The Holiday season is here, Black Thursday afternoon is behind us, and the Last Jedi is on the horizon. Tis the season, which means it’s time for radio station Christmas shows! Like any Dickens Christmas story, we have to know the beginning to appreciate the here and now. What’s funny about radio is that used to be the primary source of entertainment, it was theater of the mind. Over time, it’s evolved into this behemoth of a monster we barely recognize. Truthfully, other than a Johnny Cash special, radio was pretty mundane.
Mundane radio changed in ’72 because of a little AM radio station in Pasadena. The culprit was a Country music station with the call letters KBBQ (1500AM). This station became KROQ. It changed its format from Country to Top 40. In 1973, they acquired KPPC-FM from National Science Network, and changed their name again; this time to KROQ-FM. Their broadcast was a simulcast, and the slogan was “The ROQs of L.A.: Mother Rock,” playing high energy cutting edge rock all the time. In later years, they would be affectionately known as “The ROQ of the 80’s.” Eventually, they were known as the World Famous KROQ.
In those early days, cash-flow issues made things happen; for the better and worse. Eventually, Concert Promoter, Ken Roberts took over ownership. That move started a new era in radio broadcasting. It should be noted that post-Roberts ownership transitioned the station to Infinity Broadcasting, then CBS Radio, and more recently Entercom. The question is, why is this important? The answer is simple, the changes made at this station became a model for radio programming in the world of alternative music. If it wasn’t for the weirdness and vision of those early years, who knows where ALT radio would be today.
For SoCal radio lovers, the original cast of characters that entertained us were Shadoe Stevens and Frazer Smith. Others that made a name for the station include Tom and Rachael Donahue, Dusty Street, Larry Woodside, Jed the Fish, Freddy Snakeskin, Richard Blade, Poorman, April Whitney, Scott Mason, Tami Heidi and Doug “the Slug” Roberts. These are all names most of us grew up with. That’s just a few of the DJ’s that made a difference; but joqs alone didn’t make this place what it is today. It took music programming too, there were lesser known names who pushed the envelope with groundbreaking music. Their efforts were equally important. Behind the curtain were cats like Rick Carroll, Swedish Egil, Rodney Bingenheimer, Lewis Largent, Gene Sandbloom and Kevin Weatherly. Let’s not forget before he was Talking Dead, Chris Hardwick was also a voice in this beehive. Through their efforts, they changed the face of music by ushering in new wave, grunge and the alternative rock formats.
WHY SHOULD WE CARE? That little Country station evolved beyond anyone’s imagination. It’s now considered one of the most influential communications platforms on the planet. Now, radio is very competitive. So-much-so, many stations have resorted to the corporate radio model to keep the lights on. Consequently, stations that play the same 200 songs on rotation with no live DJ’s are deservedly getting tons of flack. Unfortunately, that’s another reality of trying to make it in today’s broadcast world. Big and moderate market stations compete with foreign language, Hip-Hop, Pop and politically charged talk radio stations. Then again, artist like DJ Shadow and Run the Jewels are crossovers that help Alt radio compete. Inasmuch as many stations have been tempted to change format, which happens, some stations have managed to stay the course.
With the recent announcement of the Entercom takeover of CBS radio stations, and the recent shakeup at the KROQ Morning show, there’s less certainty that those stations will remain exactly the same. Cumulus Media recently filed bankruptcy, so clearly the once lucrative radio industry may be in trouble. As for today’s KROQ, there are two joqs that capture our ear daily. There’s Stryker and Kat Corbett. As for Kat, she deservedly gets mad props for her Locals Only program, while Stryker has his Free For All, and 4:20 segment. He’s even played bands like the Interrupters on the 4:20, that’s genuinely legit. Unfortunately, many stations have succumbed to the need for advertising dollars. To get the most listeners, they don’t always play music with the most integrity, or with lyrical value. This may not be the downfall of Western civilization, but it’s a reality of today’s broadcasting world.
