Still the Talk of the Town

Judith Michaelson is a Times staff writer

On Dec. 12, Michael Jackson marks 30 years at KABC-AM (790). He's one of that small band of hosts who was in talk radio virtually from the beginning. To many, his is a voice of reasoned, intelligent calm in an often shrill format. His British accent, a handicap at first, has become a trademark, so familiar that his listeners hardly notice anymore.

To his table have come the famous and the infamous: three presidents--Carter, Reagan and Clinton--scientists, writers, celebs, people from all walks of life, as well as the occasional mobster and American Nazi. And, of course, a countless parade of callers.

Jackson arrived in Los Angeles in 1962--by way of London, South Africa, a small station in Springfield, Mass., and an overnight show in San Francisco. Four years later, just after he was fired from KNX, a Times writer noted, obituary-like: "Jackson was uncommonly fair with his audience and never dismissed a caller with 'Go gargle with razor blades' "--a comparison to local talk radio's top gun at the time, Joe Pyne.

On a recent afternoon, Jackson sat in the den of his Bel-Air home--a room furnished with pieces from the Hidden Valley ranch of his father-in-law, actor Alan Ladd--to reflect on talk radio, his life and career. Jackson and his wife, Alana, married for 31 years, have three children. Alan, 28, is owner of two restaurants; Alisa, 27, is a television producer; and Devon, 20, a former Top 10 junior equestrian, is a freshman at Loyola Marymount. The Jacksons have a granddaughter, Lucky, almost 2.

At 62, Michael Jackson, whose program is heard weekdays from 9 to 11:45 a.m., is not nearly ready to call it a morning.

Question: This is the anniversary that almost got away. Recently you told me that you had two weeks to go on your contract this spring and, if management hadn't changed, you would have been gone. What happened?

Answer: Management changed. [Disney, which bought Capital Cities/ABC Radio] brought in younger, brighter, more contemporary-thinking broadcasters.

Q: Why did old management want to get rid of you?

A: Management believed that, to succeed in radio, you had to be conservative, that you had to be, for the sake of it, confrontational. One of the instructions I was given was "Your job is to polarize people." [I said] "I'm just me. I'm going to go on doing the job the way I always have." [But] they had already decided on two other people to replace me.

Q: Who were they?

A: That I can't say. But they are both extremely conservative.

Our job is not to be conservative or liberal. It's to be good broadcasters. To show hospitality. To entertain, enlighten and inform. Which is what I was taught at the BBC.

I have never been happier in my life in radio [than now]. Because I'm doing all that I want to do. In fact, Hillary Clinton had invited me to Washington [earlier this year], but the [then] general manager [George Green] turned it down. The new management overruled that. It's been one of the highlights of my life, doing that show. I had the first lady on for an hour, and then the Cabinet just before the election. And the ideas I'm taking to them now, they like. I want to get the microphone away from this studio--but only if it's going to be better.

I want to do federal prisons--a women's and a men's. I want to do schools in the inner city. I want to go back to the border and do a program on people coming across the border. I'll do it better this time. I want to do a whole morning from skid row--get out there and be a panhandler.

Q: You don't look like a panhandler.

A: I can very easily. Anyone can. That's the sadness of today. The poor don't necessarily look the way we imaged them years ago. And I want to do what [Rush] Limbaugh cannot do--relate to Los Angeles, relate to Southern California. . . . He [broadcasts from] New York. If there was an earthquake, do you think he can tackle it? Or a riot? Or an election locally?

Q: Yet Limbaugh's show on KFI-AM overtook you in the ratings in 1991. Can you ever take back the lead?

A: Oh, yes. I'll make you a bet. Give me a year. I think he's made phenomenal success because he's extremely good. But he is so predictable. It's bash the [Clinton] administration, and that's it. It's the same melody over and over and over again.

Q: What's the toughest question you asked Hillary Rodham Clinton?

A: [In essence] Are you going to have to leave [the White House] with your husband in disgrace? . . . I had to ask that question [relayed from an eighth-grader on the Internet], but I feel you have to earn the right to. . . . You can ask anything if you do it with the right attitude. So many just take cheap shots. Sometimes I'm considered someone who doesn't ask the tough questions. I don't chicken out. I do it a different way.

Q: Is it tone of voice, the way you phrase the question?

A: Part of it is the overture--the amount of work you put into introducing the person. . . . With my voice, I can get away with it--a fist in a velvet glove.

Q: Reflect on why you've lasted.

A: Because I got in with a format in its infancy and decided to work harder at it than anybody else. There's never a day that I'm not there at least 2 1/4 hours before my broadcast. Studying. I'm not that bright. Coming up with ideas. Challenging the people I work with. Talking and reading newspapers and making contacts. I am constantly inquisitive.

Many of my listeners today were forced to listen by their parents who were driving them to school. And I've done enough television to make my mug recognizable. I did 23 guest appearances replacing Larry King. . . . I mean, to stand in Geneva Airport and have a man from Bombay say, "Oh, I saw you last week. You're Larry--Larry Jackson." I've got seven Emmys for local television shows. So I've had just enough exposure.

Q: Your most memorable broadcasts?

A: It might have been the hour I spent with photographer Ansel Adams, which was poetic. He spoke as beautifully as he photographed. Or Prince Philip, or five young men who came in the studio to tell me how they were trying to fight gangs. I just said, "Have any of you ever killed anyone?" And four of them said, "Yes," and the fifth said, "I won't answer." These were the good guys.

