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Bill Ward, 65; Innovator in Radio Programming

August 07, 2004|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

Bill Ward, former president of Gene Autry's Golden West Broadcasters and general manager of KMPC radio who helped spread the popularity of country music and auto racing on radio in Southern California as general manager of KLAC in the 1970s, has died. He was 65.

Ward died July 30 of an apparent heart attack at his home in Sherman Oaks, said his son, Cameron.

Known as a Southern California broadcasting innovator, Ward was hired by Metromedia in 1971 to program KLAC-AM, which had recently gone to a country music format; he was named general manager within a year.

At KLAC, Ward boosted the popularity of the station and country music in Southern California through programming and promotions, including bringing concerts to Los Angeles and Orange counties.

"At this time, country radio was either on daytime stations or very small, limited-signal facilities," said Carson Schreiber, KLAC's music director from 1971 to 1976.

KLAC, he said, "was the only station that covered all of Los Angeles and Orange County with a full 24-hour signal. Due to the success of KLAC and the country music format in a media capital such as Los Angeles, it also helped country music nationwide."

The success of KLAC, Schreiber said, resulted from playing "all types of country," a "blending of traditional and modern and pop, from Olivia Newton-John, John Denver and the Eagles to Merle Haggard, George Jones and Loretta Lynn."

During his early days at KLAC, Ward brought legendary Los Angeles sportscaster Jim Healy, who had been at the station in the early 1960s, back to do his 15-minute, afternoon sports commentary.

"There was talk at the time that Healy was totally inconsistent with the country format of the station, so it was kind of a daring move on Bill's part," said Healy's son, Patrick, a reporter for KNBC's Channel 4 News.

And yet, he added, "Bill read his audience correctly and not only did he get his country music demographic, he got a huge tune-in factor for the [sports] show every afternoon."

In 1985, after Ward became general manager of KMPC-AM, he hired Jim Healy to do what grew from a 15-minute sports show to a 30-minute program.

Healy did his last live show on KMPC less than three months before he died from complications of liver cancer in 1994 at age 70.

While Ward was still at KLAC in the early 1970s, the station earned a reputation as "the racing station" for its coverage of auto racing.

"That was part of Bill's strategy when the format changed to country," said Healy. "He saw this overlap in the demographics in people who followed auto racing and enjoyed country music: It was the same audience."

At the time, Healy said, NASCAR was big in the Southeast. And although NASCAR had a couple of races on the West Coast, he said, "nobody was really targeting a mass-media audience. It was very localized. Bill saw the opportunity of NASCAR spreading beyond the Southeast and was one of the first people to recognize that there was an audience for NASCAR in Los Angeles."

Ward obtained the rights to broadcast the races at Riverside International Raceway and Ontario Motor Speedway.

He also launched two auto racing news shows a week, providing young Patrick Healy with his entree into broadcasting.

Born in Italy, Texas, Ward landed his first job as a disc jockey at age 15. After working the all-night shift at WRR in Dallas while attending the University of Texas at Arlington, he was hired to do the morning show at WAKY in Louisville, Ky., in 1959.

In 1967, after stints at WPLO-AM in Atlanta and KBOX-AM in Dallas, Ward joined KBLA as programming director and changed the call letters to KBBQ and the format to country music. He became station manager in 1970 and a year later moved to KLAC.

But Ward, a past president of the Academy of Country Music, "wasn't just country," Schreiber said.

After becoming president of Metromedia in 1980 after a year as executive vice president, Ward presided over what Schreiber called "some of the leading alternative progressive-rock stations in America," such as KMET-FM in Los Angeles, KSAN-FM in San Francisco, WMMS-FM in Cleveland and WMMR-FM in Philadelphia.

Named president of Golden West Broadcasters and general manager of KMPC in 1982, Ward orchestrated the company's 1985 purchase of Los Angeles radio station KUTE-FM, which adopted a soft adult contemporary format with the call letters KLIT-FM. After a couple of other format and call-letter changes, 101.9 became KSCA-FM, Los Angeles' first Triple A (Adult Album Alternative) station.

Ward retired as president in 1997 after Autry sold KSCA, his last radio holding.

In addition to his son, a Toluca Lake resident, the twice-divorced Ward is survived by his daughter, Carmen Cashat of Mansfield, Texas; a half-brother, Joe Wardlaw of Longview, Texas; and a grandson.

A memorial service is pending.

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