In a city where movie-studio executives are hired and fired with the changing tides and where radio stations seem to swap formats with every new traffic snarl, George Nicholaw--the man who helped pioneer all-news radio in Los Angeles nearly 20 years ago--is a survivor.
As general manager of CBS-owned KNX-AM (1070) since 1967, Nicholaw has seen just about everything change. He has watched Mayor Sam Yorty give way to Mayor Tom Bradley. He has seen the boundaries of his broadcast area expand to Ventura, Riverside and Orange counties. He has watched miniskirts come and go, and come again.
While he's been on the job at KNX Radio for 20 years, KCBS-TV Channel 2, the CBS-owned sister television station, has gone through 10 general managers.
"It's remarkable to survive that long in this kind of a business," says Robert Sims, KNX news director. "With tastes being as flexible as they are and changing times, he must be the only one left in a major market who doesn't also own the station."
Jokingly, Nicholaw says it's been talent that has kept him in the same job at CBS despite significant changes everywhere else in the broadcasting company. But while CBS' new bosses have only recently been tightening the belt around their news division, Nicholaw has always been watching his own bottom line and, with his news format, has been turning a profit year after year.
Nevertheless, he insists, he has never allowed profit considerations to influence how his station covers the news. While scores of jobs have been eliminated at CBS over the last year, KNX has found the resources to add two new positions to its news staff.
"The product comes first," he says. "Without a good product, you won't make any money at it."
Nicholaw has brought "high standards and a tremendous broadcast history to news radio in Los Angeles," says Steve Fisher, general manager of rival news station KFWB-AM (980). "He's been actively involved in the community and a community leader for 20 years, and I admire him for that."
Nicholaw had been working in Channel 2's (then KNXT-TV) promotion department when the station implemented its first hourlong newscast with anchors Jerry Dunphy and Ralph Story in 1960. When the evening newscast was consistently rated as one of the 10 most popular programs in Los Angeles, up there with "Gunsmoke" and "I Love Lucy," Nicholaw realized that news was a highly marketable product.
Soon after arriving at KNX in August, 1967, Nicholaw simply applied what he'd learned in television, changing the station's mixed bag of headline news, Arthur Godfrey, Art Linkletter and "music till dawn" to its current news format.
"At first," Nicholaw remembers, "people asked: 'What are you going to do for 24 hours a day? Where are you going to get the news?' That has never been the problem. The problem has been finding the time to tell it all."
Under Nicholaw, KNX has tried to replicate a daily newspaper on the radio with news, sports, horoscopes, recipes and editorials. Nicholaw himself delivers the station's editorial opinions seven days a week, and he has never been known to shy away from controversy.
Over the years, for example, KNX has voiced strong pro-choice opinions on the abortion issue and, in all seriousness back in the late '60s, it recommended turning over Los Angeles' transportation plans to Walt Disney and his futuristic monorail.
Nicholaw laughs, remembering how the city planners dismissed that idea as crazy and chose instead the current mire that passes for Los Angeles' transportation system. On the other hand, he notes, the chaos out there on the freeways forces people to spend hours trapped in their cars and affords KNX a huge captive audience for its brand of serious news and opinions.
Nicholaw is careful not to confuse serious with cold and boring . He says he realizes that in today's marketplace, entertainment is a factor in everything the station does, so KNX tries to present the news in a friendly, non-threatening tone. But, Nicholaw contends, news radio has yet to succumb to the strategy of some television newscasts that emphasize personality and razzle-dazzle delivery techniques over content.
"It's important to make your audience feel comfortable," he says. "But you don't have to be stuck in the 'happy news syndrome' to succeed. News must also have substance."
Over the years, Nicholaw has seen KNX's newsroom evolve from a smoke-filled den of men with old black typewriters to a computerized, virtually smoke-free broadcast center run by savvy men and women from several generations. Today, he retreats upstairs to his wood-paneled office to puff on his Lucky Strikes.
But through all the changes in styles and tastes, KNX has won enough journalism honors to fill the walls of its hallways several times over. Though the station has slipped a bit recently in its ratings battle with KFWB and local television has expanded its own capability to cover the news, Nicholaw is not about to abandon his news-radio ship.
"Radio is simply taken for granted," he says, "just like turning on a light switch. I don't think a news station today could ever generate the excitement that music stations like KIIS or KPWR do when they take off, but people will always need to know what's going on. We've been here for two decades. We're a staple in the business that's here to stay."