Former L.A. Times pop music critic Robert Hilburn will launch his new weekly radio show on KCSN-FM (88.5) on Sunday at 6 p.m. with a program of musical discovery.
The initial "Rock n Roll Times with Robert Hilburn" show will highlight artists who either sparked Hilburn’s passion for music early on or for whom, during nearly four decades covering pop music for The Times, he became an early advocate.
“The first song I'm going to play is ‘Baby, Let's Play House’ by Elvis,” Hilburn told me this week. “It's the record that made me fall in love with rock enough to write about it for 35 years at The Times.... I was getting ready to go to school at high school one morning when I heard it and wham: the youthful voice, the independence, the sense of freedom, the great guitar licks by Scotty Moore.”
From there he plans to take listeners along to revisit what he describes as “favorite moments of discovery: the first night on the job (as a full-time pop critic) ... seeing Kris Kristofferson and thinking he was a modern, young Hank Williams. Then two months later seeing Elton John and thinking he could be the biggest pop star in the world, then a year later John Prine and thinking he was going to be the next Dylan (smile). Well, he did become a great, great writer.”
Other artists he’ll cover include Emmylou Harris, Al Green, Public Enemy, Kanye West, White Stripes and — to the surprise of no one who encountered his many references to the two acts he probably championed more than any others over the years — Bruce Springsteen and U2.
Since retiring from The Times in 2006, Hilburn has been focusing on writing books. His first, “Corn Flakes With John Lennon (And Other Tales from a Rock ‘N’ Roll Life),” was published in 2009, and now he’s researching a cultural biography of Johnny Cash. The first batch of shows will be prerecorded to accommodate his research, but eventually he said he hopes to do some live and take listener requests.
On the appeal of taking on the radio show, he said, “One of my great frustrations for 35 years at the paper was the fact I couldn't play a record for the reader when I was writing about an artist.
“How can you describe the beauty of Emmylou Harris' voice without hearing it, the sensual lilt of a Duane Allman guitar solo without actually hearing it or the growl of Johnny Rotten without hearing it?" he said. "With the Internet today, it is possible to do some mixed media things where you can write about an artist and link to a song or video by that artist. But that was unheard of in the years I was at the paper. So I secretly yearned to have a radio show.”
In future shows, Hilburn said he plans to highlight artists who he thinks have been underappreciated, such as David Bowie ("Lady Gaga with real songs and an original persona"), to spotlight albums shelved or long delayed by record companies, great songs from the disco era and "the 10 songs that established rap as an art form."
Hilburn's show is part of an expansion of the Cal State Northridge-based station's adult album alternative (AAA) format under new program director Sky Daniels, who also has brought in former KCRW-FM deejay and music director Nic Harcourt, whose new show launches Saturday at 3 p.m., and another former Times staffer, Kevin Bronson, who brings his Buzz Bands column-turned-blog highlighting local music to KCSN on Sundays from midnight to 1 a.m. Monday.
“The idea is to have fun, but celebrate musical excellence,” Hilburn said, “in all styles of music, all generations. I want to reach listeners who went through the last 40 years of music with me and those who are curious about the music that changed the culture.”
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-- Randy Lewis
Photos, from top: Robert Hilburn interviewing Rolling Stones guitarist and songwriter Keith Richards. (credit: RobertHilburnonline.com); Hilburn in later years (Los Angeles Times).