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Still wondering, `Which Way, L.A.?'

Born after the '92 riots, Warren Olney's KCRW talk show continues to ask the hard questions.

July 16, 2007|Sean Mitchell | Special to The Times

Fifteen years ago, in the immediate aftermath of the Los Angeles riots, Warren Olney, a former local television newsman with a keen interest in politics and a mind that had been hidden behind a teleprompter, bolted across the threshold of public radio and established himself as a sudden star at KCRW-FM (89.9). The show was called "Which Way, L.A.?" and it was a response to the historic civil unrest that had shaken the city to its core.

Olney quickly began presiding over the uneasy peace by asking questions of people who were rarely heard on the radio and smoothly brokering discussions on the air between the warring tribes in our midst.

By the time the urgency sparked by the riots had ebbed, "Which Way, L.A.?" had become an institution, looking beyond the crisis in South Central to "the issues Southern Californians care about," as its on-air signature proclaimed. The program, which recently celebrated its 15th anniversary, is now half as long as it once was and competes for its host's attention with his national hourlong program, "To the Point," begun in late 2000 and also produced at KCRW in Santa Monica.

"Which Way, L.A.?," heard Mondays through Thursdays at 7 p.m., remains an abiding presence in the landscape of local news. When a big story breaks, from the King/Drew hospital scandal to Los Angeles City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo's motor vehicle problems, Olney finds voices to add to what's been in the news while he himself adds a sense of history and a human touch.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday August 04, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 45 words Type of Material: Correction
Warren Olney: An article in the July 16 Calendar section about radio host Warren Olney referred to the parent company of Pasadena station KPCC-FM (89.3) as Minnesota Public Radio. KPCC's parent is American Public Media Group, a nonprofit organization that also oversees Minnesota Public Radio.

A fourth-generation Californian, Olney has a casually genteel air. He is bookish and well-mannered in a city known for brashness, an unfashionable personality at the ever-fashionable KCRW. Famous for his restrained moderation of arguments and for keeping his opinions to himself -- sometimes to a fault -- he nevertheless brings more to the table than a microphone. Olney is the reporter as mediator and the mediator as reporter. Which comes first is never certain, and that alternating current may define his style.

"The way I see my role is I don't take sides because I want everyone to be comfortable and be able to express their views," he says at noon on a recent weekday, after finishing an edition of "To the Point" about Rupert Murdoch's bid for the Wall Street Journal. Modeled after "Which Way, L.A.?," with all the guests speaking to the host by phone but on national topics, the show is broadcast live to the East Coast at 11 a.m. and replayed an hour later in Los Angeles.

"There are times when someone comes in and says the Earth is flat, and I have to say, no, it's not. But if the subject is controversial, then by definition what we need to know is the richness of the argument, and let people decide for themselves."

A growing institution

On the short walk from the KCRW studios at Santa Monica City College to a simple two-story house that serves as a production office for the two shows, Olney reflects on what has changed in 15 years. For one thing, he has an office. In the beginning, he did not. He has six producers now to cover both shows. In the beginning, he had two. The KCRW basement studios have been remodeled, with better equipment. His database of sources and experts has grown from 5,000 after two years to 20,000. "So we can do a program on anything that comes up in the news," he says.

Now 69, Olney in 2001 was off the air for eight weeks following sextuple bypass surgery, but he says he has felt fine ever since.

He has an hour or so to decompress from his intellectual balancing act on "To the Point" before gearing up to tape "Which Way, L.A.?" at 2:30. Another program, another subject -- actually two: on this day a consideration of Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's appointment of the Rev. Jeff Carr to the new post of gang czar, plus a look at Delgadillo's personal troubles. But before he wades into the sheaves of documents provided for him by his producers, he orders lunch from the Lazy Daisy on Pico and makes the short drive in his black Prius to pick it up.

Back in his second-floor office, he eats at his desk and watches his computer screen for e-mail. Producer Dan Konecky sticks his head in the doorway to update him on the availability of potential guests.

"Because it's a longer program, with more involved, there's probably more energy devoted to 'To the Point,' " Olney says. "But we work pretty hard on 'Which Way, L.A.?' also. It's not as difficult in the sense that we're more familiar with the issues."

Thinking back to the civic soul-searching of 1992, Olney knows as well as anyone that 15 years later the answer to the original question, "Which Way, L.A.?," is not one anyone wants to hear. Little has changed about the poverty and neglect in South Central that led to the riots. "The demography has changed," he points out. "A lot of the problems are the same. Leadership in the city failed to generate the political will to make the kind of investment that real change would require."

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