KABC -“the Shrine of Talk Radio”

kabclogo Within a week of relinquishing my responsibilities at M.I. Ventures – Merv Adelson & Irwin Molasky, ie Lorimar, I flew to Los Angeles to be interviewed by George Green who was looking for “someone to take over programming” at KABC. I was pleased that George Green and Chuck Blore worked well together. Chuck’s recommendation was the key to my being chosen from a dozen nationally recognized talk programmers. My talk radio experience was limited but George liked my enthusiasm and resume.

George was one of the few sales oriented managers who also excelled in programming. A great spotter of raw talent, George is responsible for molding many into media stars. George explained his day’s of programming was over, “I want you to come in here and take over the programming of KABC”. I looked forward to learning all I could from George, a disciple of talk radio’s birth.

More than twenty five years earlier, Ben Hoberman, fresh from management successes at ABC’s owned radio stations in Detroit and New York was dispatched to launch the company’s west coast flagship, KECA, soon to become KABC. Music was abundant on Los Angeles radio, leaving “talk” as a alternate format. Ben had already tasted the infancy of a talk format on WOR in New York. It was a step in the dark, revolutionary, by most standards then. Hoberman was given the green light by ABC, and TalkRadio was born in Los Angeles.

Those of us who operated ABC’s top 40 radio stations east of the Mississippi, were always aware our efforts helped feed our poor stepbrothers out west, who under Ben’s explorative format, had not yet achieved financial success. By the 1980’s, two dozen years later, it was KABC and KGO who were role models for ABC AM facilities. The music was gone from WABC and WLS as they began to duplicate “talk radio”.

Returning to New York as president of ABC radio, Ben moved his able #2, George Green, into the top spot at KABC. During his three decades long reign, George was the heartbeat of KABC, responsible for the station leading the market in ratings and the entire nation in radio revenue. George was at KECA before Ben’s arrival. He had worked in virtually every department on his way to becoming manager, not much happened without his knowledge and approval.

I wanted to build KABC into a News/Talk station, with the Dodgers in the dugout. Within a month it seemed obvious to me not much would change at KABC for a variety of reasons. With the exception of the morning show, KABC sounded old, boring in many time periods. I envisioned shorter interviews and a faster paced presentation. In a nutshell, I wanted to introduce many of top forty’s tricks to talk radio. No longer did the station have exclusive rights to broadcast Dodger games, but Dodger-talk ate large segments of the stations time. “Just how much Dodger-talk do we have to clear”, I inquired in anguish. “As much as Peter (O’Malley) wants” replied George.

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George Green, John Rook, Sammy Davis Jr.

KABC was by far the most exciting radio station of my career. Motion picture stars, politicians, presidents, wives of presidents, vice presidents, foreign heads of state, at the station on a daily basis.

My view from home at the top of Topanga canyon overlooking the San Fernando Valley provided an escape I needed from the city and besides a great view, I was first to capture the sunlight of the early morning. That proved nice as I often would watch the sun rise from my patio sipping my morning coffee. My daily path to KABC began with my drive down Topanga Canyon to the beach, filling my lungs with the fresh ocean air as I drove the Pacific Coast Highway to the station.

George was often up and on the handball court before six am, arriving at KABC long before most employees. “Did you hear it?” he would ask while calling attention to something he heard during the night. Often he would be referring to something he had heard on competing KFI, who had just begun a format change to talk. We began documenting each time KFI used the term “TalkRadio”. George insisted the slogan belonged to KABC and could not be used by anyone else. The new ABC-Cap Cities hierarchy in New York grudgingly backed George in spending the legal dollars to challenge KFI in court. While the courts ruled in favor of KABC’s claim, in the end KFI merely changed their slogan to a court approved “more stimulating talk radio”.

George and I agreed to develop a new afternoon show, “Wink & Bill”, anchored by Wink Martindale and Bill Smith. I had known Wink since his arrival in Los Angeles from Memphis. Bill I knew from his witty reports on LA’s channel 11 during the years he worked with my brother Charles Rowe. Wink and Bill understood and identified with Californians and I was delighted in naming Wally Sherwin producer of their show. He was a old pro who had guided KABC as the stations program director during the years of KABC dominance and I was most pleased to have him return from retirement.

