The Man Inside the Radio

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Radio hosts drinking whiskey and coke at six in the morning, news stories from the Hollywood bowling alley, and the musical lifeblood of highschool for surfers, stoners, and straight laced teens looking to join the ride. It was the peak 70s in Los Angeles, the height of rock radio power, and KMET and KLOS were all over the billboards. UnFictional host Bob Carlson talks to some of the radio kings he listened to when he was in high school in a personal appreciation of radio in two parts. A story of L.A.'s rock radio history, and his own experience when the wild fantasy became reality.    


KMET’s logo was often displayed upside-down. Photo courtesy of Jason Groman.


Photo courtesy of Jason Groman

Full script below:

JIM:  So hi. 

BOB: Hi

JIM: Bob, how are you, man?

BOB: I'm good

JIM: It’s been like what? 35 years?

BOB: I know! You sound like I remember you sounding, though. 

JIM: Yeah. I don't look the same, though. 

I talked to Jim Nelson veteran radio DJ, programmer and industry journalist. We’ve both worked around radio for a really long time, and went to high school in the same era.

JIM: We didn't have YouTube on our phones in our pockets, we didn't have the Internet. You either had radio in your car or you had a cassette or an 8-track in your car and that was it. There were no other options. 

It was during this conversation that I remembered something I’d forgotten, why radio? I couldn’t remember what made me consider radio of all things as a career. My college major was radio, but it’s an industry that now seems like a relic of a different time. And in fact, Jim reminded me of the time when radio was godhead, and why it seemed so epic and loomed so large in my formative years. It was specifically rock radio

JIM: It was a time in our lives. You and I happened to be in high school and college, when rock radio in Los Angeles was really good. That's the time in your life when music has an opportunity to play such a huge role because you don't have the responsibility of a mortgage and family and you can go to licorice pizza or Tower and buy three or four albums for 20 bucks. 

[KMET ad]

Little Feat’s Waiting for Columbus on Warner Brothers Records, now just 5.69 the tape 5.99 at Licorice Pizza

And radio was KMET: the musical lifeblood of high school.

[KMET clip]

JIM LADD: This is 94.7 KMET, Los Angeles. It’s about two minutes before midnight…. Two minutes before the change of the day….

JIM MORRISON: All Hail the American Night!

JIM: They were so big and such a major force in this town in the late 70s.

KMET was the default soundtrack for surfers and stoners for one thing. I was neither, but it was a significant constituency of my Southern California high school.

JIM: You were listening in your car, and maybe you had a few friends over, maybe you were in your house, whatever. Everyone had nice stereos with big speakers back then because that's what you did, right?

JIM: I remember that the music mix was perfect — like every song was good. Every single DJ knew everything about all the music and they were all interesting to listen to.

[KMET clip] 

RADIO HOST: Hey! 

GUEST: Yes my little salamander

RADIO HOST: Hey, how you doing?

GUEST: Hey tip top.

JIM: I’m Jim Ladd and I’m just sitting here minding my own business and who should walk through the door?

JIM: Look out, look out. Breaking half the men’s hearts in Long Beach.

JIM: You know, you'd have Cynthia Fox, Bob Coburn and Jack Snyder, or as they would call them, Jackson B Schneiderfish (unintelligible) is what they would name him, paraquat Kelly, Mary Turner, Jim Ladd.

BOB: They were cool and very prominently political, anti-Nixon, anti-Reagan. The station led official protests against nuclear power plants and in favor of marijuana legalization. 

[KMET clip]

JIM LADD: But you’re just a number, that’s it, just a number, just a digit on some tape somewhere. So it bothers me a lot you know, and it bothered Bob Sieger enough to write this song called Feels like A Number. So as I play this song, I’m going to light up a number. Just for the cause, I figure we’d remove em, we remove em one at a time. And sooner or later if everyone burned two, three numbers a day, pretty soon there won’t be any left. Anyway this KMET Los Angeles. I think that’s right.

