Breaking New Music & Radio Rules

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Longing for the days when your local rock radio station was your one stop shop for your favorite tunes as well as your portal to new music and bands?  Perhaps you are too young to remember those days.  If you are a member of the latter group, let’s start with a little backstory.  During the emergence of FM Radio as a new listening alternative in the late 1960’s, while AM stations were churning out two and a half minute pop hits, FM stations were exploring a new concept called album oriented rock or AOR.  What was this new philosophy?  This fledgling idea was a system in which the individual disc jockeys would play songs they liked from a full length 33 1/3 rpm long play record, rather than a 45 rpm single.  This free-form style unleashed a creative liberty for the DJ to explore songs that would never be played on the AM format stations.  After all, AM then as now, were broadcasting in Monaural sound, while FM boasted stereophonic airwaves, to bring the audience ambient sounds in which you could hear all that the artist and producer intended you to hear.

FM radio was a place where people could escape and hear not only a great selection of music, but where they could tune into their favorite radio personality.  In the late 60’s and through the 70’s, most listeners would have their favorite DJ, who would impart to them things previously unheard.  This person would be the one who exposed them to deep tracks, new releases and simple cultural expression.  If you did not come of age during this time period, and don’t quite understand this concept, listen to the song Around The Dial by The Kinks.  This ode to the suddenly absent, disc spinning guru who resided at your favorite spot on the dial, communicates with perfect eloquence, the emotional connection baby boomers had with their personal turntable tale teller.

Keith Cunningham

Within one year’s time preceding the momentous Woodstock Festival, L.A. had its two FM rock radio powerhouses. There was 94.7 KMET and 95.5 KLOS, these two stalwarts would battle it out as the two primary sources for “real rock” until the demise of KMET in 1987.  About the time the turntable was making its last revolution at KMET, a new player appeared on the rock radio horizon, coining the first time that many had ever heard the term “classic rock.”  97.1 KLSX played virtually no new music.  Their entire playlist consisted of material that was predominantly pre-1980.  KLSX and KLOS would vie for the listening ear of L.A. rockers for eight years or so, until KLSX switched formats to a talk station, which spawned an unlikely connection to the current roster at 95.5.  Other imitators would come, almost all of them would go, and one stands alone as the one constant for over 50 years now, KLOS.

How does a station with a 50 year history evolve from a rock station, to a “classic rock” station and back to a rock station?  Keith Cunningham, the current programming director says, “I’ve been with KLOS for about five years, in that time we really evolved the brand from being mostly a classic based radio station to now just being a rock brand,” In his 25 plus years in radio, and as a consultant in the broadcasting business, Cunningham has gained what one could assume is an abundance of experience and knowledge.  All of this attained insight has made him perhaps particularly qualified to take the helm at one of the most storied outlets in the business.  “I think all brands reach a point in time where some natural evolution is important and critical.  That happened to be the timing when I got here.  I felt like we love the classic rock, we love our roots and our heritage, we will never let that go and we spotlight that as much as we can.”

This change of course has not only included the playing of newer music, but local groups as well.  Cunningham continues, “We felt at the time, in 2015, the radio station should become more contemporary sounding, and so that’s what we’ve done.  We took a hard look in the mirror and re-branded ourselves as Southern California’s rock station.  We didn’t feel like we would be being honest or authentic if we weren’t playing Southern California bands, new local bands in particular.”  Make no mistake, the station is not just playing new rock for its own sake.  “We are looking for songs that we feel are undeniable, that stand out, that are different from your standard fare sound-alikes.  We feel that part of our responsibility is to be a reliable filter for introducing new rock to the audience.  That’s our philosophy and how we approach things.”

Rival Sons

There was one local group that was not necessarily new, Cunningham noticed was conspicuously absent from the L.A. airwaves.  “When I got here five years ago I was clearly aware of Rival Sons because of my history and the work I had done before arriving here.  KLOS didn’t have any history with Rival Sons and nobody else in the market was playing them, which I found very surprising, they’re a great band.”  Hailing originally from Long Beach, it would seem that they should be getting some love in their home market.  Cunningham continues, “We did kind of a ceremony where we adopted them as a house band and put several shows together with them quickly.  So we’re big supporters and we’ll continue to support them.”

