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Rock 'n' Roll Russia : Music: Moscow's top radio station has found success playing American oldies. They get the '50s and '60s classics by way of two Sierra Madre entrepreneurs who turn scratchy vinyl into digital CD gold.

September 22, 1993|BOB POOL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

There's barely room in the cubbyhole behind the two-car garage in Sierra Madre for them both to work at the same time.

But that's where Hank Landsberg and Steve Steinberg have put together the rock 'n' roll music that is jolting Russia faster than you can say there's a whole lotta shakin' going on.

The pair provide the music for Russia's first commercial radio station--a 250,000-watt Moscow powerhouse with an audience of 45 million.

They've picked 1,229 rock tunes, the kind of music that was sternly forbidden during the Soviet era. It's delivered to the Russians digitalized, computerized and free of scratching sounds.

That's important. Because the top radio station in Russia plays the oldies.

Moscow's "Radio 101" features frenetic announcers and pulsating, "Star Wars"-like sound effects interspersed between such tunes as 1958's "Purple People Eater" by Sheb Wooley and 1964's "Chapel of Love" by the Dixie Cups.

If that sounds odd, consider the route Landsberg and Steinberg took to reach Russia.

The pair met in 1976 when they lived in the same Pasadena apartment house. Landsberg was working as an electronics engineer. Steinberg had a job as a clothing salesman.

One day, Steinberg was relaxing by the apartment pool when one of his favorite songs started blaring from his portable radio. The music was coming from Landsberg's apartment. There, Landsberg was using a wireless microphone device to play his favorite Buddy Holly and Freddy Cannon tapes through the same frequency on his transistor radio.

Their common interest in music sparked a lasting friendship. Landsberg's do-it-yourself sound system also endured, becoming popular at parties where radios scattered about could be tuned to receive the system's low-powered signal.

When compact disc technology with its crystal-clear digital sound and automated playing capabilities emerged in the 1980s, Landsberg was intrigued. He set out to convert his oldies collection from tape to CD.

There was a problem, though. Recording companies willing to produce personal CDs required a minimum order of 1,000 copies per disc. What could Landsberg do with the other 999?

He decided to sell them to commercial radio stations that were beginning to convert from vinyl albums and 45s to CDs.

Soon, Landsberg was making new master tapes from his old albums and singles, as well as from original copies borrowed from recording studios. Relying on listener surveys to tell which old hits to include and which to leave out, he soon came up with the makings of a 50-disc library.

Steinberg, meantime, was trying to sell the discs. The pair's fledgling Halland Broadcast Services Co. named the collection "Rock 'n' Roll Graffiti" and targeted the 600 U.S. radio stations that air the oldies format. An established radio syndication service was offering a similar oldies library for about $9,000. So Steinberg priced his at $1,500.

"But we couldn't give them away," he recalled. "Maybe people thought ours were phony copies or something. So we raised the price to $1,990 and, boom, business took off. After that, every time business started to slump, we raised the price."

One of the pair's earliest customers was station KOTZ in Kotzebue, Alaska. Its broadcast signal can be heard across the Bering Strait, where Siberian citizens are regular listeners. It turns out that travelers from Moscow had been tuning in too.

When the Soviet Union dissolved and restrictions on rock 'n' roll music were eliminated, Moscow broadcasters set out to duplicate the Alaskan sound they had heard about. They promptly ordered their own set of oldies discs.

Radio 101 is simulcast on a 100,000-watt FM frequency and on a 150,000-watt AM band. Both are far more powerful than any U.S. station. But the format and play list are much the same as that of U.S. stations, program director Yuri Kostyn said.

There is news on the hour and headlines on the half-hour. Oldies are played exclusively in the mornings, and some current hits are blended in during afternoons and evenings. Announcers speak in both Russian and English.

Like many U.S. counterparts, Kostyn is quick to claim his station is No. 1.

"Our jingles and identifiers can be heard from open car windows all over the streets of Moscow," he said.

Since Radio 101's debut last year, three other newly independent stations in Siberia and the Ukraine have begun playing the Sierra Madre hits. About 300 U.S. stations, including Los Angeles' KRLA-AM, also use the collection. KRLA has even purchased two sets of the 50-disc library--one for the studio and one for the transmitter site "in case of earthquake or other disaster," as programming director Mike Wagner puts it.

The CD format is popular with broadcasters because the tiny discs are long-lasting, clean-sounding and can be loaded into banks of players that can be programmed by an inexpensive personal computer to play songs in any order.

Because radio stations pay royalty fees to recording artists for songs they broadcast, music syndicators such as Landsberg and Steinberg do not have to obtain permission or pay for the right to duplicate old songs. They cannot sell their discs to individuals, however.

The pair say they have finished companion libraries for '70s and '80s hits, figuring someday that those songs will be viewed as oldies too. In the meantime, they're grinding out a 650-tune library of country-Western music.

Grinding may be the right word too.

"I don't care for country music," Landsberg said. "Fortunately, I only have to listen to it once. That's when I re-master it."

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