8 boss radio DJs who rocked the airwaves in the '60s and '70s

Did you listen to Don Steele, Dave Diamond and Don Rose?

Image: Death Race 2000, New World Pictures

Today, podcasters are the celebrities of the airwaves. Music hardly has anything to do with it. But back in the era of AM radio, deejays were gods. Planet-sized personalities like Murray the K and Wolfman Jack helped make rock 'n' roll a part of American pop culture. 

We've written about some of our favorite DJs before, but that was just the tip of the iceberg. It's a big country, the day is long, and there are dozens of stops along the AM dial. There were loads of DJs. That being said, these celebrities helped make "Boss Radio" — a format that blended the top, hip hits of the day with boisterous talk — an essential part of Boomer youth.

Let's turn back the dial…

1. The Real Don Steele

Don Steele was massive enough to vault from radio to film. Here you can see him in Death Race 2000, the dystopian sci-fi action flick produced by Roger Corman in 1975. Steele — billed as "The Real Don Steele" — played Junior Bruce, the emcee of the deadly Transcontinental Road Race. His fame was such that he also popped up in Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park, Bewitched, Rock 'n' Roll High School and Gremlin. Steele blew up in the mid-'60s as the superstar of KHJ in Los Angeles, the pioneer of "Boss Radio." His afterschool slot in the schedule likely helped. KHJ made stars of much of its roster (there are more DJs below) but Steele was the one who got his own local L.A. television show, Boss City and later The Real Don Steele TV Show.

Image: Death Race 2000, New World Pictures

2. Sam Riddle

Coming to Los Angeles from Texas, Riddle joined the stable of hot jocks at KHJ-93. Riddle was also a celebrity on the small screen, hosting the music showcases Hollywood a Go-Go and 9th Street West. A few years later, he would team with "Mama" Cass Elliot to co-host 1970's Get It Together, another American Bandstand-like performance show that welcomed the likes of the Beach Boys and Creedence Clearwater Revival. Like his colleague Steele, Riddle also played a race announcer in a popcorn movie, in the Elvis flick Clambake (1967). His pop influence carried over into the '80s and '90s, as he produced Star Search, the talent competition hosted by Ed McMahon.

Image: The Everett Collection

3. Art Roberts

Art helped bring rock to Chicago. The big fish at WLS-AM 890, Roberts took over the 9PM to midnight shift from Dick Biondi at the peak of the British Invasion and embraced the time slot with his bedtime stories. A collection of them was released on vinyl called Hip Fables. The creative storyteller came up with kooky characters such as Hooty Saperticker, a sort of lazy ne'er-do-well.

Image: Quill Records

4. Johnny Rabbitt

Moving across the Midwest a bit, we come to St. Louis, home of Johnny Rabbitt. Ron Elz found his real name a little hard to understand over the radio, so he whipped up the persona Johnny Rabbitt, a monicker reportedly inspired by an actual guy he knew in the city named Easter Rabbitt. Well, that's one origin story. It's more complicated. Another jock named Bud Connell claimed to have created the Johnny Rabbitt personality, a blend of Johnny Carson and a Playboy Bunny, in 1960. Whatever the case, KXOK-AM 630 quickly replaced Elz with Don Pietromonaco, a former child actor, as Rabbitt. "Don Pietro" turned Rabbitt into a sensation, also voicing another beloved character, the lazy teenager Bruno J. Grunion. Asking young callers to "Blab it to the Rabbitt," Pietromonaco made KXOK a ratings giant.

Image: KXOK / STLMediaHistory

5. Dr. Don Rose

A coast-to-coast sensation, Rose won "Disc Jockey of the Year" working both in Philly and San Francisco. His contribution to radio lies in the morning show, as he pioneered the concept of "morning zoo," bouncing around markets in Iowa and Georgia early in his career. Working in Atlanta, he was heard on the popular Cruisin' series of rock compilation albums. Rose relied on comedy and sound effects (barnyard animals, cowbells) to liven up his broadcasts. He was "shock jock" before that term was coined.

Image: Increase Records

6. Roger Christian

Roger Christian, another KHJ superstar who came to L.A. after honing his craft in Upstate New York, did not just play rock 'n' roll — he helped make it. A lover of hot rods and poetry, Christian co-wrote several Beach Boys tunes, including "Don't Worry Baby" and "Little Deuce Coupe." He also penned loads of classics for Jan and Dean that celebrated California youth culture — especially motors — like "Dead Man's Curve" and "Drag City." Murry Wilson, the domineering dad of the Beach Boys, sent his brilliant son Brian to collaborate with Christian after hearing the DJ talk cars.

