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They're Driven to Entertain

John Kobylt and Ken Chiampou have helped keep KFI at the top of the talk ratings heap, with their boomer blend of irreverence, anger, passion--and even thoughtfulness.

August 04, 1996|Judith Michaelson | Judith Michaelson is a Times staff writer

The subject on the "John & Ken Show" on a recent afternoon is bad parenting. Hardly the sort of meat on which John Kobylt and Ken Chiampou, the in-your-face afternoon-drive team on talk station KFI-AM (640), tend to feed.

It's not hot, like the trial of O.J. Simpson, which they rode last fall to personal-best ratings. Nor is it wacky, like enumerating the byproducts of a cow, or grisly, like delineating the belongings of the late Jeffrey Dahmer that might be offered at auction. Nor does it spark the kind of political interest they ignited in championing the 1994 "three strikes" initiative for repeat criminals.

But even on slow news days, Kobylt and Chiampou--boomer guys who play off news and other tidbits weekdays from 3 to 7 p.m.--manage to enliven the drive home and make you laugh, or think. Sometimes in spite of yourself.

Irreverent, brash, passionate, angry, funny--and sometimes quite serious--the eclectic duo, more than anyone else on KFI's airwaves, reflects the station's persona and demonstrates why it has reigned for four years as Southern California's top-rated talk outlet.

Take parenting. Citing a Los Angeles Times poll, Kobylt notes that 96% of parents surveyed believe they are doing an excellent or good job teaching their children about morals and values but that 93% say other parents are not taking such responsibility.

"You can't all be doing a good job," mocks Kobylt, the lead talker. "It can't just be everybody else.

"Nastiness, brattiness, rudeness, jerkiness, it's worse than it used to be," he asserts, "and it's been going on for 30, 40 years now. Kids in the '60s were obviously worse than kids in the '50s. The kids now are worse than the kids 10, 20 years ago when I was in school. . . ."

"The whole culture," Chiampou echoes, "has gotten more obnoxious and rude and jerky."

Kobylt moves swiftly to higher gear: "People are out of touch with themselves. They can't analyze their own lives. No wonder everybody's screwed up. . . . They sit at home, watching 'Must See TV,' stuffing Doritos, drinking beer, bitching about everybody else on the block."

"Where did you get that 'Must See TV' line?" pumps Chiampou, knowing that Kobylt means NBC's slogan. "You must really like it."

"Well, it annoys me," Kobylt says, spitting words. "It irritates the crap out of me. Like, that line tells me everything that's wrong with American culture, with people's, like, private life. 'Must See TV.' If you turn on NBC for more than, like, three minutes, you hear it 50 times. Big, bold letters in your face. Shut up! There's nothing on your stupid network that's 'must see.' Get out! Outta here."

NBC needn't sweat. Politicians who are "geeks," "mutants" or "cretins"; vegetarians and other "animal rights wackos"; Hollywood celebrities; old people; unnamed "conservative, wacko talk-show hosts"; even KFI's "idiotic slogans"--all become fodder for derision on "John & Ken." All of which sings on a station where an announcer sometimes intones: "News, traffic, a whole lot of b.s.--KFI, more stimulating talk radio."

David Hall, KFI program director, first heard of Kobylt and Chiampou through an East Coast consultant--they were working in Trenton, N.J.--and met them in August 1992. They joined the lineup that November, just as the station, four years into its talk format, was toppling venerable KABC-AM (790) in the ratings wars--thanks primarily to Rush Limbaugh's syndicated morning program.

"I fell in love with them, I think, the first show I heard back there. . . ," Hall says. "I loved the rapport and chemistry they have. They are very good at being a focal point. When there's something big that everybody's talking about or feeling, I don't think I've heard anyone better--for that passion, for people to vent."

An estimated 700,000 listeners tune to "John & Ken" each week. When there is a hot story, the audience grows. In the swirl of O.J.--moments before the not-guilty verdict last Oct. 3, Kobylt declared that Simpson should "fry," and he later repeatedly tagged juror Brenda Moran as Brenda Moron--"John & Ken's" audience zoomed to about 825,000. "We really owned the O.J. thing for radio," Kobylt boasts.

They say they talk about what their listeners talk about at the water coolers and dinner tables. "Sometimes things are funny," Chiampou suggests, "and sometimes people get into debates about real topics"--race, illegal immigration and gay marriage.

Still, unlike a lot of talk hosts, Kobylt and Chiampou refuse to be pigeonholed as liberal or conservative. Indeed, they are neither.

"I can't be confined to an ideology," says Chiampou, sitting next to Kobylt at lunch. "I happily call myself inconsistent. I take everything case by case, person by person, and that sometimes leads people to think I'm liberal or I'm conservative."

"I think we're pretty much alike," adds Kobylt, who describes himself as "fiercely independent." "It's just our tone is different."

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