Behind the Scenes – Making the D.J. Book
A: In the list of Things I Want To Do When I Grow Up, photographer was #1, FM D.J. was #2. Since I had to create a book for an Art Center class project, I wanted to combine my interests and take the opportunity to pay tribute to the D.J.s who entertained me for so long.
Growing up – aside from what I had on single or LP or cassette, FM radio was my primary source for music.
Los Angeles FM radio in the 1970s, 80s and early 90s was a lot different than it is today. I don’t know if it’s because of corporate influence, or because of competition from other music sources, or because I’m an old fart, but to me, the good-old-days of “Free-form” FM radio in Los Angeles are long gone.
Sunday evenings (especially in the 70s and early 80s) were reserved for Dr. Demento on KMET (then later on KLSX). I’d also listen to "Uncle Joe" Benson‘s “Seventh Day” on KLOS or “Rodney on the ROQ.” Late Sunday nights – into Monday mornings – I would listen to Mike Harrison’s “Harrison’s Mike” or later, Frank Sontag’s “Impact” show. In the mornings it was Raymondo and the Blade (and Poorman) on KROQ or Frazier Smith on KLOS. Before Howard Stern came to LA in 1991, I would listen to The Peter Tildin Show on KLSX or Mark and Brian on KLOS. Mid-days I bounced between Jed or Freddy on KROQ, Bob Coburn and Gino Michelini on KLOS, or Damion on KLSX. Evenings were Jim Ladd (on KMET), Dusty Street (on KROQ and later KLSX), Steve Downes, "Uncle Joe," Loveline (with Poorman), late nights with Swedish Egil… and on and on.
Those people turned me on to new music (or music that was new to me), made me laugh, made me think, and we’re my faithful companions.
A: Screw you, asshat. I’m just trying to provide some perspective, and I’m sorry if you got bored. Can I finish now?
So flash back to 1989. First term photography at Art Center College of Design lived up to its reputation as a brutal, nerve-wracking, 12-week-long creativity vacuum. We had 4×5 camera fundamentals drilled into our skulls, and spent more hours in cramped film processing rooms and darkrooms than we did out of them. I don’t think any of us were prepared for how little creative expression we were afforded.
A: Eat a dick. I’m giving you background, so let me finish.
A: So knowing that Bill Harrold’s second term Photo Concept & Design class was coming made it a bit easier. Unlike most of our first and second term instructors, Mr. Harrold was not a full-time professor. Rather, he was a professional art director by day, and taught this weekly course at night. The well-known and very popular final project in his class was to create a black and white photo book. It could be about anything – there were no limits – but it had to be original, and we had to produce it by 100% hand.
Before the first term ended, I knew what I wanted to do for the second term book project.
My selection criteria was clear: I wanted to feature influential FM D.J.s who were currently on the air in Los Angeles (at that time).
A: I’m not going to answer that. The stations where those D.J.s worked (at that time) were KLOS (95.5), KLSX (97.1) and KROQ (106.7). My plan was to photograph each D.J. twice – once at the studio, and then doing something outside the studio. I also wanted to interview each D.J. on the phone, and use their own words to tell their story. Anyone who couldn’t do the two shoots or the interview wouldn’t make it into the final project. Admittedly, it was a lot to ask of these people – but I didn’t know any better.
Over the break between first and second term I hit the phones and started cold-calling radio stations looking for D.J.s willing to help me out. I didn’t have any specific connections, no “ins,” so I literally started by calling the main listener lines. Once I got through, I would introduce myself, introduce the project, and ask to speak with the D.J. I started with the late overnight people first – assuming that they would get less calls than mid-day or afternoon D.J.s. My hypothesis proved correct, as many of the late-night jocks answered their own phones. I was amazed by how many said yes, albeit with varying degrees of enthusiasm. Once I had my first shoot set up, it was easier and easier to get the other D.J.s on board. Skeptical D.J.s saw Polaroids from the other shoots, and not wanting to be upstaged by their peers, agreed to participate.
For the style, the project restrictions dictated that the book be in black and white. Each person was going to be shot full frame 6×6 on my Hasselblad, so all composing was done in the camera. Since I was capturing each person in their environment, I didn’t want there to be any cropping or manipulation of the scene – I wanted it to be as “real” as possible. On the other hand, I chose to light each shot artificially using a portable Norman 400B and a 44″ umbrella and sometimes a white flex fill.
A: Are you asking me if I was happy with the final project?
A: Thank you. The photography was completed by the end of April, 1990. I had photographed everyone twice, conducted the interviews, and developed and proofed the film – nearly 100 rolls worth. For the most part, I was very happy with the results. The book got a great grade, and Mr. Harrold kept a copy which he showed as an example to following classes.
Looking back now, 20 years later, I wish I had done some things differently – like used spell check on the text – but I’m also amazed that this came together at all. Maybe I’m being selfish, too, but there were lots of D.J.s that I regret not getting for the project:
- Rodney Bingenheimer
- Raechel Donahue
- Cynthia Fox
- J. J. Jackson
- Billy Jugs
- Jeff Gonzer
- Jim Ladd
- Deirdre O’Donoghue
- Frazier Smith
- Freddy Snakeskin
- April Whitney
A: Not really. Not exactly. Katy was let go from KROQ before the final book was turned in, and Swedish Egil not much longer after. Poorman was fired from KROQ in 1993, and Richard Blade left in 2000. Jed is still at KROQ, although in a fill-in capacity and no longer doing mid days.
Howard Stern’s arrival in LA in 1991 changed things at KLSX. On one hand, the station suddenly became hugely popular in the mornings, “Howard Stern all morning, classic rock all day.” Dusty Street and Damion left the station in 1994, and "Uncle Joe" Benson, Steve Downes and Bob Coburn left KLOS and joined KLSX – Benson and Downes in 1994, and Coburn in 1995. Unfortunately KLSX changed formats in 1995, and became “Real Radio 97.1.” (Stern criticized this change, calling it “Hindenburg Radio.”) Coburn, Downes and most of the music staff was released. Benson stayed on, working weekends until 1996 when he went back to KLOS until 1997.
A: Yes, radio can be volatile.
Dr. Demento stayed with KLSX until 1999, when he was replaced by “paid programming.” The station limped along until February 2009, when it changed to AMP Radio, a contemporary Top 40 station.
As a Howard Stern fan, my love for FM radio pretty much ended when he moved to Sirius satellite radio. Dusty Street and Richard Blade have shows on Sirius XM, so it’s kind of bittersweet. When I’m not listening to satellite though, my FM dial is pretty much stuck on KPCC 89.3 – the local NPR station.
I’ve opened comments below – please send me any corrections to what I’ve written above, and if you have any updates on the D.J.s, I’d love to post it here.