“What’s Happening?!” If you ever meet Rodney Bingenheimer it is virtually guaranteed that these will be the first two words you’ll hear him utter, in an eager yet soft-spoken manner that has become his signature, both on radio and in real life.
Thanks to “Rodney on the Roq,” Bingenheimer’s long-running radio show on K-ROQ 106.7 FM, what has been happening in Los Angeles the past 40 years has often made history in the music world. But this Sunday-Monday, from midnight until 3 am, he will broadcast the show that’s meant so much to many, from the place he’s called home, for the very last time.
One could argue that this lone disc jockey and tastemaker has broken more big artists than any other DJ in the U.S. He has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, has been thanked multiple times by Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame inductees, and had a major motion picture documentary made about his life. Yet he lives modestly in West Hollywood, drives the same car he has for years (a vintage GTO that was given to him during the star induction, after his original one bit the dust), and remains as accessible right now as he was when he started, eating every day at the same time at the L.A. landmark Canter’s on Fairfax, where he has his own namesake booth and there’s a plaque to mark the spot.
The announcement last week that his seminal radio show was getting cut at KROQ after four decades came as a shock to many, but for those of us who have followed his career and lamented his graveyard timeslot for the past several years, it wasn’t much of a surprise. Even when huge bands have invited him to intro them onstage at official KROQ events like Almost Acoustic Christmas and Weenie Roast, the station seemed to consider him an afterthought, hyping younger jocks onstage and via on-air promos rather than the man who played such a huge role in making the station what it is.
It’s nothing new for the entertainment industry; ageism is rife in creative fields. But since the passing of Prince, George Michael and Rodney’s old pal David Bowie (whom he worked with during his first gig as a rep for Mercury Records), there does seem to be a renewed reverence for pioneering artists who are still with us. And in radio, age has historically been less of a concern. Art Laboe, who became famous for his dedication-driven shows on KRLA, is still doing his thing on K-DAY, and the Sex Pistols’ Steve Jones became a radio star later in life, parlaying success on the now-defunct Indie 103.1 into a brief late night gig at KROQ that turned into a full-time, prime-time job at KLOS.
But some feel KROQ has always tried a little too hard to be hip with youth markets. From nu-metal to Brit-pop to electroclash, the station’s playlist has varied over the years as it’s vied for fresh listenership and for the most part, the inconsistency has been successful. Even though Bingenheimer continues to play up-and-coming artists on his show, his power to break acts simply isn’t what it once was, due to a number of factors including digital music’s accessibility.
For many Los Angeles natives like myself, Bingenheimer is the singular most significant influencer of music we’ve ever known. Personally, the artists he exposed me to were so formative, I think hearing them (and often, hearing him interview them) is what led me into music journalism. Since he came to KROQ after gaining notoriety via his infamous glam rock nightclub Rodney’s English Disco, his first playlists consisted of British rock and glam. But he slowly started to get excited about a potent new genre called punk, emerging out of the UK, New York and eventually Los Angeles. Bingenheimer played punk rock on mainstream radio before anyone, helping to popularize bands such as The Runaways and The Germs in the ‘70s, and The Go-Go’s, Bangles, Duran Duran, No Doubt and countless others in the ‘80s and ‘90s.
I started listening during the new wave era, when KROQ was known as “The Rock of the ‘80s,” and by then the station was already taking the stuff Rodney was breaking on Sundays and incorporating it into their primetime broadcasts. Richard Blade ultimately became the voice of the new wave generation in L.A., heard during the high-traffic time slots, but it was Rodney who took chances on newbies first. Blade eventually parlayed his notoriety on KROQ into a local video dance show called “MV3,” as well as numerous club DJ gigs, and is currently heard on Sirius XM. But Rodney was never that ambitious, and he never used his connections (as the documentary about him, “The Mayor of the Sunset Strip,” makes clear, he had many) to advance his career. Ironically, the guy who befriended and discovered so many superstars is actually pretty shy. (I should note here that after interviewing him for the LA Weekly back in 1998, we became friends and I’m even seen briefly in Mayor, at the Canters booth dedication presented by Nancy Sinatra.)
Bingenheimer has already said that he isn’t retiring and there’s been talk of him re-emerging on another station or satellite. Wherever he ends up, his fanbase will surely follow. Music will always be “Godhead” (another famous Rodney-ism) to him, though it should be noted that the iconic DJ’s appreciation for the allure and aesthetics of music artists is part of what’s made him so good at knowing who the public will be enamored with next. His fascination with female artists, whatever the motivation, has given them more exposure than they might have received otherwise, and his love of flamboyance and great style (of both sexes) has elevated more audacious underground music genres into the mainstream time and time again.
Here’s hoping his departure from KROQ signals a new chapter, and that he gets the chance to keep sharing “what’s happening” in music with L.A. and the world for years to come .
The final “Rodney on the Roq” show will air late Sunday night/Monday morning (midnight to 3 a.m. PT on Monday, June 5).