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In the DJ world, this 'Oldie' is as good as new

September 12, 2003|Steve Carney | Special to The Times

When he was among the first DJs in Los Angeles to play rock 'n' roll, Art Laboe was constantly surrounded by teen-agers, taking requests and playing their favorites.

Nearly half a century later, he's doing the same thing: racking up huge ratings with young listeners -- but now he's spinning R&B and oldies for their parents and grandparents as well.

On "The Art Laboe Sunday Night Special," his weekly, six-hour show, the veteran programs the music on the fly, mixing requests with his own choices from old and new, weaving Smokey Robinson in with Ashanti and Brandy. He recites dedications, even blowing kisses if that's part of the message, and puts some callers on the air.

And Saturday, he takes his show to the stage of the Hyundai Pavilion at Glen Helen, near San Bernardino, when he hosts a concert featuring 11 of his most-requested acts, from the funk of Zapp to the hip-hop of NB Ridaz.

"What I'm doing right this minute, I'm more excited about than anything," Laboe said.

He not only has this concert and the weekly show, which airs at 6 p.m. Sundays on KHHT-FM (92.3) in Los Angeles, on Riverside's KGGI-FM (99.1) -- the first station to air the program when it debuted in 1991 -- and a dozen other stations throughout the Southwest. But Laboe's Web site is also among the most heavily trafficked Internet broadcasters in the world, and his music-licensing business has secured the rights to vintage songs that have been used in nearly 200 movies and television shows, from "Apocalypse Now" to "Almost Famous," from "Happy Days" to "The Sopranos."

These cap a career already full of highlights, in which he's been credited with spawning the oldies format, inventing the compilation album and coining the phrase "Oldies but Goodies."

"Art Laboe is an unrecognized giant," said Earl McDaniel, who was the morning DJ at KPOP-AM when Laboe was working afternoons at the small station in the mid- to late 1950s. "I have so much admiration for the man. He created so many concepts."

Don Barrett, Los Angeles radio historian and creator of the Web site, said that when he was in high school he used to listen to Laboe broadcasting live from Scrivner's drive-in restaurant in Hollywood, where he played requests and dedications for the teens mobbing the eatery.

"His on-air presence sounds no different today that it did in the 1950s. He's just who he is," Barrett said. "He's so unassuming. He seems so available and relatable."

Laboe's show is either No. 1 or 2 for the time slot in every market where he's heard. In Riverside, among all listeners 12 and older, Laboe's program had 23.8% of the audience, compared with 3.9% for second-place KOST-FM (103.5), according to the most recent Arbitron ratings. In Los Angeles during that same span, from March to June, his show was second to hip-hop outlet KPWR-FM (105.9), trailing that station 6.5% to 8.4%.

And there's no better example of Laboe's continuing appeal to young listeners than this gaudy figure: among 12- to 17-year-olds in Riverside, he pulled in 43% of the audience -- more than all other stations in the market combined.

"Most radio people scratch their heads and say, 'You can't do this,' " Laboe said.

"I can't say, 'Here's the secret.' I just do what I do, and it happens," he said. "It works, and it's been working for years and years."

In 1956, he set a ratings record that still stands, when his show claimed a 33% share of the entire L.A. audience. Every third person tuned to a radio was listening to Laboe, as he played the songs already popular on airwaves back East but which other local stations wouldn't touch -- Buddy Holly, the Coasters, Elvis Presley.

"I used to say, 'Watch out, mothers. Lock up your daughters. Here comes Art Laboe and his devil music,' " he said, grinning.

While KPOP was playing rhythm and blues, and then the rock 'n' roll that grew out of it, most popular stations in the Southland were featuring balladeers, such as Frank Sinatra, Doris Day, Perry Como and Rosemary Clooney.

"That was Mom and Dad's music," Laboe said.

"If you played the Coasters," McDaniel said, "nobody would listen to you."

Nobody adult.

"We could not get advertisers. We couldn't get the banks and the savings and loans and the airlines and the drug stores, because they thought we were playing to 14-year-old perverts," McDaniel said. "But the numbers were huge."

Within three months, KPOP was rated No. 1, said Laboe, who also began promoting rock concerts at the El Monte Legion Stadium, featuring the genre's emerging stars, such as Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis and Ray Charles.

"I caught the crest of the wave," he said. "It wasn't any kind of genius thing. I just happened to be there. I knew this was a great opportunity."

Laboe got his first radio job in 1943, at age 17. He was studying radio engineering at Stanford and was hired at tiny KSAN in San Francisco, which snatched him up because it was operating illegally without an FCC-licensed engineer.

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