Music has always been a source of happiness and inspiration. It’s helped us through so many of our challenging times. It’s literally helped define aspects of our life. Bands and artists have become extended members of our family and their music has become the soundtrack to our lives.
Looking back, radio has been part of our own microcosm. Among the list of legendary events, it’s produced so many surreal bigger than life events, specially for those who call SoCal their home.
Today we get our music from so many different sources, yet in the era of i-this and i-that, it looks like radio may be returning as a preferred entertainment medium. AND, it may even be part of the music conversation again where hearing your favorite band on the radio matters.
When we were younger, we got to know our sonic heroes through radio, and they became our sonic heroes.
We’ve lived vicariously through the music of legends… from the AC/DC to Bowie, from the Stones to Ramones, from Marley to the Foo’s and from N.W.A. to Jay-Z… we’ve all connected through their music in one way or another.
Being able to draw from the power of music didn’t happen overnight. For decades, we’ve been lucky to have the biggest names in radio broadcasting transmitting from right here in SoCal. Honestly, the ‘70s and ‘80s made some of these stations the behemoths they are today.
Their innovative approach to finding great music while entertaining us with friendly and familiar voices turned stations like KROQ, 91x and KLOS into international juggernauts.
Whether we knew it or not, the album-oriented rock (AOR) format has been with us our entire lives. It’s provided us an outlet to be part of a community, address social issues, empower businesses, and provide a mental sanctuary. The legendary stations provide a sonic guide that reminds us how we got where we are. Most stations have already developed their core audience that remain loyal, while others are building on their following. Trust me, that’s not an easy thing to do.
Over the past few years, there’s been criticism of terrestrial radio. That criticism has been justified. On the surface it appears to be more of a corporate brand of music that was being promoted. The knock was, if a song had a heavy guitar riff in it… it didn’t get much airplay. Honestly, perpetual “banjo-rock” as a one size fits all type of music programming just wasn’t sustainable. That may be an oversimplification of music programming, but that’s the gist of what turned most radio die-hards away from terrestrial radio and towards streaming websites and other music platforms a few years ago.
That mass listener exodus dug into advertising revenue, forcing big brother radio to wake up and acknowledge their music programming was jeopardizing their own existence. The music – and the lack of live voices – is what many say drove that bus away from the terrestrial radio station. Again, an oversimplification, but you get what I’m saying.
So what did we learn over the past few years? We learned that bigger doesn’t always mean better, and smaller doesn’t mean inferior. If you still like your music or news over the airwaves, fear not… a few smaller players saw the writing on the wall. They took a novel approach to music programming. They played the music their reaming listeners wanted to hear. AND, they started played music with a guitar-base again. They also brought back life voices (it kinda matters), we’ll circle back to that.
A few of these smaller stations made a difference, but that’s a different we’ll tackle another day. When we say bigger isn’t always better, that’s not 100% true. One thing big stations do very, very well…. when they go against the grain… they can rock the boat.
A few years ago, I began working on a series of interviews with Program Directors (PDs) throughout the country. We discussed the direction radio was headed, and if radio would be victims of its own demise. The consensus was that radio wasn’t dead… it would rebound. In SoCal, there was a station who was part of that conversation… the legendary, KLOS. Turns out, they earned their stripes for a reason.
Back to 2020 for a moment. The year started off with so much promise and people started tuning back in to radio. Not like before, but enough to be noticeable. Radio was on the mend. PDs started listening to their followers; and they started playing music with a kick; and live voices were being heard again.
It was interesting how those online music platforms were now having to compete with this re-emergence of terrestrial radio broadcasters. Then in March, the global pandemic happened, and it put a hurt on everyone in broadcasting, large and small.
As a result of the virus, we’ve all been impacted in one way or another. Radio was no different. With the lockdown orders also came the loss of radio sponsors. Those sponsors had no choice but to stop advertising because their businesses were all suddenly “closed.” Stations nationwide had to make adjustments. Some were subtle, some were noticeable, and some just straight out angered their listeners.
Why does radio matter? There’s the obviously, they’re supposed to entertain us by playing kick-ass music. That’s not where it shines. Simply put, during an emergency – or in this case, a prolonged emergency – radio is the ultimate source to get up-to-date information, while being entertained and comforted. Radio has a way of delivering the news and helping calm nerves. At least, that’s the way it used to be.
Some stations do have specialty shows that play local kick-ass music from new bands. Then again, when a specialty show is the limit of kick-ass new music programming, what does that say about the rest of that particular station’s programming?
