KCRW's Which Way L.A.?
From a city in flames emerges a steady voice of reason
Originally published in Current, Dec. 18, 1995
By Geneva Collins
In a world in which "talk radio" host routinely give themselves license to inflame, inflict or incite, host Warren Olney (pictured) is the Boutros Boutros-Ghali of the airwaves.
The host of the weekday talk show Which Way L.A.? on KCRW in Santa Monica, Olney would probably prefer to be described as more of a reporter than a mediator. But it's his dogged neutrality and the show's penchant for airing voices underrepresented in other media that has guests lining up to participate.
"I think what's most appealing about Which Way L.A.? is that it is truly democratic," said media watcher Marde Gregory, associate director of the UCLA Center for Communication Policy and a senior lecturer at UCLA. "It explores every possible point of view, not just 'both' points of view, allowing the listener to make his own decisions about critical issues based on the opinions of the most significant voices in each area."
The Los Angeles Times wrote that Olney was "doing something no one has ever done before, at least in Los Angeles, by combining the skills of a political reporter with those of a diplomat and street referee, forging a new role as a kind of ombudsman of the air."
Which Way L.A.? was born out of the riots that ignited the city in April 1992, and the program's de facto mission has always been to help the diverse members of L.A.'s richly multiethnic community speak to one another.
A few months before the rioting, Olney, a fixture on local L.A. news shows for 20 years, had quit his prestigious anchor job at independent TV station KCOP, tired of the nightly grind and what he calls the "dumbing down of the news."
He knew KCRW General Manager Ruth Seymour because both belonged to the local journalists' chapter of Amnesty International and told her to call him if she ever needed his services. A few weeks after the riots erupted and tensions were still simmering, Seymour was asked to host a call-in show in conjunction with a town hall simulcast on the subject. Seymour needed to attend a public radio conference in Seattle, so she asked Olney to host the program.
Seymour had the live call-in piped into her Seattle hotel room via conference call.
"I said, My God, he's terrific! Don't forget, he'd never done radio before, and the skills are completely different. When you're on TV you can do things with your eyes, body language. On radio the voice is everything. And this was a live show, where you were juggling guests, had to keep track of who you were talking to, who was waiting on hold."
Olney enjoys the challenge. "What I liked about it was it gave me the opportunity to use all the stuff I used to have to cut out when doing TV. All the nuances, the background, and so forth, the stuff that is always the most interesting," he said. "On TV, all you had room for was the skeleton of the story."
They decided to do a weekday show for a month. The month stretched into a summer.
"Of course, I didn't have any money to pay him or the assistants we would need to hire," remembered Seymour. "But I said, if you broadcast it, the money will come."
GTE, a short-term underwriter, signed on for a year and is still backing the show. Three-and-a-half years later, Which Way L.A.? is an institution, with a devoted following not only among City Hall movers and shakers and upper-class Westside yuppies but in minority neighborhoods as well.
Once devoted to strictly local topics, the show has expanded to cover occasional national and international topics, like Bosnia or the Rabin assassination. The program tagline has gone through several edits to reflect the expansion. In its first summer, the show was described as "the special series on L.A. at the crossroads in the aftermath of the worst civil disturbance in recent U.S. history." Then it became "the ongoing series confronting the issues of urban life in Southern California." Now it's "the ongoing series on issues Southern Californians care about."
When possible, all topics are given a local spin. A show in November about child welfare, for example, featured a nationally known journalist who has written about the subject, a congressman from Arkansas involved in drafting the reform legislation before Congress, a spokesperson from a local advocacy group called Children Now, and an official from the state social services department.
"I think it's good to broaden out and not always do local stuff, but what we do best that others don't do is focus on this area," said Olney. "The richness and diversity of L.A. is not being taken advantage of by commercial broadcasters."
The modus operandi of the hour-long show is to have Olney talk to five or six guests by phone. With extremely rare exceptions, guests do not appear in the studio. This is done for myriad reasons:
"People are more likely to speak frankly when they're talking on the phone," said Seymour. "It's a very intimate process, speaking into a receiver next to your ear, very one-on-one, speaking from the privacy of your home or office or car, wherever. People don't feel like they're on the radio."
Citing a recent confrontational show in which conservatives were angered that Ariana Huffington, a member of their ranks, was supporting Colin Powell for president, Seymour said, "I don't think these people would have been so forthright, ready to take the gloves off, if they were in a studio facing one another."
Daniel Hinerfeld, one of Which Way L.A.?'s two producers (Sarah Spitz, KCRW's publicity director, is the other), said, "If you have some people in the studio and some online, the studio people naturally have a dominant position. It's hard not to ignore someone sitting right next to you, so they tend to get more airtime."