Cunningham referenced the importance of natural evolution.  Part of that evolution occurred in 2012, when long-time morning show hosts Mark and Brian decided to hang up the microphone they had shared for 25 years on KLOS.  The act that was tapped to replace that show was the Heidi and Frank show.  Heidi Hamilton and Frank Kramer had been on the air at the former classic rock turned talk station, KLSX, along with Frosty Stillwell who has been on and off again with the team.  It might be said that the ball was already on the tee for Cunningham to address when he arrived at KLOS.  There is a long-running segment of the Heidi and

Heidi and Frank

Frank show that dates back at least to the KLSX days.  Stay Or Go has been a showcase for unsigned, mostly local bands to get their music played on the L.A. airwaves.  Heidi and Frank Show executive producer Erik Scott Smith has been with the Heidi and Frank show for 13 years.  Smith  became involved with the show through a chance encounter while participating as a street performer on Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade.  He explains the history and basic premise of Stay Or Go, “It’s one of the longest running segments going on in Los Angeles radio to this day.  They’ve been doing it since long before I ever worked for the show.  They give an unsigned band a chance to play their music on KLOS, and if the audience likes it, then they get to debut a second song for the audience.  It’s been the launching pad for so many great bands.”

The platform provided through Stay Or Go to local aspiring acts to get actual airplay on a major market station affords the contestants an opportunity to get invaluable analysis of their music.  Smith adds, “These guys get productive feedback from the on air personalities at KLOS, as well as the audience.”  As for how the bands are selected for the weekly Friday episode, Smith goes on, “People don’t believe me, but Stay Or Go is absolutely random. Back in the day when it was just CD’s, we had an actual box of discs, and whichever one we grabbed would be the one we used that week.  No matter what genre of music it was, no matter how long or short, we would pick it up, call the band and they would be on that week.  Now that it is through email, we just scroll through the inbox and brrrrrr STOP!  That is how the bands are selected, it is absolutely random.”

Erik Scott Smith

That element of chance for being the lucky participant serves a purpose as well.  Smith adds, “I don’t pick the bands, Heidi and Frank don’t pick the bands, because we are judges or at least we are giving our opinions.”  That lack of exposure to the music prior to airing keeps all of the opinions genuine and spontaneous.  If you think that Stay Or Go is just a quaint little half hour of time filler on a Friday morning when the show is out of ideas, think again.  Cunningham interjects, “Now that feature, just this year alone has led to several adds on the station playlist.  That’s how we came across Slaves To Humanity, Violet Saturn and Civic In The Sun.  Those are three local bands that have come straight from Stay Or Go and they’re all in the active library.”

Not familiar with these three artists yet, Cunningham gives a little background on Slaves To Humanity.  “They’re from Orange County, they’re all high school kids.  They all go to different schools and their music really stands out for us too.  We’ve supported two songs, Battleground and the other one is called Behind My Back.”  If you are wondering how being featured on Stay Or Go and having your music worked into the rotation at one of the legendary rock stations in the country feels?  Consider the perspective of Aidan Amini, lead singer for Slaves To Humanity, “Being featured on Stay Or Go was so surreal for me. Since I started my first band, one of my main goals was to get on KLOS, and in that moment, that’s what I was doing. I grew up listening to Frosty, Heidi & Frank, so the whole experience was just insane for me.”  Opportunity tends to knock when you get that kind of otherwise impossible exposure.  “Since being featured on KLOS, we got into contact with a few labels, and some brands. Recently our guitar player, Pierce (Akers) was added to the Friedman artists list, which was fucking sick for all of us!”  There is definitely a resurgence of rock among younger musicians, Amini sees it like this, “Definitely one of the biggest challenges of being young in this industry is the fact that people our age don’t typically listen to the genre of music we play anymore.  Although that’s slowly starting to change with artists like Machine Gun Kelly and Post Malone, who are not only fans of old school hard rock, but are trying to bring it back in new ways.”

Slaves To Humanity

The second of the three recent discoveries is Violet Saturn, as Cunningham recollects, “They are a brother-sister combo.  They’re teenagers from Malibu. Lauren Carr Reed, the singer is 15 and Spencer Carr Reed, the guitar player is I think 18.  They’re going to be announcing a considerable record deal any day now, as soon as they do that, we’ll be announcing those details.”  The sibling duo hit pay dirt with their song Young And Dumb and found their breakout tune being regularly played on the station since the early part of the year.  Lauren proudly proclaims, “It became the most played song on KLOS of 2020.”  Having your song played on the legendary station might be reward enough for a young duo, but that’s not the end of the story, according to Spencer,  “They played it on the air and everyone was calling in and they loved it.  It was insane, we were ecstatic. Keith went on the air and said they would put the song into rotation. They have two songs of ours in rotation that aren’t available yet. KLOS is