Taking ALL thus under consideration, I asked some of our followers to comment on the local radio topic. We received a mixture of responses. Some were lighthearted, while others were downright indignant towards the radio industry. Here are just a few viewpoints that shape today’s attitudes about radio:
Denise Trevino said “Music always helps me. I don’t really listen to talk radio much, because at some point or another something political gets thrown in. Music is my escape from everything. I found that I love the DJs that go live. They take me back to when things were fun and simple. I can turn on my music, sing and dance around the house while cleaning or working depending on what time of the day it is.”
Janet Housden said “When KXLU was only playing repeats of old shows at the beginning of the pandemic, it felt like the end of the world. Being able to listen to a live human in real time is a huge deal for me for some reason.”
On the other side of the spectrum Steve Savedra said “As someone who’s musical taste was shaped by radio and the access to free music during the transition of traditional radio to digital, COVID really doesn’t have anything to do with it. I’m listening to and consuming media in the same way I was at this point last year.”
Randy Ulrich said “One thing is for sure, podcasters insisting on referring to their efforts as “radio” is laughable, it’s not! Putting the word “radio” into the name of your podcast doesn’t magically make it so!”
Jennifer Wilson’s comment “Are people still listening to radio?”
That’s a small sample of the different perspectives. Now, let’s add a newer wrinkle…. it’s an era with calls of fake news. Oh, and those recorded voices are back too. There are a few stations who are overtly suffering from an identity crisis. Many listeners feel that radio in 2020 let them down. Luckily, some of those previously mentioned trailblazers that took the bull by the horns a few years ago seem to be the same ones leading the way to the new radio dynamic.
Reality is the best measurement of the human condition. During emergencies, people freak out… that’s just part of being human. Most won’t turn to Soundcloud to find out what’s up or to try to calm down. It’s TV news or radio that we turn to. After a bit of TV, people eventually turn to radio for more news, but also to hear those familiar voices that inject humor with the honesty and comfort we all seek. It helps that they also play music in between their dialog. That is part of the allure, and it works. That’s the power that radio brings to the table and very few entertainment mediums can claim that.
Don’t get me wrong, there are several quality streaming broadcasters, but most are pay-to-listen sites. Not everyone is on board with that or can afford that. Reality also tells us some of these alternate broadcasters are very good and PDs are paying attention to what the SiriusXMs of the world are up to.
Circling back to the interviews I did with radio PDs. These were the PDs making a difference, and one of them was an industry juggernaut: KLOS Program Director Keith Cunningham. The plan he put together was simple yet comprehensive, bold and fearless. The plan was to embrace their legacy, not run away from it. To reach out to new listeners by playing a brand of rock that represented the Southern California lifestyle, AND be a part of the community.
How did the experiment work out for Cunningham and crew? Recently, I caught up with him to see how the station was doing. I asked him about the significant issues plaguing the broadcasting industry, and I was pleasantly surprised at his responses because they were honest, direct, and encouraging.
As for the experiment, it turns out that on the heels of their 50th anniversary of broadcasting. KLOS is enjoying some of the best ratings the station has had in memory. The Heidi and Frank Show is one of the best morning shows in the country and they connect with their fans. For Cunningham, he couldn’t be happier with their lineup. He said “The morning show is followed by funny, engaging and interesting live DJs — Marci Wiser, Sluggo and Greg Beharrell, all of which entertain, interact, keep the audience informed, and each show has its own distinct vibe. And we also have ‘Whiplash” hosted by Full Metal Jackie, the only show in SoCal featuring metal, and then ‘Breakfast With the Beatles’ on Sunday morning, hosted by Chris Carter, which continues to be a juggernaut.” ”
KLOS is breaking new rock music, including local bands, something that has been missing from local radio for a long time. Some stations do this, but not to the level you find here. When I tune to evaluate their programming, I hear the bands I expect. Bands like AC/DC to Nirvana to the Foo’s. What I appreciate is the new music and those local bands that are getting their first shot. I also enjoy the B-Sides they play. We might hear those songs online on a station 2 stream by others, but KLOS is doing this and it sounds great. The other component I think we can all appreciate is hearing those live voices who share their airtime with their listeners. Their DJs clearly don’t take themselves too seriously and the collective experience makes tuning in interactive (something people have missed). This really is a blueprint of what radio should sound like in 2020.
I asked Cunningham if these on-air tweaks were the magic wand that made the difference? He laughed and said, “We threw the rule book out the window and drove a Mack truck over it. KLOS has a history of doing that. We’re just doing radio the Southern California way. We’re not following charts or fixated on what other stations are doing. What is working for us is we’re listening to our listeners and programming for Southern California.”
