Bill Keene, longtime Southland broadcaster and outrageous punster, whose informative and entertaining traffic and weather reports helped soothe the nerves of jangled Los Angeles commuters for years, died Wednesday morning in his sleep in a Tucson hospital. He was 73.
Daughter Bonnie Keene said her father had suffered a severe stroke Feb. 29 and subsequently developed pneumonia. Keene is also survived by his wife, Louise, and grandson, Luke, 7.
For nearly four decades until his retirement in 1993, Keene was a fixture on the airwaves. In 1957, he began delivering weather reports on the old KNXT-TV Channel 2 (now KCBS) and on its sister radio station, and helped pioneer KNXT's "Big News" hourlong format. He also hosted "Keene at Noon," which segued into "The Bill Keene Show"; both were daytime TV variety shows.
Fired after a management shake-up in 1974, Keene worked for six months at KTLA-TV Channel 5, while continuing to do his radio reports. In 1976, he moved full time to KNX-AM (1070) and was one of the first local radio reporters in a city dominated by freeways, thousands of commuters and daily congestion to add traffic to the news mix.
Keene's move to traffic reporting--now a staple of Los Angeles radio--was a blend of serendipity and pragmatism.
George Nicholaw, KNX's vice president and general manager, recalled Wednesday that Keene came into his office one day to say he was considering television offers in San Diego and San Francisco. Nicholaw asked him what his family thought about the move. "He said they didn't want to leave," Nicholaw said.
So the executive suggested that Keene "jump in his car and see if traffic couldn't be part of the game." After doing that for several weeks, Keene came back and asked Nicholaw: When do I start?
"He was one of those wonderful people who knew how to communicate," Nicholaw said. "There was a trust factor that Bill presented when he was on the air."
One of Keene's well-known traffic tipsters, Nicholaw said, was Cardinal Roger Mahony.
Until April 1988, Keene gave traffic and weather reports six times hourly during morning and afternoon rush hours, then shifted just to morning drive time. Often what was supposed to be a minute traffic-and-weather report became a minute-and-a-half report. "I couldn't rein him in," KNX News Director Bob Sims said fondly. Nor did he really want to.
"What made him . . . unique," Sims said, "was the smoothness he had in taking raw bits of information, coming from all different directions, and making it easy to understand and sounding natural. Sometimes people fall into the trap of sounding like a cookie-cutter, reading off a TelePrompTer."
But not Keene. "There was no script," Sims said. "He had some indecipherably messed-up notes that he would take from various police scanners. You got the feeling he was just talking about what he knew. He really did become just good company in the car with you. I think he really visualized the listener in his car."
Sims said that, in this car-driven landscape, the traffic reporter is a key element in people's decision to tune in to an all-news station. "I don't know how to calculate the value he added to the station," Sims said. "But he was one of the most recognizable voices in Los Angeles. In poll after poll you'd read the names of radio personalities, and he'd always come out No. 1."
And then there were those puns.
Jim Thornton, who succeeded Keene in morning drive time, talked about his predecessor's "wonderfully, cheesy, quirky sense of humor. He was quite the punster."
Thornton happily recalled, even a decade later, some prime examples:
When a spill of musical instruments occurred on a freeway, Keene said it "sounds like a case of freeway violins."
A seafood spill and the arrival of the California Highway Patrol impelled Keene to say, "With the highway patrol on the scene, it's fish and chips."
When some dogs turned up on the freeways, Keene would say, it's a "six pack of curs."
A stray ladder on a freeway became "Watch out for rung way drivers" and "Don't worry, the highway patrol will be taking steps to remove that ladder."
"He had a wonderful way of doing that effortlessly," Thornton said, "and didn't mind getting really corny on the radio. . . . He broke ground for us in the traffic business. He made it so we weren't a bunch of laundry list readers."
Keene also used words such as "cattywampus," "chrome cruncher" and "paint peeler" to describe the ubiquitous "accident."
KCAL-TV Channel 9 anchor and good friend Jerry Dunphy, who knew Keene from the "Big News" days, remembered him as "fun and quick-witted and great on his feet. He was a one-line punster, and that played well on radio. He was serious about the business of weather. Other than that, he loved golf and a couple of drinks here and there with friends, and storytelling."
In 1992, Keene was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and the family plans to have a memorial service in Los Angeles.
Keene became a professional radio broadcaster while in high school in Scottsbluff, Neb., after winning an audition at the local radio station. After serving as a navigator in the Air Force during World War II, he became news and sports director for KBOL in Boulder, Colo. He majored in journalism at the University of Colorado, then studied meteorology at the American Institute of Aerological Research, the academic arm of Irving P. Krick Associates, the world's largest meteorology firm.
"You couldn't ask for a better dad," Bonnie Keene said. "He had a way of making you laugh at anything you were going through. He was so supportive as a father and a husband and a grandfather."
In an e-mail to KNX and Keene's close friends, she wrote: "Dad passed away in his sleep this morning at 7:35 a.m. I find some comfort in the fact that Dad, in typical Keene fashion, decided to make his final commute during rush hour."