HAMMOND — When Tom Petty dubbed FM free-form jock Jim Ladd “The Last DJ” on a 2002 album by the same name, Petty presaged by a decade what would ultimately happen to the famous Los Angeles disc jockey and others like him across the country.
Ladd lost his job with KLOS in October 2011, when Cumulus Media bought the station.
He was one of the last FM disc jockeys to have complete control over the songs and even musical genres he played, a radio format known as free-form, said Joseph Burns, a communications professor at Southeastern Louisiana University and host of the twice-weekly “Rock School” radio show on KSLU-FM, 90.9.
Burns gave a lecture Oct. 17 on radio’s history and future as part of the “Then and Now” lecture series traditional to SLU’s Fanfare, a monthlong celebration of arts, humanities and social sciences.
Burns contends radio has lost its connection with the audience — handing listeners over to iPods and satellite radio — because it has traded local DJ-centered control for distant corporate decision-making.
“I believe putting the jock back in charge of the music pick and letting him or her be in contact with their audience is the first step to better radio,” Burns said.
When the DJs were in charge of music selection, the music flowed from artist to DJ to audience and, if the audience liked what it heard, to the charts, he said.
A good disc jockey could turn listeners on to new music, get exposure for independent and up-and-coming artists and carve out a niche that kept listeners coming back, Burns said.
But with the increase in conglomerate control of stations across the country, corporate judgment has been substituted for that of the DJ, and free-form has given way to Top 40 programming, he said.
The chart-driven format is less risky and, combined with nationally syndicated talk radio shows, easier and cheaper to accomplish through pre-recorded voice tracking and computerized playlists, Burns said.
“We used to hire people who, with their gut, decided what were the good songs you’d like,” Burns said. “But sometimes they were wrong, and ownership doesn’t want that. Ownership wants safety.”
With about a quarter of the U.S. radio market being held by two corporations — Clear Channel and Cumulus — the listenership of radio stations nationwide has flattened, Burns said.
“We have to get stations to realize it’s not about profit,” he said.
Pure free-form, as it existed in the 1970s, may not be the solution, Burns concedes, “because you still have to play the stuff of the day.”
But lending a local ear to what people want to hear would put stations on firmer ground for reaching the younger audiences who have left FM radio for iPods and satellite radio, he said.
“Why listen to the station’s jukebox when you can listen to one of your own? Stations are going to have a heck of a time dragging those earbuds out of their ears,” Burns said.
“But young people would listen to a station programmed by people like them. And that’s how you generate an audience.”
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