Tame Talk : Radio listeners are more likely to hear goofball than hardball on county airwaves. Hosts mean to entertain--not offend.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Dave and Bob strike precisely at 5 a.m., five days a week, hitting Ventura County like a major temblor. Seldom pausing to breathe, the goofball hosts of KVEN radio's top-rated talk show assault us with canned train whistles, turkey gobbles, Bronx cheers and assorted wisecracks in between news bites, traffic reports and Speedy Rooter commercials.

"Your last name is Edison?" Dave asks a caller. "Where do you live? Ormond Beach?"

If you live in Ventura County and want controversial, in-your-face talk radio, turn your dial to those distant Los Angeles stations carrying right-wing paragon Rush Limbaugh and raunchy Howard Stern. Locally produced talk radio is not out to shock or anger anybody. When President Bill Clinton scolded talk-radio hosts recently for their cynicism and negativity, he wasn't referring to anybody in this county. Nothing but comfy, warm feelings and good intentions crisscross our airwaves. Hosts can get away with being irreverent and silly, but the audience doesn't want them to be disrespectful or rude.

"Our main objective is to have fun and try not to offend anyone," says Dave Ciniero of the "The Dave & Bob Show," which has been on the air for 10 years.

Even Dick Whittington, a madcap subversive at L.A. radio stations (once dumping a giant Alka Seltzer into the ocean to protest government toxic-waste disposal), has admittedly gone soft since becoming KNJO's morning host last March. His one venture into controversy--flippantly accusing a Thousand Oaks City Council member of being pro-caning--resulted in an on-air apology by Steven Angel, the station's vice president and general manager. The incident snapped Whittington back to reality.

"You don't have to be a smartass all the time," Whittington says. "Nice once in a while is a good thing."

But nice can at times be, well, "bland and boring," says Phil Hendrie, host of KVEN's afternoon talk show for 18 months in the early '90s. Hendrie himself tried to be provocative and controversial at KVEN, which is why he's now working at another station, WIOD in Miami. Hendrie's liberal viewpoint and cynicism--he once tried to stage a "Celebrity Lettuce Picking Day"--alienated many listeners.

"I was bringing in younger listeners," Hendrie says, "but driving away the older ones."

And the county's older, mostly conservative listeners comprise the core audience for local talk radio, which is dominated by Ventura-based KVEN, 1450 on your dial and your only 24-hour talk 'n' news station. While both AM KVEN and FM KNJO (92.7) produce the county's only Monday through Friday live talk shows, only KVEN gets enough listeners among local talk stations to make a blip in the Arbitron ratings.

According to data compiled by Arbitron for spring, 1994, "The Dave & Bob Show" is rated second among listeners 35 and up in lucrative morning-drive time, beating Howard Stern, who comes in over Los Angeles' KLXS. In the same time period, KVEN's country-music sister station, KHAY, is No. 1 in the county among listeners 35 and up. (KNJO, a Westlake Village station too small to be tracked by Arbitron, declined to estimate its audience size.)

KVEN's other regular local talk show--serious discussions hosted by Carl Haeberle--isn't nearly as popular as its wacky morning counterpart. While "The Dave & Bob Show" grabs a 7.4 share of the total listening audience, Haeberle averages a 1.3 share in his 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. slot.

Haeberle was hired last November to replace Frank Haines, the award-winning host who died of a heart attack Sept. 2, 1993. Haines started his career as a jazz-show host with KVEN in 1950, two years after the station opened. He pioneered talk radio in the county, launching his own show in 1967. Until he mellowed in his later years, Haines often was a scabrous interviewer, infuriating his guests with tough questions.

But that's not Haeberle's style. Nor is intimidation.

"I don't make the big noises a Rush Limbaugh does," the 55-year-old Haeberle says. "I want to deal more in reality and fact than name-calling and rumors. It's not one of my things to be mean."

An earnest host with a wide range of knowledge, Haeberle takes seriously his job as the public's conduit for information and his role as democracy's advocate (his signature slogan is "Do what you can, but think about it first"). He avoids gratuitous controversy, the hot-button issues like abortion and gun control that are easy to fight about but wind up "not changing anybody's mind," he says. "I think people would rather learn through listening than arguing."

In his phone interviews with county experts and politicians, he steers a middle course through the day's local social and political issues, which decreases the chances for a spirited debate.

"Sometimes it's hard for me to tell if he's liberal or conservative or moderate," says county Supervisor John K. Flynn, a frequent guest on the show.

KVEN fills out its broadcast schedule with syndicated talk shows originating in other cities. Gene Burns, a libertarian with strong opinions, deals with national and world events and issues. Dr. Joy Browne and Lee Mirabal give advice on relationships, and Bruce Williams offers financial tips. Like the station's home-grown lineup of on-air personalities, none of the syndicated hosts are radical, gross or offensive.

"Our brief experiment with real controversy . . . people were turned off by it," says David Loe, KVEN president and general manager. "(Hendrie) was not the right guy for the market."

A typical KVEN listener, Loe says, is Ventura's Anne Shinder, a 57-year-old speech therapist, stepmother of five, and one of Dave and Bob's most loyal listeners. "They're like family," she says.

Monday through Friday, KVEN's daffy duo wake her at 5 a.m., sweetly crooning "good morning" as she gropes through the darkness to the bathroom. They follow her to the shower--coming over loud and clear on her special waterproof radio--and accompany her as she drives to her job at the Ojai Unified School District.

"You can't start the morning without Dave and Bob," Shinder says. "This is true. You kind of wake up with a smile. You can get out of bed and laugh. They're fun. Dave's funny and Bob goes along. He's not known as the witty one, but he can be funny in a dry way."

Shinder has listened to Dave and Bob since moving to Ventura eight years ago and finding she was unable to pull in "The Ken & Bob Show" from Los Angeles' KABC. Now she's hooked on Dave and Bob and wouldn't consider anybody else.

"I don't listen to those other types of shows," Shinder says. "It upsets me when they yell at each other. Dave and Bob are PG rated. They have to be--that's their audience. This is Ventura. We're not big, cosmopolitan L.A."

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