That all being said, we need to look back at December, 1989. The first of its kind for the station was an event called the KROQ Xmas Bash. As a result of that successful inaugural show, the Almost Acoustic Christmas was born. In those early days, a formula was developed that’s worked. It was simple, give the people what they want! Put on a show that featured bigger-than-life bands, like Duran Duran, Adam Ant, Bowie, U2, and team them up with some up-and-coming bands. Bands like Stone Temple Pilots, Garbage, Green Day, No Doubt, Blink 182 and 311. It was that combination of established acts and new ones that captivated the hearts and souls of their fans. Since then, the list of bands that have played Acoustic Christmas is just mind blowing. In the end, some of those up-and-comers did OK for themselves. Nowadays, the bigger holiday shows are 2-day events, this show is on that level. Like in years past, the 2017 acoustic show features industry heavyweights Muse, the Killers, Weezer, Queens of the Stone Age, Morrissey and several other top-notch bands. Taking the formula into consideration, there is one band that captures the essence of those early days; that band is Judah & the Lion.
The band formed in 2011 and are straight outta Nashville. They were classmates at Belmont University, and despite the odds, they’ve managed to put it all together. Like most bands, the early days were their formative years and their most challenging. Like Imagine Dragons, they started playing Christian music. Their debut EP First Fruits was themed around worship. The album was composed of blended folk and bluegrass music styles. In 2016, their first EP, Sweet Tennessee, charted on Billboard. The following year they put out their debut full-length album Kids These Days. Since then, their song Take It All Back reached the No. 1 spot on Billboard’s Alternative Songs chart. Their latest release is the deluxe edition of Folk Hop ‘n Roll which includes their megahit, Suit and Jacket.
They’ve done what all successful rock stars do, they’ve played the late night circuit on Conan and Kimmel. They’re playing big shows, like Acoustic Christmas, and SXSW. The SXSW performance helped propel them in their meteoric rise. In September, they played Music Midtown in Georgia. They also performed at an iHeartRadio summit for Program Directors last August. What stands out is the heartfelt interactions with their fans. Even with their newfound celebrity, they remain truly decent people with a great sense of humor, and they’ve stayed true to who they are. They’ve even supported causes such as an autistic children’s organization. Their story and their music is moving, it can transport those who identify with the island of Misfit Toys, and give a person hope… no matter what challenges life brings to their doorstep.
With all the love being thrown at them, they don’t let their new found success engulf them. They also keep the criticism at a distance by not allowing mean tweets to adversely impact them. That’s a feat most bands don’t figure out until years down the road. In that context, what makes this band different is not necessarily the music, although that is the draw; it’s because they are authentic and their music comes off that way. That’s what ties Judah and the Lion to old-school KROQ and the new. An authentic band that plays their music for the right reasons. The truth is that it can take a band a lifetime to develop their signature sound and figure out who they are. For Judah & the Lion, it hasn’t taken them long at all, that’s because they aren’t doing anything else but being themselves.
Current band members include Judah Akers (lead vocals / guitar), Brian MacDonald (mandolin & backing vocals), Dylan Oglesby (rhythm guitar, accordion, backing vocals), Daniel Weatherby (piano), Nate Zuercher (banjo & backing vocals) and Spencer Cross (drums). Things are looking up for these guys, and for their fans. The guys are working on new material. There’s nothing official, so we can just cross our fingers that they’ll have some new tunes very soon. What’s fascinating about their shows is that they’re very reminiscent of a Beatles show. You can literally see their fans screaming and repeating every word of every song while drenched in tears of joy.
The bottom line is Judah & the Lion is putting out great music. Their lyrics even read, they ain’t trading in their youth for no suit and jacket and they ain’t giving their freedom for money and status. That’s as real as it gets, and their fans believe every word… that’s legitimacy money can’t buy. While some bands spend their entire careers searching for their identity; Judah & the Lion found theirs by keeping their hearts where home is.
They play Night 1 of Acoustic Christmas, December 9th at the Forum. If you miss them, no worries; they circle back to play the House of Blues, Anaheim on February 6th, 2018. The band recently announced they’ve expanded their Going to Mars Tour throughout 2018. You can catch them just about everywhere USA next year. Other SoCal shows just added are February 8th at the Belasco in Los Angeles, and February 9th at the House of Blues, San Diego.
Miles Davis once said Good music is good no matter what kind of music it is. Who knew he was talking about Judah & the Lion. Ironically, some people say SoCal already has too many stars. After listening to this band, you might agree that there’s room for one more. Check out Judah & the Lion, because there’s nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as good music.