It may be a grand way to put it, but hosting Which Way L.A.? is a job Warren Olney has been preparing for all his life. He is a fourth-generation Californian who grew up in Berkeley. His great-grandfather was mayor of Oakland and his father was a state attorney general. He started out in newspapers -- first in Newport News, Va., then in Sacramento. He switched to television in 1966 and over the next two decades worked for all three network affiliates and independent KCOP as a reporter and anchor.
"Warren is easily recognizable as the most knowledgeable person on California politics in journalism," said Gregory.
"He's the kind of person every TV news station should have," said freelance reporter Kitty Felde, whose five-minute Q&A debriefings with Olney during the O.J. Simpson, Rodney King and Reginald Denny trials made her a household name in Southern California and garnered her four Golden Medallion awards from the state bar association.
"They really don't have a news director at KCRW, and Warren became that de facto," said Felde. "When I had questions about what things should be reported, what to talk about on the air, I could trust his judgment. I felt that especially valuable with the whole Simpson craziness. With so much wacko stuff going on, you really needed a cool head, and that's what he provided."
Olney admits that moving from 30-second news stories and 10-syllable sound bites to the unfettered world of public radio took some getting used to.
"I had to learn not to compress things, although the compression skills come in handy when I write the lead-ins and news summary at the top of the hour. At first I thought we needed more guests--how could we get through a whole hour with only six guests? Now an hour doesn't seem long enough," said Olney.
Twice a week the staff--Olney, Seymour, Hinerfeld and Spitz--meet in the g.m.'s office to determine the next week's show topics. Hinerfeld usually produces three shows and Spitz, two; both are responsible for lining up the guests.
"We like to say we have the best Rolodexes in local journalism, maybe even national journalism," boasted Hinerfeld. Their database lists more than 5,000 sources, most of whom have been on the show. "We keep extensive records, meticulous tracking information, and we have regular background sources," said Hinerfeld.
According to Spitz, more than a dozen people are interviewed before approximately six are lined up for the upcoming show.
"Numerical parity is not what we're shooting for" when scheduling guests, said Hinerfeld. "What we're trying to do is make sure that whatever important arguments one guest will make, the others will be able to respond to it."
The database proves a lifesaver when breaking news -- an earthquake, for example -- requires the producers to scrap a planned show, which happens about once a month. Or on a day like May 24, when two City Council members and another guest bailed out 20 minutes before airtime. The topic involved the council's handling of a reprimand of LAPD Chief Willie Williams, and the council president put out word that appearing on Which Way L.A.? would not be a good idea.
"In situations like that, it becomes a pundit show," said Hinerfeld.
Spitz and Hinerfeld do most of their research by consulting the Nexis online service and clipping articles from newspapers. They give Olney notes on how the guests might relate to specific points and suggest an order of appearance. This information is usually e-mailed to Olney at home. He gets up early to read through it before coming to the station a couple of hours before the 1 p.m. airtime.
Unlike some hosts, Olney does not interview guests in advance. "I don't write out a series of questions ahead of time; I try to keep it as extemporaneous as possible, let the guests determine where we go. I don't have preconceptions about how the show ought to sound, and that keeps it fresh."
Some may find the rampant reasonableness a little dull, even by public radio standards, but Gregory calls Olney's sedate, sonorous discourse an antidote to the inflammatory talk shows that populate the airwaves. "To me, it's never dull. I could see where it could be interpreted by some people as dull. Is that a bad thing? In our society, there should be more room for dull."
Said Olney: "If you start judging journalism by entertainment standards, then you start producing something other than journalism, and something important is lost."
Although it airs twice daily (the 1 p.m. broadcast is repeated at 7 p.m., which is still drivetime in L.A.), Which Way L.A.? is not KCRW's highest-rated show, but it's the most expensive, with a quarter-million dollar annual budget, and by far the most influential. The show has been profiled by The New York Times and ABC's Nightline, among other places, and has racked up 21 local, state and national awards.
"Mind you, we're working out of a basement of a community college," said Seymour. "We put this show together with Scotch tape and paper clips."
The sentiment at KCRW appears to be that no major changes are planned for the show. Olney himself shows no sign of losing interest. "We haven't answered the question yet--which way, L.A.?" he said.
In addition to hosting the show, Olney is trying to develop some freelance video projects and makes frequent personal appearances to supplement what he calls "the modest wages of public radio." (Although the highest-paid person at KCRW except for Seymour, he reportedly is earning just one-third to one-fourth of his anchor salary.)
"The major thing you need to know when you're doing a show like this is it's not how virtuous you are; you have to appeal to people," said Seymour. "You have to be sexy and exciting and mean and sentimental ... I think too often we in public radio suffer from an excess of moral superiority. [At KCRW] we're careful not to make people feel like they're committing a good deed by listening to the show. You have to get them to listen because it's exciting and compelling, not because it's a civic duty."
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