RadioToday presents a chat with Emperor Rosko – who has been heard on radio stations around the world by millions of people since he started way back in the 1960s.
In 2024, he’s still going and broadcasting his syndicated shows the LA Connection and Coast to Coast Country on stations across the planet.
He sat down for a quick chat with us about why he’s still making radio…
60 years of rocking and rolling – does it ever get old?
Firstly let me thank you for reminding me of my age! Yeah it has been a while and no it doesn’t because if it did I wouldn’t be doing it. I’ve always said when it gets old I’m gonna stop but every time I hear a great song it makes me feel good, so when you’re feeling good you try and pass that on to your listeners and they feel good!
You’ve been asked this many times but how did you start in radio?
Wow you’ve opened up a can of worms now, I guess you could say I started in my dreams like many that I speak to who say “Oh I used to listen to you on radio Caroline under the covers with my tranny so that my parents wouldn’t hear it!”
I used to listen to old radio shows under the covers and pretend to be a DJ so I think it was always in my heart and soul to want to do this, and as I discovered the personality DJ it became even more intense going back to the radio greats that most people will have forgotten by now: the magnificent Montague Tom Donahue, Wolfman Jack, the original Roscoe… the list is endless.
They were the real pioneers of rock and roll radio and soul radio and I unashamedly stole from all of them, plagiarized what they did and molded all of that into me and for some reason it still seems to be working so that’s how I started! But my actual boots on the ground job was in the military – kind of like good morning Vietnam!
I was doing the naval version of that on KCVA and so I was blessed to have a captive audience and it was hard to fire me, so I learnt how to do it with on the job training. I was also at the same time being an assistant to some of the great deejays on KYA in San Francisco, i.e. the tea boy if you will, and I used to spend hours just watching them work and absorbing the vibes, so when I started on KCVA I was not totally terrible, just mildly terrible – to all those who are still alive, I ask your forgiveness!
Talk to me about your Coast to Coast Country show…how did your love of country music first begin?
It’s a very hard one for me to answer because I really don’t know exactly why! I kind of got into it camping out in the boonies with a friend or two sitting around the campfire at midnight in the middle of nowhere, hearing these old country shows coming in on AM, you know with 50,000 Watt 100,000 Watt transmitters from the middle of America.
It’s hard to describe a magical moment, a true connection, and just sitting there quietly looking at the stars in the sky and a bottle of hooch by the fire, and it kind of got to me I guess!
Then I started exploring the country music genre and found that country rock sits very well with me and so then I had to think about a format that would work in Europe, and the more I got into it the more I liked it and Coast to Coast Country was born, plus it was also an alternative to the rock and roll and soul that’s on the LA connection which is my primary syndicated show, but Coast to coast country is picking up stations little by little – I mix the brand new with the classics and programme it in a way to not upset real country fans and to pull in those who are just discovering country.
You were on several stations at one time back in the day, which was the most fun?
You are absolutely correct and it’s a hard one to answer. I was on Luxembourg, Caroline, Luxembourg, and Radio One all at one time, due to the magic of tape!
Breaking them down, Caroline of course was the station that introduced me to the UK Radio scene; Caroline was the birth mother of commercial Radio – Luxy was night time only before you contradict me – but Caroline was an adventure, and Ronan O’Reilly was a great boss to work for. I used to get fired at least once a month by Phil Solomons, because I threw out his major minor records which were buy and large, not the kind of music we wanted to play on a rock ‘n’ roll radio station! He would fire me when I would come in from my two weeks at sea and I’d go say goodbye to Ronan, and Ronan was saying “No no I’m hiring you back – get back out there in a couple of weeks”.
It was unique and also introduced me to mobile music which is what I call taking a couple of turntables and going into the pub and playing music for people live. I do believe Dave Lee Travis was the first one to do that but I was probably the first one to take it to the next level, which was the Rosko roadshow, and that of course was huge and that’s how I made a living.
