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Furor-stoking L.A. radio duo defies pigeonholing

KFI's John and Ken thrive on an angry public and wield power by stirring their loyal listeners — 1 million weekly — to action. But their stances and beliefs are more varied than many might suspect.

January 06, 2012|By Maria L. La Ganga, Los Angeles Times
  • John Kobylt, left, and Ken Chiampou broadcast live from Occupy Los Angeles' City Hall encampment in October.
John Kobylt, left, and Ken Chiampou broadcast live from Occupy Los Angeles'… (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles…)

Four hours a day, five days a week, John and Ken swoop from substantive to sophomoric faster than you can change the station.

They are conservative, campaigning against what they deride as the "Illegal Alien Dream Act."

They are liberal, hosting an in-depth conversation about income inequality with Occupy Los Angeles protesters.

They also can be totally tasteless, calling that same movement "Occupoo" after weeks spent cackling over encampment Porta Pottis.

It is possible for a single radio program to contain all of the above, and more, while drawing a drive-time audience of 1 million-plus loyal listeners each week. But chances are only if it is the much loved — and much reviled — Burbank-based "John and Ken Show" at 640 on the AM dial.

GOP lawmakers struggle to stay in John Kobylt and Ken Chiampou's good graces. Gov. Jerry Brown has described them as part of a clutch of activists who can "stop any bill in the Legislature where Republican [votes] are needed." Their opponents deride them as right-wing functionaries.

The truth is more complicated.

Broadcasting from a Democratic stronghold in a politically deep blue state, Kobylt and Chiampou have created one of the most popular local radio talk shows in the country by tapping into the contradiction that is California. Not a single Republican holds a statewide elected office. The Legislature is solidly Democratic. Still, in the past, Golden State voters approved the fiscally conservative Proposition 13 and sought to keep immigrants out with Proposition 187.

The angrier the Californians, the likelier they are to listen in.

Kobylt and Chiampou "cross the line just about every day," said John J. Pitney Jr., professor of government at Claremont McKenna College. "They're mean. They're nasty. But they're also substantive. If you want to find out what's going on in California, they're the people you listen to."

Just before 3 p.m. on a crisp fall afternoon, the door to a motor home parked at Fullerton City Hall swings open. Kobylt and Chiampou descend the stairs. The crowd cheers.

Dressed in black and flanked by bodyguards, the pair make their way to a broadcast booth. Today's topic is Kelly Thomas, the schizophrenic homeless man who was beaten by Fullerton police officers. Thomas' death has been ruled a homicide, and two veteran officers have been charged.

Local activists have called for the ouster of three-fifths of the City Council, largely longtime members they believe have been unresponsive to concerns about the Police Department.

Ken: It's a great day for a recall!

John: A great day to kick politicians out of office!

Fullerton's outrage is the perfect vehicle to showcase the softer side of the name-calling duo: There is the image of Thomas' battered face, widely broadcast. The alleged criminal action of baton- and Taser-wielding cops — and the politicians who activists say protected them.

"Three dirt-bag politicians," Kobylt declares, his face shiny with perspiration as he urges listeners to come sign recall petitions. Kobylt and Chiampou give out autographs and pose for pictures with clamoring fans. They offer up their bully pulpit to Thomas' furious father.

J. Steven Davis has driven from Riverside to show his support for the Thomas family. While the commentators "do kinda sorta stretch the limits of the 1st Amendment," Davis said, their interest has been a benefit to the recall effort.

"One of the advantages they have is 50,000 watts of power" on KFI, said the retired Air Force officer and member of the self-proclaimed Constitution-loving Oath Keepers. "What in a bar or at a party is personal opinion, on the air becomes darn near policy."

That is, if you agree with them. If you don't, you can always think boycott.

For much of their tenure in Southern California, the New Jersey radio transplants have hammered away at illegal immigration. They spent weeks calling on Brown to veto the second half of the California Dream Act, which gives taxpayer-supported college grants to illegal immigrants.

When the governor signed the bill, Kobylt and Chiampou helped launch a campaign to repeal it, arguing the law denies college educations to "native-born Americans."

They also gave out the cellphone number for Jorge-Mario Cabrera, spokesman for the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, and urged listeners to give him a piece of their minds. More than 500 did, Cabrera said.

Transcripts of about 40 calls provided by Cabrera are filled with profanity. One man who called 42 times, Cabrera said, offered this sentiment: "You pig. I hope you die in your own vomit."

The National Hispanic Media Coalition has called for an advertiser boycott and wants the commentators fired. The group lists more than a dozen firms on its website that it said have either pulled ads or pledged not to advertise on the "John and Ken Show," among them General Motors.

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