It was just after 7 a.m., and King News was looking anything but royal.
The strain of producing several newscasts while most people were still sleeping was evident as King sipped coffee in a small, spare studio at KDAY-AM, the voice of rap in Southern California.
Suddenly, with a flick of a switch on the console in front of him, King's face and eyes brightened. He turned to the microphone and declared in a deep, authoritative tone that demands your attention:
"I'm KING NEWS . . . and I come to you this morning with the TRUTH."
The "truth," delivered three times each weekday morning on KDAY (1580), is basically The World According to King News--four-minute newscasts spiced with outspoken, personal commentary on happenings around the city, particularly in South-Central Los Angeles. His observations are aimed mainly at black teen-agers who make up rap's core audience. The targets: street crime and gang members.
On a recent morning, King News reported how the "gangbang b.s." was behind a shooting during a graduation party in Norwalk in which one youth was killed and nine wounded. "Oh, yeah, you gang bangers sure know how to party," he said sarcastically.
On another day, he taunted gang members who had participated in a fatal shooting the night before--suggesting the police were already on their trail. "We have two gang bangers that, in the split second it took them to pull the trigger on their guns, went from being just a couple of street gangsters to being wanted and hunted cold-blooded killers."
Since King News' debut last summer, many in KDAY's audience, including some gang members, have embraced him. They visualize him as a black prophet who is intimately familiar with the harsh realities of street life in their communities--someone akin to Mr. Senor Love Daddy in Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing." They say he fits right in at a place that calls itself "The World's Most Dangerous Radio Station."
So, they're probably shocked when they discover that this inner-city voice actually belongs to a white, 40-year-old former bodybuilder who used to be a sportscaster for KABC-AM (790). "People are always surprised when they meet King News and find he's not an African-American," Lee Marshall said matter-of-factly, referring to his alter ego.
"I think Caucasians are most surprised. But when blacks meet me, they say, 'Oh, you're him ? You're the one we've been waiting for--a Caucasian who cares about what's happening in my community.'
"The fact that I'm white has never been an issue. The message is what's important. I have yet to get a negative reaction. It certainly doesn't compromise what I'm saying."
KDAY'S morning personality Greg Mack said of King News: "Rap is about the streets, and our news is about the streets, as opposed to a regular newscast. In the rap world, we call King News' newscast 'raw.' He's seen as someone that's totally honest, someone that they can believe in."
Mack added that when it comes to King News, Marshall's race is a non-issue. "He talks about black issues, but he doesn't perpetrate himself as a black spokesman," he said. "People are shocked when they see him, but they know he's a hip guy. They wish more white people were as aware as King News is."
Black or white, the news about "King News" is spreading, and his hero status appears to be growing in South-Central Los Angeles. Teachers and others in the community say kids who won't always listen to them pay attention to King News.
"I think he's becoming the voice of conscience among gang bangers," said Donald Baaker, an English teacher at Manual Arts High School who works with gang members. "He's got a straight-up, almost corny style. But he's got a deep, resonant voice, and a wit that makes him appealing."
The words of King News are even reaching beyond Los Angeles. He is featured on the new anti-violence anthem by the West Coast Rap All-Stars, "We're All in the Same Gang," the No. 1 rap single in the country, according to Billboard magazine.
Marshall's voice can be heard behind a wall of police sirens at the start of the record: "I'm King News . . . with the Truth. . . . The mean streets took six more lives last night, all because of gang banger stupidity. By the way, you gang bangers should know that one of your victims was a 3-year-old girl. You gang bangers still don't get it, do you?"
There is also talk of syndicating King News nationwide, and of expanding the local newscasts beyond the morning time slots.
When talking about King News, Marshall will often use the third person. "King News . . . he's an interesting guy," he said. "I'm not nearly as overt as he is. He's a very concerned person. All he really wants people to do is think, make the right decisions and be strong. The main messages are to vote, to stay in school and to stay out of gangs."
The "King News" name and concept was the brainchild of KDAY president and general manager Ed Kerby.
"I had been thinking last year about how we present our news, and I felt it was unresponsive to our prime age group between 12 and 34 years old," Kerby said. "I just thought there was a better way."
Kerby paused, looking for the right words to describe what he sees as the station's responsibility to an outlaw segment of his audience.
