When radio executive Ben Hoberman took over the operation of KABC radio in Los Angeles in 1960, the station's amiable fare included shows like Don McNeill's "Breakfast Club" with music and gentle comedy.
Hoberman launched a new format. And in doing so, shook up the radio industry.
"He said he wanted to do all-talk," said George Green, an ad salesman at the station. "And I said, 'What the heck is that?'"
Hoberman, 91, died Saturday at an assisted living facility in Westwood. The cause was complications from lung cancer, according to his daughter, Joan Hoberman.
In a 1990 interview with the Los Angeles Times, Hoberman said that when he became general manager of KABC, he went with talk to make the station stand out. "We thought it would appeal to a selective, qualitative audience," he said, "an audience of educated people with money. It was a competitive necessity to find something different and apart from all other formats."
Other stations, such as the powerful WOR in New York, already had talk shows in their program mix. Hoberman wanted KABC to go all the way.
"It was the first full-time, talk radio station in a large market, backed by a big company," said Michael Harrison, editor of Talkers.com, a talk radio industry website.
The new format debuted Aug. 1, 1960, with programming that hardly resembled what talk radio is today. In the early years, host Wendell Noble reviewed books, nutritionist Carlton Fredericks gave health tips and Pamela Mason — wife of actor James Mason — talked about Hollywood. But business picked up.
According to Broadcasting Magazine, in the first three weeks of 1961 KABC signed contracts for as much new advertising as it had in the first three months of the previous year.
The format gained traction as the station added call-in shows, including one hosted by the highly confrontational Joe Pyne, whose catchword insult was, "Go gargle with razor blades." Balancing out that kind of talk was a genial, cultured Englishman, Michael Jackson, who had already been fired from a couple of L.A. stations when he put in a call to Hoberman in 1965.
"He said, 'Where the hell have you been, get over here,'" Jackson said. "I went to his office and he said, 'You are going on air next month.'" Jackson, who leaned to the left politically, stayed at KABC for more than 30 years.
Other popular hosts included Bill Ballance, considered a forerunner of shock jocks; conservative Ray Briem and the morning team of Ken Minyard and Bob Arthur, better known as Ken and Bob.
The station steadily grew in popularity. Then Hoberman scored a coup by snagging the rights to broadcast Los Angeles Dodgers games, beginning in 1973. "That's when the ratings skyrocketed," Green said.
The all-talk format was adopted by stations across the country. In 1979, Hoberman was made president of ABC Radio in New York, a position he held until 1986 when Capital Cities Communications bought the company.
Bernard Gilbert Hoberman was born July 21, 1922, in Chisholm, Minn. He was a state champion in forensic contests and at 18 he got his first job in radio as an announcer at a small station in the nearby town of Hibbing. He stayed at the station, even though he was offered scholarships to Northwestern and Drake universities. "If they'd had courses in radio as they do today, there'd have been no problem," Hoberman told Broadcasting in 1961.
In 1942 he enlisted in the Army, where he was assigned to the Armed Forces Network in Europe during World War II. After completing his service, he worked for several ABC stations in the Midwest before being made general manager of WABC in New York. When the position at the Los Angeles station opened up, he jumped at it.
After he left radio, he returned to L.A., where he sat on several boards and worked for charities. In 1990, he attended a remote broadcast of the Ken and Bob show and talked about the pioneering days of talk radio. "No way did I think it would last this long," he said. "I'm as surprised as anyone else that it's still around today."
In addition to his daughter, Hoberman is survived by sons Tom and David; and five grandchildren. His wife, Jackie, died last year.