Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Radio Waves Podcast #39

Some people are just naturally good story tellers. One that comes to my mind is Ralph Story, who through his news and entertainment reporting for CBS and PBS, told a lot of stories about the history of Los Angeles. Former CBS staff announcer Bern Bennett was another who could make almost any topic interesting. And he was a master of jokes... you didn’t care if you already heard him tell one a million times, he made them so incredibly interesting.
Now you can add JJ Johnson to the list. The veteran broadcaster with an amazing set of pipes -- heard on the original KDAY, KACE and others locally along with legends like KFRC/San Francisco -- recently released a Kindle book that covers his career in broadcasting.
Unlike other similar books, it isn’t what I would call an autobiography, though in reality, that’s exactly what it is. But it’s different than most. Reading it you feel like you’re sitting down next to Johnson, relaxing with a beer (soft drink if you’re under 21, of course) and hearing him tell stories.
Interesting stories about something I dearly love: radio.
There is no plot. Just stories. Some of them related, some not. Some I can relate to directly, such as when he describes a “radio guy” as someone who turns up the volume to hear the special elements of a station -- DJ talk, transitions, jingles -- then turn it down again when the music plays. “To non radio people, this is odd,” he writes. Yes, my wife thinks I’m odd.
He describes so well a programmer’s intuition -- something good programmers have --  in that they can tell what is happening at a station just by listening to the on-air sound, even if they are nowhere near the station itself. Describing his own programming days at KDAY, Johnson writes, “I knew by listening, for instance, when one of my jocks was reading the newspaper in the studio” rather than paying attention to details. “No one ever protested when I would (call and) say, ‘put the paper down and pay attention, please.’ They knew I knew.”
He talks of the people he met and worked with, musicians he met and befriended, and overall gives an amazingly detailed look at the life of a radio DJ. Called, in fact, “Aircheck: Life in Music Radio,” it is a fascinating look at radio in general, not just Johnson. It’s a fun read, and its less than $5.
Johnny Mann
The creator of one of the most memorable tunes in radio, Johnny Mann, passed away June 18 at the age of 85.
Mann and his Johnny Mann Singers were famous in many circles, including radio and television. But I will always remember him for the classic a cappella “93 K-H-J” jingle that became a staple of top-40 radio stations nationwide, eventually morphing into the jingle still heard on KRTH today, “K-Earth 1-0-1!”
New PD
Chris Ebbott has been named programmer of KRTH; he will assume his new position July 16th. I’ll have more on Ebbott and his Los Angeles connections next week. In the meantime, I find it interesting -- and a potentially positive move -- that owner CBS decided to name Ebbott exclusively to KRTH, and will name another person to program sister KTWV in the near future. That should make both stations stronger; the last two PDs at KRTH also had to program KTWV and it, well, just didn’t work out, at least for The Wave.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Radio Waves Podcast #38

A generation grew up hearing Casey Kasem’s voice on the radio and in cartoons. Best known for his groundbreaking national radio countdown show “American Top 40,” Kasem died on Father’s Day, June 15. He had been in declining health for years as he suffered from the effects of a progressive form of dementia. He was 82.

Kasem began his radio career when he was drafted into the Army in 1952 and sent to Korea, where he worked as a disc jockey for the Armed Forces Radio Network. Over the years, he worked at stations in cities around the country, including Cleveland, Ohio; Buffalo, New York; Flint, Michigan; San Francisco; and Oakland. In Los Angeles, he was heard on the original KRLA (1110 AM) from 1963 to 1969.

His last year at KRLA was weekends only, as he wanted to spend more time on other projects including his voiceover work in cartoons including “Scooby-Doo,” “Batman and Robin,” “Josie and the Pussycats,” “Hot Wheels,” “Transformers” and others. He also did commercial spots for numerous companies.

But it was “American Top 40” that made him famous. Created by Kasem with the help of his childhood friend and movie producer Don Bustany, the idea was pitched in 1969 to Ron Jacobs, who had recently left the programming position at KHJ (930 AM) to start the radio syndication company Watermark.

“American Top 40” launched on seven radio stations on the July Fourth weekend of 1970. It was not an instant success, and the company had to change marketing agreements. Soon, however, it found its niche and was eventually heard on more than 1,000 stations around the world and on Armed Forces Radio.