JIM: Oh and by the way, they got paid for it

It was the height of rock radio power. You could see eye catching KMET billboards all over town, usually hung upside down to make them even more eye catching. I definitely understand why I would have thought of it as a prestige job when I was in High School.

[KMET AD]

Levi’s chord flares, and Levi’s denim flares are made to last….

When my clock radio went off every day, the first thing I heard was the morning team of Jeff Gonzer and Ace Young

[KMET clip]

AD: at Mervyn’s back-to-school sale today. ‘At Mervyns today, Mervyn’s today!’

GONZER: Thanks Merv, love your jeans and your chromosomes aren’t bad either (ah shut up!)

Many major world events of the late 1970s, I heard first from Ace Young. 

[KMET clip]

ACE: News and surf at nine, more at ten. I’m Ace Young, you’re up to date. As KMET informs Southern California… now KMET rocks Southern California… rock and roll Tuesday morning and Jeff Gonzer.

GONZER: …and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers...KMET

There are two important events in my early life: when rock and roll radio stopped being a fantasy, and I got to see it being made in person. Here’s the first one.

Once a month Jeff Gonzer and Ace Young would do broadcasts from a venue that used to be called The Country Club, which was in Reseda in the San Fernando Valley, an hours drive from my house in the South Bay. I got up before sunrise one Friday morning during the summer and drove to Reseda, and for the first time I saw people in real life doing radio.

[KMET clip]

GONZER: I’m Jeff Gonzer, it’s finally a Friday on a Thursday from the Country Club.

The Beatles on Ed Sullivan launched a million bands, seeing Jeff Gonzer and Ace Young live at the Country Club made me want to do radio.

[KMET clip]

GONZER: LA’s own answer to the two stooges: Flo and Eddie.

FLO (or EDDIE): Are we really on the radio now?

GONZER: Yeah how about this guys?

FLO (or EDDIE): Wow

The fact that we were in a rock and roll venue made people do all the things they’d normally do at a rock club, drinking whiskey and coke for example, but now it was six o’clock in the morning.

GONZER: I think we did 'em once a month with different themes and different guests. And it was insane.

This is Jeff Gonzer

GONZER: And as far as drinking goes, the waitresses who worked the night before, whoever it was at the Country Club, would stick around until six o'clock in the morning because the tips were infinitely better from our audience than they were from people who were coming to see some band.

BOB: From your perspective, what was the KMET listener like at the time? I was, you know, a suburban kid who drove in from the South Bay.

GONZER: Well, they were you guys, they were people in their 20s, there were people who were looking for a soundtrack of their lives. Our listeners were people looking for something to identify with that wasn't kind of plastic and prepackaged, and something that was very relatable: getting stoned, surfing. It was that ultimate Southern California lifestyle. 

[KMET clip]

ACE: It’s 10:06 and a half, I’m Ace Young you’re up to date. As KMET informs Southern California… now ladies and gentlemen KMET rocks Southern California…..

ACE: It was a terrible place to try to do the news. 

This is Ace Young

ACE: You know, it's too noisy in the background. And by the first hour, I'm not going to do the news anyway. People are passing around way too many things. 

[KMET clip]

GONZER:... alright we’ve done, Ace we’ve done 3 hours already, can you believe it? We’ll be back… KMET rocks the hell out of Reseda.  Woowhaa

ACE: 1972 I started, and I was there for fourteen and a half years. In fact, I think I had the record for the longest person ever to be there. Maybe Dr. Demento with his Sunday night show there was longer. 

I almost forgot to mention, Dr Demento originated out of KMET the weirdest thing to listen to the night before school the next day.

KMET was one of a group of commercial rock stations in the country who had their roots in the underground rock radio movement of the late 60s, where old time rules of on air behavior were being re-written. It was an attitude of doing whatever you could come up with.

