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They’re Driven to Entertain

Judith Michaelson is a Times staff writer

The subject on the “John & Ken Show” on a recent afternoon is bad parenting. Hardly the sort of meat on which John Kobylt and Ken Chiampou, the in-your-face afternoon-drive team on talk station KFI-AM (640), tend to feed.

It’s not hot, like the trial of O.J. Simpson, which they rode last fall to personal-best ratings. Nor is it wacky, like enumerating the byproducts of a cow, or grisly, like delineating the belongings of the late Jeffrey Dahmer that might be offered at auction. Nor does it spark the kind of political interest they ignited in championing the 1994 “three strikes” initiative for repeat criminals.

But even on slow news days, Kobylt and Chiampou--boomer guys who play off news and other tidbits weekdays from 3 to 7 p.m.--manage to enliven the drive home and make you laugh, or think. Sometimes in spite of yourself.

Irreverent, brash, passionate, angry, funny--and sometimes quite serious--the eclectic duo, more than anyone else on KFI’s airwaves, reflects the station’s persona and demonstrates why it has reigned for four years as Southern California’s top-rated talk outlet.

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Take parenting. Citing a Los Angeles Times poll, Kobylt notes that 96% of parents surveyed believe they are doing an excellent or good job teaching their children about morals and values but that 93% say other parents are not taking such responsibility.

“You can’t all be doing a good job,” mocks Kobylt, the lead talker. “It can’t just be everybody else.

“Nastiness, brattiness, rudeness, jerkiness, it’s worse than it used to be,” he asserts, “and it’s been going on for 30, 40 years now. Kids in the ‘60s were obviously worse than kids in the ‘50s. The kids now are worse than the kids 10, 20 years ago when I was in school. . . .”

“The whole culture,” Chiampou echoes, “has gotten more obnoxious and rude and jerky.”

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Kobylt moves swiftly to higher gear: “People are out of touch with themselves. They can’t analyze their own lives. No wonder everybody’s screwed up. . . . They sit at home, watching ‘Must See TV,’ stuffing Doritos, drinking beer, bitching about everybody else on the block.”

“Where did you get that ‘Must See TV’ line?” pumps Chiampou, knowing that Kobylt means NBC’s slogan. “You must really like it.”

“Well, it annoys me,” Kobylt says, spitting words. “It irritates the crap out of me. Like, that line tells me everything that’s wrong with American culture, with people’s, like, private life. ‘Must See TV.’ If you turn on NBC for more than, like, three minutes, you hear it 50 times. Big, bold letters in your face. Shut up! There’s nothing on your stupid network that’s ‘must see.’ Get out! Outta here.”

NBC needn’t sweat. Politicians who are “geeks,” “mutants” or “cretins”; vegetarians and other “animal rights wackos”; Hollywood celebrities; old people; unnamed “conservative, wacko talk-show hosts”; even KFI’s “idiotic slogans"--all become fodder for derision on “John & Ken.” All of which sings on a station where an announcer sometimes intones: “News, traffic, a whole lot of b.s.--KFI, more stimulating talk radio.”

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David Hall, KFI program director, first heard of Kobylt and Chiampou through an East Coast consultant--they were working in Trenton, N.J.--and met them in August 1992. They joined the lineup that November, just as the station, four years into its talk format, was toppling venerable KABC-AM (790) in the ratings wars--thanks primarily to Rush Limbaugh’s syndicated morning program.

“I fell in love with them, I think, the first show I heard back there. . . ,” Hall says. “I loved the rapport and chemistry they have. They are very good at being a focal point. When there’s something big that everybody’s talking about or feeling, I don’t think I’ve heard anyone better--for that passion, for people to vent.”

An estimated 700,000 listeners tune to “John & Ken” each week. When there is a hot story, the audience grows. In the swirl of O.J.--moments before the not-guilty verdict last Oct. 3, Kobylt declared that Simpson should “fry,” and he later repeatedly tagged juror Brenda Moran as Brenda Moron--"John & Ken’s” audience zoomed to about 825,000. “We really owned the O.J. thing for radio,” Kobylt boasts.

They say they talk about what their listeners talk about at the water coolers and dinner tables. “Sometimes things are funny,” Chiampou suggests, “and sometimes people get into debates about real topics"--race, illegal immigration and gay marriage.

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Still, unlike a lot of talk hosts, Kobylt and Chiampou refuse to be pigeonholed as liberal or conservative. Indeed, they are neither.

“I can’t be confined to an ideology,” says Chiampou, sitting next to Kobylt at lunch. “I happily call myself inconsistent. I take everything case by case, person by person, and that sometimes leads people to think I’m liberal or I’m conservative.”

“I think we’re pretty much alike,” adds Kobylt, who describes himself as “fiercely independent.” “It’s just our tone is different.”

Kobylt, 35, married to Deborah Kobylt, a CNN entertainment reporter, and father of 11-month-old Justin, is the one with the clarion voice and full-throttle laugh. Chiampou, 40, who is single, is the husky-voiced B-host, there to egg Kobylt on, to challenge or calm him down. “I don’t want to be the lead spear-carrier,” Chiampou says. “I can be more of a conciliator.”

