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The View from the Air: Mapping L.A. Radio

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Map by David A. Deis for the Heyday book, LAtitudes

The following is an excerpt from LAtitudes: An Angeleno's Atlas, maps and essays that offer fresh insights into a city that brims with complexity and surprise, revealing its multiple histories, the nuances of its lived experiences, and the possibilities inherent in an ever-shifting world. You can purchase the book here or from your local independent bookseller.

Between Stations

When did I stop listening?
Really listening?
Five years ago?
Fifteen?

When did the reach of my radio band find itself edited down to news -- an every 22-minute meditation on jackknifed big rigs, Nikkei averages, top-of-the-hour roundups, bits and pieces strung together that don't add up to any solid sense of place. Except for the street names and interchanges, it could be happening anywhere at all.

When did I stop tuning in to those late-night atmospheres conjured by DJs pulled by whim and not by corporate playlist? When did radio stop hosting serendipity? When was the last time I connected to a voice -- an announcer, a DJ, a talk jock, those auditory ringmasters who felt so close that I referred to them by first name: Ron, J.J., Chuck, Frazer, Tom, Sergio. They were the ones telling the story of my city in a language that reflected it, with all of its blemishes and bluster, its meltdowns, dead air, faux pas.

They were our connective tissue. We built a community around them, a congregation over the air.

Long before I owned a set of keys, my way of traveling Los Angeles was by coasting along the dial. In a TV age, in the heart of "Filmland," I grew up radio obsessed. Sleep challenged, I'd lie in the dark many nights with my transistor -- an LA Dodger/710 AM sponsored giveaway that was forest green with a Union 76 logo separating the silver-tone AM and FM bands. As a rite of spring, I would listen to that radio and wait for Vin Scully to call the pitch -- "high and outside" -- from Dodger Stadium in Chavez Ravine.

The Trav-ler | Courtesy of Lynell George

The Trav-ler | Courtesy of Lynell George

A few years later, I inherited my grandmother's turquoise-and-cream AM tabletop with a gold-sweep dial -- the "Trav-ler" -- on which I'd tune in to whatever would make its way through the broadcast fuzz. Sometimes I'd land on something "between stations," something from far away that felt like falling through a trapdoor into a scene well on its way: the elegant clink of crystal and silver of "Lunch at the Music Center" or a wild gust of 1940s swing-era music. It would trigger hopes of having slipped through some seam in time, to eavesdrop on a tuxedo-jacketed ensemble set up in a long-shuttered ballroom downtown. Ringside, by way of the Trav-ler, I nursed a vivid imagination.

I was so fiercely radio loyal that when I finally acquired my first set of keys, I proudly affixed the jazz station's greenand-black logo to my car's back bumper. And though at the time I was still quite timid behind the wheel, I knew I was going somewhere, even if it was just on the contours of Chuck "Bebop Charlie" Niles's basement voice back announcing the history of straight-ahead jazz on KKGO 105.1.

Of late, when I switch into scan mode, hoping to trip onto something, anything, beyond talk or news that feels like it grew up out of this ground, it's made me wonder: What would LA "look like" now if you could navigate it, translate and understand it, by way of its radio air? I'd have to say, probably much like everywhere else -- the same six songs, Lap-Bands, call-monitoring centers, "smell-good" plumbers, the works. It feels as second-rate as an off-the-rack suit, built to knock around in but not to make an impression.

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The Los Angeles radio market is the second largest in the country in business terms, but in the sense of a medium conveying or speaking for the city, what could you really know about it? Not just headlines and weather, or even the diligent hyper-local call-in forums that thrive on the very left edges of the FM dial, but the spirit and pace of the city, its very style. What would you know about what divides us and where we come to together? Could you locate its soul or heart?

There was a time that you could.

More than a generation ago, Southland radio reflected many of Los Angeles's attendant narratives -- a place of reinvention and hope. A refuge. An escape. Radio reproduced that, but it also sent up a signal that echoed what was changing on the ground -- city's demographics remade by waves of migration and out-migration, the evolving nature of work, (farming, oil, shipyards, aerospace, and, of course, entertainment). Later, it was white flight, wars on other shores, new immigrants. The new "there to here" stories began to take shape on the band as stations were once again reinvented with each new wave to tell stories to new ears. What you may not have known firsthand you could learn by eavesdropping.