Violet Saturn

basically a family to us and we thank them very much for their support and all they’ve done.”  So you’ve had your unreleased music regularly played on your favorite local station, can it get better, Spencer adds, “One massive thing that has happened is we’re currently in the middle of working out a record deal.  That’s been pretty crazy and that has opened tons of doors for us, all because of KLOS taking a chance on a new band.”  With everything that has transpired, Lauren offers another fringe benefit of their association with L.A.’s Rock Station, “We get calls from people we haven’t seen in a couple years, they’re like “Hey I think I heard you guys on KLOS’ so that’s pretty cool.”  Maybe just a small sampling of fame that may be coming their way.

The most recent of the three Stay Or Go winners who have landed a coveted spot in the rotation at L.A.’s rock station is Civic In The Sun.  They are a Hollywood based quintet, and as Cunningham alludes, “We gave them a hard time about their name, because we think the name sucks, but we really don’t care.  They can call themselves whatever they want, their song is really cool.”  According to the band’s lead singer, Aaron Perilo, “We had just released our debut EP about a month before we were on the show.  We were doing all we could to promote it without a label or a team behind us.  We submitted to Stay Or Go, we were super excited when they picked us to be featured on the show.  Just to get our song played on there once, was like, that’s perfect, because we love that station.”  Continuing his recounting of being on the show, “It was a lot of fun, Heidi and Frank were really supportive, and they’re just really easy people to talk to.  We got a pretty overwhelming response,  and Keith, the programming director, actually texted in to the show, and said that he wanted to put the song into rotation.  I was blown away.”

Civic In The Sun

Being put into rotation off of one playing of a song is a bit contrary to Perilo’s expectations, “We were hoping people liked it, not yeah, we’re going to be put into rotation?!”  As far as opportunities availed as a result of being a Stay Or Go participant, Perilo adds, “Keith is a huge fan of ours now, we’re so blessed.  We’ve got a showcase coming up for a label that he introduced us to. We’re really excited to do that, they seem pretty interested.”  There are very few bands who are destined for greatness, even some of the most iconic groups in rock history have had to slug it out for years before getting their big break.  And it isn’t exactly as though Civic’s ship has completely come in, but as a result of this fortuitous exposure, their ship might just be visible from the dock.  “We’re a relatively new band, I thought it would be years of us making albums and finally it would break somehow.  If we do get signed, then I really do feel like we got lucky.”  There’s nothing wrong with being the recipient of a little good fortune. “I feel like we owe so much to Keith, if we ever win any kind of award, I’ll probably mention his name.  Just to put your reputation on the line like that, I’m just so grateful that he connects with what we’re doing. it’s surreal.”

Dirty Honey

In addition to Stay Or Go, the Heidi and Frank Show features one of the other avenues for the station to introduce new music to Angelenos.  New Music Friday is an unveiling of brand new music from numerous genres.  Heidi and Frank Executive Producer Smith explains, “Every Friday, beginning at 2:30 a.m., I immediately check all the various digital platforms, especially iTunes.  I check the country new music releases, the rock new music releases, etc.  I listen to at least the first 60 seconds of each song on the way to work so I know which I have to edit when I get there.  It’s a very in-depth process, but I love it.”  So Friday is quite the whirlwind day for Smith, and very exciting as well, “I’ll stumble on to someone like Dirty Honey, and then I’ve got to educate myself on who they are before we go live on the air.”  Because they are playing different genres, and the listening audience may be most interested in the rock offerings, “I try to space out the rock, or tease something that’s coming up later.  I try to program New Music Friday like it’s its own show.”  But this section isn’t new rock music Friday, Smith continues, “We celebrate our rock artists more than anybody else, if we’re being honest, but we still play country, we’ll play blues and we’ll play jazz.

