Finally -- the year in review
The top ten stories of 2020:
OK, now that we have the real top ten out of the way, let’s delve into what happened across the L.A. radio dial in 2020, or as they say "on with the countdown."
The 2020 election: On NPR’s All Things Considered, one of the experts hoped that whichever presidential candidate emerged victorious, that it would be a decisive win as anything less could result in chaos. Talk about prophetic words. As of this writing, all of the news and talk outlets continue to describe a President using every alternative available to at least rally his supporters to cast doubt, let alone protest, the apparent outcome. Then there’s the transition – or lack thereof – of the President-Elect who promises a bipartisan approach to his time in office, even if it seems like a steep cliff to climb.
Leading up to the election was what was forecast as a “blue wave” that would crash upon American politics. That didn’t happen. Though Rush Limbaugh (more on him in a moment), Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, Ben Shapiro, and most of the hosts at The Answer (KRLA) challenged the likelihood of a Democrat in the White House, they still offered encouragement to the 74 million voters who wanted another term for the current Administration, plus the number of successful Republican Representatives and Senators who were elected / re-elected reducing the “blue wave” to a minor swell.
News / talk formats locally did well, albeit not like Chicago or San Francisco where all-news and NPR stations dominate. KFI -- and their lean and mean news department -- continued to be comfortably in the top 10, with KNX Newsradio keeping themselves at or just below the top 10. NPR stations also did well, local affiliates KCRW and KPCC weren't number one like KQED-San Francisco, but definitely were prominent throughout the year (and more on KPCC forthcoming). Note that the iHeart’s new Black Information Network (heard on KRRL-HD2) is more about news than commentary.
The Black Mamba, Black Lives, and Covid-19: Besides being among the top stories of 2020, what did these three seemingly distinct stories have in common? All three of these stories crossed the usual lines of demarcation between different radio genres.
The Kobe tragedy: When the world learned the helicopter that crashed in Calabasas on an early Sunday morning, the news stations were quickly on the story, not yet realizing one of the victims was Kobe Bryant. (Kudos, by the way, to KNX’s Pete Demitriou who rushed to the crash scene even though he was still on leave after the passing of his father.) It was an obvious story for AM 570 L.A. Sports (KLAC) and 710 / ESPN (KSPN), both stations fielding hours of calls from grieving fans as well as getting some inside info. The talk outlets, both local and syndicated, also helped providing a catharsis even for the casual sports fan. And disc jockeys acknowledged the aforementioned collective sense of loss, no matter what the music format.BLM and beyond: Then there were the Black Lives protests. For once, calling something "breaking news" was not an exaggeration, as peaceful demonstrations were marred by violence spreading throughout Southern California as well as the nation. Sports radio debated the decisions by athletes to boycott games after the deaths of George Floyd and Brianna Taylor. It was an obvious topic for talk stations, but music stations also engaged in some significant conversations with their audience. A notable example: Dominique DiPrima’s interview with now former District Attorney Jackie Lacey on KJLH.What pandemic?: Covid-19 affected everyone and affected everything, directly and indirectly. Behind the scenes, many in radio worked remotely for safety’s sake, while others lost their jobs as audience and revenues dropped like a stone (more on that later). The news and talk outlets provided up-to-date information, as well as helping their audience understand the political ramifications of the pandemic (with some reiterating the term “non-existent”).
Music stations provided aural comfort for listeners (and a lot of lamenting about missing the concert scene). The sports outlets covered the NBA in the bubble while baseball played in empty stadiums which nonetheless resulted in celebration for Los Angeles team devotees (unless you’re a Clippers fan – sorry).
One footnote: As a lifelong Lakers fan, I still have moments where I still find myself in disbelief and denial about the death of Kobe Bryant and his WNBA bound daughter Gianna. The other victims were Orange Coast College baseball coach John Altobelli, his wife, Keri, and their daughter Alyssa; Christina Mauser, who helped Bryant coach his daughter's basketball team; and Sarah Chester and her daughter Payton. Alyssa and Payton were Gianna's teammates. I’m intentionally naming all nine victims as each individual deserves to be acknowledged.
Workplace hazards: “Fake news” is the disparaging term used by President Trump repeatedly. His disdain for the mainstream media is well known. Yet reporters covering stories besides the White House had their moments of notoriety.
While covering protests about the murder of two Sheriff’s officers, KPCC reporter Josie Huang was wrestled to the ground, then held down by five officers and arrested for obstruction of justice. Videos showed Huang wearing a press credential as well as repeatedly identifying herself as a reporter. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and 64 media organizations sent their condemnation of the arrest.
Although the charges were eventually dropped, L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva insisted Huang lacked proper press credentials, not identifying herself as a journalist, plus – this was quite interesting – the Sheriff’s stated that “the problem is [deputies] were not aware that [Huang] was a working reporter, and she’s yelling ‘KPCC, KPCC,’ but unfortunately, it’s not a household name.”
In the last Nielsen ratings, KPCC had a cume of 695,000 listeners and was tied for tenth place (6+ audience) in the December report.
Among the most notable: After Gene (“Bean”) Baxter moved overseas, leaving KROQ and the “Kevin and Bean” morning cast after almost three decades, the station rebranded AM drive with “Kevin in the Morning with Allie (Mac Kay) and Jensen (Karp).” Four months later, the show was gone, Kevin tweeting KROQ called each individual to tell them they’d been fired.
