Los Angeles Radio Station KLOS Resets, Looks to Redefine Classic Rock

Lars Ulrich of Metallica with Jonesy in KLOS’ new broadcast studio.
Courtesy of 95.5 KLOS

Lars Ulrich of Metallica with Jonesy in KLOS’ new broadcast studio.

"When a great new Green Day or Metallica song is released, we won’t ignore it," PD Keith Cunningham tells Billboard.

Rock station KLOS 95.5, a Los Angeles staple since 1969, has been going through changes: new shows, a pivot from its core programming, and just a couple weeks ago, a move from the landmark Culver City building it had called home for 40 years. The new HQ, only a few blocks away, is bigger, better, and more state-of-the-art, and thus far, seems to have revitalized things there and brought big names too; Metallica took over the airwaves (to promote their new album, Hardwired ... to Self-Destruct) recently and some major celeb pop-ins (rockers, models and actors) have been gracing the studio during midday's Jonesy’s Jukebox, hosted by The Sex Pistols’ Steve Jones.

Sadly, the exuberance was dampened on Dec. 17, as one of the station’s most beloved DJs, Bob Coburn of the nationally syndicated show Rockline, passed away after taking time off to battle cancer. The 68-year-old radio legend had been with the station since 1980, so older listeners -- the ones who remember slapping KLOS’s familiar rainbow encircled logo stickers first on their school folders, and later on their car bumpers -- have been deeply affected, sharing recollections and respect on the station’s website and Facebook tribute page since his passing. A commemorative sticker with the hashtag “#BCingyou” was even created in his honor.

Though staying fresh and forward-focused has been on the creative forefront at KLOS for some time, the recent additions -- and loss -- reflect the station’s evolution, which includes expanding the playlist and DJ roster, while still providing classic rock nostalgia for those who tune in for it.

“We did a reset about a year-and-a-half ago," says Keith Cunningham, program director of nearly two years.  “KLOS is not your dad’s classic rock station anymore. KLOS is a ‘rock’ station. ... We will never ignore the historic past of KLOS, but living only in the past has a dangerous shelf-life."

Many don’t remember, but KLOS was playing Led Zeppelin and Aerosmith when it was actually new music, but like many other stations staring down the arrival of alternative towards the end of the 1980s, it made the distinction to cut off its playlist at records released after 1991. But today, Cunningham notes, a 25-year gap of rock -- an incredible canon of music -- would be ignored if the station continued down that road.

Courtesy of 95.5 KLOS

“To be No. 1 in Los Angeles, ‘90s and ‘00s music has to be a part of what we play," he says. "So on today’s KLOS, you’re just as likely to hear Foo Fighters as you are Van Halen, and when a great new Green Day or Metallica song is released, we won’t ignore it. And the final important part is the commonality all our music shares is authenticity. The audience is loving it. “

The shift became most obvious to listeners when the station recently aired an “All 90s” weekend playing cuts from the “grunge era” exclusively, such as Nirvana, Alice in Chains, Soundgarden, and even some darker acts like Korn and Marilyn Manson. But it had been slowly incorporating these artists even before.

The diversity of DJs now at the station is partly to credit for the format tweak. Jonesy’s Jukebox, inherited from now-defunct alternative station Indie 103.1, started weekly but quickly scored a midday daily slot. “Adding Jonesy helped bring a new renegade-swagger and a high level of star-power and credibility to the brand,” says Cunningham. Other adoptees from L.A. area shows included the return of morning drive trio Frosty, Heidi & Frank in October; Check One … Two, a local music show, which also hails from Indie 103.1; and Session with CJH on Sunday nights, geared toward musicologists (iconic rock songs are broken-down, track by track, instrument by instrument).

“I’m given free reign to do what I want,” says Jones, who recently celebrated one year of Jonesy’s Jukebox at KLOS. “Obviously it’s a lot broader audience and a bigger signal than I had on Indie and a different crowd. But I’ve been getting a good response.”

Jones credits KLOS’s General Manager, Dawn Girocco -- who also used to be at 103.1 -- for bringing him on board. Indeed, a notable Indie 103 contingent now resides at KLOS, which is somewhat surprising considering the alternative station was always seen as competition to another rock stalwart, KROQ, 106.7. On the occasion when Indie championed an artist, K-ROQ would often follow suit, playing and yes, elevating certain cuts to hit status, which in turn led to national and even international success (witness: She Wants Revenge, Silversun Pickups and Arcade Fire).

Today, though, lessons can be learned from K-ROQ’s chameleon-like stabs at hipness; from new wave to nu-metal, emo to electronica. What 106.7 lacks, however, is personality. Rodney Bingenheimer was its voice of cool for many years, but was long ago relegated to the graveyard shift on Sunday night. By contrast, KLOS seems to value its tenured jocks more. Coburn had a prime slot before his leave, while Gary Moore who has been with the station since 1997, is heard daily from 2 p.m. to 7 p.m. Comedian Frazier Smith, who started at the station back in 1979 and has recently returned, is now heard Sundays from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m.

Smith says the vibe at KLOS these days has been enthusiastic and energized. “The new space is great and Keith Cunningham is a genius. He really understands music. He’s been able to keep the classic rock profile in tact and move the station forward into the 90’s and 2000s. I think the mix is really good right now. We’re really rockin’ and that’s what this station has always been known for.”

Moore, who is one the station’s most recognizable voices thanks to his after-workday drive home slot,  agrees. “You can go so many different ways with format,” he adds. “We’ve got a long heritage of playing stuff before it was even called classic rock. And now we're playing new stuff again. Like the new Metallica record, which is fantastic and deserves to be heard on a rock station.”

The last show to broadcast from KLOS’s old building a couple Sundays ago was Breakfast with the Beatles hosted by Chris Carter. It was meaningful. The Beatles and on the other side of the coin, The Stones, continue to resonate with new generations, after all. But it’s more than that. Breakfast is still one of the most popular shows on the station and listening to it, there’s a fan-shared familial warmth and a history that’s palpable. For those who us who have been listening for years, even with different hosts, it feels like home. KLOS in general, sort of feels that way."

The building that housed this “home” is being torn down to make way for an 11-acre-development and Metro rail stop, but the magic will live on. As movers hauled boxes of music, memorabilia and dusty mementos to the station’s new home, Carter and the music of the Beatles set the vibe for a fitting flashback and an enthusiastic look to the future. It was a heavy, full circle day according to Cunningham, and despite the heartbreaking loss of Coburn a week after the move, KLOS’ progression and ambitions remain focused and forcefully on point. 

“Our move to the new studios and office space is two decades late, but we’ll take it,”  says Cunningham.  “We’re now in a much more modern and creative space and the energy inside the building is better than I’ve ever felt in any KLOS hallway. It was a wild first week…. and there’s a lot more to come."