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STYLE & CULTURE | AL MARTINEZ

A voice of reason muted by the times

March 22, 2004|AL MARTINEZ

Like a benched athlete eager to get back into the game, radio voice Michael Jackson is frustrated in repose. He wants to be where the action is, where leaders clash, where terror lurks, where the world changes.

Reading about the great events of our time online and in half a dozen newspapers every day, listening to news reports on radio and watching the Earth-shaking events on television only feed his desire to return to a microphone, interviewing those in whose hands the future lies.

It was almost a year and a half ago that Jackson's talk show ended when KLAC-AM went to a music format. Rumors to the contrary, no one has signed him since.

"I miss it," he says softly, seated in the library of his vast, two-story Bel-Air Estates home, "and I don't understand it. We need voices of moderation on the air, whether it's me or someone else, and we don't have them."

He feels swept aside by the thundering voices of the right, a victim of the times. It is an era of Limbaugh and O'Reilly, pedantic, chest-pounding acolytes of conservatism, anointed by the White House to spread the holy word.

Jackson never was a spokesman for any cause. His guests during more than three decades on the air in Los Angeles represented virtually every political opinion, and he treated them all with a civility today's bombast lacks. If he was perceived as liberal, it was only because he wasn't obnoxious.

"Howard Stern called me a boring English [jerk]," he says, brushing it aside with laughter. Then he grows serious. "Don't make me sound bitter. I'm not. I'm frustrated. I want to be back on the air again. That's all."

Even at rest, the man bristles with energy, though the English-accented voice remains that of a gentleman discussing the weather with an Oxford don. ("I sound smarter than I am," he says with self-effacing humor.) He is much in person as he was on the air, maintaining an equanimity of spirit that few possess.

"Wherever I go, people say, 'We need you now more than ever.' I have had 600,000 hits on my website." He offers a litany of awards and honors, as much to convince himself as to explore the puzzlement of his forced retirement: seven Emmys, installation in the Radio Hall of Fame, a Legion of Merit from France, the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire and more. "I don't get it," he says, shaking his head. "I just don't get it." And he truly doesn't.

It's a strange time for the electronic media. Its winners are the loudest and the dumbest, the sexiest and the most violent, fed to us in a mix of canned laughter and pounding music. Bullies prevail on radio and a twisted kind of reality on TV. We celebrate idiocy, while intelligence vanishes like twigs in a tide.

And now, to further complicate the airwaves, Congress has discovered what everyone else has known for years: that there's an ever-increasing amount of obscenity being pumped into America's homes. The danger now is twofold: how the waves of obscenity are affecting moral standards and how Congress reacts to it. The 1st Amendment may be at stake.

"This country is in awe and fear of the female nipple," Jackson says. "The congressional action is phony. We do absolutely nothing about violence but are concerned about a breast."

His biggest worry now isn't financial survival. His large Tudor-style house sits on seven acres in one of L.A.'s most prestigious communities. "I'm not going to go broke," he says, "even if I never worked again. I've planned." His primary interest, beyond returning to radio, is restoring the health of Alana, his wife of 39 years, who suffered a stroke nine months ago that left her partially paralyzed.

"Much of my time is taken up caring for her," he says, watching Alana struggle across the room. "It's a different kind of challenge. Our world changed in an instant. Within the past two weeks, she's taken two steps on her own. That's a triumph."

Jackson keeps fit physically and mentally. He runs five miles five days a week, takes care of business interests, reads, works on his memoirs, does voice-overs for various English shows, and presides over an informal salon of friends who meet in the evening to discuss and debate the world.

"There are both liberal and conservatives among them," he says. "Maybe 12 to 18 people. The most conservative is a friend who is a Serbian expatriate hairdresser. Sounding off with them mutes my frustration a little."

That frustration is likely to linger until he's back on the air. He thinks one of the news stations would be a good place for him. Or maybe National Public Radio. "Just be sure to say that I'm not bitter," he says again. "That isn't me. I had 32 wonderful years on the air. I just want to be a part of what's happening."

Al Martinez's column appears Mondays and Fridays. He's at al.martinez@latimes.com.

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