Radio Waves: 5/17/19

What makes radio memorable?

“About 90 percent of us listened to KMET (now KTWV, 94.7 FM) rather than KLOS (95.5 FM)” said my brother, Victor, referring to his friends in high school and college. “It wasn’t (just the) music … it was the DJs, who were funny as (expletive). Fish Report with a Beat? That was funny stuff.”

And so it was in the mid to late 1970s. That story repeated throughout the country, and over many decades. KMET was a special case, as in the station’s heyday the DJs went out of their way to play music not heard elsewhere … album cuts that were not hits, seldom-heard nuggets from all musical genres, and more. But it was the attitude of the station that’s set it apart.

Going back in time, the same ideas made numerous other stations popular. While KFWB (980 AM) was among the first in Los Angeles to play rock and roll, KRLA (now KRDC, 1110 AM) was more hip and eventually stole much of the audience. KHJ (930 AM) came later and dominated for years. More recently KIIS-FM (102.7) ruled not only Los Angeles, but the entire country when they earned ratings over 10.0 in the mid 1980s.

In all cases, stations and the direct competitors played essentially the same music. KHJ even made its debut in late April, 1965, playing the same hits as on KRLA; they used the KRLA Tune Dex list to buy the songs at a local store.

So if KHJ, KRLA, and KFWB; KIIS-FM, KKHR (now KCBS-FM, 93.1); and KMET, KLOS, KWST (now KPWR, 105.9 FM) … all played essentially the same styles of music among the formats they ran, what made KHJ, KMET, KIIS-FM and in other cities stations like KFRC/San Francisco, KCBQ/San Diego and more, dominate their respective formats?

It was what went on between and behind the records that made the difference. What did the DJs say … or not say? How did the station keep listeners informed? What promotions did the station run? In other words …

How did the station connect with its listeners?

I bring this up not to get nostalgic, though that would certainly be an easy thing to do. I bring it up because I fear radio forgot how to complete, and the reality is that much of the reason stations are having issues competing — against Pandora, iTunes, Spotify, SiriusXM and more — is because stations don’t do what they once did so very well — connect with the audience.

Music is music. You can hear the same songs on radio, satellite, smart phones and more. And unlike radio, many of the alternatives are commercial-free. So why listen to radio if you don’t get anything special?

Luckily, often you do. Mornings are a gold-mine of talent among music stations, though if you want to actually hear music among the bits you might be disappointed. But The Woody Show (Alt 98.7 FM), Kevin and (soon to be sans-) Bean (KROQ, 106.7 FM), Heidi Frosty and Frank (KLOS), Big Boy (Real 92.3 FM), Ryan Seacrest (even though he’s taped on KIIS-FM) are but a few of the morning shows that do something special. Outside of mornings? Rare.

On a related note, there was a time when radio was your first choice when it came to getting information. Bad weather? Potential emergency? Need information? Radio was the place to go, due in part to the almost instantaneous ability to cover news events … with only audio equipment needed, radio reporters could be set top and broadcasting almost instantly. Not so for television, which had to set up camera links, process film, and more.

No more. Radio stations seldom even have news departments these days. And often they are running canned programming, especially on weekends, and sometimes form a different city.

It hit a head recently in San Diego when there was a mass shooting at a synagogue. As reported on AllAccess.Com and repeated on Don Barrett’s LARadio.Com, no stations broke format to cover the tragedy. As told by Perry Michael Simon,

“Nothing on any station. A tragedy was playing out mere miles from the stations’ studios. A national – international, even – story was happening in the market. The stations did not break from their regular programming. 

“I later learned that one of the stations belatedly went to ‘updates every 15 minutes,’ but that wasn’t enough, and when I wanted the information, it was not there,” Simon wrote

Where was it? On satellite radio. And television. And twitter.

That makes me sad. To me, radio has always been the most intimate of media, one which can connect in ways no other mass media can. That doesn’t make it better than newspapers, television and the internet, but it gives it relevance. What is radio — local radio — without the connection? When radio just plays music, canned programming, syndicated fare you can hear anywhere, what is the point?

Or am I just being nostalgic?