Most people have never seen "Sweet" Dick Whittington. They know him by what they hear on the radio, his relaxed tone of voice and his devil-may-care style.
In person, though, Whittington continually, subtly fidgets in his chair or plays with a felt-tipped pen. There is a visible uneasiness. The disc jockey can't ever seem to sit still.
His restless trek through life took him across the United States from radio station to radio station in the late 1950s, finally landing Whittington in Los Angeles. Over the last two decades, he has been hired and fired by virtually every major AM station in the city.
During that time, Whittington has established himself as an enduring radio personality with a reputation on par with Gary Owens and the former team of Lohman & Barkley. He has also become known as a man who is impossible to work with.
At 52, Whittington is resurrecting a career that seemed to have ended when he walked away from radio six years ago. He is working now at tiny KWNK (670) in Simi Valley, a station barely powerful enough to reach the deejay's home in North Hollywood.
'Like Working in Arctic Circle'
"It's like working in the Arctic Circle," he said. "A lot of people say, 'Jesus, it's over for you.' It isn't over for me. I'm probably doing the best radio I've done in 20 years. I'm doing good work, and that's all that counts."
Attracting Whittington back to the microphone was a coup for KWNK, a station too small to be listed in the industrywide Arbitron ratings.
"We've had a dramatic increase in listenership," said Manuel Cabranes, general manager and owner. "For a suburban station like ours to have a talent like Dick, it puts us on the map."
The only reason "Sweet" Dick agreed to work for the station was that he was promised complete freedom with his 6 to 10 a.m. show. Because of this, Whittington said, his last five months as a deejay have been among the best times of his life.
To call Whittington a disc jockey is a bit of a misnomer. On his KWNK show, as in past jobs, he plays one song an hour. The rest of the time is filled by discussion with guests, impromptu comedy bits and general Whittington banter.
"Why would you listen to AM for music?" he asked. "I'm one of the so-called heavy personalities. I never run out of things to talk about."
On a recent morning, he spent 10 minutes talking about his favorite Mexican restaurant in Tarzana, then switched to a discussion of Bernard Kalb's departure as spokesman for the State Department. Next, he explored aspects of the female voice, touted a local service station and announced during the sports report that he needed to leave the booth to use the restroom.
"I'm fairly facile with the language," Whittington said. "I know how to build, how to tease and where to draw the line."
Almost as well known as his linguistic puissance is Whittington's penchant for the bizarre. While at KGIL (1260), he organized an "invasion" of Santa Catalina Island, leading soldiers dressed in uniforms from "the war of their choice." Another time he staged a "paint-off" in the station's parking lot, then flew to Paris with the winner to hang the picture in the men's room at the Louvre.
Recent versions of Whittington humor at KWNK include a Councilman Joel Wachs look-alike contest and a campaign calling for the Valley to secede from the City of Los Angeles and become a sovereignty of either Tijuana or the abandoned mining town of Rough and Ready, Calif.
"There's nothing like radio," he said. "You can do anything."
KWNK is the latest stop in Whittington's comeback from a bout of "personal crisis" that began in the summer of 1979. He was at KGIL at the time. Upset about an announced format change at the station, he walked out during the middle of his morning show. "Not the brightest thing I've ever done," he says now. "I was a hero for five minutes, but I gave up a six-figure job."
A year later he was scheduled to spend two weeks as a replacement for the "Ken and Bob Company" on KABC (790). There were hints of a permanent job. Then Whittington impersonated the station's general manager on the air. It was not a flattering rendition. He was gone after three days.
"Dick and the Establishment have never gotten along," said Barry Koff, who was a sportscaster at KGIL 10 years ago and now serves the same role on Whittington's KWNK show. "Dick likes to be his own person and unfortunately the structure of radio doesn't allow him that freedom."
In search of such personal liberty, Whittington purchased an interest in radio station KAVR (960) in Apple Valley in 1981, serving as general manager and the morning man. That didn't work out either and, so the joke goes, Whittington eventually fired himself.
It was at that point that Whittington became disenchanted with radio. He saw his work as "so ridiculous, so demeaning." He began drinking too much.
On St. Patrick's Day in 1982, Whittington was stopped by a police officer who suspected he was driving drunk. As the officer approached his Mercedes, Whittington stomped on the gas and rammed the car into a retaining wall of the Tujunga Wash. His nose was broken and he was cited for driving under the influence.
Whittington was also out of work and going through a divorce. That was when he decided to come back.
"I said, 'This is what I do,' " he recalled, gesturing to the radio station around him. "There's nothing socially redeeming about playing records. But not everyone can be the great social redeemer."
Whittington landed a half-hour daily slot on KIEV (870). Soon thereafter he returned to KGIL for the fifth time, then quit. The same thing happened at KHJ (930). In between jobs, he rewrote television scripts and did stand-up comedy at conventions. And he produced an annual syndicated television show with Dick Clark, a program he describes as a mix between David Letterman's stupid pet tricks and a Miss America pageant for animals.
Finally Goes to KWNK
Finally, "Sweet" Dick--who got his name from an adoring female fan who visited him at the ABC Radio studios early in his career--went to KWNK.
"Years ago I listened to him when he was on KGIL," Cabranes said. "Of course, I didn't have a radio station then. As soon as we got on the air, I wanted him here.
"I think for the first time in many years Dick is comfortable in doing his thing the way he wants to do it. I don't get involved with what he does during his shift. That's something he's never had."
People in the industry, general managers notwithstanding, are glad to see Whittington back.
"He is one of the most brilliant talents I have ever met and the hardest working person I've had in this business, bar none," said Mike Lundy, director of programming and operations at KGIL. "The guy at his creative best is fabulous. But he marches to his own drummer and most of the broadcast world is very corporate."
Lundy and others said they think Whittington belongs at a bigger station with a larger listenership. Whittington said he'd like another shot at the big time.
"The amount of audience? Sure, there's an ego thing there," he said. "I can't compete with KISS or KHJ. But I do well in the San Fernando Valley and that has to be enough for right now."