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Rick Carroll: Architect of Modern Rock Radio
by Alex Cosper

see also The Rise of Alternative Radio


Rick Carroll is remembered as the first radio programmer to introduce the modern rock format to commercial airwaves. From 1978-1985 and 1988-1989 he programmed KROQ in Los Angeles and consulted 13 other modern rock stations in addition to MTV. During that time he coined the term "rock of the eighties." Other stations he consulted included 91X in San Diego (which he put on the air himself with a box of records in 1983), The Eagle in Dallas and the Quake in San Francisco. KROQ air personality Jed the Fish described Rick's personality as "brisk, clever, insightful and considerate." His friend Mike Jacobs described him as a music lover and workaholic.

Rick was born in Redding, CA on Sept. 15, 1946. His first radio job was an internship as a teenager in the sixties at Sacramento station KPOP and then at San Jose station KLIV. Before college he worked on the air at KRDG in Redding, where he briefly returned after completing his college education. He attended California State University in Sacramento, where he was involved at college station KERS with several future KZAP radio personalities. In 1968 he began doing evenings at Sacramento top 40 station KXOA, up against T. Michael Jordan at KROY, who would go on to become a close friend of Rick. In late 1970 Rick moved to San Jose to be Program Director at KLIV, where he initiated a tight progressive format. At KLIV he hired T. Michael Jordan. Then Carroll quit and went to progressive competitor KSJO to work on the air and help with the music.

In 1971 Carroll jumped back into Sacramento radio to program KSJO's sister station KNDE (formerly KXOA), where he refined his tight progressive format. Once again, he hired his friend T. Michael Jordan in May 1972. About four months later, although Carroll brought the station great ratings, he was let go by the General Manager for reasons that seemed to make no sense. Rick then went to work for the extremely successful Drake-Chenault team and consulted their client FM stations, which included KXOA-FM in Sacramento.

From there Rick moved on to program KKDJ in Los Angeles starting in February 1973 until late 1974 when it became KIIS. Jordan remembers, "He took the PD job at KKDJ and hired pretty much the whole KNDE staff to come to LA. It was the first top 40 station in LA and the tightest list in the country. While (competitor) KHJ didn't totally die at this point, KKDJ was responsible for getting thousands of people, who still enjoyed high energy top 40 radio, to move to FM. We were number one in Orange County and San Bernardino/Riverside, and I think about 4th in LA, but number one in cume (weekly cumulative listeners). FM hadn't hit the car audience yet (there was no penetration at this point in time), so we had a lot of in-home listeners, who listened for long periods of time. KHJ-AM mostly had the auto audience. New owners took over, and we were all history. Made no sense: great ratings, making money, but they went adult (and became KIIS AM/FM), ratings slid and they went back to top 40."

Rick then returned to Drake-Chenault (who at this point owned KIQQ). Within a year Rick programmed top 40 station KEZY in Anaheim, and brought many of the KKDJ staff back to work with him. Jordans says, "Everyone loved to work with Rick. He kept radio fun. The only time he called you on the hotline was to make a request...seriously." The station had huge ratings. In 1978, upon the recommendation of Jed the Fish, Carroll was hired to program crosstown rocker KROQ. Shortly afterward Rick called Jordan to offer him a job again, but this time T. declined, electing to pursue the blossoming software industry. So Carroll asked T. to write software for scheduling the music on KROQ but T. recalls, "I told him he would hate computers and it would be a mistake. Rick not only loved the music, he loved the physical records too. When he was putting together the next playlist (with Music Director Larry Groves), he would physically hold the discs and like a deck of cards, would shuffle them around, until he got his list. He actually could hear the station in his head when he was creating the playlist. It was incredible to watch. I watched him do it at KLIV, KNDE, KKDJ and KEZY...amazing man." Jordan would continue to visit Carroll at his Malibu home throughout the eighties.

