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Fab Four, over easy

'Breakfast With the Beatles' endures for 25 years with its singular purpose intact.

June 28, 2008|Randy Lewis | Times Staff Writer

Radio programs that survive in Los Angeles for a quarter-century come along about as frequently as a SigAlert-free day on the freeway. On that front alone, this year's 25th anniversary of "Breakfast With the Beatles" constitutes a minor miracle, to say nothing of the longevity of a weekly show devoted to the music of one band that released just a little more than 200 songs during a short but spectacular eight-year recording career.

"The fun thing about the Beatles is that it's just never-ending," said Chris Carter, 48, the show's host since 2002 and only the second person to anchor this exploration of the recorded legacy of the most influential and popular rock band ever. "It's now 38 years after the group broke up, but there's still news every week about what's going on in that world" -- a reference to the "Beatle News" segment of his show that's been airing on classic-rock station KLOS-FM (95.5) since late 2006. (The show is heard Sundays from 9 a.m. to noon.)

There's no big anniversary celebration scheduled, in part because no one's quite sure about the actual date the show went on the air in 1983 at long-defunct rock station KMET-FM. The original host, Deirdre O'Donoghue, who died in 2001, would hold court every Sunday with a new playlist largely drawn from those 200 or so tracks the quartet released from 1962 until they broke up in 1970.

Since Carter came in, he's thrown open the floodgates to a wide range of alternate takes, performances from radio and TV broadcasts, bootlegs and solo music by former Beatles.

He's upped the show's cred among Beatle fans through phone-ins from Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, George Harrison and Harrison's widow, Olivia. And he's missed at least one call from a surviving Beatle.

"I have a funny story about that," Starr, 67, said last week. The drummer still lives part time in L.A. and sometimes tunes in "Breakfast With the Beatles" when he's in town. "I was given the phone number for the show several years ago. It comes on at 8 or 10 in the morning, but I didn't call until five minutes before the end, and I got an answering machine because everyone had already gone home."

Like the bumblebee, "Breakfast With the Beatles" is an idea that should never have flown -- if you believe the conventional wisdom that says listeners will tune out if you play too much of anything. But while station formats come and go, "Breakfast With the Beatles" endures.

In the era of research-driven playlists dictated by corporate programming specialists, "Breakfast With the Beatles" is a throwback -- a show in which the DJ chooses all the music.

"It's great to have somebody producing radio the old-school way," said Steve Van Zandt, guitarist for Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band and host of his own weekly satellite radio show, "Little Steven's Underground Garage." He dropped in on Carter in April to co-host a "Beatles vs. the Rolling Stones" edition of the show. "It's that much more amazing that it's lasted so long."

"Breakfast With the Beatles" wasn't the first show devoted to the Fab Four's music -- there was a predecessor in Philadelphia in the '70s -- but it's now the longest-running Beatles broadcast in the U.S. KLOS is the show's fourth home in its 25 years. It's been averaging about 50,000 to 70,000 listeners a week since moving to KLOS. That's small by weekday radio standards in Los Angeles, but enough to make it the top-rated English-language show in its time slot.

"When the opportunity arose, it was basically a no-brainer," KLOS program director Rita Wilde said in a separate interview. "I've always loved the Beatles, and I'm amazed at how much I pick up from the show."

"Breakfast With the Beatles" has spawned imitators across the country. Carter is expecting word soon on negotiations that could bring "Breakfast With the Beatles" to listeners outside of Southern California. That's been complicated by Internet radio regulations that prevente KLOS from streaming the show, as it does most of its programming, and has kept "BWTB" from making the jump to satellite radio.

Carter regularly weaves in Beatles-related music -- not to pad the show "but where it makes sense thematically."

That's meant music from the Eric Idle-Neil Innes satire the Rutles and show promos by celebs including Homer Simpson (a.k.a. voice actor Dan Castellaneta), who boasted during the Beatles vs. Stones program that "Our Beatles are better than England's Rolling Stones!"

"Humor is a big part of the show," noted Carter, a Jersey boy who moved to Southern California in 1986 with Dramarama, the '80s rock group for which he played bass. "I don't think you can be a fan of the show -- or of the Beatles -- if you're not a fan of humor."

Despite all the variety he's brought to the mix, Carter said he always strives to keep his inner Beatles geek in check.

"When I started doing the show, I really wanted to play 'Well Well Well,' " he said, citing one of the most emotionally harrowing songs from John Lennon's first post-Beatles solo album. "Then I realized, 'Slow down there, Skippy.' I always try to keep in mind that there are people coming out of church and tuning in, and there are lots of kids who are listeners. . . . The role of the host is not to have his jollies. It's the people's show."

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randy.lewis@latimes.com

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