7. Gary Mack

In May 1965, KHJ took out an ad in The Los Angeles Times announcing its original seven "Boss Jocks." That included Riddle, Steele, and Christian (not to mention an elephant) — as well as Mack, the afternoon disc jockey. Just how popular was the format change? "We went from 23rd place in the market to number one in 90 days!" Mack wrote. "It was fast-paced, with short breaks, great music, constant contests and promotions. And it just got bigger and better. Big-name artists dropped by just to say hello — Mick Jagger, Sonny and Cher, all of 'em"

8. Dave Diamond

Dave Diamond (yep, he worked at KHJ, too, in primetime) would show his influence on rock 'n' roll through his love of psychedelia. He not only spun acid-inspired music, but his show itself would also get out there. Take it from M*A*S*H writer Ken Levine, who counted Diamond as one of his close friends. "He realized that radio was the medium of imagination. He could create whole worlds. Which he did," Levine wrote on his blog. "Just as Jack Benny delighted listeners in the '30s and '40s with his trips down to his private vault where he kept his money, guarded by alligators and whatnot, Dave Diamond welcomed you to the Diamond Mine. Through poetic psychedelic imagery… he created this whole mythical Wonderland. And you didn’t have to take LSD to experience it!"

SEE MORE: 8 more boss disc jockeys of the 1960s. Did you listen to any of them?

Turn the dial back half a century and dig these other pioneers and promoters of rock & roll.

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nightshade 14 days ago
i remember don Steele on k-earth 101 in the 80s and 90s ....I also remember the Saturday his wife came on air and gave a eulogy as he died of cancer the previous day
jonnieking 16 days ago
First, my thanks to the MeTV for adding my great friend & mentor Don "Johnny Rabbitt" Pietromonaco ! Don & I had both been actors and studied at the Pasadena Playhouse in California before we got in radio, and I worked with Don at KXOK from 1965-1967, here in St. Louis

Bud Connell, mentioned above, was not a DJ at the time he created the "Johnny Rabbitt" persona, he was the Storz Radio's PD at WMAQ, Miami, then came to St. Louis as P.D., and started use of the name here. Yes, he first used Ron Elz as the "Rabbitt", but after the first year (1963-1964) that wasn't working out so he hired Don from KRIZ in Phoenix...and the rest is Radio History !

In September of 1967, I started my own On-The-Air career, first at a small station in Southeast Missouri, then in April of 1969, I was hired by Lin Broadcasting at 50,000 Watt/KAAY-AM in Little Rock, as MD/Air Personality, then to WDRQ-FM in Detroit for Bartell Broadcasting in 1972, and in August, 1973, was asked to come back to St. Louis as MD/Air Personality, for our sister station KSLQ-FM. All the while, Don and I stayed in-touch, and he was so happy about the moves I made.

Don left KXOK, around 1970, and went back to Phoenix, and then to California where he started a school called "Rabbitt's Word Of Mouth" teaching students voice-over techniques & film production. I visited him there, and he always hoped that we could work together in L.A. with him doing Afternoon Drive (2pm-6pm) & my doing the 6pm-10pm Slot...so we could do a late-dinner, or whatever we wanted after we got off.

Sadly, that never happened, and Don passed-away, April 18th, 1997. I still miss him, and "Bruno", everyday. Thanks for taking the time to read this.
My Pasadena Playhouse pal/recording star, Gary Lewis, at an Interview Session I brought him to for Rabbitt
Notice the cigarette[?] clenched tightly between the first gentleman's thumb and index fingers.
stephaniestavrs5...
If you'll look at the surprised expression on my pal Gary Lewis's face, it's because I (that's me in the middle} had just informed him that "there's no smoking in the studio !" (This pic/and interview with the Rabbitt took place in the KXOK On-Air Studio on Monday, April 18th, 1966. Ironically, Don died on April 18th, 1997...EXACTLY 31 Years after we had been together at that Interview with Gary.)
MrBoogie 18 days ago
I grew up in radio starting in 1972 Albany Ga and listened many of these great DJs on here… In those days without internet you listened late at night when most of the 50000 watt stations had the airwaves to themselves, hence the term is where the term came from …“Clear Chsnenl”
I used to do the same thing "back in the day." I remember, {as I moved up and down the dial,} hearing stations from Michigan, Wisconsin. The farthest I can remember hearing one was either/both Kentucky and Ohio. This happened late at night. I'm assuming the reason why I could was like you said: "clear channel." The airwaves were not cluttered like they are/were during the daytime. Less listeners at night. It was fun hearing what other djs folks heard. What shows were on.
NormHinderliter 18 days ago
So, Don Steel actually WAS a radio personality? No wonder he found it so easy to make Death Race 2000 viewers think he was the "real deal". He actually was.
I wonder how many other "d.j.'s" that he had to compete with, for the D.R. 2000 role?
bemims 18 days ago
Rick Dees, Wolfman Jack, Kasey Kaseem and Chicago’s very own Herb Kent
Piglet 19 days ago
Grew up with Dr. Don Rose on KFRC in the San Francisco / Bay Area starting in the 70's. He was a wonderful DJ and person! So funny yet very caring. Wishing many blessings to his family.
L 19 days ago
Anyone who lived within the waves of Boston knows the one DJ that was majorly popular was Dale Dorman. Love him or hate him, he was the man to listen to.
Zip 19 days ago
I was a baby during the late 60's, so I never heard of these guys. I probably have seen the first guy because I have watched Death Race 2000, though.
geatornez82 19 days ago
Never heard of any of these guys, I'm sorry to say. Could be because I wasn't born yet (I'm a child of the 80's, but I love classic TV, courtesy of Nick at Nite and TV Land back when I was a kid).
TheDavBow3 20 days ago
I have a Paul Revere and the Raiders album, "Hard N Heavy (With Marshmallow)", from 1969. One of the top 5 albums of 1969, IMO, I might add. Severely underrated record. The Real Don Steele added some special narration intro-ing a few of the tracks. A little corny and trying too hard but still fun and cool. You Tube the album, my friends!
Doola005 20 days ago
I never heard of any of these people. I remember Cousin Brucie and Alison Steel.