Since the first commercial radio station in LA beamed on in 1921 (KQL), radio evolved into a communication source that didn't just entertain and inform but oriented and immersed you. Because of the region's size, the airwaves served as auditory compendium, an easier-to-navigate representation of a city that was a challenge to traverse, let alone embrace.

Programs and playlists hinted at a place that was different from the one that spread out across the grid of a fold-out gas-station map -- one that was nuanced, if elusive, and one that couldn't be charted by longitudes or latitude. It was something we were mapping from within.

93/KHJ Boss Radio Survey of Hits | Courtesy of Lynell George

93/KHJ Boss Radio Survey of Hits | Courtesy of Lynell George

Presets

It's "Janet" calling in from somewhere out there. Like most days, it just feels like another disembodied voice reaching out. This one, though, has a rather unusual question: "Janet" wants to know if Conan, her companion of eleven-and-a-half years, will be waiting for her on the other side in the mists of the afterlife. "Will I be able to see him?" she asks. "Do pets go to heaven?" The loneliness in her voice is as palpable as her grief.

This exchange would seem like old-school call-in radio fare except the host isn't a hectoring radio shrink. This is something entirely different. Janet has leapt over the middle-man and gone straight to the source: the "Holy Host" himself, during the final hour of his program, the eponymous Jesus Christ Show.

Of late, I have found myself tuning in and listening in the old, familiar ways: first out of sheer disbelief and then out of bald curiosity. Now I'm hooked. By all of it: the guilelessness of the listeners, the audacity of a host who would call himself Jesus. Some know, I'm sure, that the voice over their speakers is mere mortal, a man named Neil Saavedra, assuming a "what if?" role. But I fret that others, like Janet, think that radio Jesus really has risen for the sole purpose of taking calls every Sunday from 6:00 to 9:00 a.m. over KFI Radio from a studio in Burbank, California.

But when did it come to this? To a lonely on-air space where someone's best or only recourse is to pick up a phone and dial 1-877-HOLYHOST as an antidote to isolation.

These Sunday morning exchanges, beamed beyond the city's borders, resurrect something vital -- a shared sense of place created over air. It's been decades since I've heard the easy back-and-forth conversational rhythm of real connection, of empathy. Radio didn't just connect communities, but built them. As early as the 1920s, in an impulse not so far afield from KFI's Sunday morning "Jesus," Aimee Semple McPherson, the "Evangelist from Los Angeles," wanted to connect a vivid and diverse multitude -- the shut-in and the far-flung -- and minister to their souls. Not just those who gathered under the domedroof at Angelus Temple in Echo Park, but by broadcasting the Good News across the expanse of the basin and beyond.

Early on, Los Angeles seemed to trade on an inherent facility for attracting charismatics, risk takers, and iconoclasts. Yet even in that realm, the Canadian-born McPherson, founder of the Foursquare movement, stood out. She knew how to find and use a stage, even if it was the metaphorical one.

McPherson was a pioneer in the fledgling arena of radio gospel. By the early 1920s, she was one of the first women to deliver an over-the-air sermon. It was a place where outcasts or vagabond souls could come to worship across borders of time and space. She knew the radio would help her to build a flock beyond what the Angelus Temple could hold.

In February of 1924, she became the second woman to be granted a broadcast license by the U.S. Department of Commerce. She'd raised $25,000 to build her 500-watt station, KFSG (Kall Four Square Gospel), which went live later that year. Her "Cathedral of the Air," as she christened it, linked the region together and set a new precedent. Both in person and on the radio, she wanted to create a true sanctuary with "no boundary line." In her autobiography, This Is That, first published in 1919, she elaborated her wishes: "I house the sons of men -- the black, the white, the yellow; the brown and red man too. Brothers all sit side by side in my church with no color line." Her in-house and on-air community linked and reflected the multiracial city growing up around it, bringing the Good News, or generally speaking words of encouragement or empowerment, as an across-the-kitchentable dialogue which reached beyond religion.

