Saturday, November 05, 2011

Jim Ladd: The Last DJ

Rock radio DJ Jim Ladd talks about KLOS dismissal

By Randy Lewis, Los Angeles Times
Sat Nov 5 2011 12:00 AM

Jim Ladd can drop rock-star names like nobody's business — no surprise considering music's been his business for four decades. Or it had been until late last month when the new owners of L.A. rock radio station KLOS-FM (95.5) gave the boot to Ladd, who had been holding court behind a microphone there for the last 14 years.

And that was just his latest stint at the station. Ladd logged a total of 20 years during three separate tours of rock 'n' roll radio duty at KLOS. A fixture on the Southern California airwaves, Ladd also chalked up nine years at the defunct station KMET-FM before it dumped rock for an easy-listening format dubbed "The Wave," as well as time at L.A.'s short-lived KEDG-FM ("The Edge") and at the station where he got his start in 1969, KNAC-FM in Long Beach.

"Jackson Browne once came up to me backstage at a [Don] Henley show," Ladd, 63, said Wednesday in an interview over lunch at Hollywood's Roosevelt Hotel. The historic hotel is just steps from the star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame that was given to Ladd in 2005. "He said, 'You know, you have the greatest job in the world.' I said, 'Don't tell anybody — but you're absolutely right.'"

At the moment, however, he's out of the greatest job in the world, having been pink-slipped along with 26 others in a round of staff layoffs after Atlanta-based Cumulus Media took ownership of KLOS from Citadel Broadcasting.

His dismissal prompted a wave of angry responses from listeners, who posted emotional notes of support on Ladd's Facebook page, as well as reactions of empathy and outrage from musicians such as Tom Petty and radio peers including Howard Stern.

More than simply a popular personality on the Southland radio scene, Ladd had developed last-man-standing status in his field, the only DJ at a major-market commercial radio station in the country who still picked the songs he played rather than using a preapproved playlist created by the station's program director or outside consultants.

"I'll come through this," Ladd said, "but it still hits you in the gut."

The job cuts came so quickly that Ladd joined the ranks of the unemployed immediately after the announcement and didn't do a farewell show that night.

KLOS management declined to comment about Ladd's recent layoff.

"There's no room for, or understanding of, what I do on the air," Ladd said of his nightly shows, on which he wove together songs to reflect or illuminate a particular theme. "They want a tight format, but that's not what rock 'n' roll is all about. Rock 'n' roll is about freedom."

In response to the abruptness of his departure, and partly because Ladd's story makes for great radio, KFI-AM (640) station manager Robin Bertolucci has invited the DJ to take calls from listeners for three hours Saturday from 4 to 7 p.m. at her station.

"She thought my listeners should have a chance to vent," said Ladd, who added that he expects to field calls from "some very special guests" along with those of his listeners.

In the unlikely event that listeners hold back their opinions, Ladd isn't likely to. A key part of his radio personality throughout his career has been speaking his mind unequivocally about music and the political and philosophical issues addressed by the likes of the Beatles, Bob Dylan, U2 and the Clash.

Creating a musical theme for his own situation, he quickly rattles off a set that would include Roger Waters' "The Powers That Be" from his "Radio KAOS" concept album, Bruce Springsteen's "Radio Nowhere" and Rush's "The Spirit of the Radio," which Rush drummer Neil Peart describes as being "about guys like Jim Ladd … one of the last renegades who believes that broadcasting can be art."

In one sense, the question surrounding Ladd's departure is less "Why?" than "How did he last this long?"

He transcended the status of faceless DJ, earning a level of recognition among the musicians he champions to the degree that Tom Petty cited him as a key inspiration in his 2002 concept album "The Last DJ."

Ladd contrasts the free-form DJ with today's radio air personalities who are required to adhere to approved playlists culled from market research and vetted by the media conglomerates they work for.

"Radio should be ashamed," Ladd said, "that TV is now hipper [to new music] than rock radio is."

Two decades ago in his book "Radio Waves: Life and Revolution on the FM Dial," Ladd railed about the changes under President Reagan, when the broadcast industry was deregulated, allowing corporations to buy up essentially unlimited numbers of TV and radio stations, concentrating the public airwaves in fewer and fewer hands. (Clear Channel Communications, the largest radio holder, owns about 850 stations across the country.)

