Evening drive Friday. The weekend slides open, wide like a tinted electric window. "Friday-light," most seasoned Angelenos know, is nothing but some arch, Caltrans inside joke: A trail of pearl-whites and pulsing brake lights glowing like coals tightly twine Highway 101's north and southbound lanes. * Tonight the airwaves feel just as jammed. Clogged and desperate. Beats bloom out of moon-roofs, slurred rhymes seep out of slender gaps from passing car windows. The dial alive, not just with music, Dodger scores, theater notes--but also the rumor from the streets. * "Busy as a mutha. Poppin,' " bellows evening-drive jock Big Boy, who has just dropped the final word on rapper Tupac Shakur's life-and-death dance: One for the other side. * Most weeknights around this hour, the immense and the immensely popular Big Boy and his screwball Power 106 crew--DJ Ray and Shaun Juan backed up by deejay Enrie--whip up a bit of sparkling, choreographed call-and-response radio theater to Big's "Shakin' My Ass" anthem. Hoots, hollers and food. Tonight, he's slowed it way down long enough to take some calls from listeners--questions, threats, tearful condolences.
If you take a hard left on your radio dial, you would happen on Theo Mizuhara (known to his on-air intimates simply as Theo), 92.3 The Beat's drive-time Lothario with the Barry White baritone, who has taken a break from his daily dose of afternoon-to-twilight pillow talk, subbing tonight as grief counselor for a mourning community.
Over the thud of deep bass and the raw plaint of Shakur's own voice, Theo ladles out his remembrances, anecdotes, outrage. In response, a montage of sentiments--raw voices overlapping, an oral documentary.
The evening's refrain: Why?
During the next hours into days these airwaves evolve into a floating town hall meeting--a virtual front porch or makeshift barber shop confab. The voices, deep bass threaded through, function as release valves for a city that oftentimes has no communal place to vent. These airwaves link a community that has a difficult time calling itself such.
For teens--post and pre--few things connect an amorphous city like music. For years here in Southern California, radio provided the soundtrack for an endless summer. It was KPOP and Art Laboe's dedication remotes from Scrivner's Hollywood Drive-in. It was Boss Radio for a Boss City. It was Lucky Pierre and the Magnificent Montague. It was the Mighty Met's Whooya To-ya. It was swimming through static; it was the transistor murmuring under your pillow.
Now, in a city that struggles to locate not only a physical but also spiritual center, the rallying cry of hip-hop, which articulates not only urban angst but also urban adventure, provides some semblance of a unifying anthem.
And the Beat and Power 106 pump it. Loud.
In top-rated FM formats that mix R&B, funk, hip-hop and smoothed-at-the-edges, hard-core gangsta rap--the Beat, KKBT--or deep house/techno sound smears studded with sinewy flexings of hip-hop--Power, KPWR--these two have attracted audiences that reflect the rapidly changing face of Los Angeles.
As FM radio prepares to celebrate its 30th anniversary with rock 'n' roll this year, raw numbers tell just a tip of the story. The Beat and Power repeatedly go head to head against each other for the coveted No. 1 slot among listeners under 35, and it has become apparent to programmers and listeners alike that radio has upped its ante. It isn't enough to spin the Billboard Top 40, give away concert tickets or bumper stickers. "While our mission is to entertain," explains Craig Wilbraham, the Beat's general manager, "we want to educate as we expand."
Radio has always occupied a pivotal place in youth culture--powerful because of its immediacy and portability. "It's an intimate medium. It's with you all the time," says Art Laboe, veteran KRLA deejay. "Youths listen to radio when they get up in the morning, in the bathroom, on the way to school, after school, when you go out with your boyfriend, and you may listen to it while you're making love."
But as corporations swallow up Mom and Pop operations, local radio has found its idiosyncrasies shaved away. "Conservatism drives the decisions," Wilbraham says. "The idea has been just give away a Porsche, don't tell the audience anything that might bring them down--don't talk about AIDS or teen mothers, drugs and gangs. That's not what they want to hear. Well, that's not true. People want more. You have to endear yourselves to your audience and try to be a conduit for change."
What stations like Power (owned by Emmis Broadcasting) and the Beat (Evergreen Media) are attempting to do, within their own corporate limits, is bring back that sense of community to the airwaves. The hope: That when you turn on the radio in Los Angeles, you are listening to Los Angeles.