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Commentary: On the Media

KFI's John & Ken: No time for nuance

In laying out the villains in the California budget crisis, the radio duo takes a simple -- make that simplistic -- approach. But they forgot Octomom.

February 25, 2009|JAMES RAINEY

KFI radio's evening drive-time kings have been casting about for culprits in the state budget mess. They started with, duh, illegal immigrants and those overfed state workers. Naturally, they've slapped around lazy legislators and the lying governor.

I'm a little disappointed at John Kobylt and Ken Chiampou, though. I thought by now it would have become obvious that they should pin the entire fat mess -- the massive $41-billion hole and the hated taxes that will help fill it -- on a lone evildoer.

Yes, Octomom.

"The John & Ken Show" (KFI 640, 3 to 7 p.m. weekdays) strives, after all, to create "radio as theater." One of the hosts said so a few years ago. An ideal show, Kobylt told The Times, has "good guys, bad guys, some moral issue. There's a clear villain and easily identifiable victims."

It seems to me the fellas -- who like to shout and call people names and hint at, but not actually advocate, violence -- have missed a bet.

They themselves suggested: When in doubt, simplify. And what better stand-in for those unapologetic, narcissistic, taxpayer-supported Sacramento hacks than that unapologetic, narcissistic, taxpayer-supported hyper-mom from Whittier, Nadya Suleman?

The KFI hosts (and, it seems, much of their audience) seem to like their answers without much nuance. So, don't give us too many characters, too many subplots, too much contradiction. Just blame it all on Octomom.

That will fit nicely with some of the story lines we've already got going:

It's all the fault of those no-good illegal immigrants. Yes, the price tag that comes with a huge influx of noncitizens is rightly part of the public discourse. So why muddy the waters with some confounding information?

John and Ken wouldn't make that mistake. They make sure to mention the taxes the newcomers don't pay and the bills they run up in public hospitals. Who needs to mention the taxes they do pay, or to waste time worrying about the lower prices and convenience we all derive from their low-wage labor?

Then, please, protest the cost of state workers. It's beyond righteous to worry about the payroll growing, when everyone else is cutting back. But certainly don't remind your listeners (at least that I've heard) that the fastest-growing state job category is prison guard and that their support of tough sentencing helps explain why that part of the state budget keeps growing by leaps.

And certainly don't suggest that an economic downturn -- affecting virtually every government and business in the world -- played any role in ruining the state's finances. It's much more fun to pin it on that special someone. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger "had five years to fix the problem and it got to $42 billion," KenJohn said the other day. (Sorry, I'm name-lumping. But when the two get all worked up, I can't tell their voices apart.)

The KFI guys' act seems a lot more righteous to me when they find a single subject and fight to right a specific wrong. I had no problem when they broadcast e-mails of L.A.'s Catholic leaders struggling to contain a priest molestation scandal the archdiocese had enabled. I couldn't dredge up any sympathy when they targeted an Orange County judge indicted for child porn and molestation.

But give KenJohn a broad canvas and they will paint with a broad brush. Smearing many, sparing few. "These people are thieves, crooks, liars, fools and whores," KenJohn said the other day, speaking, apparently, about Schwarzenegger and the handful of Republicans who voted for a compromise that ended months of budget wrangling.

The crux of their wrath is that the Republicans had at one time or another pledged not to raise taxes, before signing on to roughly $12.5 billion in tax increases.

So KenJohn have thousands of KFI listeners sending used tea bags to Sacramento, a latter-day echo of that revolutionary protest in old Boston. They've jammed the phone lines of wayward Republicans. No particular harm there.

But does it really help matters, or advance the cause an iota, when some of their fans subject the interns and secretaries answering the calls to foul language and vitriol?

Not that John & Ken or their website strive for subtlety. A central image on the site in recent weeks: pictures of the Republican budget supporters, their heads lopped off and set atop cartoon pikes.

Duly inspired, one KFI fan called the office of Assembly Republican leader Mike Villines in the wee hours of the morning (as the budget talks went overnight) and repeated, time after time, "Head on a stick! Head on a stick!"

Surprise: Villines, of Clovis, did not change his vote or back down on the budget deal he helped negotiate.

KenJohn told their minions they intended to create enough "chaos" in Sacramento to overturn tax increases.

Having failed on that score, they now suggest things need to get worse before they get better.

"We probably need to send the state into insolvency and start over," KenJohn said this week. "It's tough love, [but] we gotta do it."

It should be no surprise that "California Psychics" is a frequent advertiser on the program of late.

The business offers the services of tarot card readers, clairvoyants, astrologers and the like. "I think, most of all," one satisfied customer says in the ad, "I felt validated."

It seems to me that's what John & Ken are selling too. A bit of hocus-pocus and validation of their listeners' anger with a story that doesn't bother with all the messy details.

--

james.rainey@latimes.com

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