September 20, 2011
On Saturday, Sept. 24th, Don Barrett turns out the light on LARadio.com after 15 years of serving the California radio community. What started out as a vehicle to promote his book on local DJs eventually morphed into a SoCal radio diary that brought together different generations of radio programmers and personalities. Here, Barrett describes the long, entertaining trip that was LARadio.com and where he may go from here.
What made you decide to start LARadio.com in the first place?
Radio has always been an integral part of my life, starting back when I was a kid. It just stayed with me until today. I've been in radio since the '60s, starting as DJ then moving up to PD and then GM. I managed a couple of stations in Detroit before I came back to L.A. to start K100 in the early '70s.
I left radio to get into the motion picture biz, in the marketing dept. I also spent some time as a family therapist and when all of that ended, I wanted to track down some of the early DJs who influenced me when I was growing up in Santa Monica. Someone said it would be an interesting book, so I wrote it in '94. That was successful enough to convince me to write another one. I started LARadio.com in 1996 to promote the book; this was when the Net was basically beginning. Joel Denver had beaten me by a year or so, but we both saw the Net as viable media.
I initially started LARadio.com as an opportunity to market and sell my book. Then I updated the book in 1997, when a whole bunch of L.A. radio greats died within a year's time -- The Real Don Steele ... Emperor Bob Hudson ... and Robert W. Morgan in '98. I was able to pay tribute to those radio giants on the site, as it slowly began to emerge as more than a vehicle to sell my book. The site went from there to what it ended up to be 15 years later.
I was able to provide info you couldn't get anyplace else. The L.A. Times wasn't doing much on radio; none of the other major outlets were covering it on a daily basis. So the site evolved to become much more than I had originally set out to provide, which was only a daily column. The website's growth was really just evolutionary.
I noticed that you also reported on news for personalities in San Francisco and other parts of California. Was that a conscious decision to expand your parameters?
I did think it was important because radio people are such nomads; they'd be on the air one day and all of a sudden, be gone. I thought LARadio.com provided a valuable resource to tell people where they went, as well as where they came from. I wanted to provide a snapshot of their lives. Many of them had connections to stations in San Francisco, Ventura and Oxnard. Many of those markets were launching pads for personalities, on-deck circles before they got to LA radio -- and many of them returned to their home towns after a stint in L.A.
It was interesting that after I ran a couple of stations in Detroit --W4 and WDRQ -- when I published my book, I went back to Detroit and met with a radio columnist there ... and asked him for some exposure to help publicize the book. At first he said "pass" because L.A. radio didn't have much to do with Detroit.
Then I counted up all the people in my book who came though Detroit radio either before or after working in L.A. -- and there were 51 of them, including Casey Kasem. Once I provided that info to the writer, I ended up getting an entire column based on those connections.
I continue to emphasize that on LARadio.com, I always focus on the fact that these people came from some place and have gone to somewhere else. As I said before, radio folk aren't known for staying in one cubbyhole throughout their careers.
Has consolidation impacted the way you generated information - and who you got your information from?
It really did change. I was there when Cox got out of L.A. radio ... and I wrote about those Jacor days. It enabled me to go beyond just the L.A. radio personalities, as it changed the landscape within our environment. Yet to be honest, it was really more exciting back before consolidation because now people are always protecting formats. They're not as adventuresome ... and they used to be in the headlines frequently. Now their actions aren't as juicy as they used to be.
So in your eyes, what were, are or should be the "golden days of radio"?
It's different for everyone; it's based wherever your wheelhouse is. What most people use is the time of their peak interest in radio, which usually was in high school. That's where we have our fondest memories, where we got caught up in not just in the music, but the personalities. That becomes our "golden era."
In a sense, any time could be someone's "golden age" of radio. I grew up in Santa Monica. I was here for the early days of pop radio, when it transitioned from Doris Day and Patti Page to Fats Domino, R&B and rock and roll in the mid-'50s. I remember when Chuck Blore systemized everything in 1958 with "color radio." KRLA came along a year later, then came Ron Jacobs and off we went.