Memorable? Audrey Hepburn. Trying to be other than tongue-tied when she talked. . . .

Most memorable? The day after the election [of Nelson Mandela] in South Africa, when Archbishop Tutu called me and said, "Michael, when are you coming home?"

Q: Anything you wish you hadn't said?

A: No, I don't think so. . . .

Tennessee Williams was sitting across the table. The interview's going nowhere. I said, "Mr. Williams, forgive me, have you been drinking?" He said, "Yes." I said, "A lot?" He said, "The usual." . . . And I said, "Sir, think how much better you'd write if you were sober." He won: He took my hand across the table and said, "Improve on 'Streetcar Named Desire.' " Williams 1, Jackson 0. But I wanted to lose. . . . My job is to get the person to say everything they want--and a little bit more.

Q: What attracted you to radio?

A: Easy. World War II, I was a little boy in boarding school south of London. And the bombing would go off, and I would go under the blankets and fantasize about this place called Hollywood because it was romantic and it had pretty women, big cars and lots of Coca-Cola, whatever that tasted like. And I knew I didn't look like a film star, and there was no such thing as television. So I had to be a radio announcer. The other part of my fantasy was that I would marry here. Not a film star, because she'd get top billing. But a film star's daughter.

The first lesson I learned about how to make it in radio was listening to Bing Crosby by shortwave radio as a teenager in South Africa. He would have guests, relative unknowns, and introduce them as if they were the biggest stars in the world.

Q: When did you go to South Africa?

A: When I was 11. Dad had been in the Royal Air Force, he served down there, and when he got back to Britain he said we'd had enough of this. I was an emaciated kid, a blitz baby, so we hopped on the first ship and went down to South Africa.

Q: You were a blitz baby?

A: Oh, yeah, our school got direct hits. There was a boy who slept in the dormitory who wet his bed. If any of us awakened, we would wake him and send him to the toilet. One night he sort of awakened me. And for some stupid reason, I put towels down on his bed and got into his bed. He got into mine and he was killed.

Q: You got into radio at 16 through a contest. And you never went to college. Do you regret that?

A: Education was different in those days. You didn't expect to go on to college. My parents wanted me to be a lawyer and thank God I didn't, because I'd have been stuck in South Africa. . . . By 18, I was directing radio drama, writing a soap opera, learning how to place microphones for a symphony orchestra. Where could I learn this in school?

And at age 22, I decided to start over again. At the BBC. I did everything from my own game show, which I emceed, to radio news reading and television announcing. There were no TelePrompTers in those days. I always knew I wasn't going to become a big name in Europe. I didn't go to the right schools. A "brash colonial" is what they called me. So one day at age 24, almost out of the blue, I got on a ship and came to the States.

Q: And 30 years later, in 1988, you were honored by Queen Elizabeth II as a Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire.

A: By the way, only three journalists have ever received it--[the others being] Edward R. Murrow and Alistair Cooke. When I was receiving my medal, she said to me, "Why do you live there?" I said, "Ma'am, because if I didn't, I wouldn't be here now." [She replied] "I don't know that." I kept shtum [Yiddish for silent] after that.

Q: How has talk radio changed over the decades?

A: It's become far more important, far more omnipresent. It's become more liberal in that everything can be discussed. When I got into talk radio at KNX in 1963, I was given the instruction to talk about anything except race, religion and politics. So I said, "Does that mean I can talk about sex?" They said, "No." In those days, the idea was that you just greeted and burped the listener.

I began [in Los Angeles] at KHJ in 1962 and lasted six months. There was a change of format. Then at KNX, I was fired because I talked about the [1965] Watts riots. Management was extremely conservative. One day I came off the air and there was a sign on the notice board that said, "Michael Jackson is not permitted back in this building again."

Q: Why is talk radio today omnipresent?

A: More and more people are becoming factoid junkies. They are getting very brief reports from television. And they want a little more, and they want to be heard.

Q: What made you a liberal?

A: Living in South Africa. . . . My father was liberal. He had a furniture factory. . . . And he, more than anybody, instilled a desire to treat people as equals.

Q: You're more outspoken as a liberal now. How come?

A: Out of necessity. Different times. I still offer the forum for all shades of opinion, where you will hear many more Republican guests on my show than on any conservative show in this country. They all come on with me. From Gingrich to Dole, Ralph Reed of the Christian Coalition--they think I'm going to be fair.

Q: Is talk radio nastier now?

A: Oh, much. And self-righteous nasty now. [But] I think nastiness has run its course; we're going to start seeing a waning of the G. Gordon Liddys and the Oliver Norths. . . . Many of these very conservative talk show hosts pride themselves on the impact they're making on public thinking. So how come with each successive election, fewer and fewer Americans are voting? Yes, they're making an impact. They're turning people off.

Q: In what way?

A: Making people discontent, distrustful, cynical. You've met politicians. Are they all really the way they're depicted to be by the masses of talk show hosts? I have met an extremely large percentage of utterly dedicated public servants.

Q: How do you see your future?

A: What I really want to do? I want to compete like crazy on television with Larry [King]. I want to do it full time out of L.A. There's room for it, there's need for it, I'm ready for it. I've got the energy--and nobody ever says no to me when it comes to being a guest.

Q: Would you stay in talk radio?

A: Oh, yes. Oh, yes. Oh, yes!

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