Jana Kománková: DJ and critic now battling the grey with arts site

Jana Kománková, photo: archive of Jana Kománková

Jana Kománková runs Proti šedi (which translates as “against the grey”), a highly useful one-stop website for anybody interested in arts events in Prague. She has been a well-known name in local alternative music circles since the early 1990s, as a deejay with Radio 1 and a critic with numerous magazines and newspapers. Remarkably the Prague-born Kománková began reviewing concerts for Rock & Pop at only 17. When we met at a café, I asked her how she’d managed to launch her career at such an early age.

Jana Kománková,  photo: archive of Jana Kománková
“I really wanted to be a music journalist. I thought it was the coolest job in the world. The magazine, which I was a reader of, just asked readers, If you want to try writing, send us a piece; it was a sort of competition or something.

“So I thought, Yeah, this is my chance, and I wrote a review and sent it in when I was 17 and they took it. Because they wanted new people, they hired me and I started doing more.

“And at the age of 18 I had a full-time job. So I was lucky – I was there when they were asking for new people.”

I presume it was quite an education. I’m sure the other members of the editorial team were old guys with beards and long hair.

“Yes. And drinking a lot, so it was also fun. I think it was nice to have a first job that was very much a hippy kind of thing.

“It was a lot of work and they even acted quite surprised when I asked, How do you do this proofreading thing?

“Because they were going to the pub and I was saying, No, no, don’t go to the pub! Tell me how it’s done!

“It was great for me because there was lots of freedom.

“When later on I worked for other magazines I realised that there were actually people who normally are much stricter about what you can write, how long it should be, etc., etc.

“I had complete freedom in reviewing things.”

Also I guess it was an exciting period to write about music. There was so much going on.

“Yes. And for me especially it was also about travelling to gigs abroad, because I love travelling.

“So packing my stuff and going to Glastonbury was a dream thing. Every year I borrowed money from my parents, went to Glastonbury and then gave the money back to them by the spring, when I borrowed more.

Radio 1,  photo: archive of Radio 1
“Or going to Berlin or Vienna for gigs. So it was not just gigs here, but also the possibility to see your favourite band in England or Germany or Austria.”

You’ve also been at Radio 1, the alternative music station, since 1993. What do you recall of your early days on the radio?

“[Laughs] I was scared. When I first heard the recordings, it was a scared little voice. I was nervous.

“But it was beautiful. Of course I was nervous because I was imagining all those people listening, and there were a lot of them, but I loved it from the very start, and I love it now.”

Was Radio 1 in those days also quite punky? It wasn’t so long after it started as Radio Stalin.

“Yes, there was a lot of crazy, punk stuff in the first years. Later on it became a little bit more organised.

“But still even now it’s different, even when the offices look like normal offices and the studio is clean and there aren’t too many crazy artworks everywhere.

“But still you play what you want, basically. Tomorrow I have a show and I can play any crazy, 12-minute stuff from the newest whatever.

“So the spirit stayed – it’s just a bit cleaner now.”

I was reading also that sometimes you broadcast at 6 AM. I can kind of understand broadcasting at 2 AM, because you would keep going and then go into the studio, but how do you get up and get in the mood to DJ at 6 AM?

“I actually stopped doing 6 AM shifts recently. I have some other shifts which start at 9 AM, which is normal.

“I did do it for a few years, but since I wasn’t too healthy – I went through cancer treatment and stuff – I was too tired after it.”

Over the years you’ve worked for loads of newspapers, loads of magazines, other media outlets. How has the work of a Czech music journalist changed over that period?

“It’s changed a lot. Because I guess now a lot of people aren’t interested in reading record reviews.

“There are some, but I guess we have less working music journalists. Because there is not such big demand or you can read this stuff on blogs by people who aren’t paid for what they do.

“So there are fewer people doing this and if they work writing for newspapers about music, it’s mostly about the mainstream and is written from the lifestyle point of view – scandals about musicians, but not too many music-focused articles.

