October 23, 2012
If this introductory paragraph merely listed the accomplishments of Art Laboe, this website could well run out of bandwidth. Radio and Art Laboe have been inseparable friends since both of their childhoods. On top of being everything from a star DJ to a PD and a station owner, Laboe also ran his own record company and release the first "hit singles"compilation. He should be the Webster's definition of "living legend" - accent on the "living," since he is still doing a syndicated weekly nights show on 17 stations. And if he was writing this intro, he'd probably dedicate this interview to you.
You're about to be inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame. Adding that to all the other awards that have been bestowed upon you, how do you view such honors nowadays?
Of all the different awards I received, the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1981 was exciting and a highlight, but the Radio Hall of Fame induction is the most personally satisfying honor I've received because I've been interested in radio almost since radio started. I believe the first licensed radio station was KDKA/Pittsburgh in 1920; I was born in 1925, and radio was the only form of entertainment around in the early 1930s when I was very young.
My family got their first radio when I was 8; that was 1933. It was very exciting to me. I became completely obsessed with it and told my Mom, "The box is talking." I couldn't tear my ears away from it. When I wasn't in school, I listened to it day and night, my hands cupped on my face, one foot away from the grill cloth in front of the speaker ... dramas ... soaps ... news and some music in those days ... I was completely obsessed with it; even then I hoped and dreamed I could be the voice coming out of that speaker.
So when did you get your first radio gig?
Shortly after my family moved to California from Utah, I was starting ninth grade at 13 when I got my own amateur ham radio station. I was talking to people on other ham radios -- across town and in other cities in California. I used to get a big kick just from the conversations I would have.
Five years later, when I was 18, I got my first radio job at KSAN/San Francisco. I was in the service then -- based in Treasure Island, which was in the Bay Area. I walked into the station and initially, the GM, Jerry Akers, said I was too young and didn't have the voice for it (it was pretty squeaky back then).
I started walking out the door when the GM said, "Besides, you'd have to have a commercial FCC license." Well, I'd been attending Stanford before I went into the service, which is where I started getting all my FCC licenses -- a First Class Radio & Telephone Broadcast license, plus I got a Radio Telegraph license, so I could even work on the ships and boats. I turned around and showed him my First Class Radio license, and he said, "You're hired ... I need that license you have! I'm operating illegally because all my engineers have been drafted into the service!" So he put my license on the wall and I became chief engineer. I still have that license to this day.
I came to L.A. after the War in 1945-46 ... and there was still no such thing as a DJ yet. The on-air announcers would just play a few records to fill time, when nothing else was going on. But still, TV hadn't come on, let alone FM. Outside of movies, radio was the only thing going. I got a job at a station in Palm Springs - KCM, AM 1340. Stations back then used to sign off at midnight ... and come back on air at 6a. From Palm Springs I went to Reno as PD at age 23. After that, I got a job doing an all-night show at KRKD Los Angeles. During the day, I had to sell radio time at $1 a spot and at night I'd be allowed to emcee the all-night music show. For the record, the nation's first 24-hour station was KGFJ/L.A., where I worked briefly in the early '50s.
While selling, I looked in the Yellow Pages and found Scrivner's Drive-In. They had carhops who would bring food to the car. I convinced the drive-in owner and another radio station, KXLA (which later became KRLA), to let me do the show there from 12a-4a in 1949. People would come there after dances at the Hollywood Palladium, where Lawrence Welk, Liberace, Stan Kenton, Tommy Dorsey and others played, as well as people who worked the swing shift in aircraft factories from 3p-midnight and wanted a place to go.
Could you see yourself doing something like that now?
I don't think it would be the same thing since there aren't any drive-ins like that anymore. So I did the drive-in until the 1954, then I started working in the lobby of the Sunset Strip nightclub, The Mocambo, and later at Ciro's during the golden Hollywood years. Both clubs were broadcast on KFWB-A, which at the time was owned by Warner Bros. I was on the air for 11 hours a day and my income was three times higher than the all-night drive-in show.
It was a good gig; but I followed my instincts and decided to try to do my show at Scrivner's Drive-In again. It had done so well in overnights ... why not try it in the afternoon? I went to KPOP, a local daytime-only station, and had to convince them to allow such a show. Again, that First Class Radio license made the difference.
