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DJ Robert W. Morgan Dies

Radio: Cancer claims early-morning fixture known for his acerbic wit and long career.

May 24, 1998|PATRICK J. McDONNELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Robert W. Morgan, a legendary broadcaster who was an early-morning fixture on Southern California drive-time radio for more than three decades, has died after a lengthy battle with lung cancer. He was 60.

Morgan died Friday evening at Encino-Tarzana Regional Medical Center, said Joni Caryl, news director at KRTH-FM (101.1), where Morgan worked from 1992 until his illness-induced retirement in January.

"I have lung cancer," Morgan said in an emotional statement last May, announcing that he was taking a leave of absence. "My doctors aren't quite sure what caused it but suspect those two packs a day for 35 years might be a factor."

At the time, Morgan urged his listeners: "One more thing: Don't smoke, OK?"

In August, "The Real" Don Steele, Morgan's friend and longtime colleague on the L.A. radio waves, died from lung cancer at age 61.

The often-acerbic Morgan was known to a generation of Southern Californians as the original morning man on the trend-setting "Boss Radio" program beginning in the mid-1960s on KHJ-AM (930), which came to dominate the Top 40 market. Morgan, Steele and their hip colleagues were dubbed the "boss jocks."

But Morgan's long career in the highly competitive medium--he was the ultimate survivor of radio's brutal "morning wars"--spanned many phases and station formats, from rock 'n' roll to middle-of-the-road and even all-sports. Throughout, Morgan retained a loyal following and attracted new listeners.

His "Good Morgan!" sign-on became a widely recognized signature salutation. Meantime, aficionados looked forward to being told, "Zap, you're Morganized!"--an energizing dose of radio good fortune.

"He has been the quintessential voice of the morning man on radio," said Don Barrett, a radio historian and author of "Los Angeles Radio People," whose readers voted Morgan L.A.'s No. 3 all-time radio host. "He has been a familiar wake-up voice for decades."

Some have compared Morgan's consistency and professional longevity to that of Johnny Carson, former host of television's "Tonight Show." Like Carson's, Morgan's approach has been much copied.

Before coming to oldies radio KRTH, Morgan hosted morning drive shows on K100-FM, KMPC-AM (710) and Magic 106-FM.

Morgan's death triggered a wave of praise from former co-workers and competitors, who described him as dedicated to his craft and possessing a rapier wit.

"What I'll always remember was his incredible wit and genuine sense of humor," said Charlie Tuna, who worked with Morgan as a young boss jock and later hosted a rival morning program. "He demanded as much professionalism in the radio business as I have ever seen."

Added Jim Carson, who has been co-hosting Morgan's former time slot since his retirement: "He had one of the quickest minds I ever saw."

Morgan's eclectic on-air conversation ranged from the personal--focusing on his bass fishing exploits or the need to buy a car for his daughter--to the topical. He helped refine the now-familiar technique of seizing on a news item--be it the O.J. Simpson trial or Bill Clinton's supposed sexual affairs--and using it as fodder for humor, opinion or sometimes derision.

"He was great at improvisation," said Caryl, who served as his female on-air foil. "He could turn a regular, boring interview into something that sparkled."

The veteran disc jockey was not afraid to share his point of view, which tended to be that of a conservative Republican. He projected an unapologetically irascible on-air personality.

However, colleagues say his gruff public exterior belied a softer side in a man who regularly gave to charities and was close to his family. Just days before he died, he fulfilled his dream of watching his daughter graduate from Smith College.

A native of Mansfield, Ohio, Morgan is survived by his wife, Shelley, daughter, Susanna, 23, and brother, Art Jr. Services will be private.

Morgan was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1993, one of a long list of honors. The next year he was a charter inductee into the National Broadcasters Hall of Fame, along with Ronald Reagan, Ted Turner and Larry King.

Morgan's other awards include Billboard magazine's "Air Personality of the Year" and the Gavin Professional Programmer's "Man of the Year."

Samples of Morgan's on-air work are on permanent exhibit at the Museums of Broadcasting in New York and Beverly Hills, as well as the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland.

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