It was early 2018. I’d just become a desert resident and was shopping at the Cactus Mart in Morongo Valley.
A small yellow booklet with an illustration of a Joshua Tree and the title “DESERT ORACLE” in stark black letters caught my eye. “A pocket field guide to the strange and mysterious Mojave,” it said on its cover. I curiously bought a copy and headed home.
Later that day, after a 40-page binge read, I’d learned about desert quack Doc Springer and his tiny oasis Zzyzx; original Star Trek production locations in the Vásquez Rocks; local alien legends; and tales of teen pranksters putting smoldering tires in the dried-up volcanic rocks of the Amboy crater.
I was hooked.
The man behind the mag is Ken Layne, who founded the Desert Oracle in 2015. He recently invited me to his office in Joshua Tree to pick his brain about what it’s like to be the “voice of the desert.”
Perched along Highway 62, his rented one-room shack features a bright-yellow Desert Oracle sign looming above the front door. Office hours, which are sporadic, are intentionally not posted.
“In the early ’80s, I decided I would live here someday,” said Layne, now 53. “I was 17, and my family lived in San Diego. I bought this old, beat-up International Harvester Scout, and whenever I could, I would drive out here to the desert.
“I remember a specific morning. The PVC valve in my Scout had popped out coming up a grade, and it was leaking oil. I feared the worst. There was a garage that opened in the morning in Baker. The sun hadn’t come up yet. It was a winter weekday; it was beautiful. The air was cold. I remember standing by that garage looking at the mountains going into Death Valley. It should have been a stressful situation—this was pre-cell phones, and maybe my car was wrecked—but I remember standing there watching the sun come up and thinking, ‘I’m going to live here.’ It might be in a couple of decades, because I knew I’d have to work in cities, and I wanted to travel the world, but ‘I am going to live here.’”
Layne didn’t go to college; he instead bounced around various California newsrooms and did freelance writing. He spent three years working for media outlets overseas, living in Czechoslovakia in 1991 and later Hungary. After returning to the U.S., he landed work “typing into the internet void,” in his words, for websites including Gawker and Wonkette. At one point, he even owned Wonkette.
However, he was unhappy. In 2014, Layne took a year off.
“I felt like the next thing I did would be the last thing I did,” he said. “Not just a business—it was going to be my life.”
He traveled. He chilled out and soul-searched—and then one day, it hit him. He was thinking about booklets he’d collected as a teen. With titles like Desert Survival, Amphibians and Reptiles, and Death Valley Jeep Trails, they were minimal, often yellow and black, with grayscale photos or illustrations.
The ah-ha! moment finally arrived: He would create a desert magazine. It would fit in a pocket. The content would be short and digestible, with just enough guts in stories to pique an interest. He would write about his passion—the desert—and all its wonderfulness and weirdness. Most importantly, the magazine would be only in print—not available online.
“This is spiritually satisfying, and you have to pay for entry,” Layne said, holding up a copy. “You don’t get to just go on the internet and read it on your phone.”
He started as a one-man shop—editing, writing, typesetting, laying out pages, etc.—but paid a small stipend to quality contributors.
“I had to argue with printers for months to find one who would stop trying to talk me into printing in color,” Layne said.
The printers may not have understood—but his audience sure did. An underground cult following soon followed. Subscription sales creeped steadily upward and today are around 3,000.
“Here’s the part that surprised me—and this happened very quickly,” Layne said. “I started noticing that my biggest subscription zip codes were Brooklyn, Oakland, the Silverlake/Los Feliz/Sunset Junction area, and the high desert. Those were my four.”
Layne said the magazine’s eccentric nature has garnered attention in a variety of places.
“Like, art museums want to sell the magazine,” he said. “I do events at the Palm Springs Art Museum and other gallery openings. It’s culture; I enjoy that. Then they’ll have me on the weird news segment on the Las Vegas 5 o’clock news!”
Layne intended for the magazine to be a quarterly—but he’s fallen behind.
“When I did four issues in 2015, that is all I did, from when I woke up to when I went to bed, seven days a week,” he said.
