Created by Nick Gonzaga
A short documentary and blog describing the legacy of pioneering disc jockey Art Laboe.
Art Laboe wasn’t just a radio disc jockey. He was thee radio disc jockey, and a pioneer in the industry from a bygone era.
His unmistakable baritone voice and soothing bedside manner reached millions of listeners over the span of eight decades. As the first DJ in California to play rock and roll over the air, he’s credited for coining the term “Oldies but Goodies”, assembling the first compilation album in American history and working towards desegregating Los Angeles.
Laboe broke into radio in 1943 as an engineer at the age of 18 on KSAN in San Francisco while stationed at Treasure Island during his time in the Navy. He was initially rebuffed by the station manager who thought Laboe was too young. It wasn’t until he produced his three FCC licenses that the manager put his arm around the young serviceman and hired him on the spot as the station was operating illegally at the time because all of their previous licensed engineers had been called to war.
Shortly after being promoted to full time radio DJ after the end of World War II, Laboe pioneered the request and dedication format, taking calls from listeners requesting songs and at first repeating what the callers were saying over the phone to his listeners as the technology to air phone calls did not yet exist.
As his on-air popularity started to grow, so did his ability to draw crowds of all ages. He approached the owner of Scrivner's Drive-In about being a sponsor. In return for buying ad spots, Laboe agreed to tell his audience he would meet them at the drive-in after the show. The success of the post-show meetup led Laboe to host a live remote broadcast from Scrivner's Drive-In. Initially, the audience was comprised of mostly white teenagers, but that would soon change.
The growing popularity of the live broadcast coupled with increasing police harassment of the teenagers who attended the shows led Laboe to look for a new location to host dances. He chose the El Monte Legion Stadium because it was outside the city limits of Los Angeles, which was not subject to a city ordinance that mandated LA Board of Education approval for any public dance intended for high school students.
His Sunday night shows and dances at the El Monte Legion Stadium, a venue that, until then, had primarily hosted country jamborees and boxing matches, were legendary. Those events began to attract teenagers of all races, but mostly Hispanic. In a city divided by topography, neighborhoods, and class, Laboe brought together teenagers of the greater Los Angeles area, regardless of race or class, to one location. He did not discriminate when listeners called to request a song live on-air and was one of the first DJs to allow people of different races to make a request.
Later in his career, he would become the only radio personality that would willingly take collect calls from penitentiaries from all over California, Arizona and Nevada, accepting the charges to fulfill the dedications from those inmates. Laboe felt it was a public service to keep the families in touch with their incarcerated loved ones, even reading letters to inmates over the air, and on a few occasions, facilitating communication between inmates calling the show with their children in the studio speaking to them over the air on the radio.
Given all of his contributions over the decades, Art Laboe’s legacy is one that won’t soon be forgotten and will likely never be matched.