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As Hall explains: “John’s more passionate; Ken’s more compassionate.”

First to arrive for lunch, Kobylt has no compunction about starting the conversation without Chiampou. When he walks in, Chiampou seems slightly miffed. “So you started without me?”

With big round glasses and slightly gapped front teeth--you can see the boy he must have been--Kobylt is sunnier; Ken, bushy eyebrows and taller, more brooding and intense. Surprisingly, Kobylt, who takes talk further to the fringe, is more careful. He’s the one who tucks in a bib.

They are not without critics. Bill McMahon, a Southern California radio consultant, considers the pair to be “style over substance.”

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“It’s not that they don’t have substance,” he says, “but their style far outweighs their substance. I like their passion [and] sense of humor, [but] I don’t know that they’re always the best informed. That’s one of the problems with talk radio--talking about [a subject] like they invented it. Then they get callers who know less than they do.”

But Kobylt and Chiampou wouldn’t necessarily take umbrage at that. Their totem is entertainment.

Unlike Limbaugh or KABC’s Michael Jackson or their afternoon-drive opposition--Larry Elder on KABC and Michael Reagan on KMPC-AM (710)--Chiampou and Kobylt do not believe they are at the mikes to inform.

“An issue that comes up that galvanizes the audience,” Kobylt says, “we’re there for it. . . . In lieu of that, there’s just a day-to-day grind where we have to pump out the shows. We work harder when there’s nothing going on because we’ve got to come up with 20 hours a week.”

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“To keep people entertained,” Chiampou emphasizes. “For some reason, someone has decided to define talk radio as being informative. I look at it more like TV shows.”

“What did Johnny Carson do? What do comedians do?” Kobylt says. “Entertainment, conversation. In any given show, somebody is going to laugh at what we do, be angered at an opinion, enjoy the give-and-take. And sometimes it is just chatter.”

Each morning they talk by phone--Kobylt from his home in Beverly Hills, Chiampou at his inManhattan Beach--after reviewing a batch of national and local papers and news programs. There’s no veto power. If either one is hot to do a topic, they do it. And they improvise--up to air time and into it.

They see no grand mission of influence for talk radio, noting that their audience is, as Kobylt points out, “tiny fractions of the total universe.”

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“We can’t have that much sway over anything,” he says. “I heard Rush the other day announce that he’s got 15 million listeners, which is down from 20 million. Fifteen out of 260 million? I mean, come on. . . .

“We’re no different than anything else on the dial,” he adds, “except instead of an Eagles song or a Madonna song, Ken and I are doing our stuff. I look at our competition more as the music stations, because I know if we’ve got a slow day, people are going to be tuning around for a song. I like to keep the energy of the show like a music station.

“That’s why the calls are fast, we talk fast, we change topics a lot. [We’re] part of an entertainment choice in the wheel, rather than thinking, ‘I’ve got to be more conservative than Larry Elder.’ We’re up against KRTH and KROQ. . . . I think we’ve got the same rhythm.”

They’ve come a long way, having met 10 years ago at a radio station in Canton, Pa.

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Chiampou, from Long Island, N.Y., fourth of six children, son of a civil engineer and a high school teacher, says he loved radio “from the time I was about 11, charting records, listening to all the deejays in New York.”

After graduating from the State University of New York at Buffalo, Chiampou became an accountant, working as a controller at a health company, but he gave it up (“I was bored”) for broadcast school at night.

Kobylt, from New Jersey, elder son of a factory worker who emigrated from Poland and a part-time saleswoman, wanted to be in radio after he got his own radio for Holy Communion in second grade. “I got mesmerized by the thing, everything that came out of it.”

Even as a teen, Kobylt says, he’d be in the car, “listen to something on the news, and go into like a 10-minute outrage monologue to my friends, cracking them up.” Although he was “pretty smart in school,” in college he was “so bored it was painful--I felt my body was going to disintegrate.”

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So he left Seton Hall after a year, worked as a sportswriter and copy editor, moved to Chicago and back and at 22 thought himself “a complete loser.”

“I was depressed, like lying in bed all day for several weeks,” he says, “and my mother was just literally opening the door, putting the food on the floor"--until a friend suggested he go to broadcast school at night.

Kobylt got his first job at Canton’s WKAD in 1983. In 1985, he moved to a station in Elmira, N.Y., but a year later began commuting the 40 miles back to Canton to do a second show. Chiampou meanwhile had joined WKAD. They became friends and decided to become a team. They got their opportunity in 1988 in Atlantic City, N.J., at a low-wattage oldies station and that September moved over to WMGM-FM, a Top 40 station.

In May 1990, they went to New Jersey’s WKXW in the state capital, Trenton. “Our timing was perfect--the state had just elected a governor who decided to raise taxes,” Chiampou notes, referring to James J. Florio, a Democrat.

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That July, the duo made a name for themselves by helping foment a tax revolt.

“We came [at it] out of entertainment,” Kobylt explains. “We didn’t have an ideology about the taxes. We just thought everybody was a bunch of buffoons.”

