George Nicholaw, the longtime general manager of KNX-AM (1070) who oversaw its rise into an award-winning, all-news giant and delivered on-air editorials that made his voice familiar to millions of Southern California listeners, died Sunday in Los Angeles. He was 86.
The cause was complications of a urinary infection, said family friend Bud Meyers.
Nicholaw left television news to become general manager of CBS radio's Los Angeles outlet, KNX, in 1967. During his 36-year tenure — believed to be the longest of any top radio news station executive in the United States — KNX won many of broadcast journalism's highest honors, including the Peabody Award, the Alfred I. DuPont Award and more than 170 Golden Mike Awards.
FOR THE RECORD:
George Nicholaw: The news obituary of longtime KNX-AM (1070) general manager George Nicholaw that ran in the Aug. 12 LATExtra section said he wrote the editorials that he delivered on air. They were written by his staff.
The station was also recognized for its civic involvement, which grew out of Nicholaw's early work in community relations. The station participated in local events and incorporated community feedback into its coverage, allowing those with opposing viewpoints to respond on-air to the editorials Nicholaw wrote on abortion, transportation and other controversial issues.
"He felt it was important for an all-news station to respond to the needs and concerns of the community. George sincerely believed that was one of the most important things a radio station could do," said Andy Ludlum, news programming director at KNX and its one-time rival KFWB, now also owned by CBS. "That was exemplified in his editorials. It was not easy to do a daily editorial. It's probably the way he became most familiar to listeners in Los Angeles."
After arriving at KNX in the late 1960s, Nicholaw took about a year to shift out of the old format — a mixture of headline news, Arthur Godfrey, Art Linkletter and "music till dawn."
"I formatted the station in my own mind to follow a newspaper. A food section was part of a newspaper and there was a drama section. You name it and I tried to do it. I even had a horoscope. We were journalists and I figured that whatever a newspaper was doing we ought to be doing the same damn thing. That's how that started," he told radio historian Don Barrett in 2009.
He also helped make traffic reporting a staple of Los Angeles radio when he hired veteran broadcaster Bill Keene in 1974.
Nicholaw's focus on news quickly paid off. On the night of the 1968 California presidential primary, KNX had three reporters following Sen. Robert F. Kennedy's campaign swing through Los Angeles. When Sirhan Sirhan fired at the senator in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel, the shots were heard live over KNX.
In the summer of 1973, Nicholaw made the unusual decision to broadcast the Senate Watergate hearings live, without commercial breaks. The station lost no advertisers and won its ratings periods, he told Barrett.
Two decades later, in 1995, he was still at the helm when KNX provided gavel-to-gavel coverage of the 10-month-long murder trial of former football great O.J. Simpson.
"Pre-empting all local news of the day — that was a very daring step to take. But George perceived this was above all an L.A. story," said Gail Eichenthal a former KNX reporter and anchor who is now executive producer at KUSC-FM.
"It would have been easy as pie to carry the network coverage, but George and [news director] Bob Sims decided we needed to do it on our own," she said. "It turned out to be a highly successful decision for the station."
Nicholaw was born on Nov. 17, 1927, in Salinas, Calif. He earned an undergraduate degree at UC Berkeley and studied at the American Graduate School of International Management in Arizona before serving in the Army during the Korean War.
He began his broadcast career as a deejay at KDON in Monterey in 1953, quitting after two years to move to Los Angeles, where he found work as a CBS page. He had stints at CBS stations in Chicago and New York before returning to Los Angeles in 1967 to become general manager at KNX.
"He ran a great radio station," said former KABC-AM general manager George Green, a friend and former rival. "KNX had a million listeners.… His impact was felt in the community and among his fellow broadcasters."
In 2003 Nicholaw was dismissed by Viacom's Infinity Radio, which controlled the station during that time. Then 75, Nicholaw filed and lost an age discrimination lawsuit, but his final words on air were not bitter.
"His last editorial was a heartfelt expression of gratitude," recalled KNX business anchor Frank Mottek. "He said, 'KNX is a great radio station.' That is how the editorial concluded."
Nicholaw is survived by his wife of 50 years, Betty.