Radio Waves, by Jim Ladd
No month stated, 1991 St. Martin's Press
I never listen to the radio – I can’t imagine why anyone would, these days – but I’ve always been interested in what is known as “progressive free-form” rock radio, ie the radio format that briefly flourished in the very late ‘60s to the very early ‘70s. Where DJs approached their shows in a “free-form” style, playing whatever they wanted, saying whatever they wanted.
I always wondered what such a broadcast might sound like, but other than modern CD recreations like The Golden Age Of Underground Radio volumes 1 and 2 I figured this would be impossible. Then I discovered Let The Universe Answer, where you can stream actual vintage recordings of rock radio; “airchecks,” as they’re officially known. The recordings from ’68-’72 are by far my favorite, and listening to them you can hear everything from avante garde sound paintings to waterbed commercials – not to mention rock songs they still don’t play on today’s so-called “classic rock” radio. It really is a window into another era, and a big thanks to Javed Jafri for making it available for us to listen to.
After listening to hours of vintage airchecks, I decided to learn more about free-form radio. There are serveral books out there, but this one by Jim Ladd, a famous LA jock from the day, struck me as the most interesting, as it opens with the beginning of free-form and shows how corporate radio finally killed off the genre. Also Ladd has chosen to write his book in a pseudo-novel style, which I thought was interesting. Others would disagree, though, particularly in how he’s changed the names of known radio personalities and even radio stations. So if you’re looking for a straight-up factual report of rock radio, this might not be the book for you.
Ladd opens the book in ’68, with Tom Donahue and his wife Raechel starting a San Francisco radio station that actually played rock music. Donahue by the way was the creator of what is still thought of as rock radio; he had 20 years experience doing AM, got sick of the banalities, and hit upon the idea of a radio station that played current music, hip music, and wasn’t as much worried about ad revenue. Donahue by the way is the “star” of the first Golden Age Of Underground Radio, which features vintage airchecks by him throughout – it’s a great listen, as is the second volume, which features B. Mitchell Reed.
The format follows that of Dakota Days; Ladd relays history via fiction, complete with expository dialog. So we have Tom and Raechel sitting around one night and listening to the first Doors album and Donahue wondering why you never hear music like it on the radio. From there he begins calling FM stations until he finds a number that’s out of service, which is sign that they’re in trouble and not paying the bills. He has a meeting with the mousy manager, who keeps the office lights off to conserve the energy bill, and from this the first free-form rock FM station is born.
Ladd changes not only the names of people but also the names of stations. I can understand the former, but the latter decision is truly strange – is he afraid he’ll upset the actual radio stations? At any rate Donahue’s first station was KMPX, but Ladd changes it to “KFRE.” Later on KMET will become “KAOS.” All this robs Radio Waves of being a legitimate history of free-form radio, while making it seem more like fiction – goofy fiction, at that, particularly given the goofy fake names Ladd saddles his real-life coworkers with (ie, KMET DJ Mary Hart becomes KAOS DJ Mega Turnon).
Tom and Raechel (and here Ladd is using their real names, which only adds further confusion to the text) meet with instant success, the hippies of the Bay Area freaking out that you can actually hear The Jefferson Airplane and the like on the radio. Soon they’re running a sister station in LA, presented with this almost herculean task by management that doesn’t even offer them greater pay. Actually I thought all the stuff with the Donahues warranted its own book; soon they jump ship to KMET, aka KAOS, the San Francisco free-form station they would become most associated with. Throughout the first half of Radio Waves Ladd tells us of all the crazy things happening over at “KAOS,” and you wish there was more detail about it.
Because at this time Ladd himself has gotten into radio, in the Bay area, but works for “KASH,” a station that runs by a strict format. Be prepared for some serious format-bashing in this book. Basically this is when upper-management (insinuated as being nothing more than bean-pushers who listen to Lawrence Welk if they listen to anything at all) comes up with an index card database of what songs to play and when. And DJ personalities are to be kept to a minimum. This is all interesting, because we’re here in the golden days of free-form radio, ie when it started, and despite the image of DJs being allowed to, uh, “free-form” to their heart’s content, Ladd states that it was a battle against “the formula” from the very beginning.