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Folk singer Woody Guthrie fed the soul in a different but just as crucial way. Broadcasting over KFVD between 1937 and 1939, his show was targeted at recently arrived Midwest migrants, Dust Bowl refugees trying to find their place in Los Angeles. Guthrie and his cohosts -- first his cousin Leon "Oklahoma Jack" Guthrie and later Maxine "Lefty Lou" Chrissman -- told stories, theirs and those of others, to connect across physical and emotional distances. The soft-play of Guthrie's brotherly back-and forths through music and conversation was a catalyst: he reminded listeners that no matter how marginalized they felt, their voice mattered. He urged them to exercise their right to speak out against the injustices by voting, strategizing, unionizing, and striking. (Their grassroots community-organizing approach would be mirrored in contemporary radio with hosts like Renán Almendárez Coello -- "El Cucuy" -- on KLAX and Eddie "Piolín" Sotelo on KSCA who both spoke to a migrant and working-class Spanish speaking population navigating Los Angeles in the twenty-first century.)

Powered by the fraternity of the airwaves, radio allowed outsiders to feel like a part of something tangible. It began to close gaps -- those of distance, politics, class, even race. It was the view over the fence. As Nathaniel Montague, best known as KGFJ's Magnificent Montague, once observed: "Radio became the place for the curious to "explore a hidden world from the safety of their bedrooms."

KLOS | Courtesy of Lynell George

KLOS | Courtesy of Lynell George

Land of a Thousand Dances

Willie Garcia recalls the sounds -- of a coronet, a violin, the murmur of an announcer's voice -- drifting through an otherwise quiet house. Those bits and pieces made up his formative years and laid a foundation; they were locales in and of themselves. Back in the fifties, he remembers, his father would wander over to KRKD, the "Hillbilly station" and turn up Spade Cooley and Bob Wills on their grand Philco. "It was in a prominent place in our house, that big radio," Garcia remembers. "My father liked the stories in those songs." His mother tuned in to 1300 AM KWKW to find mementoes from an earlier time. "She'd listen to Pedro Vargas and Lola Beltrán and sing right along with them."

His own ears were pulled elsewhere -- to the here and now, to the sound of young America. Not just the Motown hits but a galaxy of crooners and soul stirrers. In a few years, he would take his turn behind the microphone as Little Willie G., fronting the band Thee Midniters, his onstage persona styled by the influences he'd first encountered sailing through the dark on the radio: Gene Vincent and his tousled pompadour, the mesmerizing cadences of radio preachers, the punch-in-gut of soul music.

Music built bridges across a city that was taking new shape ethnically and racially. "Really early," Willie recalls, "I was always tuned into KGFJ and Hunter Hancock," who kept his sets moving as he'd spin R&B sides: "He made you feel like you were sitting at the dinner table with him. That voice! I was shocked to find out he was a white guy!"

Garcia grew up in what a generation ago we called South Central and currently refer to as South Los Angeles. Back then, it was known to Willie and his friends as "the neighborhood." Forty-third and Long Beach was one of Los Angeles's micro communities, one that wasn't hemmed in as tightly by restrictive housing covenants. Before it evolved into a predominantly African American enclave, it was a liberal mix of black and brown, with some Japanese and Filipino and German, Irish, and Italian thrown in.

Through color-blind playlists grouped round feeling, music radio worked its own version of desegregation. Often, black musicians who pulled into Los Angeles worked around the city's racial restrictions dictating who could play where, Willie G. recalls. After a gig at the 5-4 Ballroom on Fifty-Fourth and Moneta or maybe the Old Dixie at Forty-Third and Western, a designated member of some Chicano car club would meet up with the just-in town musical dignitary and ferry them east, to the next gig, to play the ballrooms and union halls downtown and beyond. "Radio introduced us to these voices and if they were coming to town, we'd want to hear them." Willie recites the roster: Bobby Bland, B.B. King, Barbara Lynn. "One night I picked up Johnny 'Guitar' Watson at the Old Dixie, in my '63 Cadillac Sedan de Ville, midnight blue." They rolled through the dark streets toward downtown, trading stories about the gig, the city, and music: "You know, shoptalk."

