Carson Daly returns to radio in Los Angeles

Thirteen years ago -- before he became NBC’s host for New Year’s Eve festivities, before that network gave him a late-night talk show, now in its ninth season -- Carson Daly bolted from what he called his “dream job” as a nighttime DJ at KROQ-FM (106.7) for an even bigger break, hosting MTV’s “Total Request Live.”

Fearing he was about to burn a bridge, he said he even sneaked into the station to gather his tapes and belongings before telling his bosses he was leaving.

But on Monday he returns to L.A. radio, with his former KROQ boss handing Daly the keys to a more crucial time slot at an even bigger outlet -- morning drive at Top 40 KAMP-FM (97.1).

“Carson and I started talking over the summer, and we thought it was a good fit for him, and for the station,” said Kevin Weatherly, senior vice president of programming for CBS Radio, which owns KROQ and KAMP. “It’s a great thing for radio when you have a guy like Carson, whose career has been amazing, go back to his roots and wake up at 4:30 every morning.”

Daly, who’ll be on from 6 to 10 a.m. weekdays, promises no sidekicks, no celebrity sleaze, no morning zoo. “This is about music. I’m not going to go on for four hours and talk,” he said.

It’s the same approach for KAMP overall, as it does battle with the market’s heritage Top 40 station, KIIS-FM (102.7), which has played that format since 1981 and spent most of 2009 at No. 1 in the Los Angeles-Orange County ratings.

“They’re programming against excellent competition. KIIS is a really good station,” said Jeff Pollack, chairman of the Pollack Media Group, an L.A.-based media-consulting firm. “If you’re trying to stake out a claim for yourself, the ‘more music’ position is a really good way to do it. Let the other stations capture more of the gossip and the interviews and the celebrities.”

That strategy appears to be working. Until Feb. 20 last year, KAMP, then known as KLSX, was a male-oriented FM talk station -- the onetime home of Howard Stern, and more recently an outlet for Adam Carolla, Danny Bonaduce and Tom Leykis. After the format change, the station shot from 20th place in the local ratings to 11th, and since then as high as fourth.

“Top 40 hyped-up can be cheesy,” Weatherly said. “We wanted to set ourselves apart, playing the biggest pop-culture songs of the moment but do it in a way that feels more real, with a little less hype.

“Everything about the station is there to not get in the way of the music, but to complement it.”

According to figures released by Arbitron on Wednesday, KAMP placed sixth in the most recent ratings survey (covering Nov. 12 to Dec. 9), averaging 3.5% of the audience ages 6 and older. KIIS was second, at 4.7%.

And even without a morning host, KAMP finished 12th in the 6-10 a.m. slot, with a 3.1% share of the audience. KIIS’ Ryan Seacrest tied for fourth, with 4.2%. But in terms of individual listeners, KAMP was second only to KIIS in the morning, with 988,000 versus 1.1 million people who tuned in for at least five minutes during the week.

“I’m really excited about coming back to radio,” said Daly, who got his break working for future KROQ colleague Jimmy Kimmel as a 16-year-old intern at KCMG-FM in Palm Springs. “It was such a fun experience. I was really bitten by the radio bug. Once you’re a radio geek, you always are.”

Weatherly plucked Daly from KROQ’s sister station in San Jose in 1996 to fill a rare opening in the lineup, but MTV came calling after less than a year.

“I was bummed out and disappointed to see him go and leave K-Rock so early. I looked at him as someone who could be at KROQ for 20 years,” Weatherly said. “He had different goals.”

In its heyday, “Total Request Live” was after-school appointment television nationwide.

Its Times Square studio -- with throngs of screaming fans inside and out on the street -- became a launching pad for music acts and records, and its affable host became a teen heartthrob.

“ ‘TRL’ was a tremendously important show,” Pollack said. Daly “was a good interviewer, was a fun host, and sort of captured the time when artists were looking for a showcase to talk about their latest record. He did a great job. It looks easy, but it isn’t.”

Daly left “TRL” in 2003, in part to focus on “Last Call,” his NBC talk show that still airs weeknights at 1:35 a.m. Daly and Weatherly remained in touch, and after “Last Call” moved from New York City to Burbank in 2005, a return to L.A. radio became more realistic.

A year-and-a-half ago, Daly started doing the occasional fill-in shift at KROQ. And after KAMP changed formats, “Carson was the first person who came to mind,” Weatherly said. “We’re 10 months into this now, and Carson is the perfect choice for the next chapter.”

And what about the inevitable comparisons to his main competition, KIIS’ Seacrest?

‘I get it’

The parallels are striking -- for example, both used L.A. radio as a springboard, Daly at KROQ and Seacrest when he was on afternoons at KYSR-FM (98.7) until 2003. They’ve hosted TV music shows that became pop culture phenomena -- “Total Request Live” vs. “American Idol.” Both have branched out as executives on the other side of the camera or microphone. And now they helm morning-drive shows on the two most popular contemporary-hits radio stations in L.A.

“I get it,” said Daly, 36. “Ryan and I laugh about it. We’re friends. We have dinner every year this week,” when both are in New York hosting their respective New Year’s Eve countdown shows, Daly on NBC and Seacrest on ABC.

So don’t expect any feuding or a blacklisting of guests who appear on the rival’s show. Instead, they might even guest for each other.

“We’d be foolish not to try and put our brains together to try and do something cool,” Daly said, then paused: “I think we’d be better served to do something charitable. Like something for Earth Day.”

On “Last Call,” Daly welcomes unknown and eclectic musicians -- recent guests have included Hasidic Jewish reggae singer Matisyahu, folk-pop singer-songwriter Brett Dennen, electronic rocker Peaches and hip-hop star Snoop Dogg.

He said he might include new music features on his morning program too.

Despite Daly’s previous success on the pop music front, Pollack said he shouldn’t expect to re-create the juggernaut that was “Total Request Live.” Music listeners have many other options to hear music now, especially online, Pollack pointed out.

But Daly said he isn’t expecting to mimic the success of a nationwide TV program and wants to keep a local feel, anyway.

He does see one parallel, though.

“There’s not that many people working at the station. It reminds me of the first days of ‘TRL,’ ” he said, when it was just him and two cameramen. “Let’s start playing music, let’s build it out. If that grows into some sort of big deal for the L.A. market, I hope that that happens.”

His first goal is more modest and involves loading up on alarm clocks.

“I hope I can get up and get to the station. That will be the biggest victory,” he joked. “I hope the listeners feel like they have a companion in the morning. I look forward to the challenge of growing this thing.”

He said he expects to arrive on his motorcycle, cue up the first song and get right to work: “ ‘Hey, L.A., it’s great to be on the radio in my hometown. Let’s build this thing together.’ Then I have to shut up, because Lady Gaga is going to start singing.”