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Mario Cotto '98 at work at KCRW.
Mario Cotto '98 at work at KCRW.

Music Man

(This article first appeared in the Spring/Summer 2012 issue of Haverford magazine.)

 

Mario Cotto ’98 didn’t plan to become a professional radio DJ. Nor did he get to practice his eventual profession in the proving grounds of college radio, because his Haverford career coincided with one of WHRC’s fallow periods. But the College’s storied radio history did offer him one memorable college DJ experience. “Towards the end of senior year, a friend who worked at Lunt Cafe somehow obtained a key to this weird closet full of promo vinyl and CDs that had been getting sent to the campus’s defunct station,” remembers Cotto, who majored in English. “One night we pulled a bunch of records and CDs from the closet and threw a dance party in Lunt basement. Then, like the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, all that stuff got sucked back into that closet in a maelstrom of smoke and light and the door slammed shut forever—or at least until someone else opened it.” (And no, he sadly doesn’t recall the secret closet’s location.)

Cotto now has access to an even more impressive promo closet as a DJ for renowned musical tastemaker KCRW, Southern California’s leading National Public Radio affiliate. It’s a free-form station, so the DJs are given complete control over the music they play. Cotto’s show, credited on KCRW’s website as “a kaleidoscopic Dada dance party,” airs Saturday night from midnight through 3 a.m. “The show has evolved a lot,” he says. “When I started, it was a glorious mess—super-eclectic, from boogaloo to hip-hop to post-punk to techno to disco, a little bit of everything. As time has gone by and my shift has changed, I’m currently primarily focused on dance music. But it’s a constantly evolving thing, because our format allows for that freedom and growth.”

In addition to his work at the station, Cotto spins records at parties and clubs and maintains a day job as a standardized patient trainer, hiring and preparing people to play sick for medical students. It’s a double life that has him spending his days in an office and his nights DJing. Says Cotto: “I’m mostly grinding, picking up gigs that don’t necessarily pay well—or sometimes not at all—but offer me great experiences, like spinning poolside at a new hotel in Palm Springs over Coachella [music festival] weekend. [It’s] nice work if you can get it.”

Though he seems tailor-made for a career in radio, Cotto is as surprised as anyone that he’s ended up there. The North Philadelphia native chose Haverford after seeing a performance by campus comedy troupe Lighted Fools on a campus visit. He auditioned as a freshman, and after four years in the Fools he headed west to do improv in Hollywood. Cotto began volunteering at KCRW because he was a fan of the station’s programming and needed a break from the “frenzy and desperation” of the comedy scene. “Volunteering turned into assisting several amazing, world-class DJs on their shows, which was in essence a master class in broadcasting and programming,” he says. Eventually, in October of 2007, he earned his own show.

What he loves best about his work at KCRW—beyond, obviously, the music—is the cooperative spirit that is fostered there. Though he may not have been taught the radio trade at Haverford, the lessons he learned at the College serve him well at the station. “Ultimately, Haverford’s ideals and the principles of community, respect, truth and honor made me want to seek that out in the world,” Cotto says. “And I found that in so many ways at KCRW.”

—Rebecca Raber

Founders Green on a warm spring day.

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