ACE YOUNG: I couldn’t imagine being in a better time for radio than I faced during those days. For example we were doing the underground nuclear test in Nevada. They would tell us exactly when they would take place, like at 12 noon or something. They wanted the public to know too because they did shake Las Vegas. We were talking to the maitre’ d on top of the Dunes hotel with his champagne glasses all filled with water to see if they would jiggle when the bomb went off, you know?

BOB: Wait, that was real? Or was that a joke thing?

ACE: No, that was real! That was real! And the maitre’ d was such a funny guy. So to be able to do those live on the radio, and you know have the guy at the top of the Dunes where there was more sway and stuff like that, we just milked it for everything it was worth.

[KMET AD]

‘When you want a sound that’s clear and high, and you wanna kiss the hiss goodbye! BASF Pro II chrome!

As a teenager I was pretty straight laced, so I didn’t party as hard as the KMET lifestyle, but I could still enjoy the wild ride. In the same way that I didn’t surf, but it was entertaining to listen to the surf report.

[KMET clip]

KMET: ‘Pro II chrome!’ BASF Pro II chrome cassettes, at The Federated Group.

ACE: I know that guy… Here we are Tuesday morning, 94.7 KMET, checking out the surf

SURF REPORT: Morning Ace, Gabriel Wisdom, here in La Jolla, surf is...

ACE: I mean, the first thing I did when I went to KMET was there's no effing surf report. Someone living in the San Fernando Valley doesn't know if it's foggy in Malibu or if it's breaking. 

[SURF REPORT clip]

it’s a beautiful day, waves they’re breaking one to two feet, aoooo… for the South Bay this is The Flamer for Redondo Chart House...

ACE: The surf report became huge. In fact, some of our surf reporters were actually sponsored and they were pulling down, you know, fifteen hundred dollars a month just for the sponsored surf report!

Bob: I remember those guys

[SURF REPORT clip]

From Horizons West surfboards in Santa Monica, this is Jennifer. We have another warm sunny day and the fifths are about one to two feet with fair shape…  

Until I talked to Ace Young, I don’t think I fully appreciated the quality and depth of the KMET news department a rock and roll station.

ACE: The idea was that we would have correspondents all over the country, all over the world. So in London, this is so and so for KMET news, it was so cool to do that. And whenever we did some great coverage, if it were a local story at the end of the story, it's KMET ahead of the times. The Times of course, being the reference to the Los Angeles Times. 

And Ace Young hired Pat Paraquat Kelly as the afternoon news guy. He was part of the idea of making news fun and interesting, rather than something you’d just tune out.

ACE: Tell Pat to do a story from the Hollywood Bowl and it would be from the Hollywood bowling alley or whatever, just whatever we wanted to do, you know.

His most memorable feature was probably his salacious fish report.

[FISH REPORT clip]

Crisco’s landing up in western county reports 23 angeleurs, nine hook nosed necrophiliac carp, 45 psycho-somatic….

ACE: Fish Report with a Beat? Yeah, and some of that stuff… I don't think would be on the radio anymore, with some of the names of those fish frankly.

[FISH REPORT clip]

Was that an (unintelligible) rainbow trout…? Yes it was, rare… I’d like to ah, fry those right up in a pan… So rare… With some punjo pudding.

It’s true that when you listen to the old KMET recordings, a lot of the jokes sound really cringey now. There’s a lot of objectification of women and humor that hasn’t aged well. But for the times, it was all in the service of the KMET style of freewheeling fun. They were into whatever their listeners were into, and when they wanted to, KMET could mobilize that connection with listeners.

Pat Paraquat Kelley, got his ironic nickname from an herbicide used against cannabis fields in Mexico in the early 70s. Paraquat was used to kill cannabis, but it could also kill people. And the United States was assisting in the spraying, so KMET was really involved in the protest to get them to stop.

ACE: Having rallies from from San Diego to Santa Barbara collected 2 million signatures, and for me to follow that up and deliver those two million petitions to President Carter at the White House... it's not only covering a story the way we should cover it… and no one else was covering it, by the way, but to the very end and getting them to stop the program.

