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By Dennis Romero
By Dennis Romero
It‘s easy to be annoyed by Jim Ladd.
For a DJ, he talks an awful lot. A sentence from his 1991 memoirs, Radio Waves: Life and Revolution on the FM Dial -- “At night, the relationship between DJ and listener can be transformed into a mystical intercourse between shaman and tribe, both enraptured by the spell of rock ’n‘ roll emanating from a forbidden radio in the dark . . .” -- is both a description of the way Ladd views his work and an example of the goofy, overwrought patter that often peppers his show.
He’s unadventurous. Ladd may be fond of the Jim Morrison quote “Out here on the perimeter . . . we are stoned immaculate,” but his hand-picked selections sit squarely in the middle of the road; night after night, his sets inevitably feature the usual classic-rock suspects -- the Doors, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Tom Petty, the Eagles, Dylan, the Stones, etc. -- played by all the KLOS DJs, who spin records according to preprogrammed playlists.
And even after being on and off the air in Southern California for the last 28 years (KLOS, KMET, KLSX, now KLOS again), he‘s still strangely lacking in the basic-training skills that hip-hop DJs master by age 15; a startling number of his song-into-next-song segues are inept sonic train wrecks, textbook cases of how not to match beats or mix textures.
And yet . . . and yet, hearing Jim Ladd doing his freeform rock thing every night from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. can be a major revelation: four hours that give you at least a taste of what “freeform radio” once was. Because, sandwiched between the commercials for hair-loss replacement systems, corrective laser eye surgery, the National Guard and McDonald’s new McBurrito menu . . . between the hawking of the show‘s signature “Lord Have Mercy” buttons and T-shirts, starting from the program’s 11th minute . . . and between Ladd‘s own constant championing of freeform radio’s virtues (every night is something of a pledge drive cum group hug cum revival meeting) . . . somewhere in there, Ladd will do what all great DJs used to do: play you what you didn‘t even know you wished to hear. Maybe it’s some nicely picked Black Crowes, Moby Grape and Pretenders tunes, all at the same tempo, right in a row; or an hour of collaged-together vintage Hendrix on what would have been his 58th birthday; or the Beatles‘ “Blue Jay Way” and Van Morrison’s “Into the Mystic,” playing as the fog drifts in at 12:20 a.m.
In those moments, or during one of his more inspired monologues, the self-styled L.A. Lonesome Cowboy is something more than the guy who says stuff like “Speaking of serious juju -- here‘s the new one from Sammy Hagar” and plays more Don Henley and Roger Waters solo-album cuts than any audience should be burdened with. In those moments, Ladd is a living, broadcasting example of what a popular commercial-rock DJ, freed of playlists selected by someone else, can be: mood setter and party starter, explorer and interpreter, provocateur and peacemaker, curator and comfort giver. Reader of tea leaves. The genie in the transistor box, with the uncanny ability to divine, distill and shape a moment’s very essence. A treasured figure who has been elevated into American folklore -- think of Wolfman Jack in American Graffiti, Cleavon Little as the magnificent DJ Super Soul in Vanishing Point, Samuel L. Jackson as Mister Señor Love Daddy in Do the Right Thing, and the laid-back headset philosopher Chris in the Morning on Northern Exposure -- even as he has almost completely vanished from the nation‘s commercial airwaves.
“The problem in the first place was Ronald Reagan, okay? His administration deregulated the broadcast industry. It used to be, you could own seven TV and seven radio stations in the country. And if you bought a station, you had to own it for three years. That meant that you had to be into broadcasting, you had to make it work, you had to be part of the community. Now [a radio station] is like a piece of junk bonds. Fewer people own more radio stations. And there’s less variety, because those people who own those stations go to the same cadre of programmers to program the various types of stations that they own . . .”
Jim Ladd -- lanky, lean, clad in Levi‘s and a stylish vest, with longish gray hair and drooped, squinting eyes -- is explaining to me why radio sucks. It’s a rant he‘ll deliver from time to time on the air -- sometimes with more exasperation a than patience, but always with genuine passion and a sense of loss. The irony that he’s delivering what is essentially an anti-corporate lecture from the belly of the beast -- an extremely corporate, kinda depressing radio compound that houses KLOS, Radio Disney and KABC, all owned by ABCCapital Cities, which is in turn owned by the Walt Disney Co. -- is not lost on him. He‘s the Old Music Man on the Mountain, alone in the Valley of the Suits, who’s somehow managed to be given the floor. It‘s an odd spot to be in, and one he is grateful for.