You didn’t get paid a lot on the Radio One, so that’s how I made my real dosh if you will. The roadshow went out nightly with Gogo dancers and I had a live percussionist and 5000 watts of speakers, big light shows and all the rest!
The other stations were of course Radio Luxembourg – they took the show on tape – and I had French Radio Luxembourg too, which was part of Ronan O’Reilly’s deal with the owner of several newspapers, who owned a majority share of French Luxembourg, which was 1,000,000 Watt long wave very boring station playing boring music and a lot of politics. They wanted to turn it into a more fun station. Ronan pulled me off the ship, and said “Here’s your new wages, go live in Paris and change it around!!”
Well it was impossible to do to be honest – we concentrated on the 4 to 6pm show I think it was and they built for us a studio for the ‘self DJ’, it did not exist back in those days, you had to have an engineer play in your music, so part and parcel of changing the sound was changing the format and and so I was given carte blanche to do that.
I flew a team of 12 to Dallas to Pam’s jingles and we recorded about 100 of their jingles into French and launched. The show that was formatted to be half English American music half French rock ‘n’ roll was called Mini Max and we were very successful in our time slot.
At the same time I was also doing Radio One! Radio One had only just begun and I remember a man in a tweed jacket looking very British showed up one day at the studio and introduced himself saying “I’m going to be your producer if you do the show, and we’d like you to do an hour once a week on a brand new station, called Radio One” once again, the names escaping. That man was Derek Chinery, who later went on to be the Programme Controller for the station. He seemed to be very impressed with our setup and I said to Derek “I’ll do the show, but I’m not flying to London every week to do it – I’ll send you a tape.” He agreed and the midday spin was born!
We heard that you almost started a school for DJs?
You’re now breaking my heart – I have to take you back to pre-Capital Radio days in London (1970-71) when the world was awash and rumours of all these commercial stations that were going to start, and I thought to myself ‘Yes but who’s gonna man them?!’ It was hard enough finding enough good DJs, so the idea of the Rosko school of broadcasting came to be and unfortunately it ended in a disaster, but the idea was there, it was sound and if I would’ve gotten lucky I would be a millionaire today!
Here’s how it played out. I told my manager at the time, Henry, that we needed to buy some buildings for the school and he organized the purchase through a well-known bank. There were two buildings on the Portobello Road that were full of people which was the only downside. This was approximately one year or so before commercial radio came to be. He was collecting rent from the squatters, and not emptying the place like he was supposed to. I had the manager of the band Roxy music investing their money as well in it, and we were going to train DJs. Suffice to say we didn’t get any further.
But had I done what I wanted to do we would’ve had those two buildings full of equipment and students, but of course the school was not built and it was a fairly unhappy ending to what was a brilliant idea.
You’ve grown up through various broadcasting gear, what kind of equipment are you using nowadays?
Now! I had a great mixer that lasted for 25 or 30 years that was made by our RACKY – $35,000 retail at the time – they only made a few of them, and it was one of the first ones that had memory in the faders. The downside was it only had six weeks of battery power on the faders at the time – I didn’t know that of course so if I went and turned off the studio, went on holiday for four weeks, I just about lost everything!
They then came out with the non-memory fader which saved me, but thateventually ended up in the garage because it just got old.
I have found it much easier to use a cheaper unit now – currently a Behringer – which has two mono, and eight stereo faders and a sub panel with all the good stuff built-in. It’s not so much the mixer, even though it’d be nice to have a very expensive one, but I also use the 360 machines to replace the cart machines, also known as instant replay, and you can put 1500 jingles or effects into each one. I use three of them which I am running almost simultaneously on the show along with the U87 mic I play in everything on CDs which offers me a lot of flexibility.
I am currently exploring the possibility of moving everything into software, as CDs are now very passe, but that would be a big jump for me at my age. On the mic we use an Apex 230 voice exciter and that’s basically it along with some limiter compressors.
How do you see the future of radio?
I see it continuing in the direction it is except with more AI and automation. I will remain the same , but I ain’t no spring chicken anymore so I’ll just go with the flow until the voice goes – until then see you on the weekend!