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What's The Frequency, Gen X? : These guys don't look or sound like many talk-radio hosts, but that's the point. Tavis Smily (just turned 30) and Ruben Navarrette (he's 27) are trying to connect with listeners their age--on the issues.

November 06, 1994|Claudia Puig | Claudia Puig is a Times staff writer

The topic under discussion was the deteriorating quality of a university education, but Jim, a student at UCLA, was calling to complain about something else. It was unfair, he said, that he was unable to get into UC Berkeley with a 3.5 grade-point average when a Latino friend got in with a 3.0.

"I'll tell you what," Jim said. "I would have had a lot better chance if we didn't have these stupid quotas for these minorities who haven't done as well as I have in high school, who haven't put in the time and the guts. . . . It's a fact that they have affirmative-action advantages. It's ridiculous."

The co-hosts at KMPC-AM (710) weren't buying it. "You call it ridiculous," said Tavis Smiley, "but do you understand why institutions are mandated and challenged to enlist students of color at these campuses? Do you understand that at all?"

His colleague, Ruben Navarrette, jumped in: "One of the reasons it's important to do that, Jim, is because we're trying to produce leaders of the future. And if you've studied anything at UCLA about demographic changes, you know that there are now many more people in Los Angeles who are Latino, and if you're producing leadership for the next century, doesn't it make sense to try to produce a leadership class that looks like America?"

A typical talk-radio exchange? Not exactly. It was a serious discussion, it was a topic that pertained to young people, and the hosts were members of minority groups.

Welcome to the radio talk show for Generation X.

The idea alone sounds like the premise for a "Saturday Night Live" sketch, one that might feature callers debating the merits of a Nine Inch Nails concert, analyzing the most recent episode of "Melrose Place" or discussing the optimum places to meet members of the opposite sex.

But Ruben Navarrette, 27, and Tavis Smiley, who turned 30 in September, are catering to no one's stereotypes--not about Generation X, not about minorities, not about talk radio. As the hosts of "Twentysomething Talk," heard on KMPC weeknights from 9 to midnight and Sundays 7-10 p.m., they are men with a mission.

"We're trying to do three things that have never been done before: We're trying to bring in people of color, we're trying to bring in younger people, and we're trying to bring them into a thoughtful kind of medium," Smiley said. "I think we have the most difficult challenges facing us of any talk show in the city."

*

He's right. Talk radio, in Southern California as throughout the country, is chiefly the province of middle-aged white hosts who cater to an older audience, increasingly by emphasizing entertainment and sensation over serious discussion of the major issues of the day. It's not that younger listeners are disregarded, but rather that they are thought to be more interested in spending their radio time with music stations.

But Capital Cities Communications already had a traditional talk station in venerable KABC-AM (790) when it bought KMPC last May. So the company decided to go after a different crowd. Smiley and Navarrette were a perfect pairing for what it had in mind.

"We thought it would be an interesting, novel thing to have a black and a Hispanic discussing all the issues--not just generational issues, but what's going on in the community," said George Green, general manager of KABC and KMPC.

The three-pronged challenge is one that the young hosts are more than willing to tackle--and for which they are more than qualified. No self-absorbed slackers they.

By 26, Navarrette had written a book chronicling his experiences as a Mexican American at Harvard. Within the next five to 10 years, he plans to run for Congress in the San Joaquin Valley, the area where he grew up.

Smiley, a former aide to Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, was already running for office, on the Los Angeles City Council, when he was 26. He finished third in a field of 15. Since then, he has had several radio commentary jobs and still has a daily syndicated 60-second commentary, "The Smiley Report," on radio stations across the country. He also is considering another run for public office.

"We want to get young people thinking and talking," Smiley says of their goal with the radio show. "I think too often we go through life in our younger stages not thinking that social or political issues are going to impact us.

"If you're 22 or 28, you're not interested necessarily in this health-care debate--until you realize you're going to be the ones paying for it. . . . We need to be concerned about that, and we need to be talking about it, for our own sake. And beyond that, we have older Americans eavesdropping on our conversations every night, maybe even participating. I think it's important that older Americans hear what we have to say."

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