[KMET clip]

PAT KELLY: Ace Young is somewhere in Washington DC. 

ACE: Tomorrow’s a big day, not only for me, but for the thousands of Southern Californians who participated in this incredibly successful program. And I’m just happy to see it go to fruition at this point.

PAT KELLY: Well Ace, we’ll be looking forward to talking to you tomorrow. And have a good stay in the big… what is it, the big dome? Washington DC?

ACE: The big dome, the big peanut plantation

BOB: I listened to KMET all through high school. It always just kind of felt like a clubhouse. Like everybody was just sort of hanging out, ready to do their thing. I mean, what did it feel like to be there?

GONZER: It felt like a clubhouse, we were just kinda screwing around.

Here’s Jeff Gonzer again

JEFF GONZER: But I think that was one of the problems with our longevity. We didn't really take it as seriously as a business. That may have been the reason why it was so much fun for us and for you to listen to. You know, because we felt like the audience was all part of this grand collective, it was like a supernova!

Right as I graduated, KMET was at the height of their popularity, but this was the peak of 70s rock and roll radio. Even though it seemed like they were doing it for fun, KMET made a ton of money, and helped create the whole idea of classic rock.

GONZER: The biggest heyday for KMET, when we influenced an awful lot of people and the industry and was kind of a template for rock and roll radio stations, was 1976 to 1984. Then it was kind of struggling, and as soon as the company started dicking around with the format and bringing in consultants, it was the beginning of the end.

Plus KMET had competition. Their rival rock station was KLOS, but the stations also traded staff back and forth as fortunes changed.

JIM: I mean, we've talked about KMET quite a bit in this conversation, but KLOS was also really good at that time. So you had two really good rock and roll stations in Los Angeles when we were in high school and college.

When I was two years into college and taking an intro to broadcasting class, they had a big book of internships, and I got one in the programming department of KLOS: my first official position, albeit unpaid, as a man inside the radio.

BOB: If you're gonna be coming to a radio station for the first time... this was fairly intimidating... because for years, if you live in Los Angeles, every now and then you're driving up and down La Cienega Boulevard and you'd always see the big signs that said KLOS KABC and go like... oh, I wonder what that's like inside. Not just anybody gets to go in there, and then to be actually parking in the parking lot and then going through... there's like a security desk where you had to check in and then you'd walk in… and then immediately there would be the programming office where...

JIM: Oh, yeah. If you don't turn left immediately, you miss it. 

BOB:  Yeah. So you're inside. But just inside. 

JIM: Just barely.

You’ve been hearing my colleague Jim Nelson, radio veteran. This where I worked with Jim, 35 years ago, we were the interns.

JIM: We've had our careers and it all started right there, and what a great way to get it started.

BOB: Can you describe how you looked like in those days?  

JIM: Yeah, I had shoulder length hair and always had a beard and was always wearing jeans or shorts and tennis shoes and definitely a rock ‘n roll t-shirt. I'm sure I had, you know, long dangling earrings. I was living the lifestyle, so I looked like somebody who probably worked in rock and roll.

And for about a year I, short hair, button down shirt, slim jeans, lived the rock ‘n roll lifestyle as an intern at KLOS. I was a fly on the wall as rock ‘n roll characters passed through the studios. I saw the dudes who sang that Radar Love song, and the dudes from Journey, Tom Petty was there, Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels, Stevie Nicks looked at me this one time.

But it didn’t exactly feel like a clubhouse. By this time rock radio was a cut throat business: one close eye was always kept on the ratings. The morning man was Fraser Smith who was now direct competition to Jeff Gonzer at KMET

BOB: I always remember, cause when I was coming in, they would be finishing. And he was always in show mode.

JIM: He’d walk through there to go in and have his meeting with his boss, so that was what was on his mind.

BOB: And it was a very, very, very, very, super long hallway as I recall, we were at one end of the hallway and then there’d be studios 

JIM: which were about halfway down on the left. Yeah. 

