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Dead Air

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.

“Here I am, instead of at some little podunk outlet out in the middle of nowhere with bad equipment, I’m at KLOS, one of the biggest radio stations in the world, getting to do this. I don‘t know of anybody else, certainly on a station of the status of KLOS, that has anywhere near the freedom that I do.

”My show is a very personal expression. I really do try to break down the wall between us, so it’s not like ‘show biz,’ it‘s like a friend of yours coming to your house. It’s completely improvised, it‘s completely stream-of-consciousness. But that doesn’t mean that I don‘t have to carefully consider each and every song I play. There’s myriad reasons I‘m playing that song at that moment. And I appreciate when people get that. My secret weapon is I have Rita Wilde as a boss, who is the rare person who grew up in the time of real FM radio, knows what that is about, and has given me this opportunity to do this.“

”Jim is one of those icons of radio,“ says KLOS programming manager Wilde a few days later on the phone. ”He’s probably the reason I got into radio, listening to the magic that he created. It‘s just worked out that we had the opportunity at that particular time slot to say, okay, here’s the lanes of traffic -- see how fast you wanna go. He has some parameters, but it‘s nothing compared to what everybody else has.“

How wide are those parameters?

”I can play anything I want,“ says Ladd, smiling.

Anything?

”Anything . . . within these parameters: obviously, rock & roll and the blues. I’m not gonna go in and play an hour of polka music. The emphasis is on ‘classic rock’ -- but that covers a lot. That covers from Bob Dylan to Creed, from the Beatles to U2, from Bruce Springsteen to Collective Soul.“

But why not open it up a little further, to play sets that are as wide-ranging as the shows were in the early days of freeform FM radio, when squadrons of DJs followed underground-radio pioneer Tom Donahue‘s formula of 60 percent ”familiar“ (mainstream album-rock artists), 20 percent blues and R&B, 10 percent jazz, and 10 percent electronic and spoken word? Why not play a wider range of new artists? Heck, how about playing Sly & the Family Stone?

”I have played Sly Stone, and I do play them, but I usually confine that kind of parameter to Headsets [a one-hour program Ladd does every week on his show]. I think you would have to agree that Headsets may be the most eclectic piece of radio that there is. I play everything from Ravi Shankar to bands you’ve never heard of, and spoken-word poetry. If the show isn‘t as broad [as you’d like], that‘s really my fault. I’ll take credit for what you like, but also I‘ll have to take blame if you don’t think I‘m pushing it enough . . .

“I am very interested in playing new bands, too, that fit into my show. Not all brand-new bands would fit. But those that do, I wanna play them. ’Cuz it‘s always been a tradition of rock radio to move forward. I like doin’ that.”

A few weeks later at the Museum of Television and Radio‘s Radio Festival 2000 panel “The Rise of FM Rock Radio,” in front of an audience of predominantly plump, white baby boomers, Ladd will say, “We have changed the culture so much that we don’t even recognize the good things that we‘ve done. We’re kind of just focused on [in whining voice] ‘How come you guys aren’t so far-out anymore?‘ Well, excuse me, but screw you. Where were you? We were there, and I think we’ve changed some things.”

The inclination to segregate the more out-there impulses of freeform radio is probably the main reason Jim Ladd is a success in 2000 -- his show was recently rated No. 1 for his time slot in the coveted “Males 25--54” demographic -- and why he‘s still on the air when all of his veterans-in-arms long ago gave up waiting for the magic phone call inviting them to do their thing on the air again. It must be a strange, lonely position to be in at 1 in the morning, three hours into a shift.

“There are many, many people out there who can do freeform radio,” Ladd acknowledges. “Very talented people -- people that I would like to listen to. But it’s not like there‘s a team of us [on the air] doing this against formatted radio. No. I’m it. I‘m the only guy that’s left standing. And it is very lonely, because the whole fight, if you will, is me.”

Of course, freeform commercial radio does pop up here and there, now and then. In New York, the legendary Vin Scelsa, who‘s been freeform-deejaying since 1967, still does his wide-ranging Idiot’s Delight show every Sunday night on the hard-rock-leaning 102.7 WNEW; a recent playlist included Coldplay, Sade, Yo La Tengo, Horace Silver, and Neil Young--Chrissie Hynde and Francois Hardy--Iggy Pop duets. In Los Angeles, we have the nationally syndicated Big Snoop Dogg Radio on The Beat, Friday nights at 9 p.m., and, of course, Rodney Bingenheimer is still on KROQ every Sunday at midnight for three sugar-glam-punk-Britpop-filled hours. And to its credit, KROQ has recently broken a bit with its preprogrammed flash-juvenilia format, broadcasting in October the then-unreleased Radiohead Kid A album commercial-free one Sunday afternoon, as well as excerpts from the band‘s concert at the Greek. But Jim Ladd, for better or worse, is the only one who’s doing freeform radio five nights a week.

“KLOS is the only commercially rated radio station in the country that gives somebody the freedom to pick and choose as he or she pleases,” says Wilde. “Freeform radio just doesn‘t exist. We’ve considered [extending the freeform format to other DJs], but right now this is such a big risk that we‘re taking, we need to make sure that it works here first, and who knows, maybe there will be a revolution of sorts. But I think it would be difficult to do that on regular commercial radio.”

The truth is, freeform radio was birthed, and thrived, under a unique set of historical circumstances that simply aren’t present now. In the mid-‘60s, the federal government issued a set of regulations that had the effect of encouraging experimental programming via a relatively new, underutilized communication technology: FM radio. Simultaneously, there were groups of youths, eager to give voice to a culture divorced from the straight mainstream, who would staff radio stations for almost nothing. Over time, these stations were able to build large, loyal (and profitable) followings. Today, FM radio is completely assimilated into the mainstream communications culture, and government regulations on limits to station ownership have been significantly relaxed. Fiscal reality -- bottom-line Suit Math -- set in long ago. Stations became lucrative commodities; in Los Angeles, the nation’s second-largest radio market, they now go for $200 million a pop.

As a rule, corporations that are servicing debt don‘t experiment -- they go with what they think will work, and what will work fast. That means they have to avoid formats they perceive as risky and slow-building: in other words, ones in which you allow DJs to play whatever they want. With significant changes in laws governing ownership of commercial radio stations looking extremely unlikely, there’s simply not much hope for the future of the freeform-radio DJ on the FM dial. As FM radio vet Dusty Street said at the Museum of Television and Radio, “I don‘t think existing FM radio is gonna make room for us.”

The freeform-radio DJ will be gone soon, perhaps banished to the purgatory of a low-profile specialty show on noncommercial radio, or a lost-in-the-fray, delocalized Web “radio” station, or a subscription-based car-only satellite radio service. But ultimately, he will cross-fade from the FM airwaves completely, disappearing into myth like the other American folk heroes before him. The radio DJ, always invisible, will then be silent, too.