In L.A. radio listeners plaster bumper stickers on their cars the way street gangs in other cities wear colors: with a passion. In fact, the competition and back-bitting amongst the disc jockeys at the three leading AOR stations -- KROQ, KMET and KLOS -- is only overshadowed by the fans' vehement appreciation or scorn of the music found on rival stations.
KROQ listeners, elated that their black sheep new wave outlet has finally reached Number One status, are possibly the most devoted of LA radio fans. While detractors berate the ROQ for playing a limited and highly repetitive selection of tunes, their fans, many of them teenagers, point out that these songs simply can't be heard anywhere else -- indeed, some of them can't even be purchased at the local record stores.
KMET fans feel a similar conviction to the supremacy of the Mighty MET, where hard rock has reigned supreme for over a decade. "Too much Led Zeppelin for me" the critics shake their heads, but a MET devotee just cranks it up. Where else could they hear Sammy Hagar welcoming in a "Rock And Roll Weekend" at just the right moment?
KLOS, a little down the dial to the right, has been coming up strong with their familiar rock sound and a plethora of "specials." Tainted to some listeners for "stealing" or copying promotional programs and events such as "The Sevenths Day" (formerly a KWST trademark) and "Rocktober" (long a KMET tradition), "too hip" KLOS nonetheless provides a source of listening entertainment for many an L.A. rocker these days.
But let's take a closer look at things and give the stations themselves their first real chance to tell their own stories.
The winds of change are swirling down on Sunset Boulevard, leaving behind the remains of a once-booming music industry (remember when cruising the Strip was a new-release show in its own?), intensifying the nose-to-nose competition among the three AOR contenders, doing their utmost to keep pace with the times. Ratings (conducted and published quarterly by national services such as Arbitron and Birch), are the sword by whcih the stations' advertising revenues live or die. And, as go the spot (i.e. commercial) rates, so follow the formats. Major radio battles are won and lost in this market on the strength of just one-tenth of a single Arbitron ratings share point. Indeed, a share point or two up or down in these critical "books" (ratings reports) can justify possible ratings increases (or decreases) of at least $50 to $100 per each commercial announcement, eight of which generally occur every hour. Multiply it out, and you begin to see why the competition is so fierce.
The losers, when the ratings take their toll, are not only the station staffers, but also the listeners, the recording artists, the record companies, even the recording studios, all of which have a personal stake in radio's "formats" or programming selections. Artists from Billy Joel ("It's Still Rock And Roll To Me") to The Raspberries ("Overnight Sensation [Hit Record]") to Elvis Costello ("Radio Radio") to John Cougar, have taken the most public stabs at the situation. In his 'Cheap Shot" Cougar sings, "Well the PDs they won't play the record / They're too worried about that book / And the DJs they all hate the song / But they're in love with the hook." Since no one likes to have his destiny resting in someone else's control, it's understandable when someone gets frustrated enough to bite the hand that feeds him.
Until a few years ago, the artists' and record companies' strategy for airplay was simple: phone, visit and generally lay siege to the most progressive stations in town when a new rock and roll album was released. Listeners reaped the benefits of radio and records' mutual efforts, and there was little question as to where to tune in if you were a rocker. The transition form the '60s "underground" into the '70s "AOR" was fairly gradual. To many, including Cougar, it was nonetheless upsetting: "Well folk rock, punk rock, power pop music, turned out to be the latest trends / and there ain't no more progressive music / The business has put it to an end," he sings in "Cheap Shot."
There is a magic that occurs when an entity becomes greater than the sum of its parts. Such was the situation with progressive radio in the '60s. More than just audio signals offering a certain selection of music, those early FM radio stations, pioneered by trend-setting announcers, orchestrated the arrival of revolutionary new counter culture. For many of us, those stations became our guiding lights, the center of our lifestyles. Today, it's a different ball game.
Rock bastion KMET's Mike Harrison recently discussed the topic with a passionate caller on his weekly live telephone talk show. Harrison's words broadcast early one morning this past April, express his own seasoned perceptions: "There's and incredible generation gap that exists amongst the buyers of rock music that cannot be denied. It's 1983. The '60s were 20 years ago, and the swing era was nice too.
"Art can be universal. Pop culture, though, is very temporary and the art of pop culture is to ride the wave of the here and the now. When pop culture starts to spawn its own rich history it ceases to be pop culture.
"What you have in rock is the dichotomy of, on one level, a pop youth-oriented culture; on the other level, what's turning out to be one heck of a major musical artistic era. The critics and observers of it and the fans of it sometimes have trouble finding where they stand in therms of those two very opposite considerations. To raise it to a level of a hatred or anything like that is to lose the spirit of rock and roll completely, whether it's new wave or old wave or whatever."