"They used to have the 'seven plus seven' rule, which meant you couldn't own more than seven radio and seven television stations," he said. "That meant there were thousands of independent broadcasters who owned stations — not banks and not investment firms. You also had to hold on to a station for at least three years, which meant you had to be serving the community."

Ladd likes the wide-ranging content that has come with the advent of satellite radio and thinks it may represent the future of the kind of freedom he's managed to hold on to throughout his career.

Ladd presents an image considerably younger than his chronological age. It's a combination of his rebel-with-a-cause attitude and his rock attire: a brown suede jacket over a black mock turtleneck shirt, faded blue jeans, alligator boots and dark aviator sunglasses framed by collar-length hair.

By now, Ladd well knows that layoffs are one of the occupational hazards of his chosen profession, especially as terrestrial radio's audience shrinks with the advent of satellite and more personalized online choices such as Pandora and Spotify.

He said he's nearly finished a screenplay about the heyday of free-form rock radio. ("As much fun as you think it was," he said, "multiply it by 1,000. … As young as we were then, we knew how lucky we were. We pinched ourselves every day.")

Beyond that, he's sorting through job offers with input from his wife, Helene, and his manager.

Asked why he won't simply read the writing on the wall and abandon a philosophy that in many respects belongs to another age, he turns to the words of another rock star.

"I have to quote David Crosby, who said, 'I feel like I owe it to someone.' I owe it to Tom and Rachael Donahue for what they did [as pioneers of free-form radio]. I owe it to Roger Waters for never selling out. I owe it to the Doors — they meant that music; they were not just singing pop songs. I owe it to John Lennon for what he sang in 'Working Class Hero' and 'Baby You're a Rich Man.' Mostly I owe it to my audience. It doesn't make sense for me to do it any other way."

