Radio Waves: December 29, 2023

In tribute to The Last DJ

By now you’ve most likely heard the news that legendary DJ Jim Ladd died last week due to a heart attack at the age of 75. To say that the loss to radio is huge is an understatement; Ladd in many ways was one of the pioneers of FM rock radio, and his influence was felt throughout the industry.

His resume includes some very influential stations, including KNAC (now KBUE, 105.5 FM) where he began his Los Angeles radio journey in 1967 at the age of 21, KLOS (95.5 FM), KMPC-FM/KEDG (now KSCA, 101.9 FM), and KLSX (now KNX-FM, 97.1). Since 2011 he was heard on SiriusXM’s Deep Tracks channel, where he again created the freeform rock sets he was famous for.

In my opinion, it was his work at KMET (now KTWV, 94.7 FM) where he honed his craft and emerged a radio icon, discovering and playing new music for young listeners eager to be part of something different while acting as an unofficial spokesman as they navigated through the end of the Vietnam War, Watergate, the energy crisis, inflation, unemployment, and more.

Ladd was the first DJ hire of new KMET programmer Sam Bellamy, who was appointed to program the station in 1974. I asked her to share some thoughts on Ladd.

“I am dumbstruck,” she told me. “Jim and I kept in touch regularly through all these years, and our recent phone call was just two weeks ago. He was totally upbeat and happy. There was no indication at all that this was going to happen.

“Jim sure was a one of a kind talent, she continued. “Hard to put into words, but his listeners felt a personal connection to him that I hadn’t seen before or since. It was like sitting in the living room with him having a conversation that he punctuated with music to suit our moods and hopes and the topics of the era. 

“He was the king of thematic sets of songs that spun thought, emotion, news, love and laughter through the music he played. He would take listeners on a nightly journey, stringing songs together and connecting them all with thoughtful, provocative, often naughty dialogue, but it was always centered around the music and appreciation of the songwriters.

“Jim lived and loved the hippie philosophy of peace, love and rock & roll. His heart and soul and creative energy touched millions. RIP Jim.”

Ladd was already at KLOS when Rita Wilde arrived there. She shared some thoughts as well.

“The first time I ever heard Jim on KMET, it was a direct line to my soul. He was talking to me, recognizing all my dreams, desires, insecurities, awkwardness and everything I thought was unique to me. I felt completely recognized and validated. All the music he played by artists I loved impacted me immensely. He was a mix master weaving songs, beats, themes and lyrics in a way I had never heard before. 

“When I was going to college at Cypress, I found my tribe of misfits who shared my love and fascination with his work in broadcasting class. We used to think about what kind of car he drove to his shift at KMET with our guesses being definitely a sports car or a motorcycle. When I started working at KLOS, imagine my surprise when I saw Jim Ladd drive up to the studio in a white minivan!

“That’s not the only thing that surprised me. He wasn’t arrogant or obnoxious. Instead, I found him to be kind, polite and a little shy. I was surprised that he was human. Over the years I got to meet some of his musical friends who were also my heroes. I discovered they were all kind of like him. Intelligent, creative, a bit reserved but all very likeable people. Stevie Nicks adored him. Tom Petty respected him. The doors loved him. Neil Peart of Rush, who never did interviews, was soft spoken but they were giddy boys around each other. The same held true for Roger Waters. 

“I am so blessed and grateful for his presence in my life. He was very close to his legion of fans and always treated them with respect. That is why they feel like they have lost a best friend as well.”

Jeff Gonzer was the KLOS morning man when he met Ladd. Here are his thoughts:

“The first time we worked together  was on KLOS in the early 70’s. I was the morning man and he was on after me at 10 a.m.  It’s gotta make you laugh to think of Jim Ladd as the mid day guy. Anyway, for whatever reason the powers that be needed to switch Damion to the 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. show, and have Jim do the the late nights. The rest, as they say, is history.

“I always thought of us at KMET as a successful baseball team, or better yet a rock band doing sold out shows every day and night. Jim Ladd was always on his game prepared every night with a great show.  He worked at all the rock radio stations in Southern California — some great and some not so great — but Jim was always a star.  I know that no matter how many years went by and how many radio stations he was on he, we were most proud of The Mighty Met.

I’ll miss you man!”

Ace Young was the morning news anchor and news director at KMET; his thoughts on Ladd are very similar to those above, based upon a friendship that thrived even after they were no longer working together. I asked him if anything they did stuck out in his mind.

“I would have to say my favorite memory is the Paraquat story,” he told me. “It wasn’t just Jim, of course, but it was a tremendous effort among all involved. Jim just happened to act as a ring-leader.

“This was back around 1977 when the federal government decided to spray paraquat on marijuana plants primarily in Mexico in order to kill the plants The problem is that the residue in surviving plants was harmful to users. So I’d report on it, as did Pat Kelley who took on the name “Paraquat” Kelley; both Gonzer and Ladd made it huge parts of their shows. In fact, Jim’s presentation kind of tied everything together,” he said.

“As part of the campaign, we went up to UC Santa Barbara, down to San Diego, and all parts in between collecting signatures on petitions to stop the spraying as part of SCAMS – Southern Californians Against Marijuana Spraying. We ultimately took two truckloads of petitions to the White House as part of the campaign!

“One night Jim found the number for the 24-hour White House comment line, and gave it over the air, urging listeners to call in protest. I was told the lines got jammed with mostly KMET listeners. It was a huge campaign, and we had it exclusively. And as I said, it brought us all closer together. 

“My friendship with Jim never wavered, and in fact it grew even stronger when he moved back near his hometown outside of Sacramento.”

Do you have any memories of Ladd and his shows either on broadcast or satellite radio? Send them my way, and I’ll feature them next week.