Los Angeles' vintage baritone is back.
Art Laboe, the soothing grandmaster of sentimental on-air dedications, returns to the L.A. airwaves Sunday after a four-month exile. KDAY-FM (93.5) has picked up Laboe's syndicated show and plans to broadcast it from 6 p.m. to midnight Sundays.
For a while, it appeared as if Laboe's 60-plus year career in Los Angeles had reached an unceremonious end. His home for more than a decade, iHeartMedia's KHHT-FM (92.3), had abruptly switched to a hip-hop format in February, and Laboe's oldies but goodies no longer fit with the company's new format..
"They just swept everybody out with a pretty wide broom," Laboe said by phone.
But fans were not ready to let go of Laboe.
Their affinity for the 89-year-old broadcaster is noteworthy in an era of computer-generated playlists and bellicose talk-show hosts. Much of Laboe's charm comes from his warmth, old-school sincerity and his tender touch with listeners who call into his show. Laboe, of Armenian descent, also has developed a special bond with Latinos, who have long made up a large portion of his audience — a thread that spans several generations.
"I've listened ever since I was little," said Cindy Garcia, a 22-year-old communications student at Cal State Long Beach, who launched an online petition that demanded Laboe's return to L.A. radio after 92.3 FM dropped his show. Her change.org petition garnered about 17,000 signatures.
"My dad was part of low-rider culture, and when we went to car shows he would have Hot 92.3 on the radio," Garcia said. "When they took [Laboe] off the air, I was so mad. I felt like they took something away from my dad — and from a lot of people. There are not many people who represent L.A. on the radio, but when it comes to oldies, there's really just Art Laboe."
Laboe has fostered a rare relationship with his audience, said Josh Kun, a professor at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.
"He has always treated people with respect and taken them very seriously — not as a marketing demographic, not a source of potential advertising revenue, but he has taken them seriously as a community, and as individuals," Kun said. "When folks call in to his radio show, he listens to them. He doesn't rush them off the air."
Callers to Laboe's show typically want to "talk about intimate parts of their lives — finding love, breaking up, sending a song dedication out to someone who has passed away who you miss," Kun said. "It's a vulnerable experience; there is a lot of risk involved. Over the years, people have come to trust Art, and he's earned their trust, and that's why he's so central to so many people's lives."
"The Art Laboe Connection" originates from his studios in Palm Springs and airs on 12 other radio stations, including in Barstow, Bakersfield, Las Vegas, Phoenix and an outlet Laboe owns in Fresno. Keeping up with the times, the show also is streamed online.
Laboe, whose given name is Arthur Egnoian, is a throw-back to a simpler time — long before smartphones, social media, selfies or even MTV.
Transistor radios were all the rage when Laboe, then with KPOP-AM (1020), gained prominence by hauling his bulky radio equipment for live afternoon broadcasts from Scrivner's drive-in restaurant at Sunset and Cahuenga boulevards in Hollywood. Throngs of teenagers, multi-ethnic crowds, would mob the parking lot for a chance to see such heartthrobs as Ricky Nelson or actor Robert Wagner. Another popular location was a drive-in restaurant at Imperial Highway and Western Avenue.
"We used to get 200 cars on a Saturday night," said Laboe. "That was in late 1955 and 1956. It was the birth of rock 'n' roll, and other stations played Doris Day, Frank Sinatra and big band sounds. And here comes Art Laboe with this program that featured Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, the Crickets — music that no one had heard on the radio before. And it spread like a prairie fire."
All those decades ago, Laboe devised his winning formula. At his live broadcasts, he would ask young couples to pick a song and make a dedication.
"I usually would talk to the girls. This was back in the '50s, and I knew they wouldn't spout off with any four-letter words," he said. "Today, I don't know what would happen."
He traces his connection to Latinos to the same era, the late 1950s, when he was building a business as a concert promoter.
A Los Angeles city ordinance had banned anyone younger than 18 from attending public dances and concerts. So Laboe picked a venue in El Monte, which had different rules. The bands he brought in drew teenagers from all around Los Angeles, including the Eastside and its growing Mexican American population.
"They would come to the El Monte Legion Stadium," Laboe said. "It was in their backyard, and they felt comfortable."
Putting audiences at ease has long been a key to Laboe's appeal.
"I actually talk to people about their problems. They will tell me about their lives," he said. "It's my nature to be sympathetic to the callers, and keep the negative stuff off the air. Most times, they want to talk about the people they love. It's usually about love."
Laboe agrees that his style is uncommon in today's media landscape.
"Most radio personalities are not given the chance to express their personalities," he said. "Every 24 hours, the programming department comes up with a different list of songs, and deejays are told how many seconds they can talk. Nowadays, the programming department has control over everything that goes on the air. But I like to program by sound."
This won't be the first time KDAY has transmitted the sounds of Laboe. He worked at the station in the early 1960s, when rock 'n' roll was shaking up the dial and KDAY had a powerful AM signal. But radio has its ebbs and flows, and KDAY eventually flipped to rhythm and blues.
Laboe left the station in late 1961 to focus on his record business. They released "Oldies but Goodies," albums that featured hits from various artists.
KDAY later achieved prominence as the first station to embrace L.A.'s hip-hop scene in the 1980s. Since the Latino-owned Meruelo Media group acquired KDAY a little more than a year ago, the outlet has been tweaking its format. It now plays classic hip-hop and R&B with the marketing slogan of "Back in the Day."
Otto Padron, president of Meruelo Media, grew up in South Florida but remembers hearing Laboe on the radio when he would visit his uncle in Southern California in the 1980s. Padron was captivated by Laboe's listeners, who called in to make dedications.
"He was my first Facebook," Padron said. "Art has been so connected to this region and community. He is not pretending to be something that he is not. His style and the music he plays is very comforting. It is sentimental and emotional. He is emblematic of the KDAY brand, and he is an institution in Los Angeles."