It's quarter to midnight on a recent Friday at the La Cienega Boulevard studios of classic rocker KLOS-FM (95.5). While commercials play in the background, disc jockey Jim Ladd does something highly unusual in the world of big-time music radio.
He looks through the hundreds of CDs filed on the studio wall and ponders his choices. Selecting a few, he returns to the console.
"I was going to do a set about God," he says in an off-air aside to a couple of visitors. "But it's Friday, so I'll save it for another time."
It's not so much the considered subject matter that sets this apart. It's that Ladd was deciding what to play at all.
Sounds like no big deal? Consider this: Among regular-shift deejays at major commercial stations in Los Angeles, Ladd is the only one given a free hand in choosing what he plays. All the others--name your favorites--work from playlists given them by program directors, music directors and various consultants, with little if any leeway to stray.
Ladd holds up a few sheets of paper containing the KLOS playlist schedule. Throughout the day on the log, the "classic rock that really rocks," as the station's slogan has it, is plotted out song by song--right up to 10 p.m., when Ladd goes on the air.
There, for four hours, the agenda is, literally, blank pages. It's time Ladd fills by piecing together his distinctive thematic sets about such topics as current events, sex and, yes, God. And throughout, whether he's following a theme or not, he works hard to apply his vast mental music library to knit seamless segues between songs, as if they're one continuous piece, punctuated by his longtime catch phrase, "Lord have mercy!"
In one set on this night, he casually accomplished both, going from Little Steven's pounding, angry "Guns, Drugs and Gasoline" to a live recording of the Clash doing "I Fought the Law" to R.E.M.'s "It's the End of the World as We Know It," each drum-heavy ending perfectly dovetailing into a drum-heavy intro of the next song.
"This is my art form and I believe in it and I cannot do anything else," he says in his rich voice, familiar to any L.A. rock radio regular of the last 30 years. "I cannot follow a list and will not follow a list."
The only other place you'll hear this kind of thing on a daily basis is public radio, in which such hosts as Nic Harcourt of "Morning Becomes Eclectic" on KCRW-FM (89.9) orchestrate their own sets. Otherwise, it's pretty limited to stray moments such as Jed the Fish's one-song "Catch of the Day" pick on KROQ-FM (106.7) or the same station's Sunday night punk and pop show with Rodney Bingenheimer.
But Ladd does it Monday through Friday, from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. He's not quite the rebel he likes to posture as; he can be predictable with his choices (you can count on hearing the Doors and Led Zeppelin every night at least once) and he rarely colors too far outside the lines of the station's regular playlist. For example, he'll play George Thorogood doing Hank Williams' "Move It On Over," but not Williams himself.
He does, though, frequently champion new acts that aren't on KLOS' regular playlist, with Collective Soul a current favorite. And he does try to push his listeners to things they may not have heard before, from Muddy Waters to Moby, in his popular regular features "Mojo Mondays," in which he matches blues-inspired rock favorites with real blues tracks, and Wednesday's "Headsets," a Ladd staple taking the thematic sets to extremes and using drop-in movie dialogue and sound effects to extend the experience in a quasi-psychedelic manner.
'My Boss . . . Actually Likes What I Do'
So why does Ladd--the self-proclaimed "Lonesome L.A. Cowboy"--get to do this?
"Stubbornness, stupidity, doggedness," he says with a resonant chuckle, reminding that he twice in his 30-year career stayed off the air for two years because he wasn't able to find anyone to let him go free-form.
"And the second reason is Rita Wilde, who I am so blessed is the program director of KLOS," he says. "She is my boss and actually likes what I do."
In fact, Wilde--herself a longtime KLOS deejay and music director before being promoted in 1998--schooled herself on Ladd back when he was a '70s mainstay in stints on both KLOS and now-defunct rival KMET-FM, years chronicled with slight name changes in Ladd's 1991 book, "Radio Waves."
"When I was in college, I would write down the sets he played," Wilde says. "He inspired me to get into radio and made it a completely different kind of medium. You could always tell a [radio] person's personality in those days by what they were playing. So many people I get e-mails from say what a personal part Ladd has played in their lives."
Indeed, a sampling of callers to KLOS--aged 15 to 51--during Ladd's show revealed a deep loyalty to him and his style of radio.