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Still the Talk of the Town

Michael Jackson was overtaken by Rush Limbaugh in the ratings and came within days of being fired. But the KABC host has survived, vowing that his show will be better than ever.

December 01, 1996|Judith Michaelson | Judith Michaelson is a Times staff writer

On Dec. 12, Michael Jackson marks 30 years at KABC-AM (790). He's one of that small band of hosts who was in talk radio virtually from the beginning. To many, his is a voice of reasoned, intelligent calm in an often shrill format. His British accent, a handicap at first, has become a trademark, so familiar that his listeners hardly notice anymore.

To his table have come the famous and the infamous: three presidents--Carter, Reagan and Clinton--scientists, writers, celebs, people from all walks of life, as well as the occasional mobster and American Nazi. And, of course, a countless parade of callers.

Jackson arrived in Los Angeles in 1962--by way of London, South Africa, a small station in Springfield, Mass., and an overnight show in San Francisco. Four years later, just after he was fired from KNX, a Times writer noted, obituary-like: "Jackson was uncommonly fair with his audience and never dismissed a caller with 'Go gargle with razor blades' "--a comparison to local talk radio's top gun at the time, Joe Pyne.

On a recent afternoon, Jackson sat in the den of his Bel-Air home--a room furnished with pieces from the Hidden Valley ranch of his father-in-law, actor Alan Ladd--to reflect on talk radio, his life and career. Jackson and his wife, Alana, married for 31 years, have three children. Alan, 28, is owner of two restaurants; Alisa, 27, is a television producer; and Devon, 20, a former Top 10 junior equestrian, is a freshman at Loyola Marymount. The Jacksons have a granddaughter, Lucky, almost 2.

At 62, Michael Jackson, whose program is heard weekdays from 9 to 11:45 a.m., is not nearly ready to call it a morning.

Question: This is the anniversary that almost got away. Recently you told me that you had two weeks to go on your contract this spring and, if management hadn't changed, you would have been gone. What happened?

Answer: Management changed. [Disney, which bought Capital Cities/ABC Radio] brought in younger, brighter, more contemporary-thinking broadcasters.

Q: Why did old management want to get rid of you?

A: Management believed that, to succeed in radio, you had to be conservative, that you had to be, for the sake of it, confrontational. One of the instructions I was given was "Your job is to polarize people." [I said] "I'm just me. I'm going to go on doing the job the way I always have." [But] they had already decided on two other people to replace me.

Q: Who were they?

A: That I can't say. But they are both extremely conservative.

Our job is not to be conservative or liberal. It's to be good broadcasters. To show hospitality. To entertain, enlighten and inform. Which is what I was taught at the BBC.

I have never been happier in my life in radio [than now]. Because I'm doing all that I want to do. In fact, Hillary Clinton had invited me to Washington [earlier this year], but the [then] general manager [George Green] turned it down. The new management overruled that. It's been one of the highlights of my life, doing that show. I had the first lady on for an hour, and then the Cabinet just before the election. And the ideas I'm taking to them now, they like. I want to get the microphone away from this studio--but only if it's going to be better.

I want to do federal prisons--a women's and a men's. I want to do schools in the inner city. I want to go back to the border and do a program on people coming across the border. I'll do it better this time. I want to do a whole morning from skid row--get out there and be a panhandler.

Q: You don't look like a panhandler.

A: I can very easily. Anyone can. That's the sadness of today. The poor don't necessarily look the way we imaged them years ago. And I want to do what [Rush] Limbaugh cannot do--relate to Los Angeles, relate to Southern California. . . . He [broadcasts from] New York. If there was an earthquake, do you think he can tackle it? Or a riot? Or an election locally?

Q: Yet Limbaugh's show on KFI-AM overtook you in the ratings in 1991. Can you ever take back the lead?

A: Oh, yes. I'll make you a bet. Give me a year. I think he's made phenomenal success because he's extremely good. But he is so predictable. It's bash the [Clinton] administration, and that's it. It's the same melody over and over and over again.

Q: What's the toughest question you asked Hillary Rodham Clinton?

A: [In essence] Are you going to have to leave [the White House] with your husband in disgrace? . . . I had to ask that question [relayed from an eighth-grader on the Internet], but I feel you have to earn the right to. . . . You can ask anything if you do it with the right attitude. So many just take cheap shots. Sometimes I'm considered someone who doesn't ask the tough questions. I don't chicken out. I do it a different way.

Q: Is it tone of voice, the way you phrase the question?

A: Part of it is the overture--the amount of work you put into introducing the person. . . . With my voice, I can get away with it--a fist in a velvet glove.

Q: Reflect on why you've lasted.

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