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10 Years Later, 'Which Way' Still Fosters a Civil, Civic Debate

April 27, 2002|SUFIYA ABDUR-RAHMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

As Kyle McKinnon, managing editor of the radio show "Which Way, L.A.?," whisked himself and a wireless microphone from one side of University Hall auditorium in Westchester to the other fielding questions, host Warren Olney loomed like a boxing referee ready to jump in whenever necessary.

"Ninety-two was about injustice" and about Latasha Harlins, a man in the audience told the panelists in reference to the 1992 Los Angeles riots, the topic under discussion.

"Latasha Harlins," Olney interjected, explaining that Harlins was a 15-year-old black girl shot in 1991 by a Korean grocer, "Soon Ja Dao, Soon Ja Do.... "

"Soon Ja Du," the man said, correcting Olney.

Olney's memory of some details of 10 years ago, when he began hosting "Which Way, L.A.?" on KCRW-FM (89.9), may be a bit hazy, but with quick wit and tough questions he showed during the National Public Radio program's live anniversary broadcast at Loyola Marymount University Thursday that he's not any less sharp.

"Which Way, L.A.?" made its debut in May 1992, just days after city residents erupted in looting and violence in response to the acquittal of four LAPD officers accused of beating Rodney King.

"There was, I think, a real hunger to think about and discuss some of the issues that caused this huge conflagration," Olney said. "Since then, we've continued to do it because we think the needs still exist."

And at least the dozens of people who showed up to address the panelists--City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo, former mayoral candidate Antonio Villaraigosa and representatives from the LAPD as well as the black and the Korean communities--are still interested.

The show has had to change with the times, expanding from a monthlong series to "the program you couldn't kill," said Ruth Seymour, KCRW's general manager. "I think it has an amazing track record of capturing whatever the pulse is like in the city at any time."

Originally, "Which Way, L.A.?" was an hourlong series broadcast twice a day with panelists and call-in guests. But after hearing the same people call in year after year, that segment was eventually dropped.

Then in 2000, Olney began hosting a nationally syndicated program called "To the Point," employing the same format as "Which Way, L.A.?" The rebroadcast of "Which Way, L.A.?" stopped, and the show cut back to a half-hour.

Olney maintains, and an estimated 74,000 weekly listeners would appear to support, that the issues raised by the program are as important today as when it began.

"They don't seem as urgent now, until you remember what happened 10 years ago and reflect on how little has changed," Olney said. "No radio program is going to create solutions. All we can do is provide a forum, raise the issue and conduct discourse."

After Thursday's panel, Delgadillo said, "One of the great legacies of the civil unrest is that we have an incredible, popular public show that debates the issues that are important to Los Angeles."

Recently, "Which Way, L.A.?" has taken on Valley secession, the debate over retaining Chief Bernard Parks and the legacy of Cesar Chavez. The program doesn't often address the 1992 riots anymore, but Olney said, "You don't have to mention the riots themselves to talk about the issues that still exist. I feel a personal responsibility to keep raising the issues."

And he does it in a way that's not overbearing. Many have remarked about how elegantly Olney allows the guests to debate challenging issues, such as racial tensions, the income gap and Los Angeles schools, without arguments ensuing.

If Olney has any bones to pick of his own, he says they're with television news.

Olney worked in local news for 25 years as a reporter, editor and anchor at various Los Angeles TV stations before quitting his job at KCOP-TV in December 1991.

"I left [TV news] because it wasn't doing any longer what I got into it to do, and that's public service, investigative journalism. News," Olney said. "I would have to say that it has not gotten any better.

"I find what I'm doing now much more interesting," he said.

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