After 35 years in television news, Warren Olney walked away from a lucrative reporting job at the end of 1991, frustrated that the medium had become too superficial. When public radio station KCRW-FM (89.9) invited him to host a one-time show, a call-in program in the wake of the 1992 Los Angeles riots, he didn't realize he was about to start another career.
Now, two decades later, he's preparing to celebrate the 20th anniversary of "Which Way, L.A.?" and on Saturday night will receive a lifetime achievement award from the Radio & Television News Assn. of Southern California.
"I thought of it as one night of interviews," Olney said of the program that became "Which Way, L.A.?" But KCRW's then-general manager, Ruth Seymour, "without saying anything to me, thought of it as a sort of audition."
The first show went so well, Seymour named it and brought it back for a week starting June 1, then the rest of the month, then through Labor Day. Toward the end of that summer, she said she asked Olney, "'Are you ready to wind it up?' And he said, 'Why should we wind it up?'"
"It was just really interesting and a lot of fun. A day became a week, and a week became a month...," he said.
Seymour realized she needed to find underwriting, and a dedicated staff. And "Which Way, L.A.?" has been on the schedule ever since — it currently airs from 7 to 7:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday. In 2000, it spawned a sister show, "To the Point," during which Olney uses the same format to examine national and international issues. It's syndicated nationwide by Public Radio International, and airs on KCRW at noon weekdays.
Among other markets, "To the Point" appears in Washington, D.C., but Olney noted, "we're also on public radio in Montana and Mississippi and Shreveport. When you try to talk to an audience as diverse as that — it's kind of like being in L.A."
No matter if the day's topic is a Republican primary, whether the earth can support 7 billion people or a runoff election to fill an L.A. City Council seat, the approach of both shows is the same: Olney and his seven producers draw on their database of 25,000 experts to populate a discussion group, with Olney acting as moderator, giving each side time to speak their views and rebut their opponents'. Each participant takes turns, so no one gets the chance to shout over a rival.
"Definitely everyone feels that they get a fair hearing when they're on his program, and that's why I think it's lasted," said Rick Terrell, executive director of the Radio & Television News Assn. of Southern California. "I think it's a show that asks the right questions, and gets the best people to answer them, all the time."
Seymour contrasted the forum with "the screaming heads" she said are all too common on cable television. "Civility is really important in discourse. He invites guests on whose opinions are very different from each other. He does it in a way that invites a back and forth."
"I'm very proud of that," said Olney, 74, "and it's one of the things that keeps me going. We're supposed to have a democratic society, and discuss things in a rational way. I want to help that process. At the same time, I also welcome and look for disagreement, because that's what makes it run."
In April 1992, Olney was already a respected figure among Southern California news viewers, familiar with him from reporting stints and anchor jobs at KABC, KCBS, KCOP and KNBC. Seymour met Olney in the late 1970s, when they were members of a journalists' chapter of Amnesty International, and knew he was available to moderate a one-time program, bringing together people to discuss how Los Angeles got to the point where it exploded on April 29, 1992.
"I knew his intelligence. I knew his sense of appropriateness. All of that was very important in this period of crisis," she said. "Warren has this calm, reasonable, rational demeanor — he was the captain steering the ship."
After a combined 30 years on the air for Olney's dual shows on KCRW, it wasn't until two months ago that he stumbled into his biggest controversy. The Nov. 11 episode of "To the Point," titled "After Penn State: Foster Care and Who Makes a Good Parent?," contrasted former Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky, allowed to serve as a foster parent even while under investigation for molestation, with the fact that in many places gays and lesbians are prevented from fostering or adopting children.
Some listeners were incensed, saying that even by merely covering both topics on the same show, Olney linked them and revived the stereotype of gays as child molesters.
He apologized that day, and again on his following program. And Olney this week said he was stunned by the furious reaction, insisting that he was trying to point out that Sandusky continued fostering kids, while "available people who were qualified to be parents weren't being allowed to be parents, and this was tragic."
KCRW general manager Jennifer Ferro said the misstep and the subsequent firestorm saddened her. "I think at the end of the day, the show was fair," she said. "There was a lot of listening on our side after that. He and his staff learned a lot from that experience."
"In retrospect," Olney said, "it was a mistake. We should have been more sensitive and alert that people would make the wrong connection."
Undaunted, Olney said he prefers to look ahead rather than backward: "The show I'm interested in is the one I want to do next."
"I can't believe it's been 20 years," he said of his KCRW tenure. "It's been so interesting, it's been so much fun, it's gone very rapidly.
"Just to have someone think of me in terms of a lifetime career seems strange to me, because I feel like there's so much more to do."
Ferro said she doesn't want to equate "lifetime achievement" with "end of career."
"We want him here as long as he wants to stay," she said. "He's kind of irreplaceable."