There goes the last DJ
Who plays what he wants to play
And says what he wants to say, hey hey hey
And there goes your freedom of choice
There goes the last human voice
-- “The Last DJ,” Tom Petty
In his darkened bedroom, the drowsy kid stared night after night at the glowing amber radio dial and listened to deep-voiced DJs transmitting vinyl truth across the humid north Florida night skies. Money was tight in young Tom Petty’s house, too tight to be buying all the new records. “With radio,” he says, “it was a romance.”
More than three decades later, Petty barely recognizes his old flame.
“What’s happened with radio, it’s an example of our loss of collective soul as a culture, as a society,” Petty says by phone. “With radio, it is especially frustrating, it does discourage me. Radio is such a part of my life. It was my best friend.”
The singer, a staple of classic radio who has a trunkful of hits, spends a considerable amount of time on his new album, “The Last DJ,” running down the lost dream of radio and the music industry. In the title track, he blames conglomeration for making autonomous DJs an endangered species.
“Radio was once regional, as different as every town,” Petty says. “More and more, the whole country is listening to one station ... music is something that is magical, ultra-magical, and radio was an art form. Now it’s something cold and different.”
Petty says his new music is an alarm, not an attack, and uses the music industry as a metaphor for larger issues. But it is also very easy to hear a Clear Channel beneath the anger Petty is broadcasting. “Yeah,” he says with a chuckle. “that’s not the first time I’ve heard that.”
Clear Channel Entertainment is the 800-pound gorilla in the music industry these days, a corporate titan that controls more than 1,200 U.S. radio stations, including eight in Los Angeles.
Clear Channel, which is based in San Antonio, is the world’s largest radio broadcaster, as well as the dominant player in outdoor advertising and concert promotion -- the latter a business that has raised issues of conflicts of interest. As Clear Channel empire-building kicked into high gear in recent years, the company has been a target of music industry venom, government scrutiny and its own dedicated gadfly Web site. In the 1960s, it was the DJ who most often determined what was played. Now it is market research and consultants. DJs often have their music programmed, making their shifts the steady work of an autopilot. That’s nothing new, says Fred Jacobs, whose Detroit consulting firm is one of the most powerful in rock radio. It was the advent of programming software in the 1980s that marked the end of DJs picking the next song.
Jacobs says it’s easy to romanticize the more ragged past, but he says radio is now more in sync with listener taste. In the old days, fickle DJs could pull a station’s playlist toward the obscure fringes. And, anyway those old days are long gone, a fact bemoaned in song by Elvis Costello (“Radio, Radio” in 1978), Rush (“Spirit of the Radio” in 1980), Queen (“Radio Ga-Ga” in 1984) and others. “Where has Tom Petty been the last 22 years?” Jacobs asks. “Anybody who is waking up now in 2002 and worrying about the last DJ picking their own songs has been on the road too long or maybe he has been hanging out with Jim Ladd or something.”
It turns out Tom Petty has been hanging out with Jim Ladd.
Ladd is a night-shift host on classic rock station KLOS-FM (95.5), and his main claim to fame is that he still picks his own songs. That autonomy, by Petty’s standards, may make him the last DJ in commercial radio in a major market. Ladd and Petty have crossed paths in recent years, and “The Last DJ” liner notes suggest Ladd may have been a partial model for the song. Ladd says the DJs of the late 1960s saw themselves as part of a cultural revolution. Now he says Clear Channel and other powers make radio “strictly a business.” (There are “real DJs” beyond commercial radio, of course, at some college and public radio stations.)
One voice within Clear Channel blames the advent of the “box store” era for radio’s consolidation blues. Spokeswoman Pam Taylor points to the spread of Wal-Mart and mass retailers in the 1980s that pushed out mom-and-pop businesses in small towns. Those businesses were the bread-and-butter advertisers for independent radio stations while Wal-Mart champions its stores through national advertising. The small radio station became a less viable business prospect.
“The box stores and the large retailers changed the landscape of small towns and that changed, eventually, radio,” Taylor says. Federal deregulation of the industry in the 1980s was initiated to buoy its fortunes, and that led to the consolidation era. “Many people take a shot at radio today as if life began in the last 18 or 20 months.”
In Los Angeles, the Clear Channel holdings include KIIS-FM (102.7), KBIG-FM (104.3), KYSR-FM (98.7) and KOST-FM (103.5). Their stations claim about 23% of the total audience. Roy Laughlin, Clear Channel’s regional vice president in Los Angeles, says the company’s size does not mean it is any less vulnerable to the power of consumer choice.
“The only way you keep it a powerful and profitable venture is to keep it close to the people,” he said this week. “It’s like being a politician and not doing what the people want and thinking you’re going to get elected. It’s insane. Every Arbitron rating, every station starts with a zero. You have to earn those shares of listeners every survey period, so you better be close to what everybody wants.”
Laughlin says the Clear Channel reach also brings big-time talent to a variety of markets -- even if listeners don’t know that the voice they hear giving them entertainment, local news and even local traffic reports is imported from out-of-state. He cites Sean Valentine, a highly rated afternoon DJ on KIIS-FM who, at the end of his shift, pulls nuggets from his Los Angeles broadcast to sprinkle into a morning show that he does for a Clear Channel station in Cleveland. The casual Ohio listener would have no clue that Valentine is in a different time zone.
Ladd says he longs for the days when “beautiful mistakes” happened and nontraditional artists such as Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and the Grateful Dead were championed by DJs. Now the Internet, soundtracks and video games are ways for artists to spread new music.
Some do it the old-fashioned way, though. Petty’s Web site lists 62 major radio stations, many of them Clear Channel-owned, which previewed every track of “The Last DJ.” Message song or not, Petty has a radio hit.