Forty-five minutes before broadcast on a June afternoon, Kobylt bounds into KFI, pulling at blue putty. He grins. “They’ve had complaints I rustle papers [on air] too much. Now I pound the putty.” Chiampou is already there.

Their producer, Johan Beckles, from the Bedford-Stuyvesant area of Brooklyn, tells them that a judge they had wanted for a phone interview is declining. “It wasn’t like the judge’s doing,” she says, “it was the staff’s doing.”

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“Because they thought he would look like this creep letting sexual predators out?” Kobylt asks, sounding just like he does on air.

“They said, ‘Are you going to be cruel to him?’ I said, ‘He’s a judge, he should be able to handle himself.’ ”

“He deals with murderers,” Kobylt replies with a chuckle. “How bad can we be?”

Kobylt and Chiampou move from Beckles’ workstation to a windowless office. Kobylt discusses a meeting he had that morning with Hall to plan coverage of the Republican National Convention that begins Aug. 12 in San Diego: “There’ll be two demonstrations--pro-immigration and pro-affirmative action, and a possibility of the abortion wackos.”

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“The anti-immigration people,” Chiampou notes, “said they’re going to be showing up too.”

“The purpose, David and I agree, is we want to do the circus,” Kobylt notes. “We want to be outside as much as possible. We don’t want to be stuck [inside on] Radio Row, geek row.”

They do not rehearse. At 3 p.m, they move to the main broadcast studio, sitting cater-corner, headsets at the ready. The screeners are in place. Kobylt has a large plastic band on which to place news copy, making it easier to read. Chiampou calls it Kobylt’s “people shield.”

Topics are sparse this day so, with the judge firmly declining, they spend two hours talking about a local rape case, then move to attacking high-speed police chases in the 5 p.m. hour. At 6 p.m., they go to a standby topic, the Hour of Causes, inviting listeners to air their “passions” about whatever--a somewhat muted version of another generic: Hour of Rage.

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By 6:15, Chiampou is ready for an apple, and Kobylt yawns. A listener named Tony calls, saying that there was a woman on Mt. Baldy who was stabbed 14 times, and yet he saw nothing about it on the local TV news. Kobylt, his voice wearying, suggests it may be because the area is remote.

“Everybody’s so big on O.J.,” Tony says.

“You’re not O.J.,” Kobylt answers laconically.

At the next break, Kobylt talks about the case that still makes his blood boil and his face turn beet-red. The host provoked a lot of anger among black listeners with his insistence that Simpson was guilty of murder. Any regrets?

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Only that “I couldn’t be harsher, that I’m restrained by the FCC from using language that would have more accurately represented what I feel--that something so clear and obvious could be so fouled up by the defense lawyers, by the judge who ran the case, by the idiocy of the jurors. They’re supposed to consider the facts of the case, not bring their biases, not bring other problems they have with the system into the case. That was blown to hell.”

By now, Kobylt is rocking furiously on his chair.

“And that idiot [Simpson] goes around with that big, goofy grin giving speeches, making appearances, people treating him like a celebrity, asking him for his autograph. . . .”

“Really, you get [John] any time of the day or night,” Chiampou notes easily, “he’s ready.”

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“There’s like this ball inside of me that’s never gone away, this ball of anger. And five minutes [of talking about it], I can resurrect that anger all over again. I took it personally, almost like it happened in the family. . . . It really became a part of my life.”

And Chiampou, did he take it personally?

“No,” he says softly.

There’s something intimate about sitting alone in your car after work with no other sound except the radio. Chiampou and Kobylt know that. They bring you into their lives--particularly Kobylt’s--become companions, if not friends. You laugh with them--or at them--and sometimes get mad at them. But that’s OK too. As long as you listen.

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They talk about the time Kobylt deliberately zinged his younger brother in the back during a Little League game, about their first jobs and moving out of the family home and poignantly about fathers: Chiampou, saying he would have liked his father to have spent more one-on-one time with him; Kobylt, noting that his father “was out of it when it came to America. . . . I was weird when I was a child, had all sorts of obsessions and interests. He didn’t seem to care, he didn’t seem to pick up on it. I know if my son has interests, passions, desires, I’ll get into it with him, I’ll take him places, I’ll show him things. . . .”

In the here-today, gone-tomorrow world of radio, Kobylt and Chiampou promise to be around a while. They just signed a contract with KFI that takes the program through 1999. They’d like to have it syndicated to other cities. “But the show stays the same,” Kobylt insists. “Other stations would just pick up what we’re doing.”

“We’ve been approached for television,” Chiampou says, “but we’re really comfortable with radio. We’re very free here.”

“You look at a lot of the hosts,” Kobylt says, “and they’re a lot older. Michael Jackson was king for a long time--[he’s in his] 60s. [Roger] Barkley [of KABC’s “Ken & Barkley” morning show] is like 60. We’re younger than anyone on our [KFI] street. Laura [Schlessinger] is 49, Rush is 45. We’re about 10 years or so behind the crop that’s really big now. . . . We’re still climbing.”

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