With two uncharacteristically flip words on the night of April 22, Michael Jackson stole the talk-radio event at the Museum of Television & Radio in Beverly Hills. When someone in the audience asked the panel what was missing from Los Angeles talk radio, Jackson--then doing weekends on KABC-AM (790), having suffered a very public demotion after more than 30 years as a weekday host there--immediately piped up: "Me. Daily."
Today at 9 a.m., Jackson, who resigned from KABC in November, returns to a daily gig after 18 months. He'll be broadcasting from the museum's radio booth for KRLA-AM (1110) as the centerpiece of its 5-week-old talk lineup. For the next two months, until the station finishes constructing a studio for him at its mid-Wilshire building, the museum will be Jackson's base. And he has his old 9-to-noon slot back.
How will he open today's show? Jackson pauses, then quips: "As I was saying when I was so rudely interrupted . . ."
As Jackson now discloses, it was on that April night that Bob Moore, vice president and general manager of CBS-owned KRLA, then a rock oldies station--and of KLSX-FM (97.1), which is Howard Stern's outlet--first approached him, promising: "I'll be calling you."
Sitting at his kitchen table in Bel-Air on a recent morning, Jackson, 64, is fairly beaming--and more relaxed than he has been in some time. Meanwhile the phone is constantly ringing, with updates on his first week's guest list.
"I am so excited you have no idea," he says. "I've got that bounce back. My wife worded it well. She said I used to bound out of bed in the morning, and I'm bounding again. I'm dying to get back to work."
For a guy noted for his exquisite use of language, he sounds so Everyman. And for someone who's been around Los Angeles radio for 34 years--before KABC at the old KHJ, and at KNX-AM (1070), where he was fired for talking about the Watts riots--it's a bit surprising to hear him say, "I've got to get reestablished."
Jackson says that his show will remain "basically the same. By that, I think you'll notice the difference from other talk shows in that you'll hear all points of view. I don't think anybody has the ability or the connections that I have to reach people around the world from all walks of life. Nor do I think most of the hosts have the interests that I have.
"But I'm going to do it better," he adds. "How? A lot more in the way of getting out in the community. I'm going to utilize even more the incredible variety of contacts that I have, and I'm going to focus even more on what's happening in our society."
He also notes that through his three children, ranging in age from 31 to 22, he will have a window on the youth market.
Of course, these are heady times for a serious talk host, particularly with a Senate trial of President Clinton looming in the wake of impeachment. "And with a new governor," Jackson notes, "with a new currency in Europe, with the prospect of a new government in Israel. There's so much going on in this world."
Today his call-in guests will include ABC's Sam Donaldson and Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz. Slated for upcoming chats are Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings, Walter Cronkite, Joan Rivers, Geraldo Rivera, Michael Caine and quite likely Disney chief Michael Eisner.
And what would he ask the first lady? "Has it really been worthwhile?" he offers, the "it" covering a multitude of territory. "What's it done for your daughter--not to your daughter . . . If things had been a little different, how extremely different everything would have been. It's a comment to get her to respond."
As for his own point of view on impeachment, Jackson, who classifies himself as "probably more moderate than liberal," says: "I think it's going to come back and bite the Republicans in the butt in the next election."
Jackson has a three-year contract with KRLA--with the option for either party to pull out after two years. He insists that the station has set no ratings goals for him as he goes once more against Rush Limbaugh on KFI-AM (640), and now former colleague Dennis Prager on KABC. In July 1997, KABC had pushed Jackson to weekends because of low ratings against Limbaugh.
In spring 1997, the last Arbitron ratings period covering his daily show, Jackson drew a 3.2% audience share compared to Limbaugh's 5.7%. In the key 25-to-54-year-old demographic, he scored a mere 1.7% compared to Limbaugh's 4%. During that season, Jackson also had to contend with interruptions by Dodger baseball. (How Prager is faring in his new time slot won't be known until the ratings for the fall book come in at the end of next week.)
"My goal is to recapture my old audience, and build on it," he says. "And my hope is to be minimum No. 2. Give me a year."
Jackson says KRLA has not set any ratings goals for him. "They have been amazing. They have just said, 'Be yourself.' "
Meanwhile, he notes that by the middle of this month, KRLA will be promoting his arrival with 500 billboards.
As for KABC, it still rankles Jackson that five days after a national talk radio organization named him Radio Talk Show Host of the Year, the station gave him his walking papers. He says he is not bitter. "I had 30 bloody marvelous years there. So why should two dominate the rest?"
While his family and friends debated whether he should accept a weekend show, Jackson says he knew almost from the start that that's what he would do. "I need to be in radio. Because people would have said I'd retired. 'Well he was good, but he's gone.' And I wanted to prove them wrong."
Last Monday was its own reward. Jackson was shopping in Century City when "a husband, wife and two teenagers came up. They were Russian immigrants, and the kids [said], 'We had to listen to you,' and the parents said I helped teach them English. Wherever I'm going, people stop me--'Good luck. When are you starting?' . . . Oh God, do I feel like a different human being."