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Media Exec Takes Activist Approach to Political News : Television: Bill Rosendahl's shows at Century Southwest Cable draw big names and fill a void in coverage.

July 30, 1993|DANNY FEINGOLD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In an era when voter turnout is plunging and public cynicism toward the political process grows deeper with each passing election, Bill Rosendahl is filling a near-vacuum in local television.

As the host and producer of numerous election specials, a "Week in Review" show, newsmaker interviews and other public-affairs programs at Century Southwest Cable, Rosendahl provides a forum for politicians and pundits of all stripes, and in the process has established himself as a major presence on the local media scene.

Since he began his programs in December, 1987, Rosendahl has produced more than 450 shows, featuring everyone from Los Angeles mayoral rivals Michael Woo and Richard Riordan to former Vice President Dan Quayle, then-Sen. Al Gore and S&L felon Charles H. Keating Jr.

Unpolished and unpretentious, Rosendahl's style is serious and straightforward.

"I'm not trying to entertain you, and I'm not trying to fill your void with something you can just sit and watch as a couch potato. I'm providing you an opportunity to look at the world around you and decide if you want to get involved or not," Rosendahl says in his gravelly New Jersey accent.

In addition to his moderating duties, Rosendahl serves as Century Southwest's chief operating officer and as vice president of corporate affairs for the system's parent company, Century Communications Corp., positions that lend him an unusual degree of authority and independence in shaping his public-affairs telecasts. Unhampered by the bottom-line-driven corporate mentality that has reduced political coverage at the local network-owned stations to a trickle, Rosendahl has been able to assemble a strikingly diverse range of programming.

The mainstay of this lineup is "Week in Review," which airs every Friday, featuring a rotating panel consisting of journalists, political consultants, experts from various fields and community activists. Guests include powerful state and local politicians from both parties, as well as many national figures.

Rosendahl supplements the "Week in Review" with election specials, including one-on-one interviews and candidate debates. He also produces shows devoted to a particular issue, such as AIDS, homelessness, women in politics and health care. For these latter programs, he gathers an eclectic group of guests, giving a forum to community leaders and activists whose views are seldom represented in the electronic media.

Recently, Rosendahl has initiated what he calls his "God Squad" program, featuring clergy talking about social issues from a religious perspective, as well as a weekly show titled "Speak Out L.A." in which a roving reporter interviews city residents about issues of the day. In the future, he plans to develop news broadcasts, Spanish-language projects and children's programming.

As he continues to expand his coverage, Rosendahl's viewership is also on the rise. In addition to the 210,000 Century Cable subscribers in portions of West Los Angeles, Santa Monica, Eagle Rock and the San Fernando Valley, 1.3 million households receive his programs through 25 other Los Angeles-area cable operators who syndicate them on a weekly basis.

For shows that focus on state issues, the audience increases to 3.5 million households, courtesy of the California Channel, and now C-SPAN has begun to pick up occasional broadcasts, including the mayoral debate sponsored in May by Century Cable and hosted by Rosendahl.

Engaged but unobtrusive as a host, the 48-year-old Rosendahl is garrulous off the set and passionate. At 6 feet 3 inches, he is an imposing man who leans forward and motions constantly when he speaks, his words spilling forth with an intensity that betrays his own activist roots.

Born and raised on the East Coast, Rosendahl cut his political teeth in the 1968 presidential campaign of Robert F. Kennedy. The impact Kennedy had on the young Rosendahl is apparent from the autographed, poster-sized photo of the leader that hangs on the wall of his spacious upstairs office at Century Cable's Santa Monica headquarters.

After Kennedy's assassination, Rosendahl finished his master's degree in social work and was accepted into the Peace Corps to set up mental-health clinics in Turkey. Instead, he was drafted into the Army and spent a year as a counselor in a mental-health clinic, mostly treating Vietnam veterans. The experience was so disturbing that, to this day, he says he has not seen a film or TV show on Vietnam.

After his discharge from the Army, Rosendahl spent six months in the employ of John D. Rockefeller, administering the family's various endowments. But with the war dragging on, Rosendahl was lured back into politics, joining George McGovern's presidential campaign in 1972 and playing a major role in fund-raising efforts. Two years later, after managing Sen. Howard M. Metzenbaum's (D-Ohio) campaign, Rosendahl took a hiatus from politics and headed for the airport.

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