On Kansas City's Airwaves, Renee Blanche Became The Voice Of Calm She Needed For Herself
The Detroit native started hosting KCUR's "Night Tides" 27 years ago this month. She found exactly what her listeners now seek: "That Sunday night space became an island in the storm of my life."
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Renee Blanche was driving alone in the mountains of Colorado, confident in her Subaru purchased specifically with this annual trip in mind, when she decided to take a scenic detour: Berthoud Pass, elevation 11,307 feet.
A remote, rugged byway topping a dramatic descent, the spot more than earns its reputation for mountain photography. "It's just a spectacular view," Blanche says.
"All of a sudden," she recalls, "a light goes on on my dash." She had no idea what the symbol — a funny shape like a shield with some wavy lines underneath — meant.
And then it started raining — hard. Blanche pulled over to scour her owner's manual, which informed her that multiple tires had lost pressure.
"I'm all alone, I'm scared half to death, it's cold up there," she says.
With questionable tire pressure, she drove through the storm to a gas station, worst-case scenarios cycling through her head.
"I'm thinking about my family. Do I need to call someone? If something happens, will anyone be able to find me? Am I going to have to get the car towed back to Kansas City? Am I going to be able to finish this trip? Is there a tire going to blow up? I don't know!"
The Renee Blanche recounting her mountain misadventure sounds nothing like the woman who hosts "Night Tides," the soothing four-hour radio show, every Sunday on KCUR 89.3.
That Renee Blanche speaks in a quiet, even tone that settles listeners into an ever-deepening contemplative groove. That Renee Blanche carries a tranquil mystique I assume to be out of reach for someone like me: a worrier, over-thinker, catastrophizer extraordinaire.
She laughs at my disbelief: "I am always 2.2 seconds from a complete implosion."
Blanche was born in Detroit and raised in the epicenter of Motown. "I grew up in a neighborhood where everybody wanted to be a Temptation or a Supreme," she says. "So you'd have the brothers singing on this corner, you'd have the ladies singing on their corner, and there was dancing. Dancing was everywhere."
After moving to El Paso, Texas, in the 1980s, Blanche took up jogging but struggled to pace her breath. Walkman in tow, she scanned the radio dial for something that might help, and stumbled on a community radio station playing New Age music.
"I remember hearing the sound in these headphones that elicited an immediate calm," she says. "I just locked in that memory like, 'Oh, OK. This is new.'"
It was on one of her jogs that Blanche heard a call for volunteer announcers. "I could do that," she thought.
Blanche rose through the ranks as a volunteer before starting a New Age show at an adult contemporary station, where Kenny G and Whitney Houston were on frequent rotation. She called it "El Paso After Dark."
After moving to Kansas City in 1993, Blanche took over "Night Tides" from a previous host in 1994. At the time, "Night Tides" followed a popular national show called "Hearts of Space." Blanche kept those gentle vibes going into the wee hours, playing tracks that immersed listeners in a wash of electronic sound, without big hooks of pop music.
"When I started, you didn't hear a drum, you didn't hear a horn," Blanche recalls.
Back then, hosting was just a job, a slot in the schedule to fill, and Blanche stuck to what she'd heard other stations play under the umbrella of New Age.
Her relationship to the music changed, though, when she hit a rough patch: a marriage falling apart, bills to pay, and kids to raise.
"That space became a space of refuge, because my personal life was insane. And so that Sunday night space became an island in the middle of the storm of my life," Blanche explains. "And over time, I found myself connecting to the music in a different way."
Blanche started treating those four hours of music as "a soft landing place." No matter the chaos of any given week, Blanche found herself, on Sunday nights, alone in a darkened studio with the sounds that spoke to her. The music she played started shifting.
"I discovered mantras and the voice — beyond Enya," she adds. "Cause everybody know Enya. I was introduced to this other way of using one's voice."
Blanche calls these vocals "devotional," with a purpose more spiritual than aesthetic.
She also began exploring how sound frequency can affect our emotions. It occurred to her as she transitioned from being at home with her teenage son — who was playing Tupac — to her New Age show. She liked both, but their energy couldn't be more different. "There's something about this," she remembers thinking. "I don't know what it is."
Blanche attended a seminar on sound healing, experimented with it, and her experiences convinced her this frequency business was no joke. "Electronic, ambient music has a light, airy side," she explains. "It also has a dark side."
One track she played during a "Night Tides" show spooked her profoundly. "I thought somebody was standing behind the door with a butcher knife," she recalls. She vowed at that moment never to play another track on the air without listening fully beforehand.
Another track, "Buddha Nature," left her motionless — as in, she couldn't move. "I was stuck," she says. She later learned that there's a name in electronica circles for that type of musical moment: "trance."
"We weren't talking about trance in Detroit," Blanche says, delivering the line like it's a punchline. "That's not what we was doing."
What Blanche needed in her life, and what she found in "Night Tides," was an instrument for her own evolution.
"Nothing else mattered," she says. "I didn't know if anyone was listening. It didn't matter."
Except every Sunday, Kansas Citians did listen.
"I can remember being told that I was ministering to the listeners, which was like mind-blowing to me," Blanche says. "I had no idea what that meant. What I knew was, 'This is keeping me sane. This is keeping me in a state of mind that won't get me jailed."
Blanche's relationship with New Age music still surprises her. "All I know is ... if it can bring me of all people, any kind of peace or grace or calm or tranquility, if this can work for me, then let me create the space."
On that Colorado mountain, alone in the rain with her deflating tires, it was that tranquility that allowed Blanche to surmount her circumstances.
"I was freaking out," Blanche admits. "Then, you know, the wiser part of my brain is like, 'It's okay, take a breath. You'll be alright. It's going to be okay.'"
That voice was, of course, correct. When Blanche finally made it to a gas station, it was dark out and her nerves were shot, and she struggled to fill her tires with air. "So I thought, 'Let me just go to bed. I need to go to bed."
She found a close place to stay the night. In the light of a clear new day, she learned her problem was a common one for tires in high altitudes. She filled them up and finished the drive.
When I listen to "Night Tides" now, I hear not just a woman telling me to breathe, but a woman who needs to tell herself that, too.
A few more breaths and a good night's sleep, and we may all find that side of ourselves. And if we don't? Thank God for the radio.