BOB: Occasionally when you’d go into the DJ booth, because it was all vinyl records... so the DJ booth had to always have the most pristine copy of each record. So occasionally you’d have to walk from the programming office and hand deliver a fresh copy of a vinyl record to the DJ. I was always crazy nervous, like; am I gonna open the door at the wrong time, am I gonna cough?

One DJ who was often on when during my shift was Bob Coburn. He been one of those DJs on KMET I’d listen to, but now he was over here at KLOS.

BOB: He was always so cool, and he was the first one to like... he started showing me how everything works, and he goes ‘at this point the audio compressor will kick in.’ I had no idea what an audio compressor was at that time, and I’d go ‘ah interesting.’ 

Our main job was to maintain the LP vinyl records that were in the current play rotation of KLOS. If the records got scratched, we got to call the record companies and get new copies.

BOB: And this is where you got a little bit of a sense of power as an intern. You got to just call the record company from the Rolodex and ask them to send another one and they would.

JIM: Yup, we need five more copies of Boston's debut album, please, and five copies of Fleetwood Mac Rumors, and five copies of Led Zeppelin III

But this was a whole different time for music, 1983. At this point a lot of listeners were tuning into the more punk and new wave KROQ, and in the KLOS programming department there were discussions of what even constitutes rock ‘n roll.

JIM: You know, where do the Bangles, where do where do a Flock of Seagulls, or ABC, or the Thompson twins fit on the spectrum of Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Jackson Browne, Bruce Springsteen... and Bon Jovi, Def Leppard, Great White. So you almost had the old guard, which wasn't really that old at the time… the classic rock that is now known as Pink Floyd, Jackson Browne, etc.

My intern partner Jim was primed for the rock and roll life, so he was hired out of the internship after a few months, and he stayed at KLOS for a long time.

JIM: I worked there for five and a half years all together, and by the time I left, Bob, I was actually the interim music director.

BOB: So you used it. You went places, you know? I was… I'm sort of an introvert anyway. So I think it takes me months even to get comfortable anywhere. So I don't think I ever felt... like went anywhere beyond that nervous intern phase at anytime that I was there     

In real terms I was only there for about a year, but I was hoping Jim remembered something more than I did.

BOB: Do you remember this guy? He was a funny guy, always dressed as a skater. And one day he laid down this LP record down on the desk, on top of that he put one of those little bus things that drives around the record and it has a speaker on top and it plays it… and he was playing ‘Thriller.’

JIM: No

BOB: Do you know who I’m talking about?

JIM: Vaguely

BOB: Do you remember when I was standing on a desk to reach a high album, and my knee gave way and I crashed down on top of our supervisor Lynette, assistant to the program director?

JIM: Wow! I had not remembered that until you brought it up. Yeah, that was weird.

BOB: I had this weird knee issue when I was a teenager. Everyone looked at me like I’d lost my mind, like I was attacking Lynette.

I left college in Southern California, and went to school in Boston for two more years, where I was introduced to punk music, Run DMC, and the world of public radio

But KMET was my station in high school, and it’s the soundtrack to all those memories, good and bad. KLOS was the first radio station I ever set foot in and it set the idea of what a radio station looks like. Even today, as I do this program from the closet of my house, I salute the rock radio gods of the 1970s.

 

Credits

Host:
Bob Carlson

Producer:
Bob Carlson

Managing producer: Carla Green 
Production assistance, musical saw and vocals: Krissy Barker
Episode graphics: Alex Cerrilla
Digital content: Drew Tewksbury
Web support: Christopher Ho
Special thanks to Kristen Lepore of the Independent Producer Project

Theme Music by Alex Weston, with music help from Joe Augustine and Narrative Music.Theme Music by Alex Weston, with music help from Joe Augustine and Narrative Music.

"This season of UnFictional is dedicated to my KCRW colleague and close friend Matt Holzman… who was born on Halloween and died on Easter 2020... of cancer. He was a great audio producer, motivator and educator; and he liked to have fun" - Bob Carlson