I couldn’t miss the opportunity to ask him what he meant by that, he said… “Embracing the KLOS legacy honors the past – KLOS actually played Led Zeppelin, Guns N’ Roses, Metallica and Nirvana when it was new music, and we won’t ever abandon those amazing decades of music, as it makes up the bulk of our DNA. We do believe multiple decades and genres can be on the same station, as long as it’s all great rock music.”
He also mentioned “we talk to our listeners – I answer every email and call I get, so do the DJs and we constantly ask for feedback and suggestions. Listeners don’t want to be stuck in the past and they don’t want KLOS to be stuck in the past, so it’s important for KLOS to have a 2020 feel, while also respecting the brand’s core roots. The new music KLOS is bringing is reminding me how much Southern California needed a genuine rock station.”
Staffing is important; you can’t do it all yourself. The addition of Music Director, Doug “Sluggo” Roberts is a big deal. Roberts is a market veteran who spent many years at KROQ and JACK-FM. He’s helped Cunningham focus more time on innovative initiatives, like a few new things coming this fall that he isn’t able to disclose yet.
I asked him how important it was to provide accurate news at an AOR formatted station. Cunningham said, “We never want to be labeled as “fake news.” Delivering news that is relevant to the community is a part of our job as a radio station, and being accurate is vitally important.”
When I asked how KLOS might be participating in the upcoming election, he paused and said, “While the political climate seems to permeate itself into almost everything these days, we are not in the business of telling people how to vote – the listeners are smart and they can make up their own minds – but we will certainly urge people to vote this November. It’s one of the greatest responsibilities all of us share.”
I asked him what kind of community involvement is KLOS promoting these days. Cunningham said, “We are big supporters of the Red Cross, we just held our socially-distant 39th annual blood drive, which had every single appointment booked. St. Jude has a special place in our heart and earlier this year, thanks to our amazing listeners, we were able to raise over $1,000,000 in just 26 broadcast hours during our St. Jude Rocks campaign.”
The Morning Show continues to amaze. They set up a website called Stay Open LA. It’s a great source for everyone to help out local businesses.
TO CHECK OUT STAY OPEN LA
He added “During this pandemic, we’ve been doing our best to help local businesses in need, as well as first responders and essential workers. We’re also very grateful to have amazing clients like Sweet James Bergener, Toyota, Honda, Heineken, Absolute Airflow – the list goes on and on. They’ve all stuck with us so we can continue doing what we’re doing to serve the community, whether it’s cranking rock music to keep spirits up or promoting food drops. They understand the strength of the KLOS brand and the loyal audience that has been cultivated over the past 50 years. And that is one of the greatest things about local radio – the ability to connect and serve. Pandora isn’t delivering lunch or dinner to emergency room workers, but our morning show, The Heidi and Frank Show does.”
My final question for Cunningham: What general advice do you have PDs during the global pandemic?
I could tell this was an important question to him; he paused and said…
“Pandemic or not, don’t try to be all things to all people and never become stale or too predictable, otherwise it’s game over.“
Keith Cunningham | Program Director KLOS
Cunningham goes on to say “Today’s biggest brands, like Apple, Google, Amazon, and Mercedes are always moving forward, evolving, and reinventing by offering new features and benefits, while maintaining audience expectation and brand consistency. That is achievable at radio.”
He added, “Success comes much easier for PDs who understand who their audience truly is and what they expect from the brand. If a PD knows those answers, they can better super-serve the core listeners, who will ultimately reciprocate with more listening, loyalty, and advertiser support. Finally, radio needs to be bold and not afraid to take smart risks – some of our highest-rated hours are when there aren’t any of the archaic radio rules in sight and we play nothing but rock requests. If you make your most loyal listeners happy, everything else falls into place.”
No doubt, it’s a weird time we live in, but how we respond to today’s events as people, that’s how history will judge us. With that in mind, if there’s one wish I could make come true for AOR terrestrial radio it would be this… stay away from political ads or ads that are politically adjacent. People that tune in for music or a quick update of today’s events don’t want to hear a political message or rhetoric we’ve all become drained from.
In the end, everyone has different tastes in music, and we have different ways we all react to news (good and bad). We all have our own preferred way to pick up our media fix. As much as people have complained about radio, it remains a magical experience when a new band hears their music on the radio for the very first time, no other platform can compete with that feeling.
One thing is certain, with the state of the world right now, radio is stepping up. Many who gave up on it are coming back to give it another try. Going forward, look out for the resurgence of free terrestrial radio. Thanks to a few trailblazers, we just might all be pleasantly surprised.
If you want to hear radio the way it was intended, check out today’s