New Music Friday has been the launching pad for one of the most exciting acts to come out in old-style rock in a while.  Dirty Honey, the unsigned, L.A. rock n’ roll band, has posted not one, but two number one hits on Billboard’s Mainstream Rock charts.  Once again, KLOS is instrumental in the conveyance of new music to the masses, Cunningham recalls, “Eric played them on New Music Friday and I walked into the studio and said, ‘We’ve go to add this, this sounds great’ Eric, you tell the rest of the story.”  Smith takes over, “We tweeted them and said, ‘We’re playing your record.’  This may be bold to say, but I would wager we were the very first in the country to play Dirty Honey, because it was the day the EP came out.  They got our tweet and called us from the road and checked in, and they still say that was one of the greatest moments of their musical careers.”  Marc LaBelle, vocalist for the band shared his memory of that day, “I remember it like it was yesterday.  We were driving through sort of the middle of nowhere Missouri and it was the day the record came out.  I had a friend just tweeted about it, he sent me a text with a link to his tweet.  I’m never on Twitter, and at the same exact moment, KLOS said they were about to play something, feel free to call in, and I was like ‘What the hell is this?’   We didn’t hear it live, we  called maybe 15 minutes after they played the song and they were still talking about the band, and had a bunch of nice things to say.  It wasn’t until later that night that somebody sent us the whole segment and we were freaking out.  I definitely shed a tear after listening to it after the show that night.”

Dirty Honey’s Marc LaBelle Photo Credit: Matt Quina

LaBelle further goes on to relate the impact of the milestone event, “At that time, I was shipping out our merchandise from my apartment and from the road.  I couldn’t have been more overwhelmed with the number of t-shirt and hat orders that came in the day they played it and talked about us.  Literally talking in the hundreds of orders that you had to fulfill from the road.  We didn’t have a merchandise company, it was literally all being done by me.  So I’m running to the post office before shows to ship out t-shirts, and it was all their fault,” jokes LaBelle, “but it was a good problem to have.”  Not bad considering he had been processing around five orders per day from friends and family until then.  LaBelle shares his thoughts on how new music is presented in the current environment, “The problem with the music industry as a whole, there’s so much competition out there.  That’s a big testament to their program director, Keith Cunningham, he jumped on the Dirty Honey stuff.  I know they’re big supporters of Joyous Wolf, another great, young rock n’ roll band.  I tip my hat to him for doing that, because it’s not only a great opportunity, but it’s a great statement about the station as a whole, that they’re going to support new stuff.  He said that day, he uses the station as a reliable filter to introduce new music to their audience.”  Now where have we heard that before?

For the last almost 30 years, rock radio had been caught in a somewhat self-imposed time-warp.  Since Cunningham joined the station, that has been slowly changing at KLOS, and the advancement seems to be accelerating.  He shares his thoughts on the progression of new rock music, “New rock was in a bit of a slump for nearly 20 years.  It was just that the genre kind of stalled out a little bit and most of the new rock that was coming out, it all sounded the same.  I think rock music in general has turned a corner and we’re really finding some great new local music from teenagers, which is the most exciting part.  I think there’s a giant tidal wave of new rock on the horizon that is really going to impress us.  So where I see it going is, I think new rock has a bright future.”  All of what has preceded is all well and good, but to quote Sammy Hagar in There’s Only One Way To Rock, it’s all just mental masturbation if the opinions of the real judges are not swayed, “It might sound a bit cliche, but we are live and local.  We talk to the listeners, we answer the phones.  We take several risks, we don’t have the token radio rule book by our side, we’ve thrown that way out the window.  In all my years as a consultant, I’ve worked with over 100 rock stations and I’ve moderated probably 500 or more focus groups.  In a lot of these focus groups, what you’ll hear more often than not is, ‘Hey, play local music.’  Well unfortunately in a lot of places, local music really isn’t any good, but that’s not true in Southern California.  So the reaction from listeners has been overwhelmingly positive.”

It can be said of corporations, professional sports teams, civic organizations and any other entity that has a brand associated with it, that a culture shift can be the difference between success and failure.  More often than not, that attitude toward success starts at the very top.  “We have new owners, Meruelo Media, which is a very diverse company.  They give us autonomy, I mean nobody is looking over my shoulder saying, ‘Hey, what songs are you putting in?’  They let us do our jobs.”  One of the telltale signs that a revitalized culture is taking hold is the countenance of the people within the organization.  Cunningham’s personal attitude toward how they approach what they do also reinforces that winning attitude, “It’s a very good environment right now, I think people enjoy coming to work.  Maybe you just try to have fun here.  I believe that the vibe in the hallway, somehow permeates itself through the speakers.”  It seems as though working at a radio station should be fun.  Nothing sums that up that sentiment more than Cunningham’s final thought, “My motto is, things don’t go wrong, they only go funny.”









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