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A Journey From Radio Days to Preaching Sundays

<i> Rifkin is a Los Angeles free-lance writer. </i>

Ron McCoy spent a lot of time on the telephone as a radio talk-show host during his quarter-century in Los Angeles broadcasting, chatting with all sorts of people from all sorts of places about all sorts of things.

At KFI, where he spent 17 years, McCoy figures he fielded between 8,000 and 10,000 calls annually.

“When you’re doing all-night talk, there’s no telling who might call. One woman called and said she had her head in the oven to kill herself when she heard my voice over the radio and decided she just had to call,” he said.

It’s even easier to reach McCoy by phone today than it was when he was on the air. Dial the right number and there he is, unlike the old days when you had to wait to get through.

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Voice Still Melodious

The voice is still melodious, rising and falling at appropriate moments to underline a point. But these days the telephone voice is recorded and comes in a 30-second sound bite. And rather than discussing politics, sex or “fudge brownie recipes"--his pet term for the boring and trivial--McCoy’s dial-a-prayer answering-machine message expounds the virtues of the metaphysical philosophy known as Religious Science.

At 60, McCoy, a gentle bear of a man with an ample girth and a self-mocking wit, is the full-time minister of the Sherman Oaks Church of Religious Science. McCoy has traded the studio for a pulpit.

“You are God in action,” McCoy told the almost 60 people who gathered to hear the second of two sermons he delivered on a recent Sunday. “The way you think today determines your future tomorrow.”

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McCoy assumed the leadership of the small congregation about a year and a half ago, not long after it had moved from its longtime Van Nuys home (where it was known as the Van Nuys Church of Religious Science) to the mock-Bavarian Pondella Building across from Fashion Square on Riverside Drive.

The church was struggling to stay alive and was losing members when McCoy arrived. By all accounts, McCoy has infused new life and brought new members into the 100-member congregation.

Healing Congregation

“Ron has brought a fresh and dynamic leadership,” said the Rev. Kennedy Shultz, the Atlanta-based president of Religious Science International, one of two umbrella groups in the loosely organized Religious Science movement. “He has effected a healing in that congregation, and it is doing better now than it ever has.”

“There’s a strong element of showmanship in all successful ministries,” added the Rev. Leo Fishbeck of the Glendale Science of Mind Center, from whom McCoy received most of his ministerial training. “That doesn’t mean it’s phony, just that you have to move people in some way.

“Coming from radio, Ron already knew how to do that. He’s been able to just slide right into the ministry.”

McCoy was hooked early by radio, attracted as a child by the live drama shows popular before television stole the medium’s thunder. His first radio job came at age 12 with a local station in his native Denver. He acted as the boyhood voice of famous artists on a show called “Art Speaks Your Language.”

“You got $3.15 for a 15-minute show, $5 for half an hour,” McCoy said. “There were no unions in Denver in those days.

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“I also did a Saturday afternoon agricultural show that did little dramas about farmers and farm life, but I didn’t get called for that one too often because you had to be good.”

Drama Workshop

On-the-job-training, plus a weekly Office of War Information radio drama workshop he attended for two years during World War II, accounted for McCoy’s radio education. He also attended the University of Denver, where he studied economics and history, to prepare for his planned career in radio news.

Instead, disc jockey work in Salt Lake City followed college. Four years later, in 1958 at age 30, he moved to Los Angeles to spin records at station KLAC. Three years later, he moved to KFI, taking over the all-night shift from talk-show pioneer Ben Hunter and settling in for a 17-year run.

Over the years, McCoy developed an informed and informal style. His sense of humor always shone through, he was non-confrontational and he related well to the cross-section of callers. But he did have his conflicts.

“The 1960s were a very controversial time; hippies, the Vietnam War, assassinations, drugs and sex,” McCoy recalled. “But KFI management had a strict policy against anything controversial.”

Comedian “Joey Adams was on when Ronald Reagan was running for governor and a caller asked him if actors should go into politics. ‘Why not?’ says Adams. ‘Most politicians are clowns anyway.’ Management didn’t let me have a guest for two months after that one,” he said.