Saturday, May 21, 2011

RH 101: Freeform Radio

Rock History 101: Freeform Radio

Rock has a lot to thank FM radio for. With the opening of the FM band, rock provided an inexpensive source of material that allowed for the development of formats different from the Top 40 banality. Programmers brought with them the notion that not only did the style of music have significance but also its presentation. Before the early ’60s, most music was delivered via the single, without much thought to the actual album as a whole. That changed with the development of FM.
In the early days of FM, broadcasts were principally educational programming and classical music aimed at a more “upmarket listenership.” AM stations simply duplicated their programming onto the FM band, widening their audience with little effort. In 1965, the Federal Communications Commission enacted the FM Non-Duplication Rule. Until this law, AM stations were allowed to rebroadcast the majority of their programming on their FM stations. However, with the passage of the FM Non-Duplication Rule, as of January 1, 1967, FM stations would have to broadcast original content over 50% of their broadcast day. Station programmers and owners now faced with having to create original content were forced to exit the box that was the Top 40 format and begin experimenting.
Some station programmers held the assumption that their FM audiences would be a bit more mature than their AM counterparts. As such, many gave disc jockeys more freedom and control over the material on their shows. Their style and presentation on the mic was even different from that of the popular AM hits-driven DJs and was more akin to the conversational tones often heard during Radio’s Golden Age. These “underground” jockeys would manipulate segues between songs to allow for an expansion beyond any single genre and favored non-singles over the typical two-and-a-half-minute pop song. FM’s open-mindedness also fed the creativity of bands, giving them a forum to put their art on display. This allowed for the development of longer, more complex material not suitable for Top 40 pop radio. This style of programming came to be known as freeform.
The most straightforward definition of the freeform format is simply that the program’s host is given complete and total control over the content of the show, regardless of style, genre, or perhaps most importantly, commercial viability. There was no rotation schedule to follow, and the only rules were those laid down by the FCC regarding profanity and station identification; everything else was up to the DJ. With no stylistic boundaries, programming was as diverse and unique as the personalities behind the mic. Freeform DJs shared a loose ideology, a sense of spontaneity, and a desire to expose lesser-known artists and songs. Some engaged in conversations with the listeners, drawing them into the development of the program, even entertaining live call-ins. Many leaned a bit on the radical or liberal side of the spectrum; however, aside from occasional Vietnam-era sentiments, most hosts rarely were overtly political. Looking back through eyes filtered by today’s commercial radio landscape, this concept was and still is revolutionary, especially when one considers that freeform exists in direct opposition to commercial radio’s stricter control over programming.
By the late ’60s, freeform programming was more common on FM bands in the larger markets, eventually becoming the medium and style of choice to tap into an ever-expanding youth culture. Sharing ideals such as diversity, freedom, and perhaps even a slight tinge of radicalism, freeform radio is easily thought of as a product of the ’60s. However, while its development and maturity did occur during this era, the true roots of the freeform format extended back to the beginnings of public radio–almost 15 years earlier.
The first community public radio station in the United States was Pacifica Radio (KPFA in Berkeley, California). Pacifica was launched in 1949 by Lewis Hill and a small group of fellow World War II conscientious objectors. Hill was a journalist and progressive poet who sought to create an outlet dedicated to free expression, where cultural and political ideas counter to the norm could be presented, discussed, and realized. It was on KPFA that beat poets like Ginsberg and Kerouac gained their initial radio exposure.
Shortly after KPFA started broadcasting, it became home to what is considered to be the very first freeform radio show. Though many have filed claims as such, conventional wisdom bestows the honor to author John Leonard and his show Night Sounds. It was on Leonard’s show that the listener was exposed to collages of music, poetry, and commentary seamlessly integrated into a program. Pacifica’s New York affiliate, WBAI, featured two programs, Chris Albertson’s Inside and Bob Fass’s Radio Unnameable, both inspired by Leonard’s production. KPFA staffer and freeform radio pioneer Lorenzo Milan started KRAB in 1962, a freeform outlet in Seattle, WA. Milan was also instrumental in the founding of many community stations around the nation that were freeform-oriented.
Freeform has always been more at home on the left side of the radio dial in the lower frequencies (<92MHz), where the non-commercial stations traditionally broadcast. However, after the non-duplication ruling, experimenting with freeform in the commercial band became slightly more accepted. New York’s WOR experimented with freeform under the guise of “progressive rock.” WOR’s DJ/program director Murray the K encouraged his fellow DJs to explore beyond the charts and dive deeper into the albums, even encouraging music with social messages. Scott Muni, program director for WNEW, also in New York, began tinkering with the format in the early ’60s. When Pete Fornatale joined the station in 1964, to avoid being caught up in the drudgery that had become Top 40 radio, he suggested “a rock n’ roll show that would play album cuts, islands of music that would come together in some cohesive theme.” It was this philosophy that helped Fornatale break country-rock in the New York market.
