It's been a few months since “The Art Laboe Connection” was dropped during a programming shift that turned Hot 92 into Real 92.3, leaving Los Angeles radio listeners without the host's generation-spanning mix of love songs, upbeat jams and heartfelt dedications. As of this Sunday, however, the void on the radio dial is no more: Laboe returns to the airwaves of the city that made him a radio icon. This time around, fans can catch the DJ on hip-hop station 93.5 KDAY.
Back in February, when Laboe's famed show disappeared without warning, fans reacted strongly. The crew at Internet radio station Dublab, who have long been inspired by his work, put together a tribute. Others responded with a petition. While Laboe's shows were still available via Internet streams of out-of-town stations — and he did quickly pick up a spot on Old School 104.7 in the Inland Empire — it wasn't quite the same thing. Laboe was a staple on the 92.3 FM frequency in Los Angeles for more than 20 years.
While fans were clearly upset about the change, Laboe took it as just part of the radio game. “Radio is business and the station decided to change formats and it didn't have anything to do with me personally,” he says. In fact, Laboe has stayed in touch with Hot 92's parent company, iHeartMedia, and adds that he has been in talks with the conglomerate for another project that does not conflict with his terrestrial radio gigs. “There is no animosity,” he stresses.
Laboe mentions that, in a career spanning 70 years, he is accustomed to the constant evolution of the radio industry. “Everything is constantly undergoing change,” he says. “I was in radio when there was only radio and movies, before FM and all that.”
But the hoopla surrounding his departure merely shows that Laboe — who turns 90 this summer — is integral to the sound of Los Angeles. In an era where radio is often viewed as a relic of the 20th century, his shows still draw listeners young and old. Tune in for the length of time that it takes to get across town and you might hear a Thee Midniters song of your parents' youth and the Bell Biv DeVoe jam of your own middle school days. Yet somehow, in Laboe's capable hands, it all makes sense.
“We try not to have too many of what we call trainwrecks,” he says, “where a slow ballad ends and all of a sudden your hair stands straight up.”
Laboe doesn't plan out the sets beforehand. He'll have a list of songs that he would like to play, but requests factor into the decisionmaking, too. The music's vibe is more important than the era in which it was made. “Alicia Keys …you could play her stuff right next to Frankie Valli, it's just a matter of flow.”
Outside of work, Laboe doesn't listen to much music. Of course, when he's on the clock,he's getting his fill from a digital library that contains a few thousand tunes. He does enjoy a lot of what he plays, from Marvin Gaye oldies to Beyoncé's hit “Halo.” He cites the latter as a good number to work into the show.
“It's pretty hard to go wrong because the song itself is great, it's proven and I don't think too many people will turn it off,” he says. “It may not be their favorite, but that's the idea, to keep the audience, to try to build an audience rather than turn them away.” He says the goal is to have listeners who understand that, even if they don't particularly like one song, they'll hear something they dig if they stay tuned into the show.
He's careful not to stick with his own favorite songs. “I try not to substitute my own opinion for that of the public — that's the rule,” he says. “I want to do what they want because they're what keeps me on the air.” Laboe also programs his show with the idea of “crossover” appeal in mind. “It's music that will cross the various ethnic groups,” he says.
That Laboe has been taking the music into live settings since the early years of rock & roll has cemented his position as a radio icon. His shows at El Monte Legion Stadium are part of L.A. teen culture history, but he has also thrown events at many other venues.
He recalls one event at the Hollywood Palladium in the 1980s called the “Rock-a-Thon,” where bands played from 6 p.m. until 6 a.m. the following morning. Laboe spoke to B.B. King personally to get the blues legend to play. King was in San Diego that night but managed to get his band together at 2 a.m. and drive up to Los Angeles in time to close out the party.
On the eve of his L.A. relaunch, Laboe will be in the desert, throwing Summer Love Jam IV at Agua Caliente Casino in Rancho Mirage. El Chicano, Tierra, Malo and others will play at the concert.
Of course, Laboe's show is perhaps more famous for the dedications than the music. “It's important to get good callers,” he says, adding that this can be a difficult thing to do. “Most people are nervous when they go on the air.” With help from his screeners, Laboe looks for a story — the person who is sending out an old wedding song for an anniversary, the folks who want to put their kids on the air to send a message. “I can tell in the first few sentences whether they're going to be an interesting caller or not,” he says.
Thanks to syndication and Internet radio streams, Laboe's audience extends far beyond Southern California. He'll get calls from people across the country — as an example, he mentions a woman in Oklahoma calling to send a message to her husband in Tehachapi. “He can hear his wife tell him that she loves him and then I play a love song,” he says.
Laboe's compassion for listeners has made him a beloved presence on the air. “There are a lot of lonely people out there,” he says, adding that he'll try to “empathize” with callers who simply want to hear a song that reminds them of an old love.
With Laboe, the show is less about the host and more about the people who come together through music and dedications. Certainly, that connection with the listeners is at least part of what has kept Laboe working for decades. “I think every listener is important,” he says, “no matter who they are.”