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Furor-stoking L.A. radio duo defies pigeonholing

COLUMN ONE

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

"We have absolutely no desire for our brand to be involved … with programming that is divisive and potentially offensive," wrote Don Butler, vice president of Cadillac marketing, in a letter posted online.

KFI program director Robin Bertolucci said the economic boycott has had no appreciable effect.

"John and Ken are having a huge year," she said. "They have the largest audience in afternoon drive-time in Southern California.... They are extremely effective with advertisers."

As Talkers Magazine publisher Michael Harrison put it, if controversial hosts are worth the trouble, stations keep them. "John and Ken are an immense radio attraction," he said.

The duo did apologize to Cabrera on their show — repeatedly though a little grumpily — and also on Univision. But Kobylt and Chiampou also believe the coalition is trying to censor them.

Yes, Kobylt said in a recent interview, he is "sorry about the knuckleheads" who harassed Cabrera. But those who would boycott the show, he said, "don't want us to talk about illegal immigration because of the influence we have."

Kobylt, who grew up in Saddlebrook, N.J., got his first radio when he was 7, a Holy Communion present from his godfather. He turned it on, heard a Yankees-Angels game and was "mesmerized."

His Polish-born father was a factory worker who spent his teens in a Nazi work camp. His mother was a part-time department store stock clerk. They put their son's $2,000 broadcasting school tuition on their MasterCard.

The stocky 50-year-old is the voluble half of the John and Ken team, a baseball fanatic and Johnny Carson acolyte who spent five years in a newspaper sports department before he "had to get out.…There were a lot of really overweight, drunken zombies working there."

To this day, Kobylt marvels over the six weeks in 1988 that he says changed his life.

He and Chiampou broadcast together for the first time that January on an oldies station in Atlantic City. Shortly thereafter he met a TV reporter named Deborah Zara. They married in 1992 and have three sons.

Chiampou, 55, is the voice of reason to his mercurial partner. In person, the ex-accountant is terse. He grew up on Long Island, one of six children, the son of a civil engineer and a part-time teacher. He is single and, he says, leans libertarian.

David Hall, the former KFI program director who brought the pair to Southern California in 1992, described their on-air dynamic: "Ken does a good job of fanning the flames and then, right at the second John's going to explode, pulls him back from the brink."

Through the years, the pair have gained ratings and made headlines by turning current events into theater.

For example, they stormed former Rep. Gary Condit's Modesto office in 2001 during the search for missing intern Chandra Levy; Kobylt asked female staffers if they were required to sleep with their boss. The women called the police.

The show's format, Kobylt said, evolved by accident.

In 1990, the two were hired by New Jersey's first statewide radio station. "Their idea of … topics was, hey, what's the best pizza, what's the worst intersection," Kobylt recalled. "Ken and I were driving in together for a short time, and [decided] This is really stupid. But we didn't know what we were going to do."

Then one day while on air, they made fun of gun owners. At the time, Kobylt said, he was in his late 20s and didn't have a well-thought-out political ideology. He probably leaned Republican, because the Democratic presidential candidates "seemed to be one wiener after another."

"I had no idea that if you made fun of gun owners, they'd go berserk," he recalled. "We started arguing with them and … mocking them. It turned out to be really entertaining radio."

Both men are registered on election rolls as "declined to state." They don't talk about social issues much on the air. But Kobylt said both are basically "pro-choice, pro-gay marriage, don't really [care] about guns either way as long as I'm not getting shot. Marijuana's fine."

Chiampou sits in a green chair in the KFI broadcast studio, legs jiggling up and down. The "John and Ken Show" website on his computer screen showcases Moammar Kadafi's corpse, shirtless and bloodied.

The show is in its first half-hour, and the hosts have moved from discussing Harold Camping's latest failed apocalypse scenario to the circumstances of the dictator's death. Kobylt and Chiampou have a soft spot for Kadafi: They met in 1986 on the day President Reagan bombed the Libyan leader's compound.

Every morning, the sandy-haired Chiampou puts together a list of topics for the unscripted show. Around 10:30, he e-mails it to Kobylt and producer Ray Lopez, who prints out newspaper and television stories that will inform the banter.

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