Even so, I don't have a favorite era if that's what you're asking. I love to take snapshots of all the eras. I fondly recall the heyday of The Mighty Met, when it was KMET against KLOS, which was a very exciting time for L.A. radio.
How has the way personalities view their careers changed over the years?
I can remember the time when people only worked for one station. Now they work for multiple stations. Valentine on My.fm is voicetracking to over 20 stations across the country. That kind of exposure was unheard of in prior generations.
The same goes with PDs. When I was in radio, I had enough to do with one station. Today, Kevin Weatherly is programming three stations, while Jhani Kaye is programming two. The same with GMs. I came from the era when a GM managed only one station at a time. I can't imagine what Greg Ashlock is going though, managing eight stations.
That's the biggest change; they've been given more responsibilities. In fact, everyone is asked to do more in the age of consolidation. Would they do better with just one station? We'll never know because things will never be as unconsolidated as it used to be before the industry consolidated everything.
What change or evolution of radio over the years has surprised you the most?
The biggest change is how conservative most PDs have become. I'm not sure if it's because of the fear of wanting to keep up with the Joneses, or the new methodology of ratings and the need to keep them up at all times. Whatever the reason or reasons, there doesn't seem to be as much gunslinging as there used to be. There was a time where programmers would react to something heard on the air - and an hour later they'd be countering it on-air. You don't see much countering today, largely because you're up against stations in your own cluster. That's the biggest change I've seen.
Obviously the Internet was the fuel than ran LARadio.com for 15 years. But how has radio reacted to the potential of the Net?
At this point, they largely look at it as an information source; even what they do on social networks is provide information and promotions. So while they certainly pay attention to it, just how much they pay attention to it is open for debate. The amount of time some stations spend on updating their own websites is kind of appalling at times. They put so much effort into on-air content to drive listeners to their website, but once they get there, they're looking at material that's two to three weeks old.
I don't get that mentality, because they certainly have the opportunity to stay very current. What Clear Channel is doing with iHeartradio, for instance, is perhaps at the forefront of the whole revolution. We may look back three years from now to appreciate how smart they were to stage a concert and use it to promote their app and stream to hundreds of stations.
The technology is moving so quickly that only God knows on what platform we'll listen to radio in the future. It's all up for grabs -- especially with content being a separate entity to deal with.
So what made you decide to call it a day with LARadio.com?
My goal for LARadio.com was to create a community of the men and women who entertained us over the decades, from the '50s to the present time. Weaving in and out of the stories of those individuals was the primary purpose with LARadio.com, but it seems that purpose has run its course.
I made the decision to close LARadio.com over the July 4th weekend; I did it really for three reasons: One was the consolidation; the second was the economy; and the third was the presence of social media.
With consolidation, the need for so much news wasn't quite as immediate as it was in the past. Fewer people were holding more jobs. Then there's the economy being what it is; things have been falling out since 2008. There are far less radio people to support the website today.
The third reason goes back to my goal to create a community, to find out when radio people are having babies or moving to other stations. That kind of family environment has been replaced by social media. People put the same info on Facebook and Twitter, which causes less of a need for LARadio.com
So where do you go from here?
I don't know. I still have a kid in college. I have had five careers so far ... and I'm looking forward to the sixth, although I'm not quite sure what it is. The 15 years of LARadio.com have been one of the highlights of my life. I'm really proud to serve this community well and be part of it, too. It will forever be part of my life; it's just time to move on.
I'll draw a parallel to what you experience when your kid moves out of the house. You sit there with your wife and wonder, "What to do with the kid's old room? Turn it into a studio ... or an office?" But you can't do anything until he moves out. After September 24th, it'll be far clearer, but for now I can't do anything. I'm still turning out a column every day.
I'm sure it's going to be strange not doing this for the rest of this year, but I feel God will shine a light in my next direction in the near future. I'm open to it all.