Century Cruising

by Molly Lambert

photography by Lydia Horne

In Los Angeles, 100 years is basically the oldest something can be unless it’s from the prehistoric era when giant animals wandered the very swamps that would one day be paved over with tar.  The Foursquare Gospel church where Aimee Semple McPherson pioneered the modern megachurch just turned a hundred years old.  The Hollywood Bowl celebrated its birthday last year, another recent centenarian.  I’m a native of what my friend Lulu White called “America’s most absurd city.”  It’s not that LA has no history, it’s that its history is always being repaved.  The only constant here is change. 

That might sound unmooring — but to me it's a comfort.  Human civilization is, after all, just a set built on soundstage Earth, and it’ll all burn or flood back to zero eventually. If you want to find out what used to exist in this swamp, you have to excavate it out from all the new stuff piled on top.  And personally, I love digging into this place’s many ephemeral frequencies.
One way I unearth gold is by listening to AM radio.  

Lately I’ve been into a station called KYPA.  Going from 1230 AM into the night, KYPA is one of the oldest stations still broadcasting in LA, with nearly 100 years of programming and format shifts tracing a cultural history of the city since 1927, back when it was called KGFJ and broadcast live orchestral music at 100 watts from an Oddfellows Hall on Washington Boulevard.  It launched the career of recently deceased The Price Is Right host Bob Barker, who was scouted from one of their radio quiz shows, and in the 1950s, during the height of cali car cruising, it was an R&B station — one of the few in LA playing music by black artists.  

During a stint when it aired motivational speakers the station rebranded as KYPA, “Your Personal Achievement.” It temporarily became a 24 hour talk radio station during the LA Riots. Then, in 2002, it was bought by Woori Media and became the Korean language station I know it to be today.

I found the station scanning the AM airwaves one night on a dark highway home, happening upon Dave Berry singing “The Crying Game” as if it were floating in from outer space.  Though KYPA’s mostly talk, I check it constantly trying to find this same mysterious music show — soft rock and standards in Korean and English; a host doing patter about the tracks in between. 

On the KYPA mystery radio show I’ve heard “Winter World Of Love” by Englebert Humperdinck and “Welcome To My World” by The Anita Kerr Singers, who pioneered the high produced string-heavy Nashville sound.  I’ve been introduced to Lee Su Mi’s “High School Days” between Abba and The Carpenters.  

While FM stations are mostly predictable, I listen to AM stations because I never know what I’ll find.  Or what I’ll lose, as AM stations regularly change ownership and format, forcing me to trawl for new hosts; new beats.  Which is also what makes AM listening bittersweet. You can’t get too attached to any one show, because there’s a good chance it’ll disappear within a year. 

When I’m driving I can’t really think about what music I want to listen to.  I hate the various apps’ algorithms and I don’t really use Spotify, because I need to listen to Neil Young.  What I want is ambient wallpaper. 

Terrestrial mainstream stations are bad, sure, and predictable — but that’s what I need when I’m driving. I listen to KLOS not to hear anything new, but because I’ll find a badly compressed version of “Love In An Elevator” by Aerosmith every single day.  Ditto “The Boys Are Back in Town.” And you know what? I will be excited every single time.  

Plus, I like switching stations when they go to commercial — or continuing to listen through when the commercials are for Morongo Casino or the guy who does those yelling sermons about local car insurance. I like the tactile sensation of pushing the button to flip. Press press press. It’s fun to search for something I can stand to hear. And classic rock stations function like a jukebox someone else programmed.  Sure I could listen to the version with the correct levels but I have a fondness for the stepped on ones too. 

If FM sounds like it’s been run over a couple times — AM sounds like it’s being broadcast from a spaceship underwater. The kind of sound popularized on YouTube; people running songs through a filter and posting it as “music playing from another room.”  

Some stations I have loved and lost include one that only broadcasts Bollywood hits, and a Taiwanese station which played singers like Sylvia Chang.  My home base now is a station called K Mozart that plays classical music sounding like it’s in a barrel going over a waterfall — which replaced my favorite station of all time a couple years back: KSURF. 

KSURF was the platonic ideal of an AM station, playing an oldies format, tracks from the 1950s and 60s, capping out at about 1979.  Instead of DJs, it had a call sign in the shape of a seagull and the sound of waves at the beach. 

The call sign served as a kind of post-hypnotic trigger.  But instead of summoning me to assassinate celebrities, it took me into a state of perfect alignment with the road. I can only compare it to the feeling of playing a really good game of pinball.  A flow of the mind and the machine; a place where you’re not thinking about anything at all.


I recently asked my friend David, who reads Korean, to check out the KYPA website and tell me what my mystery show is called and when it airs. He poked around and said he couldn’t find a schedule on the site. A few google-rabbit-holes later, I couldn’t find any information either.  which feels like a throwback to an era of media consumption when sometimes you just had to wonder.

At its very best, tuning into AM radio feels like you’re tuning into a past that runs under the city of Los Angeles like its fault lines.  The ground underneath your feet could crack open at any moment and reveal the truth: ghosts are riding alongside us on every road, in Chevrolet convertibles and stagecoaches.  Just because you can’t see them doesn’t mean they aren’t there.  Just listen. You can hear them on the radio. 

We are no different from any of them, and in just a little bit of time we’ll be paved under this city with swamp tar too.