The three would spend hours in preparation each day before going on the air. I had no doubt Wink n Bill were beginning to capture audience and regularly assured George. However, a less than enthusiastic support came from the sales side of the hall. During a discussion with George concerning the show, he noticed sales manager Pat Duffy lingering at his office door. Relying on his desk-to-door switch, George closed the door cautioning me to be careful what was said within earshot of others.

Sonya Friedman was my choice to be KABC’s resident on air psychologist. Simply one of the classiest ladies I’ve ever known, her intelligent advice would become “Sonya Live” on CNN at a future date.

On the air Sonya was everything David Viscott wasn’t. As I leaned more and more toward making the female our lone resident shrink, Doctor Viscott began a character assassination of me by telling everyone who would listen that I was a cocaine addict. Having never touched the stuff, I ignored his behind the scenes campaign, but it only increased the air time I would give to Sonya.

Each Friday Viscott would telephone my office to ask if Sonya had gone home to Detroit for the weekend. Then on Monday, there he was lurking outside my door in anticipation of Sonya missing her flight back to Los Angeles. “Any news on Sonya?” he would ask as he paced back and forth hoping to reclaim airtime that was no longer his. It became one of my most fun moments watching him melt as she would gracefully appear walking to the studio just in time for her show.

Bill Press fresh from San Francisco, was always pressing for more time to present his liberal views. Matching him with Bill Pearl created “Dueling Bills”, first a feature of the Ken & Bob romp and then with their own daily show. Pearl would add a law degree to his credits and Bill Press followed Sonya Friedman to CNN, where he sparred daily with Pat Buchanan.

Michael Jackson, Sonya Friedman, Bill Press

Michael Jackson, Sonya Friedman, Bill Press

I wasn’t pleased with the Tom Snyder nightly yawn and began offering some suggestions to his producers. “Tom doesn’t take direction well” was the reply. Soon I enraged the ABC network when I followed through to cancel the show. “You may need something from them sometime John” was the advice of my programming assistant, Michael Fox, indicating it may have been easier to just live with Tom Snyder.

I had this idea of a fast paced pied piper of talk, who was witty and could share time with live reports from the scene of on going police actions. The “Police Beat” would merely be a continuation of the air traffic reports already provided by “Captain” Jorge Jarrin, but with an aim of making KABC the place for late breaking news. I began interviewing several former policemen and narrowed it down to three candidates, one a female. The concept had worked years earlier in Denver of the 1960’s, when “Downtown Stan Brown” created for radio then, what “Cops” was to become on television in the days ahead. Unfortunately, the idea cooled with George, who envisioned KABC as just a talk station, not with the fast paced excitement of a Police Beat.

I fell asleep most nights after midnight listening to Ray Brem and awakened a few hours later to the Ken And Bob Company, LA’s top rated morning show. Ken and Bob were a dream to work with. Even rated #1 in Los Angeles didn’t prevent them from dropping by my office for a regular chat following their morning show. Hell, Minyard was a great quarterback, in total control of the daily stint and I could find very little to offer in the area of direction. Ken and Bob were a dream team as far as I was concerned. Both were down to earth guys who understood their audience. If I had my way, they should have been paid more and picked up at home each morning in a limo. George Green would have agreed, but his hands were tied by the new penny pinching management of Cap Cities, who took over ABC just before my arrival.

Michael Jackson is talk radio royalty. His distinctive voice and proper questioning often made the days news. Truly a professional, Michael was in a word – CLASS. Few would escape his probing, always gentlemanly but never abusive. Induction into the Radio Hall of Fame and a bow from the Queen of England are just a few of the awards he would receive. In the years ahead Michael and I continue to communicate. After twenty years at KABC, he would leave, his unique style and voice off the air for a year until he returned to a stage he had occupied forty years earlier….KNX radio.

Ed McLaughlin, after years of managing KGO in San Francisco was at my door “pitching” a new talent that was creating noise in Sacramento. I immediately like what I heard. This guy had a personality edge and the fast paced, exciting delivery, I was looking for to join KABC nights. I asked Ed to join me in selling this new talent to George. Entering George’s office door, we were greeted coolly by George as he glanced at Ed asking, “Do you have a tape of this guy John’s so excited about?” Dropping the cassette into his playback unit, George listened for less than a minute before halting the tape and said in handing the tape back, “he is not KABC talent, sorry Ed”. It would turn into a major mistake for KABC, as George’s thumbs down handed our new competitor KFI a franchise called – Rush Limbaugh.

