Wednesday, October 31, 2007

War of the Worlds

The story of Orson Welles' "War of the Worlds" broadcast -- which panicked a nation jittery in the run-up to World War II -- has always been one of my favorite radio stories, and I got to write about it back in 2003, on the 65th anniversary of the broadcast. That column also turned out to be the penultimate "Around the Dial" for the Times, as the paper canceled the feature the following week. Here's the link.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Michael Jackson seeks to reclaim his place in L.A.'s talk radio

A longtime force is 'nervous and excited' over his return today at KGIL-AM, which is retooling with a talk/news format.
By Steve Carney, Special to The Times
October 29, 2007

Today, Michael Jackson, the onetime stalwart of Los Angeles talk radio, begins what he hopes will be his last job. Before this, though, he wondered if he'd already worked his last job.

At 9 a.m., his new two-hour program debuts on KGIL-AM (1260), five years after he signed off his last talk show, ending a run that began with his arrival on Los Angeles airwaves in 1963 and included a landmark three-decade stint at KABC-AM (790).

"I'm usually just excited," said the wry and erudite Briton. "Now I'm nervous and excited. I've been off for a while."

His is the marquee name on the news/talk station being launched by radio entrepreneur Saul Levine, replacing the classical music on what had been KMZT-AM ("K-Mozart") since February. The weekday lineup begins at 6 a.m. with "Larry King Live," followed at 7 a.m. by the two-hour newsmagazine "The Wall Street Journal This Morning." Libertarian host Neal Boortz will air from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., followed by radio psychologist Joy Browne from 2 to 5 p.m. Jackson's show will air live from 9 to 11 a.m., with a replay from 5 to 7 p.m.

"Michael Jackson remains one of the best-known brands in Los Angeles talk radio and, as a result, will bring interest, credibility and notoriety to this new talk format," said Michael Harrison, publisher of Talkers magazine, the industry trade journal. "He's legendary. That's what a station like that can use."

From 1966 to 1998, Jackson held court at KABC with collegial, noncombative interviews of politicians, celebrities, authors and more ordinary Angelenos with a story to tell. He dominated his morning time slot and pushed KABC to the top of the local ratings, until Rush Limbaugh debuted at rival KFI-AM (640) and, with his brash style and zealous partisanship, began his ascendancy over a new brand of talk radio.

Moving around the dial

Citing the drop in listeners, KABC exiled Jackson to weekends for his last year at the station. He left for weekdays at KRLA-AM, then at 1110 on the dial, but a format change forced him off the air in 2000. He landed at KLAC-AM (570) but lost his show again when that station switched to music in 2002.

News station KNX-AM (1070) hired Jackson in 2004 to record interviews with newsmakers, which were played in snippets throughout the day. But he grew frustrated, he said, when 45-minute talks with Hillary Clinton or John McCain turned into three or four minutes on the air. When his contract expired in May 2006, the station didn't renew.

"I think each of us in our careers have been rejected, and felt if you weren't wanted today, there's even less reason to want you tomorrow," Jackson, 73, said in an interview last week. "Over time, I became less convinced there'd be another opportunity."

Then Levine called, saying he was starting a news/talk station that he wanted to be balanced, between the fringe commentary on the left and right of talk radio, and that he wanted Jackson to work weekday mornings.

"It's everything I dreamed of," Jackson said.

He said he's already lined up appearances by Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, L.A. Police Chief William Bratton, California's U.S. senators -- Democrats Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein -- and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco). Admittedly left of center in his worldview, Jackson said, "I have views and I'll express them, but if you want to contest them I'll welcome that. I don't have to win every exchange."

"My job is to get guests on to say everything they want to say, and then a little more," Jackson said. He also promised to be more focused on L.A. and California than syndicated hosts from the East Coast, such as Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Bill O'Reilly.

News on the menu

Erik Braverman, operations director at KABC, said a Jackson-style show "is a forum for big-name guests or politicians to get on the air and talk about the issues of the day. Today's talk radio is a little more host-driven, a little more personality-driven."

Jackson, he said, has "a friendlier sound than what talk radio has become. There's clearly room for that. [National Public Radio] does a similar thing. Is there room for it to garner a large audience? I don't know."

Saying he's dissatisfied with the shrinking amount of news on the air, Levine will also offer world, national and local news, and traffic, from Associated Press and Metro Networks.

"The biggest complaint from everyone I know is the lack of news on the radio. If you want a cooking show or a computer show, you can hear it," Levine joked. "It's not worth my time" to wait for news.

Weekday evenings, the station will play adult standards from 7 p.m. until King's show at 6 a.m. The music of Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett and Ella Fitzgerald will fill weekends too.

Levine knows he has a reputation for changing formats -- since he bought the station in 1993, the 1260 frequency has aired standards, all Beatles, news, traffic, show tunes, jazz, country and classical -- but he said he's committed to the news/talk format, at least for the next one to two years. He said it could take at least six months before the new KGIL gains traction, but he's hopeful for an eventual 1% to 2% share of the local audience.

That rating would land it in competition with 17th-place KABC, which garnered 2% of listeners age 12 and older in the summer Arbitron ratings, the most recent available, as well as with conservative talk station KRLA-AM (870), at 1.1%, and left-leaning talker KTLK-AM (1150), which tied for 30th place at 0.8%. Also in that neighborhood are the all-news stations Levine hopes to compete with: KNX at 1.7% and KFWB-AM (980) at 1.3%.

KTLK program director Don Martin said that if the battle ends up between his station on the left, KRLA on the right and KGIL in the center, "that means there's three talk stations fishing in a very small pond."

"What we all have to figure out: Is there enough room?" said Martin, who added that listeners on the left and right are loyal and will be hard to peel off.

The entire group lags far behind spoken-word leader KFI, the L.A. venue for Limbaugh and outlet for locals Bill Handel and "The John & Ken Show," with John Kobylt and Ken Chiampou. That station placed third in the market during the summer, with a 4.5% share of the audience.

Jackson said he's relishing a ratings fight with Limbaugh and with O'Reilly on KABC, who share his time slot.

"I think people are looking for something new," Jackson said, "and maybe it's old."