After Carroll arrived at KROQ he unleashed a new format for the airwaves. His idea for the new modern rock format was to play fresh, compelling and yet unheard music in top 40-style rotations until it became a hit. "Rick was laying on the beach in Hawaii and thought up the idea," says his good friend Mike Jacobs, who enjoyed a successful career promoting records and running an MCA label. "If he liked a record, it went on the air. He knew a hit when he heard it. And if he thought something was a hit he didn't care what any other station thought of it, he would say go cart this up. I would say his musical tastes were wide open, but definitely leaned pop, as in popular (Prince, Ramones and everything in between)."

Mike was a band manager when he met Rick at KEZY. "I owe a lot of what I have to him. We hung together all the time. He's the guy who made it possible for me to make it on the level I did." That's how Mike became a record promoter, which led to him becoming label President of WayCool Records in the nineties.

Several radio and music people owed their careers to Rick Carroll. In fact, many modern rock artists who had their first hits in the late seventies and early eighties can thank Rick for playing their music when no one else would - until he made them hits. Some of the artists Rick launched on KROQ before any other station, according to Jed the Fish, include DEPECHE MODE, BERLIN, DEVO, TALKING HEADS, DURAN DURAN, CULTURE CLUB, FELONY, PET SHOP BOYS, TEARS FOR FEARS and HUMAN LEAGUE.

In between the new songs Rick still worked in classics by the Beatles, Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin. The mix worked as it pulled KROQ out of obscurity and made it one of the top stations in Los Angeles. Although jocks complained Carroll would "burn songs out" putting them in two hour rotations, Carroll allowed KROQ personalities to be part of the discovery process for new music. Jed the Fish, Freddie Snakeskin, Rodney Bingenheimer and countless others helped Carroll find the songs that shaped the initial foundation of the modern rock format.

By 1981 KROQ was beating its rock competitors KMET and KLOS. A few years later KROQ was attracting over a million listeners as Carroll parlayed this success into a consultancy. One of the stations he consulted was KPOP/Roseville, covering Sacramento. The station's Music Director was Carmy Ferreri, who has since programmed radio stations in several major markets. Carmy reflected in 2012, "I got my first break in radio because of Rick Carroll. He basically told the Program Director to make me the Music Director. Rick was incredibly smart and he really understood the radio listener. He was fun to hang with, incredibly creative and knew exactly what he wanted the station to sould like ... one of the great programming minds of radio." Carmy had grown up listening to KROQ in the seventies.

Carroll left KROQ in 1985 to concentrate on consulting a growing list of modern rock stations and then returned in 1988. Most commercial stations of all formats were programmed according to strict playlists that did not allow jocks any freedom. Rick, however, allowed KROQ jocks a "JOQ choice." At first jocks had four of these slots per hour to insert their own choices, but ultimately it was reduced to one per hour until the privilege was removed shortly after Rick's death, according to Jed the Fish.

Sadly, Rick died of AIDS complications July 10, 1989 at the age of 42. Jordan recalls, "The last time I saw him was a month before he died. He had no clue he was sick. He was jogging on the beach daily, eating a great diet, partying late into the night. He was admitted to St. John's in Santa Monica on a Wednesday. He had trouble breathing. They couldn't figure out what was wrong with him. They finally did the HIV test on Friday or Saturday, and he died the following Monday. I found out about it later that day. Jhani Kaye called to tell me. Rick also had a cat, which he willed to me on his hospital bed. The cat (named TC) was a constant reminder of good times past and of Rick."

"I didn't know until two days before," says Mike Jacobs. Because Mike owed his career to Rick, he set up the Rick Carroll Scholarship Fund at Rick's alma matter (California State University, Sacramento) for communication students who have studied his amazing career. Unlike most radio legends who fade in history, Rick Carroll's achievements were clearly monumental and will be remembered for years to come.

Radio and Music Industry Sources: Jed The Fish, Mike Jacobs, T. Michael Jordan, Gerry Cagle, Carmy Ferreri.

Relevant links:

KROQ official website.
Radio Hit List An archive of KROQ playlists.






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