s so rare to have the opportunity to build a new radio station. As much as I’m heartbroken to say it, I won’t be able to devote myself to Triple R.”

While Triple R staff was shocked at Leng’s announcement (“I’m part of the furniture there”), the station has many alumni who have moved into paid radio positions.

“I didn’t know how I’d be able to leave,” she says. “I’ve contemplated it in the past but I’ve felt welded on, it’s taken this new position to prise me away.”

As for the new gig, Leng says the show she’s creating for Double J, titled The Beat Eclectic, has some similarities with the long-running Kinky Afro.

That show will go out with a bang this Thursday, with a broadcast from the Triple R Performance Space at its Brunswick East studios from 4pm, including sets from UK band The Bohicas, Laura Jean and Fraser A Gorman.

Leng has also been putting together interview highlights from her years behind the mic at 3RRR. “There’s one with Kim Deal where she was really stoned and just hilarious, and a live broadcast we did with Ween, and a Beastie Boys interview from 1992 where they were completely out of control,” she smiles. There’s also highlights from Nick Cave, PJ Harvey, Flaming Lips, DJ Shadow talking about Endtroducing …”

“I feel like I’m still in a state of shock,” she says, of the fast approaching broadcast. “I still haven’t processed it.”

3RRR Subscribers can email kinkyafro@rrr.org.au for a chance to attend in person, otherwise tune in at 102.7FM, 3RRR Digital, or stream the show live at rrr.org.au

The Beat Eclectic is broadcast 8–10pm Wednesdays on Double J on your digital radio, TV, online and on mobile via the ABC Radio App.

doublej.net.au