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."