The magazine has only come out annually since. “I never intended to have huge gaps between issues,” he said.
As the print magazine was exploding, something else was on Layne’s mind: radio. One of his favorite things—driving through the desert at night—was always accompanied by crackly radio and coming across distant stations. He began dreaming about a Desert Oracle radio show—but he did not have any relevant radio experience. However, family-owned community radio station KCDZ 107.7 FM is right down the road, literally.
“When big radio stations like Clear Channel and other vulture media companies were coming around, buying up every small market station, they said no,” Layne said. He decided to send owner Gary Daigneault an email.
Daigneault was a Desert Oracle reader. “He wrote back and said, ‘Let’s talk; let’s hear what you want to do,’” Layne said.
After some back and forth, they reached an agreement. Layne wanted the show to be on at night; in June 2017, the first episode aired and has run on Friday nights at 10 p.m. ever since. Layne writes the shows each week on the fly—he doesn’t have a set schedule of topics planned out—and produces them himself at home using Hindenburg radio software. Each episode starts the same: A coyote howls, and a female British android voice says: “Transmitting from the Mojave wilderness in Joshua Tree, California, now is the time for Desert Oracle Radio, the voice of the desert.” Then Layne’s distinct, slow nasal drawl comes in. He speaks slowly, dry and deliberately, with large doses of humor. Lo-fi authenticity is of utmost importance. Ambient background tunes and sound effects create a mood. The effect is eerie, spooky, unsettling … yet calming. It evokes the desert perfectly.
After a few dozen episodes, Layne was contacted by Rob, a Joshua Tree desert synth musician, whose one-man band is named RedBlueBlackSilver. “He’d already heard the kind of stuff I was using on the show. He had a sense of it and was familiar with that type of music—ambient, acid jazz stuff.”
Now RBBS creates new original music for each episode of Desert Oracle Radio. Layne listens to the track and writes out a script to ad-lib to for 28 minutes.
The weekly show—repeats are currently running during Layne’s summer break—has been picked up by public stations in Fresno and King County, Wash.; they’re also uploaded to the Desert Oracle website.
As if publishing the magazine and producing the radio show aren’t enough, Layne regularly hosts a live event, Desert Oracle Campfire Stories. They’ll return to the Ace Hotel and Swim Club on Thursday, Oct. 31, and will then be on the first Thursday of each month through June 2020. His campfire persona is similar to his radio persona, he said.
“The one who does Campfire Stories is like a park ranger,” he explained.
Layne has recorded some of these events as live radio shows—but the king of all Desert Oracle live radio shows is slated for Friday, Sept. 20, at the Alien Research Center in Hiko, Nev. You’ve no doubt heard of the “Storm Area 51: They Can’t Stop All of Us” Facebook event (www.facebook.com/events/448435052621047); more than 2 million people have marked themselves as “Going” to the attempt to storm the highly classified and well-guarded Air Force Base to “see them aliens!”
What began as an online joke to rush the Area 51 gates has spawned real events in tiny Lincoln County, 120 miles northwest of Las Vegas.
“I’m doing the radio show from there and supposedly emceeing from the stage.” Layne said. “Jeremy Corbell and the usual bunch of UFO weirdos will be there, hopefully with thousands of regular people curious to see what’s going to happen. A raid … is unlikely, although I’m sure at least a few people will get arrested or just get lost wandering in the high desert.”
Hot off the press is the news that a Desert Oracle book will soon be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
“It’s going to be a hardback, and I’m designing it,” Layne said. “Two-thirds of it is going to be the best stuff from all the out-of-print Desert Oracles—all my long, weird features on various things like Yucca Man and UFOs. The other third will be new stuff, never published, that I have been writing over the past six months.”
Layne said that beyond the magazine, the radio show, the book and the live events, he has yet more pokers in the fire—including a possible TV show.
“I’m never done; there are a whole bunch of Desert Oracle projects that haven’t turned into anything yet,” Layne said.
For more information, visit www.desertoracle.com.