There goes the last DJ Who plays what he wants to play And says what he wants to say… And there goes your freedom of choice There goes the last human voice -Tom Petty, “The Last DJ”
The news that Jim Ladd, the inspiration for the song quoted above, was laid off from L.A. classic rock station KLOS yesterday saddens me for many reasons. I’m embarrassed to say that I didn’t know Ladd was still on the air. I sometimes listen to KLOS, though when I first moved to Cali I preferred “Arrow” 93.1 for my fix of Pink Floyd and Zeppelin. I never listened to KLOS from 10pm to 2am on weeknights, where Ladd’s free-form show soldiered on, unbeknownst to me. Modern radio seems to treat its history pretty cruelly; the few surviving DJs from the 60s/70s/80s either become vagabonds or end up in no-man’s-land time slots. Can you tell me what station Rick Dees is on these days? Or, witness the sad case of Rodney Bingenheimer – perhaps truly “the last DJ” now – on-air from midnight to 3am on Sundays on KROQ.
The whole notion of the DJ-as-celebrity seems to have gone out the window. I suppose the most popular one these days is Ryan Seacrest, who looks to be the bland, non-threatening heir to the kingdoms of both Dick Clark and Casey Kasem. Seacrest only came to national attention because of American Idol, though, not because of On Air With Ryan Seacrest on KIIS-FM here in Los Angeles. Any other bold-faced names you can think of (Howard Stern? Opie and Anthony? Adam Corolla?) came to prominence not for what they spin, but for what they say…
Which means that it’s really not just the DJ-as-celebrity that’s become an endangered species, it’s the DJ-as-musical-tastemaker. Yes, every once in a while these days a DJ or a station latches on to an unknown artist and blows them up, but those events seem few and far between. I remember hearing that the rock station in my hometown, KTUX “The Rebel Rocker” in Shreveport, was the first station in the U.S. to put Creed on heavy rotation. (I’m not proud of that fact, I’m just pointing it out.) A band is more likely to get popular by having their song in an iPod ad, on “Gray’s Anatomy”, or for sale at Starbucks than they are by good old-fashioned airplay in 2011, though there’s always an Airborne Toxic Event or a Foster The People out there as exceptions that prove the rule.
Who am I kidding? DJ-as-celebrity, DJ-as-tastemaker…it’s the DJ-as-human-being that’s tragically being put to pasture. Jim Ladd’s firing is one of the higher-profile examples of late, brought on by the acquisition of KLOS and all other Citadel-owned radio stations by Cumulus Broadcasting. As one radio giant swallows another, the long march towards homogenizing all of radio continues. Live announcers are replaced by voice tracking, aka pre-recorded segments; programs like On Air or Big Boy’s Neighborhood get licensed for stations across the country; or the announcers are abandoned altogether. For the most part, the tunes are pre-programmed anyway, so cutting out the announcer is just another way to save a buck. Some stations try to spin this as their own brand of free-form. Jack FM, a format akin to broadcasting your out-of-touch uncle’s iPod that’s sprung up in many markets nationwide (and that replaced the Arrow here in L.A. some years back) trumpets the fact that they have no DJs and therefore don’t take requests as “playing what we want”. If what you want is Journey, Bon Jovi and 80s one-hit wonders, then knock yourself out, Jack.
I once entertained notions of being a radio announcer myself, and actually was a DJ for two years for my college’s station, and for a brief run in Shreveport. This desire wasn’t born out of wanting to hear myself talk – good Lord, my voice was (is?) heinously nasal – but out of wanting to share the music I loved with a wide audience. The tale of my radio days is perhaps one to be told the next time I make some Noise, but it speaks to what is missing from radio these days: individuality. The joys radio brought when I was younger – of hearing the undiscovered, brought to me by someone actually passionate about what they were playing (maybe they championed that band themselves) – have long given way to labels pushing artists to stations, who program them in to all their outlets. Everywhere you go, it all sounds the same, and that’s tragic to me.
My hat is off to Jim Ladd tonight. Thanks for actually playing what you wanted for so long.