Pulling the mike on L.A.'s dean of talk a big mistake
DiMaggio without a bat. Horowitz without a piano. Picasso without a brush. If you can picture such improbabilities, you may be able to picture another: Michael Jackson, the dean of talk radio in Los Angeles, without a microphone.
Yet, at noon, Dec. 12, that is exactly what will happen. At the end of Jackson's 3-hour, 5-day-a-week show, radio station KLAC will pull the plug on him and its other talk show hosts. Why? To return to the all-music format it abandoned two years ago.
And I thought newspapers did dumb things.
Jackson is stunned. "I wish I understood it,' says Southern California's premier talk radio figure for three decades. "All I know is that in every single trend rating in the demographics they were seeking to improve upon, I went up. Commercially, I'm completely sold out.'
The change comes at a time when, perhaps, Jackson has never been better. His in-studio guest list reflects that: Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings, Al and Tipper Gore all in the last week, all shunning phone interviews they might have given other radio hosts to meet in person with Jackson.
"Nobody turns us down,' he says proudly.
But that only adds to the sting Jackson feels in losing his show. He explains the machinations that have put the political right in talk- show ascendancy, while making liberal hosts such as himself an endangered species.
"Talk shows are dominated by conservatives, probably because they reflect the political leanings of station managers, who, in the main, come up through the ranks of sales rather than through news, entertainment and programming. Also, they are in the main, although not entirely, hoping to emulate the success of (Rush) Limbaugh."
KLAC, its sister station, KFI, and nearly 1,300 others are owned by Clear Channel Radio. But those vast holdings may prevent the company's front office from correctly measuring the politics, public opinion, and personalities in its local markets.
Says Jackson, "The change at KLAC had nothing whatsoever to do with me." And, he adds, it had nothing to do with the rise of conservative talk-show hosts. "I don't want to sound like sour grapes. I don't want to sound as if hosts on the political right have driven me out. The decision was a business one where the owners feel that they can make more money by cutting the staff, in front of the microphone and backstage, and by running canned music."
"My show was way ahead of expectations in the ratings at this stage of development. I had been on the air for just one and a half years, and the company had decided that they were not going to spend any money promoting the project. By contrast, look around. Our successful sister station, KFI, is publicized and advertised everywhere."
Jackson says he had high hopes for KLAC when it went to all-talk. "I really thought that this was going to be the station that was going to make it." He adds, "I never worked for a nicer group and more talented young people. But at the same time, I never met the people who make the decisions."
It is possible, he says, that Clear Channel has misread the L.A.-area market, and has failed to grasp the presence of an extensive audience for a liberal talk show. (He defines a liberal talk-show host as one "open to all points of view.')
"California is different from the rest of the nation," he says. "Every single major elective office in the state is held by a Democrat: the governor, lieutenant governor, the assembly and senate, the mayor of L.A., the attorney general, all of them. And so, KLAC turns off the microphones to talk.'
As for shows on the political right, he says, "All these conservative talk shows are syndicated some from here, others from New York. And they all have one thing in common: they broadcast nothing that will qualify as local or regional, hence they have said nothing about any number of significant California stories."
Pointing to regional or state stories he has "fully covered," he lists the recent port-worker dispute, the California, L.A. and Long Beach elections, L.A. as the "Murder Capital of California,' medical marijuana, illegal immigration, runaway production in the film industry.
"Not a peep from the syndicated shows. I could list dozens of stories they won't touch. And every day, I talk about California. Every day I talk about the Los Angeles area.'
While Jackson, who may have radio's longest-running talk-show career, encourages opposing political viewpoints on his programs, he does a poor job of hiding his disdain for conservative talk-show hosts.
"I can't believe listeners only want to have sycophants who are lambasting Democrats and calling for war. They're already putting down Nancy Pelosi (new House Democratic Whip) as a 'San Francisco liberal' code word: pro- gay."
His condemnation of right-wing hosts has its limits. Earlier this year, when I asked his nomination for the best in the talk-radio business, he did not hesitate. "Rush Limbaugh."
Jackson does not dwell on ratings as a measure of success and I don't follow ratings myself, but an industry source tells me he is outpacing KABC, including its newest syndicated enlistee, Bill O'Reilly, whose show, "The Radio Factor,' runs opposite Jackson in the same time slot. (Jackson, 9 to noon; O'Reilly 9 to 11.)
There is a football analogy to all this. The same market, the second-largest in America, that cannot field a professional football team seems unable to field the most professional of all radio talk show hosts. (The nation's Radio Talk Show Host of the Year, 1999.)
Jackson is no quitter. He has been on the street before, having left KABC after 32 years when it was purchased by Disney and his morning show was moved to weekends. "I have a passion to get back on the air soon,' he now says, although admitting, "It's going to be tough."
While I know nothing about the talk-radio industry, a scenario, a sort of radio fantasy, comes to mind: Put Jackson back where he began in Los Angeles, at KABC, 9 a.m. to noon. Since O'Reilly is syndicated and does hardly any local (L.A. area) topics, move him to evenings.
Maybe that won't happen. Maybe the folks in charge at KABC aren't going to take kindly to a newspaper guy telling them how to run their business. I can understand that.
On the other hand, I sure hope somebody out there sends them this column. Frankly, KABC needs Michael Jackson.
And so does Southern California.
Tom Hennessy's viewpoint appears Sunday, Tuesday, Thursday & Friday. He can be reached at (562) 499-1270, or via e-mail at Scribe17@aol.com