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On the Couch With L.A.'s Resident Therapist

October 22, 2000|JAMES RICCI

HIS WORKPLACE DOESN'T LOOK LIKE A THERAPIST'S OFFICE. FOR ONE thing, there are no comfortable chairs, just a large octagonal table that takes up most of the room. For another, there are never any patients present; the caregiver sits alone at the table, gesturing as he talks, as though to ghosts.

Yet to watch Warren Olney moderate the public-issues talk show "Which Way, L.A.?" on KCRW-FM (89.9) is to observe a master of civil inquiry and the elucidation of underlying truths. He is intelligent, inquisitive and remarkably able to summarize one person's argument and present it to an opponent as a thing of logic that can be rebutted only with logic. He is a resolute apostle of both-sided-ness.

In the eight years since "Which Way, L.A.?" debuted as KCRW's response to the anguish of the 1992 riots, Olney has come to be seen, in the words of civil-rights lawyer and frequent guest Connie Rice, as "the therapist to a dysfunctional community."

Olney's style tacitly emphasizes to his guests that venom and rhetoric are not welcome. All guests--typically five to eight public officials and/or intellectuals and/or activists per program--participate by telephone and are permitted to speak one at a time, which ensures that they must listen to one another. The tactic helps keep the show above the slough of shouting and snide dismissiveness that characterizes most public-issues broadcasting. "Which Way, L.A.?" almost always ends up illuminating how complex the issues under consideration are, yet the very civility of the discussion seems to convey a hope that somehow they can be resolved civilly.

Although Olney's show reaches only about 130,000 listeners a week (by comparison, top-rated talk-show host Larry Elder on KABC, a commercial station, draws 355,000 listeners weekly), it's long been a must-hear for local politicians, officeholders and opinion-makers. Its influence far outreaches its audience share.

This month, Olney went national on public radio with a new daily program, "To The Point," which incorporates the "Which Way, L.A.?" ethos of being hot off the news (in this case, national and international news), yet cool and reasoned. "Which Way, L.A.?" is still heard nightly on KCRW and is devoted mostly to local content. To do both shows five days a week, the 63-year-old Olney, a Los Angeles television newsman and anchor for years, had to quit co-hosting KCET-TV's nightly interview program, "Life & Times Tonight."

Probably no other person in Southern California has listened to as many of the best-informed parties on every conceivable issue, from the public-transit crisis to the endless efforts to reform the LAPD to the intricacies of the statewide ballot issues that emerge each election like poppies in the spring. An affable man, down-to-earth, but almost cleric-like when it comes to upholding his reputation for relentless (some would say excruciating) fairness, Olney is one of the most clued-up people in town.

Yet like any ethical therapist, he is loath to utter judgments, even positive ones, about who are L.A.'s heroes and villains, its wise men and fools.

"I believe there are public officials who deserve to be in the places that they are, and who are doing a good job," he says. "But I get them on the program, and there are people who have really good and legitimate reasons for being angry at them, or thinking that they're wrong. And I want to conduct that conversation between the two of them. And if I say, 'Well, old so-and-so is really a great guy,' then it makes me less able to perform my role as neutral moderator."

Olney's years of immersion in local civic pathologies, however, have given him a profound sense of their etiology, and of the reasons why so many seem so immune to treatment.

Many public institutions here--the unwieldy Los Angeles Unified School District, the overly militarized Los Angeles Police Department, the wasteful MTA--strain, he says, to impose outdated structures and psychologies on an enormous, expanding, ethnically dynamic populace they were never meant to serve.

"Here, for example, you have a school district that has become an $8-billion corporation," he says. "It has a student population the size of the city of San Francisco--700,000 people--and every day they have to be fed, bused and housed. It is a vast undertaking. To run what is comparable to a multinational corporation in terms of resources and size--and larger in terms of the work force--you have seven Board of Education members, part-time elected officials who earn $24,000 or $25,000 a year and who can appoint two or three people each to help them understand what's going on.

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