"I know some gang bangers do listen," he said. "It's not who we seek, and it's not the majority of our audience. But if we can give a message that will penetrate to them, then we have that obligation."
Kerby recruited Marshall, a 26-year radio veteran who retired last year following a six-year stint in news and sports on KABC. Marshall had also been at KDAY for two years in the mid-1970s as a newsman.
"I was impressed with his writing background, and he certainly had the voice for what I was looking for," Kerby said. "He had his own convictions, the ability to say, 'This is a lot of crap.' But the voice had a lot to do with it."
Marshall said he had enough work in commercials and related fields to support himself and his family, but Kerby's offer intrigued him.
Recalling the decision to become King News, he said, "I promised never to embarrass him or jeopardize his radio station. In return, I said that he had to promise to leave me alone. He agreed and it's worked out great."
He said he is able to relate so well to the youths "because I came from the streets. I split my time between L.A. and Brooklyn when I was growing up. And I had some affilation with a group of youths when I was younger, although we did not go around committing crimes. It was mostly territorial sorts of things, kind of 'West Side Story' stuff.
"I just enjoy being around real people. I don't do power lunches, I never belonged to the right club, I never learnd how to play golf. I'm more comfortable with the people from the street."
In becoming King News, Marshall joined a radio station that turns out a steady torrent of rap music, even though he is not rap's biggest fan. "I like some of it," he said. "I think Ice-T is brilliant, a real master. I like Young MC and Tone Loc. But there are the ones I don't like, especially the rappers who only brag about themselves, saying, 'I'm bad, I'm hip.' That just doesn't make it."
Marshall, who commutes each day to KDAY's Echo Park studios from his home in Long Beach, was teased at first by his colleagues about being the only non-African-American on the station's air team.
"But I got them back," he joked. "I told them I was (also) the only on-air personality who passes through Compton and Watts on his way to work."
In seeking out "the truth" for his newscasts, Marshall said, he picks out stories "that impact the people I believe are listening."
In addition to his anti-gang stories, his newscasts in the past weeks have included commentaries about malathion spraying, the Metro Rail tunnel fire and Marion Barry, the embattled mayor of Washington, D.C.
But the focus is gang violence and street crime. And besides gang members, King News comes down hard on people who shoot guns in the air July 4th or New Year's Eve.
"What I'm talking about is real, the real deal," he said. "When I talk to these gang members on the radio, I'm asking them, 'Explain to me how this makes sense. Because I don't get it.' "
Much of the commentary is laced with an acid wit "which is aimed at the wanna-be gang members," Marshall said. In one newscast, King News said gang members "wind up in jail or Forest Lawn. You may make a million dollars then, but you'll die before you're able to spend it."
"You know what happens when you go to jail?" he asked in another broadcast. "They've got the honeymoon suite reserved for you. They're going to elect you Prom Queen."
Damion Wells, a ninth-grader at John Burroughs Junior High School in Los Angeles, said he liked King News.
"What he says is the truth, all the stuff about gang violence and how it's destroying L.A.," the young listener said. "It catches your attention, the way his voice is. And I like that song 'We're All in the Same Gang.' "
Dale Stewart, assistant director of the Community Youth Sports and Arts Foundations, which works with gang members, said he, too, admires King News' approach. "I like the way he uses their words and jargon to reach them."
However, Stewart wondered whether the message was getting through to the right people. "I don't think the hard-core gang members are listening during the times he's on," Stewart said. "Their working hours are nighttime. But all the wanna-bes and the gonna-bes are listening to him. And he's gotten a lot of popularity through the rap record."
Some teens said King News' message may anger gang members and prompt them to commit more violence.
When this was mentioned to Marshall, he paused, then replied, "Maybe so. But it's not going to put a stop to what I'm doing."
King News, he said, will keep on speaking out--"and that's the Truth."
A TASTE OF KING NEWS IN ACTION
We've seen another gang-related attack in South-Central. One person was killed and three others were wounded at 42nd Place and Brighton Avenue . . . and you bangers should know that the cops know you were driving a blue Chevy Nova . . . and they do have your license number . . .. We have two gang bangers that, in the split second it took them to pull the trigger on their guns, went from just a couple of street gangsters to being wanted and hunted cold-blooded killers. Oh . . . what we also have is the undertaker getting ready to cash another check written by a South-Central Los Angeles family.
--King News, July 3, 1990