Describing himself as "not totally comfortable, but relieved" to be on the air, KABC-AM (790) talk-show host Ira Fistell, facing felony charges for leaving the scene of a fatal auto accident, resumed his nighttime program Wednesday.
Fistell had been off the air since his Feb. 17 arrest at KABC's studios, where he had just finished his usual 11 p.m.-4 a.m. show. While en route to the station on the evening of Feb. 16, Fistell's car was hit in the intersection of Venice and Hauser boulevards by an allegedly speeding car driven by Josh DeJean, 19, which crashed into a utility pole, killing DeJean's passenger, Jaynna Banks, 16.
Based on the results of a police investigation, Fistell was found not responsible for the collision, but was charged with failing to report the accident to police and leaving the scene. According to police, Fistell's wife, Tonda, who later arrived in a cab at the scene, initially claimed that she was driving the car. She has been charged with a felony for allegedly aiding and abetting her husband.
Both are scheduled to be arraigned April 6 in Los Angeles Municipal Court.
In a statement Wednesday, KABC management said that Fistell approached them this week and "asked to resume his job as a talk-show host. Given the conclusion of the district attorney's office (that Fistell was not responsible for the accident), and the facts surrounding the incident, KABC management felt that it would be appropriate to allow . . . Fistell to return to his program." No further comment was available from KABC President George Green.
At the beginning of his program, Fistell stated that "I've done a lot of suffering as a result of (the accident), because it's been hard not only for the victims' families but for me also. I must immediately say that I do feel for the other families of the victims. I'm a father myself, and, though I haven't lost a child . . . I can imagine how terrible it must be to lose one."
Fistell went on to say that "I must also say that it has been determined by the investigation that I was not responsible for the accident, and I did not cause the death or injuries. (My car) was standing still at the time of the collision, and my conscience, as far that's concerned, is clear. . . . That doesn't change the fact that the accident was a terrifying experience and an awful thing for the young lady who was killed."
Fistell told listeners that because of an agreement with KABC management and on the advice of his attorney, he would not discuss the accident's aftermath. "It is still a pending case," he noted. "If you bring it up on the air, I simply won't talk about it."
But he then added: "Very simply to summarize, I didn't hit anybody and didn't run away."
The majority of callers told Fistell that they were pleased he was back on the air, with one supportive caller expressing surprise: "I thought the station would have dropped you like a hot potato."
A few critics of Fistell also weighed in, including a caller amazed that Fistell could, as alleged, leave the accident scene. Another caller peppered Fistell with questions, from the spiritual--"How has this event changed you?" (Answer: "It's too early to say")--to the specific: "Why was your car unable to avoid a car a block and a half away?" (Answer: "It was coming very fast").
By the wee hours of early Thursday morning, the discussion was settling into many of the familiar topics on Fistell's show, ranging from the O.J. Simpson trial to the Civil War.
But while Fistell was taking calls about the incident, most other talk-show hosts in the competitive Los Angeles market--where any subject seems fair game for discussion--have been silent about it.
According to spokespeople at KABC and KMPC (710), both of which are owned by ABC-Capital Cities, hosts were instructed not to discuss Fistell's problems on the air, with screeners being told to sift out callers phoning in about the controversy.
At KFI-AM (640), programming director David Hall said that the station issued no policy directive on the matter but that "we generally don't talk about the competition on our talk shows."
Hall noted, however, that KFI morning host Bill Handle did take some calls about Fistell on the morning after the accident. The following day, KFI host Bill Press went further and--virtually alone among local talk-show hosts--used the accident and its aftermath as a springboard for a topic: Would you take the fall for your spouse and lie to the police?
"It was a topic and incident crying out for talk radio," said Press. "I was speaking more to his wife's (alleged) actions. I was careful not to name him as guilty of a crime, nor that he and his wife had made an agreement between them to make up a story for the police.
"The callers' responses were mixed," Press noted. "Most said that they would never take the fall for their spouse and lie. But a couple of callers said they would go to jail out of love."
Nationally syndicated host Tom Leykis (heard locally on KMPC) denied that there is an unspoken code of silence among talk-show hosts about other colleagues' problems, but he added that what Press did "is stupid, because any one of us (hosts) could be in the barrel like Fistell is right now."
Leykis experienced his own legal problems in 1993 when, while serving as an on-air host on Boston's WRKO-AM, he was arraigned on charges of assault and battery against his since-divorced wife. Leykis was not convicted on any charges.
"You bet I can relate to what (Fistell) is going through," Leykis said. "This man is innocent until proven guilty. But when a person in the public eye is accused, he's guilty out of the chute."