George ignored my disappointment and a few days later suggested we consider Morton Downey Jr. Years earlier I met “Doc Downey” when he applied for a job at WLS. My friend Bill Gavin termed his talent “exciting”, but in truth Mort was the nations first shock jock. We had continued to communicate over the years until his name was dropped by George as a candidate for KABC. Within a few days Mort had already been introduced to KABC listeners as a coming attraction. Called into a meeting in George’s office, ABC radio president Jim Acara advised Downey was not to be hired. At a later date Mort called it “an industry blackball”, he died a broken man.

George called me one day, inviting me to join him for lunch outside the station. Arriving at the eatery, I found George seated with Sweet Dick Whittington. Prior to this, my only brush with Whittington had been at KFI. Contract negotiations with Ken Minyard, was not progressing as George had hoped – enter Sweet Dick. George, with decades of success behind his reign at KABC, wasn’t much of a listener when it came to programming. Hell, he was the program director. I argued that Ken should be given a raise, George indicated ABC brass in New York didn’t share that view.

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Wink n’ Bill

A few months after the introduction of the Wink n’ Bill show, I was excited. The show was jelling beautifully and by my estimation would soon be showing strong audience gains. Wally complained Ken & Bob refused to cross-plug and I was aware of a less than enthusiastic support from the sales department. Pat Duffy was not a believer, never saying much to me about anything…he did have George’s ear.

I was surprised when George Green tossed out a trial balloon for bringing “Superfan” back to KABC. Still dreaming of an earlier time when anything “Dodger” delivered number one ratings, George said he “was just thinking out loud”. Jokingly promising as he departed on a trip to Florida, he would “wipe such a thought from my mind”.

The following day I arrived at the station only to find messages from both the Los Angeles Times and the Daily News, asking why KABC was “dumping Wink & Bill”. Despite my denial, they printed the story saying a deal had already been made to bring Superfan back to KABC. My denial was noted but it only triggered another long time friend to set the record straight. Jay Cook, president of Gannett broadcasting telephoned saying an employee of his company’s Kansas City station….Superfan had turned in his resignation saying he was returning to KABC.

Most creative efforts are a labor of love. I couldn’t bare looking Wally, Wink and Bill in the eye. I quietly departed my office driving to that place where I had often received solace before…Paradise Cove, for a long walk on the beach. I truly loved being program director of KABC…but I really wasn’t….George was.

Days later I tendered my resignation to George. He asked me to reconsider but I longed for the trout streams of home in north Idaho and a return to building my own radio group. The pillsbury doughboy sales manager who torpedoed the Wink n’ Bill would take delight in telling all I had been fired. Not true, I could have stayed at KABC, but George was his own program director, he didn’t need me.  Wink & Bill

George would admit not recognizing the talent of Rush Limbaugh. He also would say he reacted too fast in canceling the Wink n’ Bill. Shortly after the cancellation the ratings arrived….Wink n’ Bill were #1.

Wink Martindale and Bill Smith are two Los Angeles radio and TV stars who never seemed effected by their celebrity. That they were and are close friends isn’t a surprise, they seemed cut from the same cloth, both are gentleman.

A dozen years after our life together at KABC, Wink documented his life in a great book, “Winking at Life”. Perhaps because I’ve known many of those he chronicles, it’s a favorite of mine, telling the story of the peaks and valley’s of Wink’s life and career. I’m happy to note the Martindale’s, Wink and Sandy continue to enjoy life in southern California. Wink is heard on radio nationally on “Music of your life” and in creating a new game show slot machine is spotlighted at many of the nations gambling locations.

All things considering, George Green was a great manager and a friend. One can’t help but learn from one of radio’s finest showmen. A few more years would pass before ABC’s new ownership Disney, tossed him away in a disgusting fashion, ending his almost 40 years of delivering major dollars to the company.

George Green, one of the most positive thinking men I’ve ever known, would reinvent his life and move into more excitement with his George Green Enterprises. I loved the guy and we still communicate.