Press Telegram
Saturday April 19, 2003

Dean of talk radio still without a microphone

By Tom Hennessy
Staff columnist

When I last wrote about radio's Michael Jackson, it was Dec. 1, and the improbable was about to happen. He was going off the air.
Farewell, or so it seemed, to the pioneer of talk radio in Southern California.
Farewell to the highest rated talk host (and major money-maker) at each of the three stations where he had worked.
Farewell to the host whose guests had ranged from John McCain to Gore Vidal, Jimmy Carter to (candidate) George W. Bush, Mickey Cohen to Margaret Thatcher.
His last station, KLAC, had decided to scrap talk radio in favor of an all-music format.
More than four months later, Jackson, predominantly a liberal, is still without a microphone. Meanwhile, talk radio has swung in virtual lock-step to the political right, a phenomenon known in the trade as the "Rush crush' for conservative Rush Limbaugh.
There is no question Jackson is missed. During those four months, he says, his Internet web site ( ), has drawn a quarter-million hits even though it is advertised only by word of mouth. Most of those contacting him are fans wanting to see him back on the air.
Some also contact me: "I am sick to death of nothing but right-wing, ultra-conservative talk show hosts,' says a typical e-mail, this one from reader Laura Gilmore. "Michael Jackson was the only breath of fresh air in talk radio.'
But with one exception, noted below, there are no strong signs that Gilmore and others will see their idol back on the air waves soon. Just last week, in fact, a program director for one L.A. station expressed the view that around-the- clock conservative hosts are a better bet to increase ratings than "if you try to be a little bit of everything for everybody .' Hosting or boasting?
We are talking here not only about differing political views, but about contrary forms of talk radio.
The usual approach of Jackson, who had also been on KABC and KRLA, was to provide opposing views and let listeners decide who Jackson was right. His political opposites, such as Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Bill O'Reilly (dubbed an "inflated gasbag' by TV critic Howard Rosenberg of the L.A. Times), use an "in-your-face' manipulation of guests and callers while projecting themselves in the best possible light.
When asked, more specifically, how his program would differ from conservative competitors were he back on the air, Jackson says:
"I'd be encouraging healthy discourse about the war, not combating and putting down anyone who doesn't follow the administration's line of logic or point of view. I do not believe that being against the war makes you anti- or un- American.
"Those who protest would be able to have a conversation with those who support our president's foreign policy.'
One reason for Jackson's past success has been his ability to persuade some of the world's most famous names to come on his show. "It is seldom that a guest turns me down. Even if they disagree with me, I think they know they'll get a fair hearing.'
Jackson also possesses what must be one of the most comprehensive phone-number banks in his business. Politicians, former presidents, foreign notables, and show-business giants are only a phone call away.
Given all that, I challenged him last week to "create a show. You're about to go on the air. What kind of program will it be in view of events now taking place?'
He responds, "This morning, I'd aim for Archbishop Desmond Tutu to speak of peace and the future; George McGovern for his having written a powerful antiwar essay for The Nation magazine and former President Jimmy Carter because of his stature and experience. All three were frequent guests on my program.
"I'd try for (Sen.) Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat who supports the current foreign policy, and Henry Kissinger, although he might be difficult to snare right now. Then Sen. Hillary Clinton and her husband remember Bill? Whenever I would do my show from Washington, D.C., they both came on the program as I broadcast from the White House.'
He is off and musing. "This is a time to speak with student leaders and members of the military to learn about their dreams for the future and how they feel about the United States. This is a time to speak with brilliant professors of law, and the top echelon of industrialists and business people.'
He returns to his guest list. "Rather than denounce Hollywood, I'd invite Hollywood. Meet the Dixie Chicks, Sean Penn, Steven Spielberg, etc. I'd invite country star Charlie Daniels, who is 100 percent against dissenters and 100 percent pro-Bush. And I'd invite Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins.
"I'd invite newspaper editors; the Washington Post 'for' the war, the New York Times 'against.' I'd invite Rupert Murdoch (Fox Broadcasting) to see how 'fair and balanced' he sounds.'
Through this exercise, Jackson's frustration of being without a public forum is evident.
"In all my decades in talk radio there has never been a time when the conversation could be as fascinating, revealing, stimulating, inventive and entertaining. But it isn't any of that. It is repetitious and bitter, frequently snide and jingoistic.' Visible host?
Jackson's best bet for returning to the air waves appears to be not with radio, but television in a format, however, that would use elements of talk radio.
Enter radio legend Chuck Blore, one of the originators of "Top 40' radio, the repetitive "play list' format that virtually guaranteed a station top ratings. Blore is promoting a show to be called "Talk TV.' It would assemble daily excerpts of radio talk shows broadcast throughout the nation.
He has tapped Jackson to be the host.
Asked where the project now stands, Blore reports, "It's difficult to say. We were supposed to have some pre-launch meetings when the war came along. Everything is still on line with the project, but things have been put on hold.'
So far, says Blore, 14 radio talk show hosts have been recruited and would have their shows excerpted on "TV Talk.' Cameras would be installed in their radio studios.
But will the show really air? Blore is confident it will. "Because of the level of interest, we were kind of hoping it would be on by now.' But the war, he notes, altered the time table.
The show would be the renewal of a partnership that traces back more than four decades to when Blore hired Jackson as a rock 'n' roll disk jockey at KEWB, San Francisco. "In those days,' says Blore, "all-night shows were required to do at least an hour of conversation. Nobody wanted to do that except Michael. Eventually, he came to me and asked if he could talk more than an hour.'
Blore was agreeable to the extension, especially in view of a Time magazine story noting that Jackson, on the air, had just persuaded a woman not to commit suicide.
As for selecting Jackson as "Talk TV' host, Blore says, "Michael is still the dean of talk radio. Who is better qualified? Who has better credentials?'
Meanwhile, does the "dean of talk radio' have any regrets about getting into a business that ultimately dumped him on the streets?
"How truly blessed I've been,' he says, "how privileged to have earned my living, from the age of 16, in the profession of my choosing; to have been actively involved with the growth of radio from almost its infancy to its present.
"And, God willing, its future.'

Tom Hennessy's viewpoint appears Sunday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. He can be reached at (562) 499-1270 or via e-mail at

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