Michael Jackson: Sir radio

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You have only to hear the voice to recognize who owns those pipes: talk-show host Michael Jackson, the original issue, with more than half a century on the radio. During the BL era -- Before Limbaugh -- he reached millions of ears on several continents and was, for about three decades, the monarch of Los Angeles' AM talk radio. Jackson wears a coat and tie on the radio, in perfect keeping with the urbane, civil, informed discourse that earned him a place in the Radio Hall of Fame, an honor from the queen of England and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. That star was smothered in flowers this summer by music fans who mistook it for the other Michael Jackson's.

Once hemade his way to L.A. radio, interviewing stars and sovereigns, presidents and provocateurs, he worked pretty much without cease until September 2008, when his show on KGIL was replaced with syndicated programming. Now, after a self-described restless year away from a microphone, he's coming back to AM, every Sunday, starting with this one, hosting a financial program at his old radio home, KABC. Right now it's only an hour, but it's a start ... again.

Growing up in Britain, you must have listened to the radio?

It was World War II. We would come into the dining room at the boarding school, and the headmaster would call for silence, and we would listen to the BBC news. Then he would announce the [former students] who had been killed or wounded in battle. We little kids didn't really understand.

Did you know you loved radio then?

Oh yes. At a Christmas concert, we wrote a play about being the BBC staff, and I remember saying, "This is the British Broadcorping Castration."

On purpose?

I don't remember. Isn't that terrible?

Your family moved to South Africa when you were 11. By age 16 you were on the radio there.

I lied and said I was 22. I was on two stations; one was called Springbok Radio -- everything in South Africa was called springbok. I learned I could get one-third more money if I also announced in Afrikaans, so I learned Afrikaans. My real break came when a notice went up on the board, "Who wants to cover Grace Kelly's wedding?" I signed it, took it down until the deadline day and put it back up [and] was sent to Monte Carlo.

[South Africa] was a wonderful place to grow up in the business. You had to go to sound-effects school, be an orchestral announcer -- we had a symphony orchestra of 110. I got my first real lesson, my comeuppance, when Danny Kaye came to town, the biggest American star we'd ever seen. He comes offstage; I say something inane to him. It was a live show, and he just stared at me. And stared at me. I've never done an interview ill-prepared, I think, since then.

What do you think you do for listeners that's singular?

Connection. Liking the people you speak to. Listening to the people you speak to. I hope they get to say everything they want to say and a little bit more. Mickey Cohen came in the studio. I said: "The first question I must ask you -- have you ever killed anyone?" He said: "Wait a second -- you rephrase that question." I said: "OK. Are there any people no longer around as a result of some course of action you might have taken?" He said: "Ah, of course there are, but they had it coming."

And what does being on the air do for you?

I'm top gun. I'm at home. It's magic. It's been the simplest entree to the most significant people you can imagine. Not always good people. Frequently the best; sometimes the worst. The caliber of the guests makes me think at a different level and draws things out of me that I didn't know I had in me. And I don't have to win. How do you go home to a wife when you've been rude to people? It's so much easier to be polite. If you're honest and not trying to be a smartass, you can ask anything.

You did finally work for the BBC.

I was the last announcer on a show called "In Town Tonight." I liked being there, but I knew I didn't belong in Britain. I wasn't well-enough educated; I was too brash. I could have made a nice living, but I wouldn't have become outstanding, and I knew that. I also knew I wanted to be American. So I came at the end of '58, and I knew nobody and had nowhere to go.

You talked your way onto the air in Massachusetts, and eventually came to San Francisco.

I drove to San Francisco. I landed a job as an all-night DJ. I didn't know it was going to be all night; the owner told me it was the morning show -- and morning begins at one minute after midnight. Six hours a night, six days a week. It was rock and roll. I hated the stuff. Eventually I got fired. Chuck Blore hired me at KEWB [in San Francisco]. He said: "I don't care what you do, just don't lose the license." I played one record, Elvis Presley singing "Blue Suede Shoes," after which I said isn't it wonderful that we live in a democracy where Elvis Presley can earn as much money as the entire faculty of the University of California put together? And that brought threats, and I put them on the air, and that's how my talk radio was born. Mort Sahl, at the Hungry I, used to talk about me in his act. Then I came down here and did a variety of stations. One of them was [for] 32 years.

How has talk radio changed?

Have you listened? Little more than hatred -- vitriolic, unsympathetic, bombastic. Terribly talented in their own field, many of them, but I can't respect it.

What does their success tell you about this country?

That we're amazing. That we can put up with all of that and more! It's the best country in the world.

Were you ever tempted to go the way of Rush Limbaugh?

I could not do it. That's one of the statements frequently made about me: We can't hire you, you're insufficiently "in your face."

About that other Michael Jackson ...

We [once went] to Hawaii -- [my mother-in-law], my three kids, [my wife] Alana and me. I ordered a limo for Michael Jackson and all of Hawaii turned out at the airport with great big banners. Alana said: "What do we do?" I said: "We keep walking, with great rhythm."

Did you ever meet him?

Yes. His first comment, his only comment, I think, was, "Where did you get the name?"

patt.morrison@latimes.com. This interview was edited and excerpted from a longer taped transcript. An archive of the Patt Morrison Asks conversations is online at latimes.com/pattasks.

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