New York did not hold the rights to freeform. As the format’s popularity began to grow, other stations in other markets followed. Baltimore/Washington D.C. station WHFS dabbled in freeform when it first began, though by the time the station switched to Spanish programming a few years ago, it had already fallen far from the freeform tree. Sacramento DJ Johnny Hyde’s show The Gear on KXOA mixed live interviews with experimental music and deep cuts. But perhaps the most recognized commercial freeform station was San Francisco’s KMPX, with its DJ/program director Tom Donahue.
Donahue’s approach to programming the station was to streamline the content to focus on the music. He did away with the gimmickry typically associated with mainstream Top 40 radio. “No jingles, no talkovers, no time and temp, no pop singles”– just a hard-lined, progressively minded approach to playing music. The timing was perfect. Donahue’s makeover of KMPX began in 1967, just as the San Francisco sound was beginning to peak. Donahue was so successful at KMPX that he was asked to do the same with Los Angeles sister station KPPC. (Donahue was also an instrumental programmer with Los Angeles’ KMET and San Francisco’s KSAN during this time.) KPPC ran with a progressive freeform format until 1971, when it voluntarily responded to an FCC ruling implying stations needed to maintain stricter control over their programming. This ruling had nothing to do with KPPC but rather a Des Moines freeform station accused of “questionable practices.” To avoid any hassles, many stations voluntarily altered their programming. On a side note, KPPC became KROQ in 1973, and after program director Rick Carroll introduced the “modern rock” format, it would go on to become one of the most successful stations in Los Angeles and the United States.
KPPC’s successful change to the freeform format led another Los Angeles station, KABC, to alter direction with its programming. A year after its format change, KABC became KLOS, future home to Jim Ladd, one of the more notable contemporary DJs still practicing in the format. Ladd’s talents and desire to spread and play music for the sake of music was captured in Tom Petty’s “The Last DJ”, a song reflecting the absence of free thought and expression in pop culture and lamenting the loss of outlets like Ladd’s program and other legendary freeform shows.
The first nail in commercial freeform’s coffin came in the guise of FCC rulings such as the 1971 Des Moines ruling. The Nixon administration had grown increasingly agitated with the counterculture, at times nearing the point of paranoia. Seeing many FM stations as outlets for radical, seditious thought-speak, it sought to remove any potential threats. Using the FCC, many stations’ licenses were threatened as a means to control them and their content. As the more cautious climate of the ’70s began to creep in, programming consultant Lee Abrams developed what would become commercial freeform radio’s death knell: a format called album-oriented radio or AOR. As the decade ended, AOR and modern rock had become the dominant formats on FM and AM radio, with AOR peaking in the early ’80s.
Commercial freeform radio may not have had the support or backing to withstand political and economic pressure, but freeform radio still exists. Non-commercial and college radio stations have always been more open to the format and as such have done a huge service in continuing the sonic explorations only found through freeform. Of all these stations, there is one that is perhaps recognized more than any other when it comes to practicing what it preaches: WFMU.
WFMU began broadcasting in 1958 from the campus of Upsala College in East Orange, New Jersey, and is the longest-running freeform radio station in the United States. In 1995, the station separated from the college and became completely independent. Continuing its progressive mindset, WFMU has even expanded to 15 hours a week of internet-only live programming, thumbing its nose at the language restrictions set in place by the FCC.
In its early days, WFMU featured a student DJ named Vin Scelsa and his show Idiot’s Delight. A brilliant production and eclectic mix of music and reviews, Scelsa’s show even included interviews with authors and artists beyond musicians. He continued his own unique brand of radio by taking his show to various other freeform stations in the New York market, such as WBAI and WNEW, where he continued hosting Idiot’s Delightuntil 1999 when WNEW’s format changed. Scelsa then took his show to both Fordham University’s WFUV and Sirius/XM radio, where it can still be heard.
With the mass consolidation of radio markets following the passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, any freeform radio station still broadcasting faced even more resistance and pressure from commercially minded owners. As the blanching of America’s radio programming spread its mind-numbing banality, diverse and eclectic programming was forced to find alternative outlets. Some programs such as Idiot’s Delight found a home on satellite radio, while other programs such as Radio Free Phoenix exist quite comfortably on the internet. The internet and satellite also allow for programming free of FCC restrictions, thereby providing another possible route of evolution for freeform programming. However, it is college radio that has always provided a sanctuary for this style of programming. And with the rise of the internet, many of the disadvantages faced by smaller stations as a result of consolidating markets can be circumnavigated, giving college and/or independently minded stations the ability to compete locally as well as broadcast their programming, effectively, to the entire world (barring any licensing issues of course). Freeform radio has always lived a sporadic, spread-out existence; however, as long as there are DJs and program directors who are true music lovers, like Jim Ladd or Vince Scelsa, with a desire to celebrate music (and other artistic endeavors) with their audiences, freeform will always trounce any effort to stifle it. Freeform began as an experiment, and over eight decades later, the experiment is still going strong.
Len Comaratta is a freeform DJ at WUVT-FM. His show, The Rare Groove, has been broadcasting for over 10 years and can be heard weekly, every Thursday evening, 9 p.m. - mid EST at