Chris Booker joined Chelsea Briggs and Krystal Bee for the morning show at top-40 KAMP. Ten months later, Booker was out. By August, mornings were hosted by a team syndicated from Phoenix. Nothing against The Morning Mess, but something seems odd that a station in the #2 market is offering a syndicated program during the all-important morning drive from the #14 market. Maybe it’s just me.
Then there’s Mark Wallengren. The 35-year veteran – once was half of the highly successful KOST morning team of Mark & Kim (Amidon) – found himself dismissed from afternoon drive in January. Ted Zigenbusch who’d been in-and-out of the station since 1982, also was let go.
Andrew Mollenbeck, a capable KFI reporter, found himself “on the beach.” And six-year veteran Alex Gervasi departed her KIIS midday shift.
The locally-owned Meruelo Group may not carry the same debt obligations of larger companies, but their finances also took a pandemic hit. Heidi (Hamilton) and Frank (Kramer) are again a duo instead of a trio with the departure of Frosty Stillwell. Their underrated afternoon driver Gary Moore, the unpredictable Frazer Smith, and Jim “JD the Sports Guy” Daniels all had their microphones disconnected from 95.5 FM.
There was problemas laborales in Spanish media. A strike was organized against Spanish Broadcasting System, owners of La Raza 97.9 (KLAX) and Mega 96.3 (KXOL). Strikers were accusing their employer of repeated labor law infractions. The National Labor Relations Board was called on to intervene.
Not much news from Cumulus here in L.A. Maybe that’s because the company now owns only one station, KABC with one live-and-local talent, John Phillips. Every few weeks, I get a question about whether someone has purchased the station (nope, or should that be “not yet”). The aforementioned live-and-local Phillips continues his solid presence surrounded by syndicated programming. Check out Phillips and “the Doctor Hour,” a very useful Covid-19 information source.
Richard Wagoner of the LA Daily News obtained the following quote after an iHeart round of layoffs, it helps explain what’s happening throughout radio:
We are modernizing our company to take advantage of the significant investments we have made in new technology and aligning our operating structure to match the technology-powered businesses we are now in…This is another step in the company’s successful transformation as a multiple platform 21st century media company, and we believe it is essential to our future – it continues our momentum and adds to our competitiveness, our effectiveness and our efficiency with all our major constituencies.
– Angel Aristone, iHeart VP for Communications
Translation – well, I think you get the idea.
The Rush hour(s) prepares an exit: When Rush Limbaugh first debuted nationally, Larry King viewed him as “just another talk show host” who largely eschewed guests. I recognized him on KFI in 1988 when he started offering his show nationwide, after a successful stint at KFBK-Sacramento. Those who worked with him there had nothing but praise for him, saying he was a wonderful colleague.
More than three decades later, it is hard to overstate his impact on both talk radio and syndication. In February, President Trump awarded Limbaugh with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest award bestowed to a U.S. citizen. The President stated Limbaugh was “someone beloved by millions of Americans…(who offered) decades of tireless devotion to our country.” The next day on Twitter, it seemed apparent the award to someone who thrives on controversy itself became a controversial event. But something not contentious is his announcement in October that Limbaugh’s Stage 4 lung cancer was no longer responding to treatment. Sometime in 2021, Limbaugh will hang up his headphones. One can argue if radio is better or worse because of Rush Limbaugh, but no one can argue he leaves radio a transformed medium.
Reggaeton rules!: At one time, Don Page and James Brown offered weekly columns about radio in the Los Angeles Times. Don Barrett (the authority on Los Angeles radio) would complain that in spite of that legacy, the Times generally ignored the local dial. So imagine my surprise when I saw a front page story about Mega 96.3 (KXOL) and Cali 93.9 (KXOS) competing for the young listeners drawn to reggaeton.
Read the article here. Who thought a song like “Despacito” would lead to a dial-spinning rivalry?
Stories of the past and the present: In my previous tributes to Dave Hull and T. Michael Jordan, I’d mentioned I had the privilege of getting to know both gentlemen personally. The Hullabalooer sometimes talked about his past, but he was equally animated when he shared about his family, his current projects – writing his book, preparing his Beatles memorabilia for sale – he was always looking ahead. T. Michael loved telling stories about his crazy radio days (and they were really crazy at times) but he also enjoyed telling me about his time as a volunteer at the local animal shelter and all of the work he was doing revamping his home computer system to better digitize his large collection of airchecks and jingles.
What both men had in common was the ability to tell stories of their past, but also continue to find new stories to tell. Don Barrett said the ability to tell a good story separates good talent from great talent. As I think about the passing of both the Hullabalooer and Brother T, I do lament I won’t be hearing their latest tales, yet I also remember how fortunate I was to be a listener, both on and off the air, of these two gentlemen.
There will be many stories to tell about the past year – I anticipate the looks of disbelief on my grandchildren when I try to explain 2020 to them – but I also look forward to hearing new tales of 2021. And you’re welcome to share your stories here.
Thanks for helping me launch this blog. To reiterate, I welcome your feedback, just not in my headphones.