Jaxter14 Doola005 20 days ago
Wow, The Nightbird! 👍
Amalthea 20 days ago
People in New England can remember Dale Dorman on WRKO!
KJExpress Amalthea 19 days ago
Oh my, yes! I was trying to remember his name.
Moverfan 20 days ago
I grew up in southeastern Michigan and started out listening to CKLW "The Big 8" out of Windsor, Ontario. Never heard of any of the guys in the article, but I fondly remember Ted "The Bear" Richards, Brother Bill Gable and Geno Kahn (no, I'm not sure how he spelled his name). Favorite memory--Geno waz reading the weather forecast on the overnight show and at the end of it, he told tbe absolute truth..."It's two forty-five--and it's dark"!

ncadams27 20 days ago
Our local radio station had a “Name it and Claim It” contest every hour (from 7 PM - 10 PM) after the headline news at :25 past the hour. In the pre-speed dial era I would dial all but the last digit of the radio station phone number then dial the last digit and hold it with my finger. As soon as the song played and I knew it, I would release the dial. After a while they banned me, so I would give my friends addresses and tell them to go to the station and pick up the record. Sometimes they heard it on the air before I had a chance to tell them. The records were used DJ copies of songs the station got as promo copies. I still have some of them. I know most of the sixties songs and their artists. I test myself on my Sirius XM radio as they display the artist and title in the screen in my car. Could sometimes get the song on the first note.
LOL! We had one of those old Bell System rotary dial phones in the kitchen. The dial was painted metal, and we had worn the paint off of the 3, 5 and 9 by dialing radio station contests!
Michael ncadams27 19 days ago
In the seventies, the FM station that gphad been "u derground" and still was to some extent, they'd give prizes "to the first five people to appear at our studio".

The studio was three blocks away. I got a bunch of movie passes and albums. I think that's how I saw "FM" in 1978, a film about an FM radio station.

I can't remember why that faded, I suspect they stopped doing it that way.

It was much harder if you had to phone in, but I got some movie pases thst way
bnichols23 20 days ago
Art Roberts! Hadn't thought of him in years! I used to listen to WLS late at night with him, Larry Lujack ("Uncle Lar," God rest his soul.), Ron Riley, & the other nuts at WLS. I even won one of their contests, about coffee being the "Think Drink." & got a really slick coffee mug [broken later, dang it :(].

Like I guess everybody outside the LA area, I never really knew much about The Real Don Steele until Death Race 2000 came out. That guy was just crackers. A lot of his old airchecks are still available out there on the net. "Tina Delgado is alive, alive!" After he died, his wife said even she didn't know who the heck Tina Delgado was.....
TazMDevil bnichols23 18 days ago
would crack up every time little snot-nosed Tommy would say "Is he going to be OK Uncle Lar?"
tootsieg 20 days ago
Great article. NY AM radio stations in the 60’s were the best. The Good Guys on WMCA and the All Americans on WABC. I always had my transistor radio glued to my ear walking to and from school.
Jaxter14 tootsieg 20 days ago
Yes! Being from NJ I remember both of those stations but you really brought me back with The Good Guys. Nice job
WordsmithWorks 21 days ago
I came of age just past the AM radio era, but did listen to The Real Don Steele on KHJ -- well most likely my Dad did and I was just there. Not quite old enough to be nostalgic, but I do remember you could listen to one station forever when on a road trip.
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