That happened at the perfect time; I was like a surfer catching a huge wave, because late 1955 was the beginning of rock and roll. I was the first one to play rock and roll in the western U.S. Another DJ played R&B, but it was an all-black music policy ... and of course, black music would later become the roots of rock and roll. I played both white and black artists and became the first to play Jerry Lee Lewis, Gene Vincent, Buddy Holly, Elvis and many other white artists on Los Angeles radio -- and my show became #1 in 90 days.
Did you know at that time that you were catching that perfect wave?
No. The key was being there early. But I had a sense that this music was going to happen because a couple years before, when I did the overnight show at the drive-in, the kids would come by and bring me R&B songs by Joe Turner, Ruth Brown and some other artists I knew about, so I put that on the air, and there was nothing like it. People were used to hearing Sinatra, Doris Day and Bing Crosby. So by the time I was doing that afternoon show in the mid-'50s, suddenly here's an afternoon show live from a drive-in, where for three hours, I'd play all that music and come on between the records, where you'd hear the cars driving up and kids laughing. I'd talk to the kids on-air, have them pick a song, I'd announce it ... and the show took off like a rocket. I had a 33 share from Hooper Ratings (no Arbitron yet).
Everyone said that music was just a fad and would never really catch on. Well, we all know what happened after that. In the late '50s, quite a few people caught on, and you had people doing things on the radio that was unheard of -- like playing the same 20 records over and over. The old-timers in the radio business thought the new guys had gone mad by playing the same song every four to five hours ... and some more often. Todd Storz was one of those who started doing it ... and that became Top 40, which is done pretty much the same way today.
As radio has evolved since then, have you ever worried about finding yourself falling behind the times?
A lot of times, but I've always managed to stay successful and relevant. As far as what I do on-air, it's pretty much the same. I like talking to people, but I don't talk too much. Having been a PD a half-dozen times, and as a longtime owner - I once owned a part of KRLA in the '70s with Bob Hope - I've seen all these changes come and go. Of all the changes, the music hasn't changed that much since 1955. I can hear '60s garage bands in a lot of the pop/rock music today, which isn't a bad thing. Everything that goes around comes around.
I still do a LIVE program, The Art Laboe Connection, six nights a week from 7p-midnight on the stations in my network. I'm based at KHHT (Hot 92.3)/Los Angeles, and I still have very respectable ratings. I also still own a station - KOKO/Fresno. I did own three stations in Tucson, but I sold them to Clear Channel in 2001.
I host an oldies concert every year at San Manuel Amphitheater in San Bernardino in conjunction with Live Nation. Throughout the years, attendance has been between 11, 000 and 19,000. In September, we celebrated our 10th anniversary with nearly 13,000. I also promote concerts of my own, in other cities where I broadcast my show (i.e. Phoenix, San Diego, etc.).
I noticed most of the stations in your network are on the West Coast or Southwest. Have you ever thought about taking your show further east?
I'd love to, so if East Coast, Midwest or any stations are interested, the show is available (go to ArtLaboe.com and contact us). Some stations don't realize this syndicated show is different because it's LIVE with audience interaction with their listeners and a localized feel. We have a toll free number (800-681-2121) for requests and dedications with phone lines to each market. I'm on iHeartRadio now, so I'm getting heard all over the U.S. and I'm getting calls from every state. And it would be great to have a radio station affiliate in every state.
So how many calls or requests do you get on any given night?
We get about 30-40 calls an hour on our 10 lines, which come from all the different cities we're on. Even though a lot of people call in, we don't actually talk to everybody on the air. But if they get though, we do read their dedication/shout-out for them; they often ask me to blow them a kiss, so I go, "Mwah!" and "Here's your song." I always try to remember the program is primarily a music show.