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Denis Dutton (1944-2010)

1964 Denis Dutton (above) and Marty Welch prepare for election coverage
Courtesy Photo
1964 Denis Dutton (above) and Marty Welch prepare for election coverage

Denis Dutton, 1944-2010

Intellectual Tastemaker

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

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Having encountered so little like that in modern media, I wasn’t sure what to use as a model. Making my usual rounds through Web one day, it struck me: Why not create the radio version of the one site I check every single day?

That site was Arts & Letters Daily, a creator of trembling addicts which has slowly fed their habits since 1998. Structured like an 18th-Century broadsheet, it showcases three new pieces a day from all around the Internet, one under “Articles of Note,” one under “New Books,” and one under “Essays and Opinion.” Some of us habitu├ęs have been foolish enough to set it as our browser’s default home page. Who could resist clicking on A&LD’s famously tantalizing links?
“Dumbing down takes many forms: art that is good for you, museums that flatter you, universities that increase your self-esteem. Culture, after all, is really about you…”

“Philosopher Peter Singer wants to be on the side of the weak and poor against the rich and mighty. It’s just one of his many, uh, novel ideas…”

“Mrs. Thatcher viewed Ferdinand Mount as ‘an idle and effete youth.’ But she came to admire his powers as a wordsmith. Right she was…”

1965 Denis Dutton in La Cumbre yearbook's KCSB pages.
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Courtesy Photo
1965 Denis Dutton in La Cumbre yearbook’s KCSB pages.

Early in my own A&LD addiction, I discovered who was responsible for these artful teasers: a certain Denis Dutton, professor of philosophy at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand. By 2000, he’d brought on managing editor Tran Huu Dung, a professor of economics at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio. Together, Dutton and Dung gathered the most compelling and provocative written content on the Internet, organizing it into a startlingly accessible form. Titling my KCSB show The Marketplace of Ideas, I hoped to emulate at least a fraction of this rich mixture of art, culture, philosophy, and contrarianism on the airwaves.

After a few months, I felt I the show could never truly achieve its goal without bringing on one particularly important guest: Dutton himself. To interview the man about his Web site on a show inspired by his Web site brought just the sort of strange circularity I enjoy most. As it turned out, he would visit my show not just once but twice, spending one hour in May 2008 and another in April 2009. The second time, I invited him on to discuss The Art Instinct, the book he’d written on the intersection between aesthetics, philosophy, and biological evolution. Having just been on The Colbert Report to promote the book, he thus became, I think it’s safe to say, the only guest I’ll ever share with Stephen Colbert.

That Dutton wrote such a book suggests, correctly, that his skills and interests went far beyond the maintenance of a Web site. His most hilarious side project — and, to my mind, his most necessary one — was the Bad Writing Contest, featured in his academic journal Philosophy and Literature in 1996, 1997, and 1998. Meant to eradicate the strain of baroquely meaningless prose that had gained a shocking prevalence in the academic humanities, the Bad Writing Contest found its finest specimen when it awarded first prize to this sentence from post-structuralist Judith Butler:

The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.

“To ask what this means is to miss the point,” Dutton wrote. “This sentence beats readers into submission and instructs them that they are in the presence of a great and deep mind.”

Spring 1966 KCSB board (Denis Dutton front row, third from left).
Click to enlarge photo
Courtesy Photo
Spring 1966 KCSB board (Denis Dutton front row, third from left).

Though I suspect all his accomplishments would prove too numerous to list, I must mention that Dutton taught unusual philosophy courses, played the sitar, founded the misunderstood Climate Debate Daily, and helped KCSB become the station it is today. Joining its staff as a UC Santa Barbara undergrad in the early 1960s, Dutton held the position of general manager at KCSB when it made the leap from AM to FM in 1963. He was there to oversee KCSB’s election coverage; he was there to manage the broadcasts as news of John F. Kennedy’s assassination broke; he was there, as other early KCSBers have told me, to dart out of bed and into the station to reprimand DJs who would dare jeopardize the station’s license by broadcasting the then-rebellious genre of rock and roll in the middle of the night.

Nobody active in the world of ideas on the Internet could have suppressed their shock at Denis Dutton’s death last month at age 66. Despite his surprisingly sudden passing, I hope to live even half as colorful a life as the intellectual-tastemaking, expatriate-living, sitar-playing, bad-writing-ridiculing one he did. As a would-be fellow promoter of conversation and thought about what’s really fascinating in the world today, I can’t help but feel proud that we were both forged, in part, at the very same radio station.

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