August 24 , 2004

A few prized minutes with Michael Jackson

His brief on-air slots a KNX-AM are a far cry from his halcyon days a KABC, but Jackson is glad for what he's got.

By Steve Carney
Special to the Times

After 19 months in the wilderness, Michael Jackson has returned to familiar territory— not just in front of the microphone, but even to the same building where he got fired for talking about the Watts riots in 1965.

"It even smell the same way." Jackson said of KNX-AM (1070), "like furniture polish on wood paneling."

A month into his new assignment as a interviewer on KNX, the 70-year-old talk-radio pioneer has already queried a wide spectrum of guests, from comedy writer and touring "Hairspray" star Bruce Vilanch to former CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite. He's talked to Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Newport Beach) and Donna Brazile, Al Gore's 2000 presidential campaign manager.

And though longtime fans of the host, who held court mid-days on KABC-AM (790) for three decades, might have trouble adjusting to hearing him in three-minute increments instead of three-hour blocks, Jackson said, "I really feel a little bit like kid in a candy shop."

He said he's eager to give airtime to voices not heard elsewhere on the radio, if anywhere, and his new boss said he's counting on that wide breadth of guests for which Jackson is known.

"He did a very good talk show, but he really is expert at interviews," said David G. Hall, vice president for programming at KNX and its sister all-news station, KFWB-AM (980). He noted that during Jackson's heyday a KABC, he was known for talking to every president from Johnson through Clinton, and a range of celebrities including Hank Aaron and Liza Minnelli.

"Michael is just so warm and respecting, no matter who he's talking to," Hall said. "I don't' know if there's a better interviewer in radio."

Art of the interview

Two weeks ago Jackson talked to economist Arthur Laffer, father of the Reagan-era theory of supply-side economics, and last Thursday he talked with Father Gregory J. Boyle, a Jesuit priest who runs Homeboy Industries, which gives jobs to former L.A. gang members.

"The way they're using him is very effective. It's both smart and good," said Michael Harrison, publisher of "Talkers", the trade journal of the talk-radio industry. "His interview skills were in fact the essence of his quality."

Hall said some hosts in the world of talk radio act as if they're prosecuting their guests, while Jackson "interviews like he's a defense attorney who puts the defendant on the stand. It's a friendly environment, but the questions have to be tough."  

"He gets them to say things they don't say to anybody else, they thank him for it, and then come back the next time," Hall said.

In his first interview for KNX, with Disney Chief Executive Michael Eisner, Jackson delicately asked about the company's refusal to distribute Michael Moore's political documentary "Fahrenheit 9/11," even referring to the film as "you-know-what" Eisner replied, "We don't think that our customers and our shareholders expect or want us to be a partisan political company." Jackson countered by asking Eisner to reconcile that stance with Disney subsidiary ABC's talk-radio stations employing "many of the most hard-edged, in-your-face, obviously pro-Bush hosts that never concern themselves about balance."

Eisner first offered that ABC News is constantly accused "of being on the left side," then parsed an argument that none of ABC's radio programs — whose hosts include outspoken conservatives Sean Hannity and Larry Elder — "had a specific point of view for a point of time absolutely before an election, to influence an election and only to influence an election, with the kind of notoriety that you got from a Michael Moore film."

Jackson questioned Cronkite about impartiality among journalists, and pressed Brazile about regrets for publicly repeating infidelity rumors about President George H.W. Bush, which got her fired from a key position in Michael Dukakis' 1988 campaign.

"We're trying to present all sides," Hall said, "We're not a talk station. We're not trying to sway it one way or the other."

The interviews aren't pegged to specific times, like most KNX features, but are broken into pieces that air throughout the morning and afternoon drives. Hall said if the station slotted Jackson's interviews at a certain time, then all the listeners whose commutes occurred at different times would miss him entirely. "It seemed like it would get the most exposure if we floated it," he said, "so over the course of a week a listener might catch Jackson two or three times."

Hall said the station also is working to archive Jackson's interviews on its website (, so listeners can catch portions of interviews that they missed and even hear dialogue left out of the snippets that aired.

Jackson said the pair had talked about working together when Hall introduced the host at Jackson's induction into the Radio Hall of Fame in Chicago last year. In addition to that honor, "Talkers" names Jackson on the 25 greatest Talk-Radio hosts of all time.

"He was the dominant personality for decades," Harrison said. "Michael Jackson's name is synonymous with talk radio and its heritage. What a wonderful history to tap into."

Before his tenure a KABC Jackson worked at KNX in 1965, and during the Watts riots that year he interviewed city leaders and civil-rights activist and comedian Dick Gregory. His bosses fired him for refusing to lay off the story.

"I think the management was actually fearful that the FCC could be offended" Jackson said. "They made me feel I was rabble rousing and it couldn't make things any better. I disagree."

Waves of change

He moved to KABC and remained there from 1966 until 1998, leaving after he was bounced from his long weekday slot weekends after ascendance of Rush Limbaugh and his imitators, who turned Jackson's genteel style of talk radio on its head.

"He really kind of created the format," Hall said of Jackson. "Then Rush Limbaugh came along and re-invented it. There are far fewer guests, there are far fewer interviews."

When he left KABC, Jackson contacted Hall — then program director at rival talk station KFI-AM (640), which carried Limbaugh — but Hall said he told Jackson there wasn't a place for him at KFI. To counter-program against his onetime competitor, Hall had built the station as the anti-Jackson.

"I said the station where you really should be is KNX. We kind of laughed about it at the time," Hall said.

Jackson went elsewhere but fell victim to format changes at talk stations KRLA-AM (then 1110) in 2000 and KLAC-AM (570) in 2002, and had been off the air since December of that year.

It's not bad to get your comeuppance, be out of work for a while and then come back," Jackson said, but he never considered retiring. "My head needs it, my heart needs it."