It's not a big gab fest; I'm not there to talk about what happened to me on the freeway. I focus my attention on the callers and listeners' interests. For instance, I got a call from 9-year-old girl a few nights ago. My screener had put a note in front of me telling me that this 9-year-old wanted to request a song for her grandmother. So I ask the girl what song she wanted to hear. She said, "My grandma wants to hear Justin Bieber's 'Somebody To Love'." I asked, "Are you sure that your grandma wants to hear Justin Bieber?" And she goes, "Well, um, um, um..." and before she could answer, I said, "Okay, I don't usually play this, but for your grandmother, here it is..." The whole thing took 30 seconds. And of course I know damn well her grandma didn't want to hear Bieber...
How big is your catalog anyway? Is it strictly hits from the '50s and early '60s?
We have about three to four thousand hits. Not strictly 50s/60s. I'll even play current music. I go by the sound of music rather than the era it was released. I can play Whitney Houston's "I Will Always Love You" because my listeners wouldn't turn me off, whether they're 50 or 30. Certain songs cross 20-30 years and become the staple songs we use in Rhythmic AC. A good song is a good song; I believe Alicia Keys would have been great if she came out in the '50s, so I play her stuff and it fits right in with Whitney Houston and Barry White.
I'm in the nostalgia business. At some point in their lives, everyone outgrows much of whatever the current music is, and they want to hear the things they heard in high school or college or whatever. It's like remembering the music you heard when you were with an old girlfriend, or a Smokey Robinson song that makes a woman remember an old boyfriend of 30 years ago.
Do you have a different playlist for Hot 92.3, since it's more of a Rhythmic AC than an Oldies station?
Most of what I play is Rhythmic AC, including a lot of the "Oldies But Goodies" (a phrase I coined and trademarked). The Art Laboe Connection does have to meet certain music criteria of our flagship station Hot 92.3. The key is to appeal to my large Hispanic/black following and the general audience. As a network, I choose the songs (taking into consideration the requests) and I do try to be a part of the station policy.
Has it been difficult to adapt to the changing technology? After all you went through playing vinyl, carts, then CDs ... how do you handle the technology?
First, I was playing 78s! Not difficult; all those are just different vehicles to me. Now almost all of my music is on computer -- so I really don't spin records anymore, although once in a while I may have to go back to our CD library for a request. But it's still the same thing ... like traveling in cars. Old cars, new cars ... it's still carrying you from here to there.
When you're running a requests show, you don't play everything people ask for. You have to make the songs fit the format. Having been a PD for so long, I get along well with the PDs of the stations in my network. We speak the same language. They don't have to tell me not talk too much. But if it's entertaining, people like to hear other people. In a way, I'm participating with listeners today more so than ever. It still excites listeners to hear themselves on the air (we record them and play them back a few minutes later). People participate on their cellphone; they want someone to talk to -- even for a few seconds. Especially at night, you really have to be a little different than just playing music. People have so many ways to get music; if that's all you got, it's going to be hard to gather any momentum as far as audience loyalty goes. It's harder for radio personalities to develop who are not allowed to talk a lot.
Do you also use Twitter and Facebook?
We sure do. @ArtLaboe on Twitter and Art Laboe and The Art Laboe Connection Page on Facebook. It's another way to get requests and to connect with our listeners. And social media helps to magnify our show, by being able to bond with the audience outside of the on-air time. Fortunately, I have a staff of eight, and some of them oversee that.
What's more satisfying to you nowadays - finishing a good radio show, or getting good ratings?
Both are good and inseparable. But don't forget the biggest thing - standing on stage in front of 10,000-plus people, which I do at our concerts, and feeling their warmth and love. Ask anyone who's been on stage like that; there's nothing like it. It connects with your audience; your radio show comes alive on stage.
After over 60 years in radio, where do you find the energy to do all this ... and how long do you see yourself doing this?
At this point, I'm taking it one day at a time. The key is to be competitive, relevant and healthy. I happen to be fortunate to have good health and I've stayed relevant in the ratings. I may not be #1 all the time -- sometimes in certain demos I am -- but as long as I'm competitive and relevant, I'll keep doing this. When I push the microphone on switch, it turns me on and usually turns the audience on ... the magic of radio.
Finally, do you see the next Art Laboe out there ... or will there ever be a "next Art Laboe?"
Not exactly. Whoever they are, if they're successful, they will be "themselves." They will have their own style and emerge despite obstacles inherit in the radio/digital business. And we'll be reading about them in All Access.