KROQ (106.7 FM) is the current rock ratings leader in town, with a 4.6 Arbitron share in the Winter book, even despite their relatively weak signal of 25,000 watts beamed from a transmitter atop Glendale's Flint Peak rather than the all-high and mighty Mt. Wilson. Their "Rock of the '80s" format was developed by past program director (PD), now national consultant, Rick Carroll, and the current KROQ PD, 30-year-old Freddy Snakeskin, believes strongly in their exclusively new wave approach to rock.
"I feel we're different from any other station," he says. "Evolution-wise, we're musically and culturally ahead of even the other stations Rick is programming. I think the station is unique and I also sincerely think it's the best radio station in the world. We don't have billboards or TV commercials and we only use limited print advertising. We just have what we do on the air and what's said about us."
Although the ratings point to a strong teen following, with adults 18 to 34 also tuning in, Snakeskin says he doesn't target his music towards any specific age group. Instead, he programs for "anyone with half a brain in their head who's not interested in listening to news. Our targeting is more psycho-graphic than demographic -- a certain stat of mind would draw someone to this -- people who think, who aren't afraid to be exposed to the unexpected."
Snakeskin explains that all "adds" (records added to the on-air library) are made as the result of consensus among himself, consultant Carroll and the music director Larry Groves. Heavy airplay at the moment, he itemizes, is going to Sparks, Bow Wow Wow, U2, Culture Club, English Beat, Psychedelic Furs, David Bowie, Cure, Thompson Twins, and Madness. Sankeskin estimates that there are several hundred singles and Ep's and a couple of thousand albums available to his airstaff; duromg certain "open" slots they can even bring in records from home. But that's only part of the story. Then there's the "format":
"In each slot around the hour there are three or four records. The announcers can mix them up and play them in whatever order they want, as long as it conforms to the rules and structures of the format. The vast majority of the music played is a limited choice. If you don't play one song in one position one hour, you play it the next hour. There are one or two "open" categories per hour; it's their responsibility to play something that will enhance the station. The majority of what you hear is new or current music.
"The other stations in town," according to Snakeskin, "are so totally boring as to be unlistenable. I can't listen to KMET or KLOS. In terms of advertising and ratings, in a business sense, they are our competition."
KROQ's mid-morning announcer, the charismatic Raechel Donahue, puts it this way: We play totally different music form the other AORs. There's a lot more freedom in what we say as well. The personalities are a little stronger. Ther's a certain feel of casualness about it, which can't be repeated once you get formica and real curtains and real windows. It's very similar to the beginning for me [at KMPX and KSAN in San Francisco]. It's the same ugly bedspread tacked up on the window. I'd swear ti was the same one -- it's just not paisley anymore, it's an even worse print.
"I enjoy it. There's a sense of camaraderie at the station. It's not as competitive as it has been at other places. Everyone pretty much shares their abilities and knowledge. We're not working under a union contract pay scale. Getting good ratings is a more joyous family event that is to say, 'Oh I did that,' 'She did that,' or 'He did that.' They have us splayed over the rating periods so it's hard to tell who got what anyway.
"Very often," Donahue reflect "people get to the age of 25 or 26 -- usually women put on the brakes a little earlier than men -- and they don't want to hear anything new. They stop and that's what they like and that's the kind of music they stay with and they wish it would come back. But it doesn't. It keeps going forward."
At the ROQ, Donahue explains from her experienced view point, "There are a lot of two-to-three minute records, not too many twelve-minute ones, not too many Eric Clapton's "Cocaine," the live version. i can play eight records in a 25 minute stretch. I try to pre-announce and back announce the set, sometimes I break in to keep it conversational. It's very difficult to get new listeners if they can't identify anything. We all have a certain number of hits we have to play within our shows. They tell you the cut but you have a choice of which hour to play it in. I don't feel at all restricted by it. I've never found it impossible to make a show out of a format unless it's and actual list. We have oldies like "Wooly Bully" and "drops" (pre-recored one-liners) -- it makes for very inventive programming."
Donahue's show includes her catchy "Lady & The Doorknob" daily quiz, and she can often be found about town participating in such diverse station events as the Mickey Thomas Off Road Championship Grand Prix (where she was strapped into the passenger seat of a Mitsubishi truck), emceeing a topless contest in Santa Fe Springs or the OP Surf Finals at the beach, or hosting a KROQ evening at Westwood nightclub Dillions. As for L.A.'s competitive AOR radio scene, she feels, "It's added and exciting dimension. You get out of shape if you don't have to compete against somebody. I think there's plenty of room for everybody."