Decades after rock radio morphed into computerized playlists vetted by focus groups, Jim Ladd remains a rarity — the disc jockey who gets to pick his own music.
Working late weeknights at classic rock KLOS-FM (95.5), Ladd is one of the few lingering purveyors of free-form rock in the U.S., certainly at a commercial radio station, where the stakes are deemed too high to let fortunes ride on the intuition or vibe of the person spinning the tunes.
In his 1991 memoir, “Radio Waves: Life and Revolution on the FM Dial,” Ladd described his start as a DJ, in an incantation that echoes the patter he sprinkles throughout the music he plays deep into the night. “I was a stationary minstrel who spun the myths and legends of the tribe in a stream-of-consciousness approach that encouraged the unexpected. I had begun my long journey on the path of the shaman. All this from a stack of vinyl and a couple of turntables inside the glass booth.”
Ladd, who started at KNAC in Long Beach in 1967, fills the hours by piecing together his distinctive, themed sets about current events, sex, God, you name it. Throughout, he applies his vast mental music library, calling on obscure gems and well-worn hits alike, to knit seamless segues between songs, as if they're one continuous composition, punctuated by his longtime catchphrase, "Lord have mercy!"
In one set on one night, he casually slid from Little Steven's pounding, angry "Guns, Drugs and Gasoline" to a live recording of the Clash doing "I Fought the Law" to R.E.M.'s "It's the End of the World as We Know It," each drum-heavy ending perfectly dovetailing into a drum-heavy intro of the next song.
"This is my art form and I believe in it and I cannot do anything else," he said in his rich voice, familiar to any L.A. rock radio fan of the last 30 years. "I cannot follow a list and will not follow a list.
"It's important that people don't take this for granted; that's what 'Lord have mercy' is about," he said of the slogan he has emblazoned on T-shirts he gives away. "It's so people feel they're part of this movement: freedom on the radio."
Twice in his 40-year career he stayed off the air for two years because he wasn't able to find anyone to let him go free-form. And, even when the stations where he worked went extinct, he refused to. He was at the late, lamented rocker KMET-FM (94.7) until it switched to New Age music in 1987, and at classic rock KLSX-FM (97.1) until it became shock talk in 1995. Two years later, he resurfaced at KLOS for the third time, where he's remained.