Talk shows and drive-time deejays all over the dial showed why radio remains on the front line of disaster reporting Thursday morning, but logic, luck and timing gave top ranking on the radio Richter Scale of speed, accuracy and organization to all-news KFWB-AM (980).
"We're all earthquake, all the time," quipped KFWB general manager Steve Fisher, playing on the station's promotion tag line: "KFWB, All News, All the Time." The station dropped commercials, network reports and its basic headline format to devote the entire day to the quake story, Fisher said.
All three major news-talk stations--KNX-AM (1070), KABC-AM (790) and KFWB--responded quickly to the quake, despite such handicaps as downed telephone lines and a temporary loss of wire service reports caused by power outages throughout the city.
Most stations, however, were harder hit by the loss of the wire services, because they have limited news staff or no staff at all and depend heavily on those services to keep their listeners updated.
"From the very moment the quake was taking place, our Associated Press service was dropping out," said KUSC-FM (91.5) public relations director Susan Taylor. "As soon as we were able to learn what was happening, we were advising listeners what was going on, but we lost our power briefly, too."
For the most part, KUSC treated the quake as did most FM stations: by sticking to format and playing regularly scheduled music.
"Some people would rather escape the bad news instead of rolling around in it," Taylor said.
KIEV-AM (870) general manager Fred Beaton said that the Glendale station did not interrupt regular programming except to assure listeners "that the City of Glendale was in safe and proper order."
Ruth Hirschman, general manager of KCRW-FM (89.9) in Santa Monica, the primary affiliate of National Public Radio in Los Angeles, said that her station also stuck to format.
"After weeks of the (live Judge Robert) Bork (confirmation) hearings, we finally became normal," she said. She did receive a call from NPR's news headquarters in Washington about 9 a.m., Hirschman said, but by then "we were playing 12th-Century medieval music. They wanted to know whether we thought it was OK for them to do special coverage, and we said sure. But we were in the midst of 'Morning Becomes Eclectic.' "
KFWB and arch-rival KNX depended heavily on their news staff's two-way mobile units to get initial reports because cellular systems were as useless as most other phones.
KABC's morning team of Ken Minyard and Bob Arthur immediately began taking listener calls, getting sketchy first-hand reports of damage and hysteria all over Southern California.
KABC program director Wally Sherwin ordered his news department to begin tracking City News Service and Associated Press reports, only to be told that neither wire service was able to deliver information to the Culver City studios of KABC.
"We didn't take the network news at 8 a.m.," he said. "We just stayed local."
By 9 a.m., when "The Ken and Bob Show" gives way to KABC's Michael Jackson, the station had become the network, according to Sherwin, with most commercials and virtually all other national and foreign news shunted aside in favor of national broadcast over the ABC network of live reports from KABC.
Likewise, KNX virtually became the CBS Radio network for about an hour after the quake, with Charles Osgood anchoring from New York but deferring to first-hand reports from KNX, where station manager George Nicholaw was already surveying the wreckage of two broken windows in his office one floor up from the KNX newsroom.
"Southern California needs a little reminder every so often that we are living on some geography that rests on a spider web of fault lines," said KNX news director Bob Sims. "Every 6 or 8 or 10 months or so, we do a special report on the things you should do and shouldn't do to prepare for the big one. It's the downside of what we have to do in exchange for being able to live here."
Coincidentally, it was KFWB's good fortune to have just finished one of those periodic special reports, Sims said.
Last Sunday, KFWB finished a weeklong series on earthquake preparedness by reporter Jack Popejoy. The television spots and newspaper ads promoting the series depicted the devastation that a major quake could do to a home with the warning that "the only thing missing from this picture is you."
At 7:42 a.m. Thursday, the "you" was suddenly shaken into the picture all over Southern California and, for many commuters, KFWB became the instant authority on what to do and not to do.
"We knew it was going to happen sometime, but we didn't know it was going to be so soon," said Fisher, adding with a chuckle: "We've got the Amazing Kreskin on the staff."