Divorce’s Impact

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Incidents such as that began to sour McCoy on radio. That same decade, he went through “my first shattering divorce,” which prompted him to begin thinking about what else life had to offer “besides working all night and talking about dirigibles.”

“We would have these philosophical discussions at KFI that, at least on Ron’s part, were very deep,” remembered Roger Barkley, for 23 years one-half of KFI’s highly successful Lohman and Barkley broadcasting team and a friend of McCoy’s since both worked in Salt Lake City in the ‘50s.

“Ron was a dedicated radio man, and he was so good at it. But it was clear there was also something else going on with him even then,” added Barkley, now at KJOI. “Here was a guy with thoughts and feelings.”

McCoy was raised Roman Catholic, but by high school he had pretty much lost interest in that faith. While in Salt Lake City, he became interested in Buddhism and other Eastern philosophies and was influenced by the writings of Father Thomas Merton, the late Catholic monk who also explored Eastern religious thought.

But it wasn’t until after his divorce that he began seeking a faith he could feel at home in, McCoy said. He tried different churches on Sundays, but found nothing to his liking in traditional Christianity.

Spiritual Longing

Then, in the early 1970s, while still at KFI, he went through “a second shattering divorce” and his spiritual longing became more acute. A five-minute nightly Religious Science program that preceded his own show prompted him to explore the philosophy.

“Religious Science said that if you want to be better than you are, it’s all up to you. That’s a practical way that made sense to me,” McCoy said.

Religious Science, also known as Science of Mind, is a 54-year-old, positive-thinking, non-dogmatic philosophy that grew out of the work in Los Angeles of the late religious philosopher Ernest Holmes. About 100,000 people in more than 500 churches and study groups worldwide are affiliated with either Religious Science International or United Church of Religious Science, the larger of the two umbrella organizations.

In Religious Science, God is considered the intangible source of all creativity and intelligence dwelling within everyone, and heaven and hell are considered internal states of understanding.

On the deepest level, all life is said to be interconnected, despite the diversity of the physical world, and illness is viewed as a spiritual challenge. Emotional and physical healing are prime components of Religious Science with church-licensed spiritual healers, known as practitioners, trained to counsel others in their efforts to heal themselves. McCoy is a church-licensed practitioner.

However, unlike Christian Science, to which it is unrelated, Religious Science embraces traditional medicine.

Practical Religion

“Ours is a practical religion offering no sacraments or promises of an afterlife,” said Shultz, the Religious Science International president. And despite its Christian cultural veneer, Religious Science “is not a Christian religion because there is no claim that Jesus Christ is savior of the world and no authority is placed in the Bible,” he said.

In 1979, after leaving KGIL, McCoy began studying Religious Science in earnest at the West Valley Church of Religious Science in Canoga Park. Soon after, he began the five-year course, which he finished in six years, leading to his certification as a Religious Science minister. During that period, he continued to do radio at KPRZ (now KIIS-AM) and KGIL before settling into the all-night talk-show spot at KIEV, the last station he worked for.

In the fall of 1987, McCoy left radio for the Sherman Oaks congregation. He still does some advertising and training film voice-overs and even turns up as a radio guest, as he did not too long ago on KIEV with host Dick Wittington, who took over McCoy’s shift at the Glendale station.

Hasn’t Looked Back

Other than that, he says, he hasn’t looked back.

“Most people said, ‘Forty years in radio. He’s not going to walk away from it.’ But radio had changed. It’s now all jukebox or all talk and owned by some pencil-pusher in New York trying to make a fast buck,” McCoy said.

“I don’t miss that daily grind and wondering who will buy the station this week, and I certainly don’t miss staying up all night.”

Commenting on his colleague’s departure from radio, Wittington said: “Ron McCoy is a very nice man who was in a business where you don’t find that quality being so prevalent. Because of that, he had some very difficult times.”

Dick Sinclair, KIEV program director who also worked with McCoy at KFI, added, “Ron has become increasingly introspective as he’s gotten older, and it was harder for him to put up with all the lightweights in the business. He was ready to be repotted.”

Despite his feelings toward radio, there is one aspect of the business that McCoy still finds alluring. “I’d love to do a show on religion,” he said, quickly adding, “but I don’t think there’s much of a calling for liberal religious types on radio.”


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