A simple concept, really, but one that truly belonged to Kasem. No one else could do it as well as he did it — giving short backgrounds of the songs and artists he was counting down, eventually allowing listeners to make “long distance dedications,” and generally using his positive persona to make you feel good.

A contract dispute forced him out in 1988. Replaced by Shadoe Stevens, he launched a competing program, “Casey’s Top-40” on more than 400 stations in January 1989. That show, and variants of it, were heard on top-40 and adult contemporary stations for 10 years until he was brought back to AT-40.

He retired from all his radio programs and voiceover work at the age of 77 in 2009. Ryan Seacrest has been host of “American Top 40” since 2004.

Seacrest plans to offer a tribute to Kasem on this weekend’s show, heard locally on KIIS (102.7 FM) Saturday from 6 to 10 a.m. and Sunday from 8 a.m. to noon.

You can also hear some clips of Kasem as part of a tribute on the AT-40 website, His 1970s recordings of AT-40 can be heard on KOLA (99.9 FM) Sundays, 6to 9 a.m.; on SiriusXM satellite radio’s Channel 7 Saturdays from 9 to 11:15 a.m, Sundays from 6 to 8:15 a.m, and Sunday nights from 9 to 11:15. The 1980s versions are found on KOLA Saturdays from 5 to 9 a.m.

Just want the top-10? KOLA has you covered: Sunday nights at 7, the top-10 from that weekend’s ’70s show is featured, followed by the top-10 from that weekend’s ’80s show at 8.

KCRW (89.9 FM) has brought back its annual Summer Nights shows, outdoor events featuring live band performances and DJ sets in venues from Pasadena to the Pacific and beyond. This is an example of local radio at its best, and 2014 marks the fifth year of the Summer Nights series.
This weekend, the event will be held in the Courtyard of Pasadena’s One Colorado, a series of 17 historic buildings located at 41 Hugus Alley in Pasadena.

On Saturday, KCRW DJ Marion Hodges opens the evening at 7:30, followed by the orchestral pop band Kan Wakan, described as combining deep soul, dramatic folk, and orchestral pop and a great local band.

As always, the event is free and family oriented. For more information, go to or text “Summer” to 69866.

Speaking of KCRW, the station recently broke ground on a new state-of-the-art studio with an expected completion date of 2016, allowing the station to emerge from the basement under the Santa Monica College cafeteria where it has been for the past 30 years.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Radio Waves Podcast #37

When Radio Was Fun
Years ago when radios station programmers actually programmed to win, you’d see stations do all sorts of wacky stuff. One of the fun things done was customized versions of songs.
I’m not talking about songs specifically written for and about stations, though I suppose they could be included here as well (“The New KHJ” written by Roger Christian for the launch of Boss Radio in 1965 sung by the jocks to the tune of “Little Deuce Coupe” and a tribute to KFRC/San Francisco performed by Scotty and the 610s being prime examples).
I’m talking of the songs that had either added words or lyric changes that made a popular song belong to one station  only. What brought this up, by the way, was a compact disc that came in the mail from my friend Douglas Brown -- former production director of stations as varied as KHJ (930 AM), KRTH (101.1 FM) and KMGG Magic 106 (now Power 106).
Included on the disc was a small sample of some of the songs that included the “hack,” for lack of a better word. Such as:
“From Central Park to Pasadena’s such a long way (and there’s no KRLA). I feel so out of it walkin’ down Broadway (I sure do miss KRLA)” -- New York’s a Lonely Town by The Tradewinds.
“I’m drivin’ in your car. You turn on the radio (to KHJ)” -- Fire by The Pointer Sisters. Sister station KRTH had a version as well; some stations actually removed the word “radio” and added the calls. A bit smoother, perhaps; I think KFI (640 AM) had one of those.
Totally changing the lyrics with a very localized semi-hit (though I have to admit I don’t remember hearing it at the time, Wikipedia says it was a minor hit and everyone knows that info on Wikipedia is always correct), is the title track from the soundtrack to the 1978 movie Almost Summer by the Beach Boys. Original lyrics include:
“Susie wants to be a lady director, and Eddie wants to drive a hearse; Johnny wants to be a doctor or lawyer, and Linda wants to be a nurse” changed to “Now’s the time of year for the Dodgers and Angels to go to bat and do their thing. Lyin’ by a pool or tannin’ at the beach is where it’s at around the LA scene.”
Of course the lyrics culminate with the line, “all around LA and Orange County way, they’re listinin’ to K-H-J, it’s almost Summer.” And yes, KRTH had their own version as well.
Life is a Rock from Reunion was customized like this, and I know there are others. Do you remember any? Did you have favorites? Hate them? Love them? I personally think they are a fun part of radio’s past, when stations were often bigger than life, and the personalities even bigger.
No static at all?
Also on the CD was a special version of FM by Steely Dan, from the movie of the same name in 1978. In that year, AM radio still dominated the ratings in most cities, and many programmers were loathe to play a song recognizing their competition. At least one station took the “A” from Steely Dan’s “Aja” and spliced it in place of the “F,” creating the song, “AM.”
The official release, according to Brown and apparently just for KHJ, was for Steely Dan to remix the song, removing the “FM” entirely and having just music during that part of the song. The new title: “No Static at All.” Sounds a little weird when you’re used to the original, but it shows the power and influence that AM music stations once had ... and still could today if any programmers were worth a damn.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Radio Waves Podcast #36

