Columns appear in print in the U Entertainment Section of the Pasadena Star-News, San Gabriel Valley Tribune, Whittier Daily News

Saturday, September 30, 2006

Radio Column September 22, 2006

Listening In

September 22, 2006

By Sandy Wells

KFI’s John and Ken at ‘war’ with LA’s mayor

Two of radio’s most politically provoking personalities now see themselves as being in a state of ‘war’ with the mayor of Los Angeles. For KFI-AM 640’s John and Ken Show, who rate their effectiveness on how often they can goad the high and mighty into taking their bait, this may be their biggest catch to date.

At the 4th Annual Impact Awards luncheon sponsored by the Hispanic Media Coalition honoring Latino broadcasters in Beverly Hills last week, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa congratulated Spanish radio personalities such as KSCA-FM’s Eddie “PĂ­olin” Sotello, for organizing the peaceful pro-immigration rallies last spring. He then paused and took a moment to scold the KFI afternoon talk show hosts, addressing them directly, “while the cameras are rolling.”

“Two people who get on the radio everyday, who share a commitment to dividing America, who demonize our immigrants,” said Villaraigosa. “Let us say to them, ‘Shame on you; shame on you for dividing America.’ But make no mistake, like the people we honor today, we will stand up, we will speak out, we will do it the right way, speaking out on behalf of an America that is bigger and better then the rhetoric that you put on your radio waves every single day.”

That afternoon, John and Ken were broadcasting from a special screening of the immigration-themed film “Border War” in Orange County. They broke in with the story of the mayor’s comments, adding that a KTLA-TV reporter was on the way to get their response.

“It was like a declaration of war,” Ken Chiampou later told KTLA-TV’s Willa Sandmeyer. “There was emotion and anger in his voice. But he did the same thing that all politicians do. He referred to the issue as the United States as ‘a nation of immigrants.’ He completely only talks about immigration, never dividing into the categories you have to divide. There are legal immigrants and there are illegal immigrants.”

KFI Program Director Robin Bertolucci did not offer a comment on this latest political imbroglio involving her drive time duo. Instead she handed me off to John Kobylt, who usually plays ‘bad cop’ to Ken Chiampou’s more reasonable ‘good cop’ attitude during their on air ruminations about the latest political or cultural outrage.

Kobylt admitted that he was initially surprised that the mayor, so often the target of their invective in the past, had picked that day to publicly condemn their show’s position on immigration.

He told me he felt Villraigosa was really just politicking in the typical way so many politicians do, by pandering to their base when they are in front of a friendly audience and unnoticed by the mainstream media.

“Villaraigosa had been off our radar for a while as we focused on Phil Angelides and Arnold Schwarzenegger. I wondered if he wasn’t just throwing meat out to the Spanish media crowd, not really noticing that Channel 5 was there. It’s jut like when (former) governor Davis signed the illegal drivers’ license bill with only Hispanic media there and our reporter Eric Leonard found out about it. These politicians are often trying to skip it by English media … (Villaraigosa is) firing up his base because he wants to run for governor.”

Kobylt explained that the mayor may not have considered that KTLA-TV would be there to cover the award being given to their own Carlos Amezcua for Excellence in Broadcast Journalism. Then, that story got upstaged by the mayor blasting the KFI hosts.

“The channel 5 news director thought this would be a big deal. Why he thought he should lead with the story, I don’t know.”

Typically, local broadcasters like to ingratiate themselves with those in power. John and Ken have made a name for themselves doing just the opposite. In their early days, as radio hosts in Trenton New Jersey, they openly ridiculed the state assembly after reading an article in the local paper about a huge tax increase that had been quietly voted into law in an after midnight session. They kept up the heat. Eighteen months later, they took credit for getting about a third of the state legislature voted out of office.

For Kobylt, the real scandal these days is the existence of a cowed and intimidated body politic, afraid to speak plainly to those in power. He feels that their show and its million-plus local audience, is making a difference in how people think about politics.

“The pc bubble has burst,” said Kobylt. “The stories that used to be scandalous aren’t any more. It’s a change of reality. The most common comment we get from listeners is ‘You say what we’re thinking.’ But they’re afraid to say these things. It’s about speaking the obvious truth. There’s a whole professional ‘lying class’ out there. Our whole niche is cutting through the b. s. and getting out the truth.”

