A Kentucky native and longtime lover of music, particularly country, folk and rock ‘n’ roll, Robert Hilburn ’61 (Journalism) served as the Los Angeles Times pop music critic from 1970-2005.
During his 35-year tenure as a music critic — “the greatest job in the world,” according to Hilburn — he interviewed icons such as Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Stevie Wonder, John Lennon, Michael Jackson, Dr. Dre and Eminem.
Hilburn almost picked a different university but decided on CSUN (then known as San Fernando Valley State College) for its smaller class sizes. He planned to transfer from Valley State to UCLA after two years, he said. However, as Hilburn got to know his professors and saw how knowledgeable they were, he knew he had to stay at CSUN.
A proud Matador, Hilburn said that the start of his success was his first step on the campus.
“The real foundation was here in class,” he said. “You do a good job, you work hard, you press the teacher. That’s really important. You have to show a passion for something. Your college years are a big opportunity, but you’ve got to get into it.”
Hilburn recalled that a professor’s letter of recommendation helped him land his first newspaper gig, a summer internship at Valley Times (which ceased publication in 1970).
“I would go [to Valley Times] every morning at around 6:30, and we would basically write stories and they’d come out the next day,” Hilburn said. “I covered the West Valley — it was [about] getting started and learning about the newspaper business.”
After graduation from Valley State, Hilburn was hired full time at Valley Times. He worked there until 1964, leaving when he lost interest in newspapers and wanted a break from being on call, he said.
Hilburn switched to public affairs, working for the Los Angeles Unified School District as a public information officer, writing speeches for officials and talking to the press.
The siren song of the daily press soon called again, however. Hilburn missed writing and noticed that news organizations of the time were barely covering the burgeoning careers of rock legends such as Bob Dylan and the Beatles, he said.
“I went to the Los Angeles Times as a freelancer, and I said, ‘Could I write about pop music?’ And they said, ‘Sure,’” Hilburn said. “They said ‘sure’ because the guy who was the editor of the Valley Times had come from Time magazine, and the editor of the Calendar section at the LA Times was from Time magazine.
“They knew each other, and [my former boss] recommended me and got me the job at the LA Times,” he continued. “So, again, it was the university getting me the first job, and the person at that job [who got me the job at LA Times].”
Hilburn said that in 1969, the Times wanted a pop critic, not just a freelancer writing about music. By 1970, Hilburn had earned a job as the newspaper’s first full-time, non-freelance pop music critic.
After three and a half decades as the paper’s renowned critic, Hilburn has plenty of stories about his experiences in the music industry and working with its legends. In 2009, he published a memoir, Corn Flakes with John Lennon: And Other Tales from a Rock ‘n’ Roll Life. The book received acclaim from musical icons such as Bono, Yoko Ono and Elton John.
Currently, Hilburn is working on a biography of Rock & Roll Hall of Famer Paul Simon, set for release in spring 2018.
Hilburn remains an active member of the CSUN community by hosting Rock ‘n’ Roll Times, which airs from 6 to 7 p.m. Sundays on The New 88.5 FM. On the weekly show and during his visits to campus, the music critic and author encourages current students to find something that truly piques their interest, as he did when he was a Matador.
“If you can find something on campus you love doing — if it’s sports, dancing, journalism for me,” he said. “You have to find what you want to do. That passion really helps you do a good job.”
Hilburn’s show is available for live streaming at 6 p.m. Sundays at www.885fm.org.