Radio is far from dead, and Los Angeles is still one of the biggest terrestrial radio markets on the planet and No. 2 in America.
While the radio industry was almost ruined because of payola and Clear Channel (both of which still exist, unfortunately — the latter now rebranded as iHeartMedia), Los Angeles still boasts many good and several indispensable stations where you can get your music fix for free. The radio industry might not be around forever, but in some ways it’s more stable than the chaotic world of online subscription streaming. And at least when you’re listening to the radio, you don’t have to worry about some Silicon Valley libertarian billionaire scraping all your personal data to sell to marketeers or the NSA or whoever they sell that shit to, right? So yeah, old-school AM/FM radio still has its merits.
Here are the best radio stations based on a purely subjective and qualitative analysis (and roughly a decade of driving around L.A. with radio as this scribe’s only soundtrack). So while you sit in some of the world’s worst traffic, turn on and tune in to the finest L.A. radio has to offer.
12. KROQ – 106.7 FM
While many listeners inevitably grow out of the shenanigans and music popularized by the SoCal rock/pop-punk/emo/alt-rock station, KROQ is still going strong and is the aural equivalent of Jackass. One can imagine thousands of dads from here to San Diego who can now share this station with their kids and bond over Blink-182, “Detachable Penis,” “Let’s Go Smoke Some Pot,” Butthole Surfers and other parts of the SoCal canon. And they still host that Weenie Roast, too.
11. KLOS – 95.5 FM
KLOS has been serving rock & roll of the AOR persuasion since 1969. While the station typically is known for spinning pretty recognizable classic-rock standards, every once in a while you’ll hear it digging into the vaults for some deeper cuts. The station now hosts Jonesy (and his jukebox, after he left KROQ and Indie 103.1), drive-time vets Heidi and Frank, and “Breakfast With the Beatles.”
10. KCRW – 89.9 FM
An NPR member station broadcasting from Santa Monica Community College, KCRW suffers from never living up to its own hype. At the end of the day, it’s not actually very “eclectic,” though it has a faithful following and is perhaps best known for pushing beige singer-songwriters and indie rock–adjacent artists. It makes this list because its late-night and weekend DJs do sometimes play compelling sets, but its flagship Morning Becomes Eclectic program, under Jason Bentley's direction, is pretty generic.
9. KPWR – Power 106 – 105.9 fm
Power is the best place in L.A. for contemporary hip-hop and R&B … and, in recent years, some pop and EDM, too. The station “Where Hip-Hop Lives” offers a solid stable of veteran DJs and personalities like Felli Fel, and it regularly features some top-shelf live mixing and scratching.
8. KDLD – José – 103.1 FM
The 103.1 frequency in the past has been home to other historical L.A. stations that are now unfortunately resting in peace, such as pirate ravers MARS-FM and Indie 103. But José is now the spot if you’re seeking quality Spanish-language adult hits.
7. KFWB – Desi 980 AM
Desi is the only station here on the AM side of the dial, and it only flipped into this current iteration early in 2016 (pour one out for “The Beast” sports radio). But its tag of “Hollywood’s Bollywood Station” is certainly on point, as it features all manner of Indian Bollywood and pop music (Indi-pop) mixed with comedy/topical programs like “The Brown Guys.” While the signal is pretty weak and lacks some low end, Desi is a refreshing break from the more played-out catalogs of many other stations.
This one is a cheat, since Dublab is web-based. But rumor has it the independent station will be landing on your terrestrial dial at some point in the near future. It’s had an interesting trajectory over its 17-year history of broadcasting. The station specializes in left-field, more adventurous fare and has noticeably improved its quality of DJs in the past few years.
5. KXLU – 88.9
Several of the stations on this list are university broadcasters, but Loyola Marymount’s KXLU captures the rebellious spirit of good, DGAF college radio better than the rest. The DIY “let’s play shit no one else is playing” spirit seems to run contrary to the buttoned-up seriousness of a Jesuit academic institution. But it works. Check out one of its live compilations for a sampling.
4. KUSC – 91.5
Technically another college station, KUSC is an integral part of the fabric of Los Angeles and satisfies all of our inner Frasiers. Whether it’s classical, opera or film scores, KUSC holds the torch for music that doesn’t get much airplay. Want to hear an orchestral version of the theme to Legend of Zelda? It's not too stuffy to go to more crowd-pleasing pop culture places like this every once in a while.
3. KKJZ – KJazz – 88.1
KJazz — a noncommercial station broadcasting from Cal State Long Beach — has it all in the name. It’s all about jazz. Check out programs like “Breezin’ With Bubba.” You need a guy named Bubba Jackson if you want to be legit. But seriously, it'll rock you in any direction — trad jazz, Latin-leaning, West Coast, smooth, bebop and more — and do it with aplomb. KJazz plays blues on weekends, too.
2. KTWV – The Wave – 94.7
The Wave has stopped hundreds if not thousands of people from losing their shit to road rage and no doubt saved many lives in the process. It’s also been the soundtrack to countless baby-making sessions and orthodontist waiting rooms. Its programming soothes and heals. Though this format exists in many other cities, The Wave’s early managers (when it was more focused on new age) refer to themselves as a “mood service” as opposed to mere radio station, which cues you into how seriously they take their calling. And it’s not all the obvious jams. They can hit you with some deep cuts, too. Whether it’s Sade or Paul Hardcastle or any other soldiers of the quiet storm, The Wave is essential listening.
1. KDAY – 93.5
KDAY was the first classic rap station on the planet, and that is important. It also launched George Carlin’s career in the ’60s. But since 2004 the station has centered on oldies hip-hop, as it sews together cuts from several decades, from charted hits to deeper posse cuts, often throwing R&B and freestyle into the mix as well. 93.5 would likely have been on the top anyway, but now that it boasts “The Art Laboe Connection,” the best long-running L.A. radio program ever? There’s no question. L.A. hall-of-famer Laboe now closes out every week with his Sunday evening broadcast. There is no better station to cruise the PCH to, lowride to, or put on in the backyard for a cookout than KDAY. If there is a higher power, KDAY will outlive us all.