Friday, September 15, 2006

Radio Column September 8, 2006

Listening In

September 8, 2006

By Sandy Wells

Remembering radio’s ‘Living Legend,’ Huggy Boy

I called up KRLA-AM 1110’s Huggy Boy show the Saturday night after my girl friend and I got engaged and made a request. Huggy answered the phone himself and taped me dedicating “I Got You” by James Brown to my future bride. Then he told me, “Sure, buddy, I’ll get it on for you.”

I remembered that night after I learned that Dick “Huggy Boy” Hugg had died last week at the age of 78.

The sincerity and warmth in his voice stayed with me. Huggy Boy was definitely not your average DJ. Maybe possessing that reservoir of sincerity available to give to each and every one of the thousands who called him was one of the reasons he remained a popular figure for six decades in Los Angeles radio.

When he worked at K-Earth 101 (KRTH-FM 101.1) – his last radio gig – his difficulty fitting in to the straight-jacket standards of the station modeled after “Boss Radio” KHJ-AM, the super-slick top 40 powerhouse of the 60s and 70s – was plain to hear. His creative energy and playful attitude, the signature stack of “low rider” oldies he used to woo and win his huge nighttime audiences at KRLA-AM 1110 – where he often humbled his mighty FM competitor in the ratings – were all, sadly missing. Huggy Boy, an anomaly in a profession that celebrated anomalies – was out of place on K-Earth 101. Too bad the station just didn’t let him do his own thing, chat with the listeners for as long as he wanted, play his signature R&B hits, and sing over the songs when the spirit moved him.

I remembered my interview with “The Mayor of East LA” in 1998, just after he’d signed on to work at K-Earth 101.

He told me his last song on KRLA, which had switched from all oldies to a talk format, was “Don’t Let No One Get You Down” by War.

The noise of the traffic outside the window of his first floor apartment near East LA made it hard for me to understand him as he often seemed to mumble his words. I often asked him to repeat what he’d said as I strained to catch everything, not really trusting my tape recorder to catch the words my ears missed.

Huggy Boy told me how he made his name hosting the “Harlem Hit Parade” from midnight to 4 a.m. on KRKD-AM 1150 from Dolphins of Hollywood record store at Vernon and Central. He became one of a handful of cultural white disc jockey spinning “race records” that actually appealed to people of all races in Los Angeles.

Later, at home, going over the tape, I was astonished to find his voice and words come across as clear as a bell, a voice made for the microphone.

Huggy was never one of the slick well-connected DJs who transitioned easily from the role of playing the hip sounds for the young crowd into a record industry job or a seat on “Hollywood Squares” or a lucrative career doing voice-overs.

After a decade and a half of playing contemporary music ended in the mid sixties, he made a go at some other lines of work, including a stint as a strip club entrepreneur, a job he did not like. In the early 80s, he reemerged in Southland radio, playing requests and dedications on XPRS-AM 1090 before launching a 14-year reign as a DJ on KRLA-AM 1110.

The last time I saw Huggy was at a tribute held for him in the City of Industry in 2003. Hundreds of people came out that night to see the man who, although no longer on the air, was still a “living legend” in the world of rock and R&B radio. He was frail and obviously in poor health, but his spirit was still strong and he hadn’t lost the ability to command a room full of admirers.

He graciously asked me to say a few words of introduction. Unprepared, I could only manage a few platitudes about his legendary popularity. I wanted to say more, but I didn’t want to steal the occasion by launching into a long discourse about what I felt his significance was as a pioneer of R&B and rock n’ roll radio.

I wanted to say something like – “to me, Huggy, you are one of a handful of originals who blazed a trail for thousands of DJs and pop impresarios to come. You were out there doing it when no one knew how to do it or whether the music would last another six months, making up the rules as you went along – spinning the R&B rock sounds that simmered until the heat boiled over into a major cultural revolution. It was lead by radio personalities such as you – what the mainstream press condescendingly called the ‘Pied Pipers of Rock and Roll.’ But it was really just the start of something very big, something that continues to this day.”

There, now I’ve said it. I wish you well Huggy, up there in rock and roll heaven.

Huggy Boy in 1994 (second from left) with (L-R) fellow KRLA personalities Mucho Morales, Dominick Garcia and actor Jimmy Smits promoting the film "The Cisco Kid."
(Courtesy Dominick Garcia)