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Disney KOs KHJ-TV . . . Now It's 'KCAL, California 9' : Television: A fresh image is cited as the reason. The change follows the departure of veteran staff members.

December 01, 1989|STEVE WEINSTEIN

KHJ-TV, the station that brought Southern California viewers everything from Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, to a live call-in show with local politicians to the Lakers' new Yugoslav center Vlade Divac reciting a station identification in his native tongue, lives no more. On Saturday, the Walt Disney Co.'s first and only television station will change its name and call letters to "KCAL, California 9."

"In our research, KHJ, after all these years on the air, had a non-entity image," said Blake Byrne, Channel 9's president and general manager. "And we decided we would like to have a name that at least had the potential to create a positive image."

Since Disney took control of KHJ-TV last December after buying the troubled station from RKO for $320 million, the station has seemingly been intent on severing all ties to the past. Longtime general manager Chuck Velona was ousted, as were veteran news director Stephanie Rank Brady, news anchors Wendy Gordon, Tom Lawrence and Lonnie Lardner and sportscaster Scott St. James. Walt Baker, Channel 9's vice president of programming, who had been with the station since 1967, resigned last month.

Changing its name and logo apparently exorcises the last ghost from Los Angeles' perennially last-place VHF TV station, which, before the Disney sale was consummated, had been in trouble for more than 20 years because of a licensing dispute between its parent, RKO, and the Federal Communications Commission. Those problems had forced the station to air an unusually large amount of public-affairs programming, which contributed to its dismal ratings.

"KHJ was known as such a rag for so many years, this change might make the people at the station feel good," said Rick Feldman, station manager at KCOP Channel 13. "But odds are it doesn't mean anything in terms of adding viewership. It didn't mean anything for KNXT to become KCBS (in April, 1984). This is not going to change a thing. It's a non-issue."

Byrne said that the station looked at lists of new call letters before settling on KCAL. Two radio stations in Redlands already were using those letters, however, so, Byrne said, KHJ paid them a "large (undisclosed) fee" for permission to use them too.

"We thought (KCAL) was terrific," Byrne said. "California is what we're all about."

The thinking, Byrne continued, is that the new name will give the station a more local flavor. Since KTLA Channel 5 and KLAC-AM (570) already had Los Angeles in their names, "California 9" was the next best thing.

"Southern Californians and Northern Californians all identify themselves as Californians," Byrne said. "It ties into the self-image we would like to have. I would hope that it would help people in all of Southern California--in Riverside and San Bernardino and Orange County as well as L.A.--to identify with the station."

The station first went on the air experimentally in 1931 as Don Lee Television's W6XAO. It became KHJ in 1951. The call letters, one ex-employee said, stood for kindness, happiness and joy. The latter was often difficult to muster in the years before the sale to Disney.

"We had to be more innovative than would normally be expected because of the lack of financial support that we had," former program director Baker said Thursday. "RKO was spending a ton of money on lawyers in a gigantic battle to save the license. At one point for more than a year we had at least one Washington attorney in the building at all times and I was flying to Washington every other week. And even with all of that we managed to present a pretty good front."

KHJ started "The Million Dollar Movie" and, with a couple of "Elvira" specials, was the first station in the city to broadcast in 3-D. The station was home for "Groovy," "Boss City" and "The Real Don Steele Show" as well as the annual "Your Choice for the Oscars." "Government on the Line" enabled viewers to call in and talk directly to local and state politicians. A "Save Our Sports" telethon, Baker said, was instrumental in saving the sports programs at Los Angeles city schools in the wake of Proposition 13.

Over the years, such local television personalities as Baxter Ward, Hal Fishman, George Putnam, Larry Burrell, Nathan Roberts, Geoff Edwards and Meredith McRae have called KHJ home.

Byrne said that he and others felt some uneasiness about obliterating the name of a station that had been part of Los Angeles for 38 years. The "H&J" are history, Byrne conceded, but at least some of the history remains the same.

"We have in our lobby a great fresco mural which RKO has had here forever, with lots of pictures of famous stars that have been involved with RKO," Byrne said. "That's history. Somebody said, 'Oh, we have to paint that over,' and I said, 'Not on your life.' We can't preserve the good things in the history of KHJ in the call letters, but we can preserve something like the mural."

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