Running a major radio station’s evening programs is a lifestyle for South Whidbey son Zach Van Lue.
The soon-to-be 39-year-old remembers growing up in Langley, listening to the station he now DJ’s for six nights each week. Van Lue is the weeknight and Saturday evening DJ for 107.7 The End, Seattle’s alternative music station, where he has worked for the past year and a half.
Van Lue, who graduated from South Whidbey High School in 1995 and moved to Seattle the same day, recently reached the one-year milestone of running The End’s Saturday night show, Subtronic End. One of only five staff hosts for the station, Van Lue reflected on his career and the fact that he never thought he would work in broadcasting.
“I never even listened to the radio. I was a punk rocker,” Van Lue said while sipping a latte in a Langley cafe during the Thanksgiving holiday break, a rare respite from his nightly duties in Seattle.
“The radio I did listen to was The End,” he added.
His journey from Langley to the Seattle station was a circuitous one that took him to a pair of foreign countries, a few different schools, several jobs, and through a government revolution.
Music has long been a passion and professional pursuit for Van Lue. Back in high school, he was in a punk band and DJ’ing underground raves in the Seattle area.
After graduating, Van Lue bolted for Seattle, eager to join the work force and, as he said, make a lot of money. Building cabinets was good for a while, but it didn’t pay the bills or make him rich quite like he thought it would.
Antsy for something different, he bolted for Colorado where he lounged around as a ski bum, working at the resorts during the day and DJ’ing at night. A torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) knocked him out of that lifestyle and woke him up to the realization, he said, that the ski-bum lifestyle was not for him.
He returned home to Washington to study audio engineering. Eventually he enrolled at Western Washington University in Bellingham, where he studied classical guitar. That interest and pursuit — new for the young man who described himself as a punk rocker — took him to Spain to study flamenco-style guitar for a year. Having little prior experience, Van Lue joked about misunderstanding the name.
“I probably thought it was flamingo at that point,” he said.
When he returned and graduated with degrees in music and Spanish, after five years of study, he began teaching music lessons in Bellingham and performing with a flamenco group. From there, he discovered Arabic music and a newfound interest in the Middle East.
After hearing an oud — a lute-like instrument — performance from a Turkish musician, Van Lue scrapped plans to open his own flamenco school and sought out a way to study and perform in an Arabic-speaking country. He flew to Cairo, Egypt with little more than a dream and some money.
Relying on his work experience in audio production and event planning, plus his lifelong usage of the English language, he got a job with Nile FM in Cairo. That was only part-time, and as a resident in Cairo instead of a contracted foreigner, his wages were not enough to cover living expenses. He taught music to cover the difference, but as a commissioned music teacher he found himself needing to pack each class with 14 students to make ends meet.
“The idea was I’d pack my class as full as possible because I was making commission … and I still wasn’t making enough to pay rent,” he said.
Not long after starting at the station as an engineer, he was pulled into the studio and made into a bit because of his then-awkward demeanor in front of a microphone. Well liked in that capacity, he became a co-host, then a full-time host.
Then the revolution began in Cairo. The president, Hosni Mubarak, was overthrown and there was a sudden relaxation on censorship in Egypt. Van Lue said he remembered taking calls and asking listeners what they wanted this new Egypt to be like. That freedom gave way to censorship again, and after five years he and his wife, a lifelong Cairo resident, were ready to relocate to the Pacific Northwest.
“I just missed the idea of going out to a dive bar, hearing a band play original music, good or bad, getting a slice of pizza,” he said.
Eventually he got a job with a Seattle country music radio station, The Wolf. Van Lue, the former punk rocker, underground rave DJ, flamenco guitarist, and top-40 Egyptian radio host, was playing the likes of Toby Keith and Taylor Swift.
Being a radio DJ means a bit of anonymity for Van Lue when he’s out in Seattle and the area. When he’s home, however, people know that he’s a big deal. During a two-hour chat in Langley, he is greeted by a few people, old school mates and hometown friends who ask him how the radio gig is going, if he still DJ’s on the side, and the upcoming Deck the Hall Ball in Seattle that he will open with a DJ set before the likes of Deep Sea Diver, Walk the Moon, Alabama Shakes, Twenty One Pilots, and Death Cab for Cutie.
“No one acts star-struck with me,” Van Lue said. “No one wants to take their picture (with me).”
Picking music for the radio is about giving people what they want, he said. That builds trust over time, and when the time is right, he introduces new tunes or remixes.
With a year under his belt as the Subtronic End DJ, he hopes to continue delivering music to listeners across Western Washington.