Radio could take you places physically and emotionally. All it took was four stations on your presets -- KFWB, KRLA, KGFJ, KBCA -- and the long stretch of an evening. DJs Huggy Boy, Art Laboe, Tommy B filtered over the speakers and narrated the evening. Drive-ins, casual restaurants that offered carhop service, were destinations, drawing LA teens from all reaches of the basin. Willie enumerates: the hoedads, the stockers, the cholos, the wannabe cholos. All would pull into these fluorescent-lit oases and turn the volume up. They traveled from La Verne, Azusa, Glendora, and "Cucamonga before it was 'Rancho.'" He recalls that "all the cars would be tuned to one station. But if one car changed -- found some other good song -- suddenly we'd all drift on down there too."

All of those call letters and frequencies were as significant as zip codes. In shorthand, they told other people about where you lived -- your allegiances. They were another place you called home. They were more than a little bit a part of you.

Those carefully chosen presets on Willie's car's dash are gone or have been dramatically reformatted. Some of them, I tell him, have become the ones I scan through for news and talk. And those, Willie says, are the ones that hit the hardest: "I see news all day," he explains. "But what about the stories?"

There were versions of Los Angeles along the band that I didn't recognize, rhythms I didn't fall into. Jangly, mono, tinny bubblegum pop that didn't seem tethered to anything. These were spaces I couldn't quite connect with. To my ear, however, black radio still felt like it was rooted in a real place, and by that I mean an emotion. I could spin the dial and still hear the uncut South, a displaced, leisurely drawl. In the late sixties and early seventies, people still sounded like folks who had travelled great distances to be here. But Los Angeles was changing. That optimistic ease with which Willie and his cohort moved about existed less and less. Playlists were changing too. Consequently, where you fell on the dial was a calculation that began in a set of high-rise offices, not inside your heart.

KGFJ Soul Sound | Courtesy of Lynell George

KGFJ Soul Sound | Courtesy of Lynell George

On my side of town, south of the I-10 and east of the 405, the soul stations KGFJ and later KDAY were still the backdrop to everything. Their stories still spoke to us -- longing and striving delivered over a dashboard. The stations still felt like a "place" you could walk to: the busy beauty shop my mother visited twice monthly, the cluttered corner market where we purchased big bags of ice for summer parties. The car radios sent out messages from "Loveland" as the teenage boys washed cars for weekend change. Life was still a struggle, and there was a measurable distance between haves and have-nots. Tension was in the mix too, but we pushed beyond.

This was the LA embodied in the voice of DJ Magnificent Montague. In August of 1965, when Watts burned, the whole of Black LA, it seemed, knew whom to tune in to: "We were all mesmerized," says one friend, Darryl Moore. "Will he say it again? Will they kick him off the air?" It was a showdown moment, between the powerless and the powers that be. Montague was Black LA. He was poised and suddenly that much more powerful.

His catch phrase, "Burn! Baby, Burn!" was just that. It was a slogan that referenced the hit factor or potential of the records he was spinning, not a charge to set the city afire.

Casual, collective memory erases this, and while he spent years correcting the record, Montague's words are often remembered as a declaration of defiance. The phrase articulated a sentiment that permeated much of Black Los Angeles. No matter its initial meaning, those words marked a turning point: the bridges that needed to be built lay within us. This was a moment of self-defining, and we began to tell our stories in our own voices.

Moore is now an elder statesman of sorts, one of the architects of West Coast Underground hip-hop. As a drummer, he threaded together infectious beats for acts like the Pharcyde and Freestyle Fellowship, and in the process helped to define "conscious hip-hop." These washes of sound -- the rhythms, samples, and rhymes, created in garages or rumpus rooms -- grew out of that new sense of collective self-awareness, and much of it would eventually bloom out of the radio.

If you're looking for a turning-point story about Black LA, Moore suggests you could point to that era. For a brief moment, the trajectory of life on these streets and the messages in the music over the radio -- about passion, pride, and power -- were in sync. For a decade or so after, at least within our neighborhoods, black radio remained a unifying soundtrack -- not about East Coast/West Coast rap rivalry or stepped-up crosstown gang violence. There was funk and R&B spun by Levi "Who Loves You" Booker who provided the evening's narration over "Stevie's station" on KJLH. Tuning into Stevie Wonder's FM spot on the dial was not just embracing a trend, "though we were wearing shags and Jheri curls," Moore admits. But really the music and the moment was emblematic, a mantra. It was all about who we could be. There I'd be, [driving from] LA to Compton, in my yellow-and-black Karmann Ghia, [my] radio blasting 'Good Times.'" They'd earned those easy, open-ended days: "During the week we were up at school. Then at our jobs, Lockheed or Northrop. We were on our way to something. You didn't think it would end."

