Ken Roberts, a concert promoter who rescued a debt-ridden Pasadena rock music station and oversaw its rebirth as powerhouse KROQ-FM (106.7), which helped acts like Prince and Culture Club gain mainstream attention, died May 22 in New York City. He was 73.
Roberts had been ailing since a heart attack in February, said his former wife Harriette Craig, who announced his death last week.
Under his ownership in the 1970s and '80s, KROQ went from being a much-maligned renegade to one of the most influential modern rock stations in the country, with deejays like Richard Blade, Freddy Snakeskin and Jed the Fish championing alternative music in the widely emulated "ROQ of the 80s" format.
Among the many then-unknown bands the station featured were Duran Duran, the Clash, U2, R.E.M., the Go-Go's, Devo, the Police, the Pretenders, Billy Idol, Oingo Boingo and the Eurythmics, all of whom owed some of their success to a middle-aged concert promoter from Hoboken, N.J., who wanted people to hear new music.
"I don't think he quite understood the music… but he wanted to be cutting edge," Blade said this week. "Ken really believed in the freedom of radio. What Ken allowed people on air to do shaped the musical taste of Southern California and exploded across the country."
Born in Hoboken on Feb. 28, 1941, Kenneth John Roberts was entrepreneurial as a child, delivering newspapers and hiring other boys to wash neighbors' cars. He attended Seton Hall University in New Jersey and helped pay his way working as a page at NBC. His connections there helped him arrange a concert on campus featuring singer Jack Jones. He booked Della Reese next.
After graduating in 1963, he started a business coordinating college concerts featuring some of the era's most popular performers, including Harry Belafonte, Sammy Davis Jr., Andy Williams, Johnny Mathis, the Supremes and the Temptations. By the early 1970s his company was representing Frankie Valli and Sly and the Family Stone.
One of the engagements he booked for Sly Stone's band was for a KROQ-sponsored show at the Los Angeles Coliseum. When KROQ couldn't cover the costs, Roberts agreed to pay for the concert in exchange for a small ownership stake in the struggling station.
He did not realize what he had gotten himself into until he attended a meeting in 1974 with the other owners — a motley group that included a doctor, a couple of dairymen, a Sacramento lobbyist, a secretary and several other small investors. Roberts, with his background in concert booking, turned out to be the most experienced as far as radio was concerned. By the end of the meeting he was elected president.
He soon learned that KROQ's finances were in shambles after a year of programming without commercials, a gimmick intended to build audience. He took the station off the air for two years while he dug it out of $7 million of debt.
The station resumed broadcasting in 1976 but its troubles were far from over. The Federal Communications Commission had ordered the station to surrender its license, which made it vulnerable to rivals trying to take it over. Roberts paid them to drop their bids and bought out his partners until he was sole owner.
In 1979 he hired Rick Carroll as program director. Carroll, who died in 1989, was widely credited with refining KROQ's new-music signature, but Roberts kept him on track.
Snakeskin, who joined KROQ in 1980 and now handles the vintage KROQ playlist on the station's digital channel, recalled that Carroll had proposed a weekend of Beatles music to draw in more listeners but "Ken set him straight. Ken said, 'You're not doing no Beatles weekend on my station.' He could see this new kind of music was catching on."
KROQ's ratings soared in the 1980s, leading the FCC to award the license to Roberts in 1985. A year later he sold the station to Infinity Broadcasting for a record $45 million. KROQ, at 106.7 FM, is now owned by CBS.
Divorced in 1981, Roberts had no children.
In 1991 he returned to the radio business with his purchase of stations in Santa Monica and Newport Beach that shared the frequency 103.1. With Snakeskin as program director, a techno-rock format was simulcast on both outlets as MARS-FM. But it failed to find an audience and after a year switched to smooth jazz.
A risk taker who made and lost fortunes, Roberts had to give up his 112-acre Mandeville Canyon ranch in 2012 after defaulting on a loan from a Connecticut hedge fund. Once listed for $45 million, it was sold at auction for $12 million.
His turnaround of KROQ remained his most notable success.
"We were this tiny little station in Pasadena with a crappy signal playing music the other stations wouldn't touch with a barge pole," Blade said. "We all came together under Ken Roberts."