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He’s a Deejay as Free as the Air

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It’s quarter to midnight on a recent Friday at the La Cienega Boulevard studios of classic rocker KLOS-FM (95.5). While commercials play in the background, disc jockey Jim Ladd does something highly unusual in the world of big-time music radio.

He looks through the hundreds of CDs filed on the studio wall and ponders his choices. Selecting a few, he returns to the console.

“I was going to do a set about God,” he says in an off-air aside to a couple of visitors. “But it’s Friday, so I’ll save it for another time.”

It’s not so much the considered subject matter that sets this apart. It’s that Ladd was deciding what to play at all.

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Sounds like no big deal? Consider this: Among regular-shift deejays at major commercial stations in Los Angeles, Ladd is the only one given a free hand in choosing what he plays. All the others--name your favorites--work from playlists given them by program directors, music directors and various consultants, with little if any leeway to stray.

Ladd holds up a few sheets of paper containing the KLOS playlist schedule. Throughout the day on the log, the “classic rock that really rocks,” as the station’s slogan has it, is plotted out song by song--right up to 10 p.m., when Ladd goes on the air.

There, for four hours, the agenda is, literally, blank pages. It’s time Ladd fills by piecing together his distinctive thematic sets about such topics as current events, sex and, yes, God. And throughout, whether he’s following a theme or not, he works hard to apply his vast mental music library to knit seamless segues between songs, as if they’re one continuous piece, punctuated by his longtime catch phrase, “Lord have mercy!”

In one set on this night, he casually accomplished both, going from Little Steven’s pounding, angry “Guns, Drugs and Gasoline” to a live recording of the Clash doing “I Fought the Law” to R.E.M.'s “It’s the End of the World as We Know It,” each drum-heavy ending perfectly dovetailing into a drum-heavy intro of the next song.

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“This is my art form and I believe in it and I cannot do anything else,” he says in his rich voice, familiar to any L.A. rock radio regular of the last 30 years. “I cannot follow a list and will not follow a list.”

The only other place you’ll hear this kind of thing on a daily basis is public radio, in which such hosts as Nic Harcourt of “Morning Becomes Eclectic” on KCRW-FM (89.9) orchestrate their own sets. Otherwise, it’s pretty limited to stray moments such as Jed the Fish’s one-song “Catch of the Day” pick on KROQ-FM (106.7) or the same station’s Sunday night punk and pop show with Rodney Bingenheimer.

But Ladd does it Monday through Friday, from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. He’s not quite the rebel he likes to posture as; he can be predictable with his choices (you can count on hearing the Doors and Led Zeppelin every night at least once) and he rarely colors too far outside the lines of the station’s regular playlist. For example, he’ll play George Thorogood doing Hank Williams’ “Move It On Over,” but not Williams himself.

He does, though, frequently champion new acts that aren’t on KLOS’ regular playlist, with Collective Soul a current favorite. And he does try to push his listeners to things they may not have heard before, from Muddy Waters to Moby, in his popular regular features “Mojo Mondays,” in which he matches blues-inspired rock favorites with real blues tracks, and Wednesday’s “Headsets,” a Ladd staple taking the thematic sets to extremes and using drop-in movie dialogue and sound effects to extend the experience in a quasi-psychedelic manner.

‘My Boss . . . Actually Likes What I Do’

So why does Ladd--the self-proclaimed “Lonesome L.A. Cowboy"--get to do this?

“Stubbornness, stupidity, doggedness,” he says with a resonant chuckle, reminding that he twice in his 30-year career stayed off the air for two years because he wasn’t able to find anyone to let him go free-form.

“And the second reason is Rita Wilde, who I am so blessed is the program director of KLOS,” he says. “She is my boss and actually likes what I do.”

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In fact, Wilde--herself a longtime KLOS deejay and music director before being promoted in 1998--schooled herself on Ladd back when he was a ‘70s mainstay in stints on both KLOS and now-defunct rival KMET-FM, years chronicled with slight name changes in Ladd’s 1991 book, “Radio Waves.”

“When I was in college, I would write down the sets he played,” Wilde says. “He inspired me to get into radio and made it a completely different kind of medium. You could always tell a [radio] person’s personality in those days by what they were playing. So many people I get e-mails from say what a personal part Ladd has played in their lives.”

Indeed, a sampling of callers to KLOS--aged 15 to 51--during Ladd’s show revealed a deep loyalty to him and his style of radio.

“Two years ago I was listening to 93.1 [classic rock rival KCBS-FM] and was fed up hearing the same old songs,” said Blake, 31, a bartender from Marina del Rey. “I called them up and got the deejay and said, ‘I love the Doors, but can you play some different Doors songs?’ He said, ‘I hear you, but I know what I’m going to be playing for the next two days.’ That kills good songs. You just don’t want to hear them anymore.”

So why not let other jocks have Ladd’s leeway?

“Not that many people, if you gave them the freedom, would know what to do with it,” Wilde says, acknowledging that there may be some jealousy on the part of other KLOS jocks over Ladd’s free hand. “And now that I’m on this side of the fence in management, I understand so much more about research and musical tastes. It’s so hard to please so many people with such an eclectic approach.”

Wilde also notes that in the ‘70s, listeners didn’t have as much choice of rock and pop stations and tended to stick with one spot on the dial even if they may not have liked a particular song being played at any given minute. Now they are more likely to switch. And with that, stations need to pump their own brand, placing station identifications between most songs--so a station’s desire for a smooth segue is obsolete.

Programmers at other L.A. stations agree that Ladd can get away with it because of his legacy and loyal following. But otherwise, there’s too much at stake to leave anything to chance.

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“With a cumulative audience of 1.3 million, we have a lot of different tastes to satisfy,” says KROQ program director Kevin Weatherly. “So we can’t go 20 minutes without representing the various slices of our musical pie. We obsess over flow. And I contend it’s still an art form, even if it might not be left up to the individual personalities. We have a music director in Lisa Worden who sits down and spends a lot of time piecing it together.”

And if a deejay should get a sudden whim to change a selection?

“I give them the autonomy to occasionally stray, if it’s well thought out,” he says. “But if they do it, they better do it right.”

Nicole Sandler, music director and afternoon deejay at adult alternative station KACD-KBCD-FM (103.1), has a similar take.

“Pure and simple, too much is at risk,” she says. “People need to know that this is where they go to get good, quality adult rock. On [former adult alternative station] KSCA, we tried free-form Fridays, and it ended up being more repetitive because the jocks were just playing the same things.”

Ladd is undaunted by such talk.

“It’s important that people don’t take this for granted; that’s what ‘Lord have mercy’ is about,” he says of the slogan he has emblazoned on T-shirts he gives away. “It’s so people feel they’re part of this movement: freedom on the radio.”

And that set about God he was thinking about?

“I was thinking about ‘What God Wants’ by Roger Waters, and ‘Fear of God’ by Little Steven,” he says. “There are lots of God songs. Depends on where I’m going with it, whether it’s to Eastern religions or Western religions. . . .”

Lord have mercy, indeed.

* Jim Ladd can be heard weeknights from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. on KLOS-FM (95.5).


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