"We had just finished a comedy break and we were playing commercials when we felt the rumble," recalled Brien Phelps, part of KLOS' (95.5) new morning broadcast team which three weeks ago came to Los Angeles from Birmingham, Ala. "Literally, the sound board looked like an ocean wave."
His disc-jockey partner, Mark Thompson, said that just for a moment in the aftermath of Thursday's earthquake he thought about leaving his booth and going home to his wife and 10-month-old son in Northridge. But he didn't. On Thompson's way home later Thursday, he replayed their program's tape in his car. "During the first few breaks we did inject humor but as the morning progressed, we grew more serious."
KIIS' (102.7) Rick Dees, who was on the 11th floor of a Sunset Boulevard building, began playing the Commodores' "Brick House" when the quake hit. "I started shaking. Normally, when there have been little tremors," Dees said, "I say to the listeners, 'Now, if you don't get out of bed, I'm going to do that again.' This time, I thought it was the end of life as we know it today."
Until Dees reviewed the show's tape after 10 a.m., he did not recall what he said on the air. "I was calmer than I thought I would be. I said, 'OK, this is an earthquake. . . .' The problem was that in my mind I did not know what intensity level it (the earthquake) was going to be, and that translates into pure fear."
Dees suspended his regular show--as he did for the Challenger space shuttle disaster in January, 1986--and started giving out information. "If I were going to predict what I was going to do," he said nearly six hours after the quake, his voice still shaking, "I'd run like hell, but I guess I passed the litmus test."
Around town, disc jockeys stayed at their stations.
When the quake hit, the normally light-hearted and flip-sided on-air personalities were the first voices that the city heard. Some spoke with humor, others grew more serious, some immediately took listener calls, while others like Gary Owens and Al Lohman at KFI-AM (640) ducked under their desk as the quake knocked the station off the air for 15 seconds.
"Lohman and I looked at each other, we felt the rumble, and we saw the little spindles that hold the records falling out," Owens said. "The sound monitors were all shaking, so we ducked."
Back on the air again, the two veteran radio personalities put on some instrumental music as a way to calm listener nerves--and perhaps their own--and then took listener calls. From the sound of the listeners' voices, the disc jockeys decided that they might do a service by providing some emotional assistance. They put in a call to talk-show psychologist Toni Grant at her home.
"She wasn't excited at all," Owens said later. "She said there's nothing you can do about this, so you might as well just stay safe."
Over at "The Wave," station KTWV (94.7), Joe Delavigne, a disc jockey who spins albums but does not talk on the air, was playing Grover Washington's "Sassy Stew" when the quake hit.
"Working on Sunset Boulevard near the Hollywood Freeway, you know you feel the rumble from the trucks, but this time apparently it wasn't going to stop," Delavigne said. "I walked over to the doorway, all the personnel were checking on each other, and we began monitoring off the air (all-news station) KFWB. . . ."
At KPWR (105.9) Jay Thomas said the station, which is also on Sunset Boulevard, was in the middle of playing Madonna's "Causing a Commotion."
"Everyone in the building began screaming like banshees. I knew to stand in the doorway along with eight or nine other people," Thomas noted, adding that when he went back on the air he decided to inject some humor. "I said, 'You are not having a great sexual experience.' "
The next song they played was Prince's "Housequake," he said.
KPWR also took calls from listeners and continued with their annual mooing contest that the station runs during the L.A. County Fair. "At about 8:30, we had this kid and his dad and a cow. They arrived in our lobby," Thomas said, and so they decided to put the trio on. "Up to that point," he joked, "the morning was boring."
It was not all fun and games for Thomas, however. "You learn crazy things from radio," he said later. "As soon as the building started shaking, I was nauseous and frightened and absolutely scared to death. But I have an alter-ego on the radio and my job, I thought, was to make people feel more comfortable while we were gathering information (for them)."
At KLOS, Phelps echoed Thomas. "As soon as it hit, (newscaster) Chuck Moshontz went on the air with earthquake-preparedness information, listing the 27 things you're supposed to do," said Phelps. "I've lived through eight tornadoes in Alabama, and when they hit you just go into the basement, eat some food and come out when it's over.