Wednesday, December 26, 2001

Happy Anniversary, Mr. Marconi

What's happened to radio in the 100 years since an Italian inventor sent the first wireless transmission? Come listen to L.A. radio for 24 hours straight to find out.

By Jeremy Rosenberg
Special to Calendar Live

In Cornwall, England, it's the eve of the 100th anniversary of the first wireless radio transmission. That's when Italian physicist and inventor Guglielmo Marconi sent a dot dot dot Morse code "s" over the ether and across an ocean to Nova Scotia, Canada.

Meanwhile, it's still morning in Los Angeles, and veteran radio personality Rick Dees is telling a very long and very dumb Joke of the Day. The joke is about a cow. The punch line is: "My wife's from Nebraska."

Marconi, what have you wrought?

I talk with Ken Mueller, the radio curator for the Museum of Television and Radio, which has branches in Beverly Hills and New York City. "L.A. radio continues to do well," he tells me. "There are a lot of really interesting things going on in terms of Los Angeles radio."

To commemorate that Marconi transmission, and also to take an aural snapshot of broadcast radio at a time when satellite radio is being hyped so heavily as the next big thing, I've decided to spend 24 consecutive hours listening to the radio.

I ask Mueller if he thinks that sounds like fun.

"To me, yeah," says the self-professed radio junkie. "My radio is on in my office almost all the time, so I'm always listening to something, whether [or not] I'm actually consciously listening to it. There are about 12,000 radio stations in this country, and if you add to that Internet radio and satellite radio [for people who subscribe to it], there are a lot of options for people to move around."

I tune in on a Tuesday morning and drop out at the same time Wednesday. I make my way, at least briefly, through all 35 FM and 33 AM stations that my tuner receives. I keep a log. Here are some. . . ahem. . . highlights.

Tue., 8:20 a.m., KKBT-FM (100.3): Steve Harvey is listening to a caller named Penny. "I'm gonna put my knee brace on, and I'm gonna see Boney James," Penny says, dreaming of the smooth jazz saxophonist. Penny's been nominated by a friend to receive holiday presents from the radio station.

Harvey himself is the popular comedian with a long-running television sitcom. He hosts a daily morning radio show that distinguishes itself by treating listeners like mature adults, as well as by playing some older songs on an otherwise contemporary urban music station. "I'm one step closer to understanding hip-hop," Harvey says as Rapper Warren G. concludes a visit to the studio.

10 a.m., KPFK-FM (90.7): Exuberant female background singers wail, "Ahh Susannah!" A guitar player makes his instrument pop like kindling and sound like it's high on helium. "Soukous," disc jockey and musicologist Simeon Pillich says by way of explanation. "The country music, if you will, of Central Africa." Pillich segues smartly into a song, "Africa," by American funk legends the Meters.

11:15 a.m., KABC-AM (790): If Gary Condit and Chandra Levy are being discussed, then this must be talk radio. Attorney and brand name Gloria Allred teases an upcoming segment about the congressman and the missing intern. First, traffic news. And a commercial for Disneyland, on a station owned by Disney.

Noon, KTYM-AM (1460): "Praise the Lord to you out there in Radioland," Kim--no last name given--says. "Today I'll be talking to you about a few of our nutritional products." Kim is the host of "The Feel Better Program," an infomercial that airs on a station usually devoted to more strictly religious offerings, including some truly boisterous preaching. Kim's voice is as clipped as fingernails, as choppy as a rough sea. She tells listeners to take products with names such as "beta-gest" and "masculine herbal complex." The latter, she says, is good for men who need to clean out their "stem."

1:45 p.m., KXLU-FM (88.9), KCRW-FM (89.9) and KPCC-FM (89.3) are radio stations that operate out of local colleges. However, KXLU actually is a college radio station. The others are National Public Radio outlets staffed by sober professionals who produce high-quality public affairs programs and tight music shows. KXLU is all about the slop. Student deejays mumble, make sloppy segues, leave chasms of dead air. There's a band performing live with such a lousy mix that the basslines sound like gunshots and the other instruments barely register. "I can't forget the impression you made, like a hole in the back of my head..." the singer yelps, or something like that. Then he moves on to more romantic lyrics: "Picnicking in a British countryside..."

2 p.m., KROQ-FM (106.7): Bands that graduate from college radio sometimes wind up receiving airplay here. Bono of U2 sings something every bit as profound as the KXLU group: "In the days / when we were swinging from the trees / I was a monkey / stealing honey from a swarm of bees." Rattle and hum, Bono. Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" follows, as does a Limp Bizkit cut and some generic ska-punk. Back to KXLU, where generic is never the problem.