I’ve been listening a lot more to KNX (1070 AM) lately. And I am not sure why. I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that I do like staying informed, but at least part of it has to do with how much I like the “sound” of the station on my car stereo that receives the digital, so-called HD Radio, signals that are sent along with the regular analog audio.
To my ears, KNX is the best-sounding HD radio station on the AM band. Very much FM-like, with an extra punch that puts it ahead of some of the FMs. Very clean, and very deep ... it rattles the subwoofer well.
Only real problem: it tends to highlight the sometimes poor editing on some of the commercials, including one short ad where the speaking vocals stomp the jingle for “five star service at one-star drive” that creates an especially annoying bit of on-air clutter.
The Mellow Sound
One of the stations I enjoyed in the past was KNX-FM (now KCBS-FM, 93.1) and the Mellow Sound format. I suppose it was the influence of my sister, Jackie, who tended to listen to a lot of the music played on the station. One of my favorite features was The Odyssey File, in which strange and unusual stories would be presented with some depth.
Much of the music -- though not the Odyssey File or any of the personalities who brought us the original format -- can be found on Sirius/XM satellite radio’s Channel 32, called The Bridge. Probably about the closest thing to KNX-FM that I have heard in years.
Strange Switch
Speaking of SiriusXM ... can someone explain to me why you would take a channel that has a specific appeal and replace it with one that has no appeal?
OK, I’me being harsh, but I know of people who subscribe to the satellite radio service specifically for “40s on 4,” the only channel of its type on the entire SiriusXM lineup. In its place is a special channel playing nothing but Billy Joel.
I’ve been a critic of the practice of “temporary channels” on Sirius XM since the first day they did this. Instead of using dedicated channels for special programming, they take away other channels and stick on programming of often limited interest. In fact, The Bridge was one that used to disappear for months at a time.
Don’t get me wrong, Billy Joel is a talented Singer-songwriter (no, I’m not counting the dreadful “Allentown”), but 24/7? Are you serious? Especially when his music is already played on numerous other channels on the Sirius dial. And even if you wanted to do that, why preempt a channel that has no real alternative? Sometimes I think management at SiriusXM is missing a few neurons.
Cumulus Media, owner of KLOS (95.5 FM) and KABC (790 AM) has brought their country format Nash-FM to the San Francisco Bay area via KSJO/San Jose, which the company just purchased in April.
Which if course starts up the rumor mill ... will Cumulus bring the format here to Los Angeles, and if so, to which station? Is KLOS doomed, or will Cumulus buy another station?
My hunch: It won’t matter. They can put the format on any station they want, if they want, and it won’t make a huge dent in anything. Cumulus is too cheap to really promote anything, and in the rare occasion they convince a decent programmer to actually come work for them, they tie his or her hands so tight nothing can be done. Does anyone seriously think that type of management can take on Go Country 105?