At least this was so at KASH. The book would’ve been a helluva lot better if Ladd had quit and gone over to KAOS, but sadly (for the book, at least) he stuck at KASH. This is because he had a family to support and KASH paid more – and also was beating KAOS in the ratings. This would imply that the formula does work, which would render most of Ladd’s complaints moot. At KASH we get more of Ladd’s goofy fake names for real people, like station manager “Hai Ku,” who browbeats his DJs to stick to the formula but at the same time is cool enough to insist they come to work stoned if it means they’ll get better ratings. Speaking of which this features the best part of the book when Ladd, doing a late night program, goes outside for a joint and locks himself out of the station.
Unfortunately, Ladd skims over the glory days of free-form; we get some minor topical details about 1969, then before we know it, it’s June of ’73. And even in the ’69 stuff I think he’s misremembering things, as he relays a story purportedly from this year in which a fellow DJ plays “Star Star” by the Stones, in brazen disregard of FCC policies against on-air cursing. The only problem is, the Stones’s Goat’s Head Soup came out in ’73, not ’69. Anyway that whole ’68-’71 era was when free-form was at its peak, so I would’ve preferred a whole book just about those years. But thanks to the website above we can actually hear the real thing and not just read about it.
While at KASH Ladd comes up with a show called Innerviews (his name for it, at least) which would feature in-depth interviews with rock stars. His biggest deal in this is with John Lennon, and Ladd devotes several pages to his 1974 interview with him. However I never understood if this was actually broadcast; Ladd has it that some screw-ups in the office might have prevented the interview from ever going on the air. Innerviews ultimately causes Ladd to leave KASH, as one of those stupid goddamn suits back in the New York home office deems that Ladd can’t be a KASH personality and and independent personality, which he is given that Innerviews is syndicated.
So Ladd quits and heads over to KAOS, but unfortunately it’s well after those free-form glory days. Tom Donahue has passed away, dead of a heart attack at 46 (the dude was so big even Orson Welles would’ve considered him fat), and his widow Raechel doesn’t run the place like you’d expect. Even here it’s the damn suits in charge and the internecine infighting of the other stations. Also, all the wild stuff is years past, like the SLA using “KAOS” to broadcast their messages about Patty Hearst – again, a book all about KMET would’ve been so much better, as we read all this stuff from the perspective of a guy who was working at a rival station.
That being said, I do like Ladd’s conviction that radio is like a mystical communion with fellow spirits, or “banging the tribal drum,” which is a recurring phrase throughout. This only further serves to illustrate how underground radio was once so vital to the youth movement. Today it’s a haven of asshole “personalities” and obnoxious commercials. Or at least that’s what it was like the last time I listened to a radio station, at least two decades ago. Ladd however seems to be under the impression that all radio listeners feel the same way he does, and includes a bit in the late ‘70s when a young guy called into the station to complain about all the political ranting Ladd was doling out (he’s a left-leaner, of course; the latter half of the book breaks into arbitrary Reagan-bashing). To his credit, Ladd states that this was an eye-opener to him…not that he was wrong, per se (he feels that he’s entitled to say whatever he feels on the radio), but that the listening audience was changing. Note the distinction. It’s never the jock who is in the wrong, folks.
I wasn’t as much into the late ‘70s/early ‘80s portion, which unfortunately is the meat of the book. Most of it’s annoying, like run-ins with Mega Turnon and the stupid bean counters in the home office. And, just like with Donahue, important characters are kept out of the narrative: for example, B. Mitchell Reed, who also works at “KAOS,” but has the morning shift whereas Ladd has the night one. So the two rarely if ever meet. As for Raechel Donahue, she too disappears from the narrative, victim of infernal office policies and let go from the station she and her husband brought to prominence. Otherwise this part features memorable events like Ladd kicking off a call-in protest to the Carter White House to complain about chemicals being sprayed on illegal shipments of marijuana.
Overall Radio Waves is mostly entertaining, though as mentioned the goofy fake names bring it down a bit, and some of Ladd’s pseudo-dialog comes off as phony and forced (again, just like in Dakota Days, but not as bad). I would’ve preferred a whole book about the Donahues and KMET in the ‘60s.
Finally, I just finished a long book that slowed down the reading schedule, so I’ll only have one post next week – it’ll be up on Wednesday.