2:30 p.m., KHHT-FM (92.3): A promo for Smokey Robinson's Sunday morning show. Coos the ex-Miracle: "You can get intimate with me." Hey, Mr. Tears of a Clown, is that a threat or a promise? Also: tracks by Barry White and Aaliyah.

3:30 p.m., KLON-FM (88.1): Saxophones. Then drums. More swing than on a kids' playground. Straight-ahead jazz on a station that plays almost nothing but.

4:45 p.m., various stations: If humankind weren't meant to run quickly through channels, then why does the "scan" button exist? On KKBE-FM (105.5) an accordion. On KLVE-FM (107.5): a sappy ballad. On KWKW-AM (1330): a Muzak version of "Ring of Fire." On KAZN-AM (1300): a language from the Far East.

6 p.m., KUSC-FM (91.5): The New London Consort performs work by German composer Georg Philipp Telemann. The disc jockey prefaces the water music with a history lesson about 18th century Hamburg and its navy.

7 p.m., KFI-AM (640): During his nightly program, Phil Hendrie puts on skits in which he plays both the interviewer and the interviewee. Tonight's guest is said to be a "church pastor in Bellflower." The pastor, Hendie recounts, is mounting a controversial Christmas pageant during which one of the wise men explodes a bomb strapped to his chest. As a result, the baby Jesus gets catapulted into the audience. Whoever catches the Christ child wins a door prize--this week a 21-inch oscillating fan. "You ever seen them crazy-ass broads trying to catch a fruitcake? You should see them trying and catch smoldering Jesus," Hendrie (as the pastor) says, in a voice like a stereotypical Southern preacher.

"You are blaspheming Christ!" one caller hollers. "Now we've come to it!" the "pastor" replies. After the commercial break, Hendrie announces the fiction. "That bit was about how people deal with each other," he says.

8:30 p.m., KLAX-FM (97.9): Time for some banda, this being the station most likely to have tubas playing oompah-pah basslines.

9 p.m., KLAC-AM (570): The Lakers are losing to the Seattle Supersonics. Bionic announcer Chick Hearn, who until his recent open-heart surgery hadn't missed a game in decades, hollers "Look out!" when Kobe Bryant leaps into the crowd chasing a loose ball.

10:40 p.m., KCMG-FM (92.3): "Saturday Night Live" was right. There is actually a program called "Quiet Storm." It's a pale impersonation of a real soul show from the '70s. A much closer impression comes from Garth Trinidad's "Chocolate City" show that usually airs at this hour on KCRW. A Santa Monica city council meeting preempts Trinidad tonight and Kevin Lincoln's "Blueprint" program comes on when the meeting ends. Lincoln plays a fine mix of Miles Davis, African funk, western drum 'n' bass, dub reggae, Moby, and the German group, Pole. During a lull, I switch back to 92.3 and here this promo: "All of California is making love to the Quiet Storm." OK, maybe all but one.

Midnight, KPCC-FM (89.3) and XTRA-AM (690): Such a struggle. Where to get world news and analysis? The BBC or conspiracy king Art Bell? The Brits wins out, for now, with news about Sri Lanka's Tamil Tigers, refugees in Iran, and hey, a story about the 100th anniversary of Marconi's transmission.

2 a.m. KNX-AM (1070): Johnny Dollar, the title character of a 1950s radio drama called "Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar," is "America's fabulous freelance insurance investigator." KNX plays old shows like these during its evening Drama Hour. In this episode, our hero borrows a string of fish, hops on a rowboat, gets invited onto a yacht, swaps cabins with a woman about to be murdered, and saves the day. He also inventories an expense account.

2:45 a.m. OK, at last, Art Bell. Talking about planetary climate and how Mars might be the place to live during some eras. Quirky outro music prior to commercial: "Take My Breath Away (Love Theme From 'Top Gun')."

3 a.m., KLSX-FM (97.1): Howard Stern. He's on for eight straight hours, live from New York for the first three, then re-started, on tape delay. He's also on the E! television channel for two hours each day. The faithful can spend 42% of their lives hearing Stern.

The next five hours are spent alternating among National Public Radio morning news, Stern, and whatever else moves me. Note-taking gets sloppy and incomprehensible. May have listened to some salsa on 1090. May not have. OK, admit it: Mixed in a two-hour nap. Is there a TiVO for radio?

8 a.m. Back where I started. Steve Harvey is explaining how Santa has taken out a full-page ad in USA Today explaining that he won't be leaving presents this year due to the anthrax scare.

8:05 a.m.: Hit the power "off" button. Go to bed. Look forward to sweet dreams of static. Happy Anniversary, Mr. Marconi.

Jeremy Rosenberg can be reached at

Copyright 2001 Los Angeles Times