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L.A. radioheads, this site's for you

LARadio.com founder is filling niche left open by mainstream media.

February 12, 2010|James Rainey

Want to listen to some vintage K-100, with Dr. Feelgood riffing on the British rock invasion? Pining for the days when "Sweet" Dick Whittington of KGIL and friends, in full uniform, "invaded" Catalina Island? Curious about Howard Stern's possible return to terrestrial radio, or Doug McIntyre's firing, and rapid resurrection, at KABC?

Then you're likely a LARP. That stands for Los Angeles Radio People -- a species subject to an attention deficit disorder in much of the media but poked, prodded and celebrated like nowhere else at LARadio.com.

The website and its creator, Don Barrett, have built an intense, if not enormous, following by paying attention to the world of Los Angeles radio like it really matters. LARadio.com meticulously tracks the fortunes of owners, stations and hosts -- even control-room talent -- who haunt the AM and FM dials.

At 68 and with a couple of careers under his belt, Barrett is an unlikely face among a new crop of Web entrepreneurs -- delivering super-specialized information to a super-passionate audience that has been willing to pay a subscription fee.

"It's the place you go to talk to people. It's the shoulder to cry on," said McIntyre, who just returned to KABC 790 AM, now at late-night, after losing his morning show last year. He said LARadio is like the hiring hall is to dock workers. "It's really a support group as much as anything else."

At the start of the New Year, Barrett opened much of his report on Los Angeles radio to Web foragers for free. He hopes to expand his reach and build his bottom line by attracting advertisers to the site. That project is a work in progress, although he said the number of daily users already has jumped to 23,000, from roughly 4,000.

As much as Barrett's saga is a test of the Internet as a business, it's a story older than the wireless or Marconi. It's about a boy with a passion who became a man with a passion and made that his life's work.

Barrett grew up in Santa Monica. An only child, he'd listen to the radio at just about any hour and came to think of the outsize personalities as his siblings and friends. At 16, he offered himself as a gopher at KPOP, where he befriended one of his idols, talker and pop music host Earl McDaniel.

When he got out of college, armed with a degree and an FCC first class license, the young zealot followed his mentor McDaniel's advice: He packed his car and struck out in search of radio antennas. At each one, he stopped and asked the owner for a job as a rock 'n' roll DJ.

He had several misses before he hit on Lompoc, where the owner had just fired his program director. Forty-five years later, Barrett's eyes still gleam as he recounts: "Two hours later, I was on the air. That was how the journey began."

He spent most of the next decade hosting and running radio programs in St. Joseph, Mo., Dallas, San Francisco, Detroit and back in Los Angeles.

But by the mid-1970s he had jumped on another promising opportunity and spent the next 25 years in movie marketing, first at Columbia, then Universal and MGM.

But even as he launched his own marketing company, he never lost his love of radio. He began doing research and keeping a log of what happened to the great DJs of his youth.

Someone saw the listings and suggested they would make a book. "I said, 'Maybe for radio nerds. There must be about 10 of us,' " he recalled. "But still, it made me think. It sparked something."

By the mid-1990s he had enough material to self-publish Los Angeles Radio People, a compendium of disc jockeys from the mid-1950s until that time. He published a second volume a couple of years later, at about the same time LARadio.com was born.

By 2000, Barrett's movie marketing work had faded. But his website had become popular enough that core followers were willing to pay.

Today, he said, he has about 1,000 subscribers at $39.95 a year. They con- tinue to get more information, photos and the like than those who visit the free site.

Where else could you acquire items like these: a video of the gala celebrating the "Glory Years at KMPC"? Or a CD of legendary sportscaster, funny-guy Jim Healy, featuring "Tommy Lasorda outburst" and "Cassius Clay's slurred speech"?

LARadio brings together a stew of nostalgia, market analysis, ownership news, personnel shifts and on-air nuggets (KFI's Bill Handel pronouncing Creole "a combination of French and voodoo") and the occasional scoop.

Barrett's connections got him early news that the L.A. Lakers' legendary broadcaster, Chick Hearn, had been hospitalized.

But LARadio has drawn its die-hard following from more than reporting. It's the hub for an extended family, with Barrett playing the role of godfather.

With no pretense of the dispassion expected of traditional journalists, he organizes tribute dinners for radio greats, rallies support for those whose signals have gotten crossed and preaches perseverance to those hard-wired to a struggling industry.

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