I’m a sucker for stories from FM radio’s freeform heyday, a time perhaps a little more hazy in memory because of its coincidence with 70s drug culture. Which goes to say that I enjoyed the Thanksgiving episode of WTF with Marc Maron featuring a breezy live interview with Los Angeles FM radio veterans Jim Ladd and Frazer Smith, recorded live at the LA Podcast Festival this past September.
Ladd’s 1991 book Radio Waves: Life and Revolution on the FM Dial was a definite touchstone in my personal education on this pivotal time in radio history. Though he drops no grand revelations, on WTF Ladd gives a capsule history of the development of freeform rock radio in LA, up to its eventual complete strangulation at the hands of consolidation wrought in the post-Reagan era. Still on air with SiriusXM, he also shares some fun anecdotes about receiving listener complaint letters, breaking news about the defoliant Paraquat used by the government on illicit marijuana fields, and forgetting to bring a mic stand when interviewing John Lennon, punctuated by lines of coke and clouds of pot smoke.
When Smith comes on to take his turn he, unfortunately, comes off like one of the forced Top 40 DJs that Ladd recalls were what freeform DJs were in opposition to. In fact, he tries to work the audience with the kind of hacky stand-up comedy that Maron and his generation of comedians were rebelling against. Nevertheless, he settles down some over the course of the hour-long interview. Though many recollections of his antics that mostly resulted in getting fired are just a little too exaggerated to ring true, I did appreciate the story behind how he introduced Van Halen to the airwaves, and his good natured banter with both Ladd and Maron keep the episode enjoyable.
If you’re less interested in Maron’s opening monologue, advice for listeners struggling to keep it together while visiting family for the holidays, and some quite thoughtful and revealing Q&A from the Podfest audience, you can skip forward to the 21-minute mark to start the interview. In case you’re not otherwise familiar with WTF, I’ll note that it’s probably NSFW unless you’re listening with headphones.
Both Ladd and Smith appeared on an episode of Maron’s IFC series, along with radio improv legend Phil Hendrie who appears as a lonely, down-on-his-luck radio DJ in the old school model. That’s also worth checking out.
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