Darbie Versoza in the studio for her show on 105.5 The Moon (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)
On air, Darbie Versoza introduces herself as “Darbie, your one friend who still listens to ska.”
Her Tuesday show on The Moon, Salem’s homegrown indie radio station kicked off this week with OK Go and Panic! at the Disco before diving into the eclectic blend of punk, rock and ska.
She’s unapologetic in her love of a genre whose popularity in the U.S. peaked in the 1990s, but not afraid to make fun of herself for it, a combination that makes her show approachable even when the music is more obscure.
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As a kid at summer camp, Versoza never let the “no electronics” rule keep her from her music.
“I can’t go a week without my tapes!” she remembered thinking, so she’d sneak one in with her Walkman and headphones. One year, it was The Proclaimers’ “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles),” which she listened to on repeat for a week straight.
Despite her love of music, Versoza had never been a DJ when she applied almost two years ago for a slot on The Moon. But she got the gig and has grown into one of the most recognizable voices on a station dedicated to people who love good music.
“In many ways, she’s very much the heart of what I want for The Moon,” said founder and owner Sean Mulrooney. “She’s got great instincts for what makes a good set. Her vocal breaks are tight and succinct.”
Versoza’s love of music and deep knowledge is clear from even a brief conversation. Her favorite genre is third-wave ska, a late 1980s and 1990s revival of the genre that originated in Jamaica in the 1950s.
Bands like No Doubt, Reel Big Fish and The Mighty Mighty BossTones peaked in popularity, then faded into relative musical obscurity.
“It kind of fell away as trends in music tend to do, but I never let go,” Versoza said. She likes that bands often make fun of themselves in their music and struggles to name just a few songs that exemplify the genre because there are so many for her to choose from.
That passion makes her show accessible both to music-lovers and people who couldn’t pick a ska song out of a lineup. She works in punk rock and pop punk songs and comes on the air between sets of four or five songs to share music news. It might be an upcoming concert in Salem or, more frequently, Portland, or an album release.
The station has a core library of songs all DJs can access, which plays automatically when no one’s on the air. Many are rock or rock-adjacent, but the goal is to play good music that flows together well.
Mulrooney said that’s something Versoza excels at. She’s also added to the station library and introduced him to new songs.
“Her ability to find ska covers of songs from the 70s, or just covers in general is a blast. We are very fond of a new twist on an old song and she’s got many within her library that she can pull from,” he said. “I’ll be listening and I’ll hear a ska cover of a 70s tune and, first of all, it will kind of make me laugh but there’s a musicianship that’s good about it. It’s not a jokey song, it’s not a novelty tune, it’s not Weird Al. It’s got some sophistication to it.”
Versoza grew up in the Salem area, waiting by the radio for her favorite songs to come on so she could make mixtapes and watching MTV “religiously.”
She graduated in a class of 12 students from Willamette Valley Christian High School. The school let her play music during school basketball games, and she selected “Alison’s the Bomb” by Maryland punk band “The Huntingtons” as a theme song for a player of the same name.
“Sixteen-year-old me was really stoked about that,” she said.
Mulrooney is effusive about all his DJs, but said Versoza exemplifies the station’s goals.
“Her instincts have been spot on from day one,” he said. “I like her style, I like the things that she has to say. I like her worldview.”
If a musician has been in the news lately for beating his wife or accusations of sexual assault, Mulrooney said she’ll often opt to play someone else.
“She’ll just skip it, she won’t make a big production out of it but there are a million other artists and bands out there, why would I play this one who just got caught beating his wife?” he said.
When she’s not sitting in the booth overlooking High Street, Versoza is a restaurant manager and mom who tries to go to shows as often as she can. Salem’s music scene is vibrant and has shows nearly every night of the week, though she said it’s not always visible.
“Moon people always know that there’s really great stuff happening here,” she said. “I think sometimes you have to seek it out.”
Reporter Rachel Alexander: firstname.lastname@example.org or 503-575-1241.