Today, music is heard in streams and clouds, with CDs nearing losing their luster status and three-year-old smartphones considered antiquated. As life continues to move quickly in the digital era, it sometimes seems that fevered change is the only constant. But in the world of terrestrial radio (yes, radios still exist), veteran voices are providing both comforting links to the past and a more experienced perspective on the fast-moving present.
In New York, listeners can still hear legendary DJ Scott Shannon on WPLJ-FM, where's he's been rocking morning commutes since August 1991. Late-night listeners in Los Angeles can still tune in to KROQ-FM to hear punk tastemaker Rodney Bingenheimer, whose "Rodney On The ROQ" program, now in its 37th year, gave crucial, early radio play to bands such as Blondie, Nirvana and Van Halen. Also on KROQ, hosts Kevin Ryder and Gene "Bean" Baxter of the "Kevin & Bean" show have been making listeners laugh (and squirm) since 1990. With more than 60 years in broadcasting, urban radio pioneer Herb Kent hosts two highly regarded programs on Chicago's WVAZ-FM. And all across the United States, lovers can still dedicate several decades worth of "oldies but goodies" to each other on the syndicated "Art Laboe Connection" program.
Pop trends, playlists and stations come and go, but a few steady radio stalwarts are still playing the music they love for listeners that now span generations. The notably deep-voiced DJ "Uncle" Joe Benson has been playing his favorite bands on the radio since 1968, when what's now called "classic rock" was simply rock.
"When you're young, you're convinced that whatever you like is the best there is," says Benson. "It turns out that the music I grew up with — the sounds of the '60s and '70s — really was the core of rock [and] roll music. Stuff that my friends and I thought was pretty good turned out to be 'classic.'"
A fixture of Southern California classic rock stations for more than 30 years, Benson currently hosts a weekday morning program on KSWD-FM (100.3 The Sound) in Los Angeles. He says it's not entirely surprising that he's still playing the songs that first got him excited about music.
"It only seemed natural that this music was the best and would last," he adds. "I never thought about how long it would last, but there never seemed to be any reason it wouldn't. We never really thought that someone was going to be better than the Beatles or the Stones. The difference now is that instead of playing what's new from bands on the way up, what I'm doing is a celebration of music that already means a lot to people. As we've all gotten older, the songs haven't changed but our relation to them has."
Years before Benson started spinning records, Chuck Cecil hosted a radio program showcasing the best of the big band era, "The Swingin' Years," which went on air on L.A.-based KFI-AM in 1956. At 90, Cecil still spends 10–15 hours a week producing new content for the show, which focuses on music released between 1935 and 1955. Cecil says he does find it surprising that the music he loves continues to move listeners.
"All the context is gone, and now you really just hear the music as music," says Cecil. "It's funny and strange, because at the time the era seemed so fleeting. There was a new hit record every week, and you really didn't think of any of it as having staying power. It seemed a truly novel idea in 1956 to play records that were 10 years old. Fifty-five years later, I'm still playing those same records, and they still sound good to me. Spending time on the show is like spending time with old friends."
It was also in the mid-'50s that Laboe began taking requests and dedications as he hosted a live rock and roll radio show he hosted from the parking lot of Scrivner's Drive-In burger joint in Los Angeles.
"Rock [and] roll happened all of a sudden, and I was like a surfer catching a wave," says Laboe. "There was incredible excitement among the kids, and I wanted to put that on the air. We had no delay on the show back then so I had to be careful who I talked to, but I was."
In the first year of his show, Laboe began asking listeners if they wanted to hear "oldies but goodies" — hit songs that were then just a few years old. Now, at 88, Laboe oversees a small radio empire, that includes a nightly syndicated show, Internet programming and his own radio station. And while he still happily takes requests and dedications, the "oldies but goodies" catalogue now includes 3,000 songs spanning six decades of music.
"Oldies but goodies wasn't meant to be just '50s music," Laboe explains. "It's the music you first loved, or fell in love to. For somebody, maybe it's a song that's only five years old right now. For someone else, it's Peaches & Herb. And for someone else, it's Elvis. When you're 20, you already look back at your teen years like it was a long time ago. As you get older, life can get a lot more complicated, but those songs you first loved still mean the most to you. That's the spirit I try to capture on the show."
And it's likely that Laboe speaks for Benson, Cecil and many other radio veterans when he dismisses any talk of going off the air.
"I'm doing what I've always wanted to do in show business: playing music I love and making people happy. So I'm not sure why I'd stop."
(Chuck Crisafulli is an L.A.-based journalist and author whose most recent works include Go To Hell: A Heated History Of The Underworld, Me And A Guy Named Elvis and Elvis: My Best Man.)