Art Laboe created Southern California radio as we know it

He was among the first DJs to play rock ‘n’ roll records on the radio in Southern California. He was among the first to do listener dedications on the radio. He was the man who coined the term “Oldies but Goodies” and later launched a record company dedicated to the preservation of those tunes. The year 2022 marked 79 continuous years on the air.

Unfortunately, 2022 also marked the passing of the radio legend who accomplished all of the above and much more. Art Laboe passed away Oct. 7 at the age of 97.

Laboe — his given name is Arthur Egnoian — was born in Utah, where he lived until the age of 13. His sister gave him his first radio when he was just 8 years old, and as Laboe said many times he was “just enthralled by it.”Moving to California, he graduated from Washington High School in Los Angeles, attended Stanford University, and served in the United States Navy during World War II.

His radio career began at KSAN in San Francisco in part because he held a full radio telegram broadcast license, and the station needed licensed announcers, having lost many to the war effort. As told by LARadio.Com’s Don Barrett, “With some trepidation he went to the station and was taken to see the general manager, a gruff man who declared that Art had a squeaky voice and was too young.

“‘I kicked the ground and started to walk away,’Art recalled. ‘And then he says, ‘Besides, you have to have an FCC license. We need at least a 3rd Class license. We’re a combo station.’ I walked back and pulled out of my jacket pocket these certificates and said, ‘You mean one of these?’ ‘I laid out a First Phone, 2nd Telephone and a Ham license. He looked up at me and said, ‘You’re hired.’ He put his arm around me and said, ‘come with me.’ He took me to a room with three huge transmitter boxes and asked me if I could tune one of these things. I told him I thought so.’

“There was a sign on butcher paper in the transmitter room on the wall: If these damn things works leave it alone. Art asked him why he was hiring him. The radio station owner had been operating illegally because all his engineers had been drafted into the war. ‘Now with your First Class license, I’m legal again,’ the owner said. ‘That First Class license got me my first job in radio’”

It was at KSAN where he took on the name of Art Laboe, a suggestion by a boss to sound more American.But it was in the Los Angeles area where he made his mark. He started hosting live broadcasts where teens from all over the area — and of all races and cultural backgrounds — would come to hear the latest records and be part of a burgeoning music scene. You might say that Laboe helped to desegregate the city through music and dedications.

He launched Original Sound Records to impress a young lady. As he explained when he received an LA Radio People achievement award from Barrett in 2012, one evening he was visiting a young lady at her apartment. As they were “getting to know each other,” the young lady wanted Laboe to keep the mood going by playing the “right song” … the problem being that the short 45 RPM records kept running out —  spoiling the mood, and forcing him to get off the couch, go over and put on another record.

His idea: a long play record with multiple hits on each side. Which means, if you’ve been paying attention, Original Sound Records (and the Oldies but Goodies music they held) was basically born out of the same reason many fans of the series bought them: to be more successful romantically.

In 1975, he essentially saved KRLA (now KRDC, 1110 AM) by mixing those Oldies but Goodies with current music and creating HitRadio 11, a format of exceptionally wide appeal by its very nature of playing music that cuts across racial and ethnic lines — as Laboe had done since his 1952 arrival in Los Angeles. His request and dedication program brought people back to the station, which had languished for many years due to an ownership dispute.

At the time there were only two DJs on KRLA, Laboe and Johnny Hayes. They covered the entire day with the help of tape recordings, though most listeners couldn’t tell …  Laboe mornings and evenings; Hayes in the midday. The format helped propel KRLA toward the top of the ratings.

KRLA “Hitmen” traveled the streets of Southern California, giving away money and prizes for having your radio tuned to 11-10, even if, as happened once, the radio was tuned there in part because it was broken and couldn’t tune anything else. Didn’t matter, though, the passengers in the car loved KRLA so much that they were fine with it being stuck there.

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Laboe was among the first — if not the first — DJ to program to the vast market of Latino listeners in Southern California, creating a loyalty among fans that is unheard of. Generations of families listen to “The Art Laboe Connection,” heard locally from 7 p.m. to midnight Sundays on KDAY (93.5 FM) and on Old School 104.7 FM in the Inland Empire weeknights from 9 p.m. to midnight, as well as about a dozen more throughout California, Nevada and Arizona. At press time the future of the program was unknown.

It was once said that the format Laboe helped create at KRLA was one that four generations — grandparents, parents, children and grandchildren — would all listen to … together. Family radio from the guy who stayed on the air until he died. Laboe was absolutely one of a kind, and he will be missed by fans everywhere.

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