Those were the years before crack and gangs and murder stats headlined international news, when a sort of straight-back dignity seemed to escort you out of any sort of mess. "It was a beautiful time," says Moore. "To be twenty-one. A black man with a legitimate job, taking that long way home on a clear, bright night, cruising Crenshaw. But it didn't stick. We were the last generation. But man, it was a beautiful time."

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Modern Languages

When I think about landscape, what's been razed and built over, I realize that though it all seems to have happened in an instant, it didn't. The transformation is traceable.

By the eighties, radio allegiance was something that categorized you -- or branded you. In my new school across town, we'd begun to see chaos over something as "simple" as radio: Fist-fights. Customized suitcase-sized boom boxes tipped over, innards flowing. But while many of my friends were sliding into punk or new wave (via KROQ's Rodney on the Roq) or hip-hop or "the new rap game" (via Greg Mack and Russ Parr at KDAY), led by a posse of DJs at the right end of the band, I kept edging further and further left, until I stumbled upon something: the churning flow of African Highlife, the sun and melancholy of Bahia. Art song and tango.

Tom Schnabel was the host of these leisurely morning excursions on KCRW and ran his show, Morning Becomes Eclectic, as a sort of graduate seminar in listening across lines.

How we think about radio now has been radically reformed by podcasts, web-only streaming on demand, and what has been altered is that in-the-moment connection over space, the very thing that made you feel part of a larger conversation. As a listener, I know what that now means and what I've lost, but what of the DJs who built all those intricately constructed atmospheres? As it so happens, my talk with Schnabel occurs both the very week of the final sign-off of his on-air show at KCRW and on the very day that he has put the finishing touches on his first weekly show for the web. We spend some time trying to resurrect that vanished Los Angeles, both the easy drives across town and the vivid landscape of the city's idiosyncratic airwaves. It's all still there, afloat in his head. He's memorized (and can recite) the theme songs and fill-music over which the DJs back-announced their "sets," stretching across decades. He remembers frequencies and their various reincarnations. "Was it simply the music that you tuned in for," I ask, "or the host, or did it matter?"

"Oh yes, it mattered. You bet it mattered." For the listener, he explains, "radio was about searching for something good." It's what you hadn't heard yet, what you couldn't possibly know. "That's gestalt. It just doesn't happen now."

At the edge of something new, Schnabel considers the difference: a show on the web, packaged into a podcast, versus broadcasting in real time from a terrestrial station, interacting with callers in-the-moment. It's all still new, full of possibility. But what is certain is that it alters his understanding of connectedness and immediacy.

This shift in the transmission is like a signal you lose as you make your way to the next destination. As you press forward, you shed what you know. But as long as there are hosts -- guides -- still rooted in a tradition and creating atmospheres that connect listeners, why can't a "station" continue to become a meeting place, a hub, a virtual city, a spot on the map?

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Within us we carry memorized maps, ways through which we navigate a city that is both present and past, locations that are still with us and those that have passed beyond us. Some of those stations we tuned to -- stations that nudged past velvet ropes, over the zigzag of abandoned railroad tracks, and ignored the "No trespassing" signs -- forced us to create shortcuts and workarounds to understand and embrace what we'd heard. In doing so, they broadened our sense of community and consequently ourselves.

Our maps are collective but they are also deeply personal. Those radio addresses tell us a bit about our paths, our sense of possibility. They are the places where we sometimes felt most like ourselves; they were the places in the city where we were never alone.

If I think about it, those stations that physically housed some of my most sacred, life altering sounds weren't necessarily rooted where the broadcasts actually took place. What on earth did Chuck Niles ("Bebop Charlie") have to do with the glass-and-steel high-rises of Wilshire Boulevard? These DJs and hosts created worlds. While they may have referenced places we frequented, they also urged us to cross boundaries, both physical and those of perception. And through it, they ultimately allowed us to find a place that certainly wouldn't have been on any physical map -- some sweet, essential spot, a brand-new territory that we didn't know lived inside of us.

 

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