"I've never really heard all my favorite songs on the same radio station," Van Zandt says. "And I haven't been hearing any favorite songs at all lately. I just wanted to get some of these songs back on the radio, because all that the powers that be allow people to hear is hard rock, hip-hop, and pop. I want to get rock and roll back in circulation."
DJ is the latest entry on Van Zandt's extensive résumé. He's been a guitarist in pal Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band for more than 25 years, produced records for Southside Johnny and Lone Justice (among others), and played Silvio Dante on The Sopranos for four seasons. "You can't possibly do something like [the radio show] unless you love it," he says. "We still haven't broke even, so I gotta love it, you know?"
Little Steven's Underground Garage (which recently began airing on WNCX-FM 98.5) is a two-hour exploration of American and overseas garages. The '50s (Eddie Cochran), the '60s (the Standells), and the '70s (Ramones) are all represented. "The common thread is a certain spirit, a certain primitive liberation," Van Zandt says. "I'll play the pioneers, because the oldies stations have eliminated the '50s. I'm the only guy playing Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard."
But it's new bands that benefit most from the exposure. The Hives, the Vines, and the Raveonettes received their first major spins, as unsigned artists, on Underground Garage. Van Zandt says he personally sifts through the stacks of demos, self-released CDs, and tapes that are sent to him and hand-picks the songs that end up on the program. "It's a good part of my day," he admits. "I try to keep up. But it's not an academic show; it's a fun show. Any education that happens is accidental. But it's gonna happen, because I'm playing stuff from the entire history of rock and roll. I get e-mails from kids who've never heard of the Kinks."
Van Zandt's used his muscle to get a Greenhornes song played on The Sopranos, which also included an appearance by the Swinging Neckbreakers. And he even has the luxury of playing songs by his Boss -- because even Springsteen needs help getting airplay these days. "I'll play some of his garage-years stuff," he says. "I'm inheriting all this stuff. It's so crazy now.
"It's shocking to hear that you can't get rock and roll on the radio anymore. You realize things aren't how they used to be. But rock and roll isn't even a niche anymore. And that's just not acceptable to me."