Raised On Radio: Petty’s “Last DJ” Banned

by Kevin Burton

   National DJ Day on Jan. 20 sent me rocking down memory lane, recalling a time when deft tuning of a transistor radio could take you to another world.

   The heyday of radio, as we talk about it now in the past tense, was a whole other American era, an entirely different zeitgeist. Merriam-Webster defines zeitgeist as “the general intellectual, moral, and cultural climate of an era.”

   To paint a picture of the hold that radio and your favorite DJ had on you at the time (50s through 70s and into the 80s), I wrote about the great Charlie Dore song “Pilot of the Airwaves.”  It’s a loving remembrance of the times, a spot-on depiction down to the harmonies it deploys.

   Since then I’ve been searching for other songs that speak to those times or the demise of them. 

   There are lots of great songs such as “Hey Baby, (They’re Playing Our Song)” by the Buckinghams that touch on radio while mostly talking about what is going on in the life of a romantic couple as they hear the radio. 

   But I have tried to focus on songs that focus directly on radio as an entity and the DJs that brought it to life.

   If “Pilot of the Airwaves” drops you smack in the middle of the time of radio “The Last DJ” by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers shows you the last battle of a war already lost. As usual, Petty, Mr. “Won’t Back Down,” doesn’t hold back in his lyrics.:

   “Well, you can’t turn him into a company man. You can’t turn him into a whore. And the boys upstairs just don’t understand anymore. Well, the top brass don’t like him
talking so much. And he won’t play what they say to play. And he don’t want to change what don’t need to change.”

   His chorus:

   “There goes the last DJ who plays what he wants to play and says what he wants to say
Hey, hey, hey.  And there goes your freedom of choice. There goes the last human voice. There goes the last DJ.”

   “This is a commentary on the corporate takeover of radio stations,” explains SongFacts.  “In the late ’90s, stations began computerizing their playlists and having DJs record their shows ahead of time, which saved money for the station owners. The practice of pre-recording a show is known as voice-tracking, and allows a DJ to tape a show from another location whenever he wants.”
   “Many station groups will have one DJ voice-track a bunch of shows on many different stations every day. Since the DJ is not local and is recording the show ahead of time, he cannot refer to timely events and must make an effort to connect with an audience he does not know.”

   If you lived through the radio and birth of rock and roll era, this was like replacing Chuck Berry duckwalking and sweating on stage, with elevator music.  All the personality was being bleached out of radio in the name of corporate profits.  Petty’s song identified the problem and placed the blame appropriately, with “the boys upstairs” and “the top brass.”

   “Predictably, this song got very little airplay, which in a way proved Petty’s point,” wrote SongFacts, “something he would point out when he performed the song live.”

   “The song was banned by many stations owned by Clear Channel Communications for being ‘anti-radio,’ according to Wikipedia.  

   “I was elated when my song was banned,” Petty told Billboard. “I remember when the radio meant something. We enjoyed the people who were on it, even if we hated them. They had personalities. They were people of taste, who we trusted. And I see that vanishing.”

   The influential KLOS disc jockey Jim Ladd is often cited as the inspiration for this song, and Petty wrote in the album liner notes, “Thanks to Jim Ladd for his inspiration and courage.”

   While Ladd is often referred to as The Last DJ from this song, Petty told Jim DeRogatis that the song is a story “about a DJ in Jacksonville, Florida, who became so frustrated with his inability to play what he wants that he moves to Mexico and gets his freedom back,” according to Wikipedia.

   I don’t care so much about the specific DJ. Songs like this can have multiple inspirations. “The Last DJ” serves as a sort of close parenthesis to the radio era, with Petty’s trademark honesty and rebellion and love for the music.   

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