“But the good thing is it’s quite easy to be published, because you can be self-published.

“So if somebody has the need to communicate with people in this way, they can always have a blog or a Facebook page.”

Why led you to set up the culture website Proti šedi?

“Again it was a nice coincidence. Before that I was working for different other media and I didn’t just want to be a music journalist any more.

“I was writing about the internet and other culture stuff for various papers and at one moment I was finishing work at a music magazine that went bankrupt because it didn’t have enough advertising.

“I met a friend who was very much interested in fashion and he had plans for Facebook and stuff and he said, Let’s do something together; I have a Facebook page about fashion – maybe we can have a web magazine.

“I was like, Yeah, I know how to do websites – I made some before.

“We hit it off and I kind of thought, We have this fashion and this music site, etc., but at that moment I still thought I would be looking for work at a paper, and this would be something for fun.

“But it kind of caught on. We got some readers and we got some advertisers so now it’s a normal working thing.

“Which is lovely, because I can use all of the areas that I know and I can learn new things

“Also it’s a good platform for people who are now 17 and maybe starting to write – so it came full circle.”

You mentioned that a couple of years ago you had cancer. At that time you wrote a blog – why did you choose to write about having breast cancer?

“It was kind of obvious because I’m a bit of an extroverted person.

“And when I go to a concert and I dislike it, I write about it. When I go to a pub and I dislike it, I write about it.

“So I didn’t even think, Should I or should I not? It was obvious.

“The day I got the diagnosis I was like, Yeah, this will make a nice article [laughs]. It was obvious.”

Several people have written that kind of blog in various countries over the years and I understand that it’s probably very helpful for many people. But it also it strikes me that having a disease is a very private thing – you didn’t mind sharing so much with the world?

“I didn’t. It was a bit surprising even for me. Because I’m not the type who wears revealing clothes or normally talks about private things.

“But this was something that I felt was necessary to do. And it came naturally.

“Something in my way of thinking changed. I don’t think that normally I would write about buying underwear, and now I was writing about what was inside.

“So there are many things that surprised me about this whole journey, and this was one of them. But it happened, and I hope it might be helpful for some people.”

Cancer is very hard to talk about. It’s one of the worst things in the world for many people…

“Not for me. It’s kind of easy for me to talk about it.

“I know that for some people it’s hard. I guess it’s very individual and people go through these things very differently. I saw many ways that people dealt with it

“But it wasn’t hard for me to talk about.”

What I wanted to ask you was if it was hard for other people? Or if there was a way that people talk about cancer that you found irritating or annoying or simply wrong? I mean the general discourse around cancer.

“Well what irks me is all of those alternative things, because the people who are big fans of these things are sometimes quite aggressive.

“It was one of the hardest things for me through the whole thing.

“Because I wrote about it I got tons of emails from people saying, Stop doing that, these are poisons, you have to take cannabis oil and blah, blah.

“If I very politely told them, No, I chose this way and I believe my doctor is OK, they would get quite aggressive: You are stupid, you will die. And there are lots of these people.”

To end on a more positive note, you’re super active and you’re still very much on top of music culture and culture in general. Many people when they get to a certain age kind of lose interest in music and culture – but I guess in your case there’s no danger of that happening?

“I guess so. But maybe it’s that I have more things now.

“I love being at home and drinking tea and knitting.

“So it’s not that I am spending every evening in clubs and going to crazy concerts.

“Today I am going to see Peter Hook, who I guess is 60 or something like that. On Monday I am going to see Lee Ranaldo from Sonic Youth, who’s a grey-haired guy.

“I don’t spend that much time discovering new talent. Maybe if I go to a festival and there is a new band playing [I’ll check them out].

“I love downloading music from bands’ Bandcamps and going to discussion forums where they share new music.

“Definitely as you get older your lifestyle changes a bit. So it’s not as crazy as it was.

“But I still love new stuff and new artists, and not just in the music field. I hope it will stay that way.”