You Are Listening to Los Angeles: On Defunct Radio
I spent my childhood in Orange County, but I listened to Los Angeles radio stations. I had two favorites: KMET and KROQ.
KMET was a rock station. It played meat-and-potatoes classic rock like The Who, Jimi Hendrix and The Rolling Stones, but they’d also play Steely Dan, Joni Mitchell and X whenever the mood took them. (In the end, that mood didn’t take them nearly often enough). Their DJs seemed like a good bunch of hippies, and I identified with them — even collecting the station’s bumperstickers and the branded pin-up calandars they handed out at Tower Records. (Also worth noting: KMET was home to Dr. Demento’s show, and they were the only station on the dial that played folk music, very early on Sundays.)
The Mighty Met’s star DJ was Jim Ladd. He was a head-trip kinda guy; he’d program and play sets of stoner progressive rock meant to be listened to on headphones. I didn’t always listen to the show because it ran at the same time as “The Seventh Day” on rival rock station KLOS, during which the station would play seven albums commercial-free and back-to-back, and I was a home-taping maniac. (Oh yes, I put entire labels out of business, I’m sure. The executives at Sony Music hear my name and wet their pants.) Still, I appreciated what Ladd was trying to do, and every now and again – say, if “The Seventh Day” was playing The Allman Brothers or something – I’d switch over to “Headsets,” put on my cans and slay dragons.
KMET went leadbelly-up in the mid-1980s, and was replaced by a new age station called “The Wave.” They played soap opera-like skits between the songs, and their jingle cured insomnia: “Ninety-four seven, the Waaaaaa-aaa-aaaave.” Even The Wave’s most ardent listeners kind of hated it, but I was too far out of that loop to care. I’d long since abandoned KMET for punk/new wave powerhouse KROQ, and its resident hippie, Rodney Bingenheimer.
Like Jim Ladd, Rodney’s show aired on Sunday night. (It still does, at oh-dark-thirty in the morning). Like Ladd, Rodney had a terrible haircut. And like Ladd, Rodney sought to broaden the listener’s mind, though while one did it with Jim Morrison, the other used Iggy Pop. Rodney Bingenheimer’s show introduced me to practically every first-and-second-wave punk band in existence, and I ate his show up even if he’d try to choke me with a Bangles track every now and again. I hated that band even before I really hated that band.
Rodney’s wasn’t the most engaged voice on the dial. He was soft-spoken and seemed easily distracted. He’d do his own commercials, like Howard Stern, but with less polished results:
“Okay, okay. You know, uh, tonight’s show is sponsored by, uh, PSA Airlines. PSA can, uh, fly you from San Francisco to the Bay Area for just $30…”
You get the idea.
KROQ also boasted Freddie Snakeskin, Jed the Fish, Richard Blade and a bunch of other jocks who were tastemakers of the first water, despite being glib jerks at times. They could play at least five songs of their choosing every hour, I reckon — all but unheard-of on today’s radio dial, where every hour of listening is researched and programmed down to the second. (I make the Jack FM radio franchise an exception to this, but their sets are mostly songs I know well; KROQ was mixing things up and introducing voluminous amounts of new music at the same time.) DJ sets on KROQ jumped from the Stranglers to ZZ Top to New Order to the Damned in a matter of minutes … and if you wanted to reap that bounty, all you had to do was put up with their overselling of Depeche Mode, Oingo Boingo and Dramarama. I still can’t listen to “Anything, Anything” or “A Question of Lust,” but it was worth the suffering.
But as it did for KMET, KROQ’s party ended. At least the former was allowed to expire completely; present-day KROQ is a shadow of its former self. The last time I was in LA I flipped to KROQ and listened for an hour. They played My Chemical Romance, Kings of Leon, Linkin Park … in other words, it was a playlist all but indiscernible from every other rock station in America. (I think.) Funny, isn’t it? That I could outlive something like free-form radio?
I know that there are now many options to FM radio, good and solid options. I could listen to satellite radio, which has about a bazillion different stations, each with a singular, but fully-formed personality. (Finally, I can choose between 1906s and 1970s classic rock, 1970s and 1980s classic rock, and “deep” classic rock. Some stations have even narrowed their focus to playing one single band outta Jersey.) Or I could plug in the iPod and hit random, which sometimes yields surprises, but not miracles.
For all their flaws, KMET and KROQ could hand down a miracle every now and again — the thrill of hearing your name on the air, or the pleasure of hearing a favorite song at a moment when you didn’t know you needed it. You never quite knew what you’d get out of Ladd or Bingenheimer, and that’s what kept you following them — through adversity, through commercials, through The Bangles.