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RADIO : Around the Dial : Ira Fistell Endures : Career and personal setbacks have not kept the radio veteran from pursuing his one true ambition.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Listeners can never be certain what the topics will be when they tune in veteran talk host Ira Fistell on KRLA-AM (1110). That’s because, for the most part, the maestro isn’t sure himself. “I never know [until] the moment I walk in the studio and start talking,” he says.

On a recent night, he began with Hurricane Floyd and finished with the political hurricane that is Pat Buchanan, with stops in between on school busing, a TV game show, the FBI/Waco controversy and boxing. His own eclectic interests, from railroads to baseball to the Civil War, drop naturally into the conversational train of thought. The other night it was Jewish ballplayers, including Hank Greenberg and his 58 home runs in 1938.

What you won’t get with Fistell--heard weeknights on KRLA from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. since January, after nearly two decades at KABC-AM (790)--is what he considers talk radio’s obsession with “sex, sex, sex.”

“Your show is so refreshing,” a caller named Lars told him recently. “I’m 40 years old, and today most radio talk-show hosts have you name the strangest places you ever made love in.”

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Indeed, that’s what frequently emanates from the studio next door at sister station KLSX-FM (97.1), the local outlet for Howard Stern and Tom Leykis. The two CBS-owned stations complement one another, management says, with KLSX appealing to a younger demographic while KRLA’s audience deliberately skews older.

At 58, after a rocky batch of years that saw him fired twice from KABC and arrested on hit-and-run charges, Fistell happily presides in KRLA’s cramped mid-Wilshire studio, engaging in a steady stream of talk, even during breaks. Occasionally he rests his back against a glass wall, earphones cradling his neck, stealing a yawn, trying to suppress a bad cough--and not always succeeding, but no matter. He is home.

“We’re trying to bring back to radio the kind of intelligent talk that was standard for talk radio through the ‘80s, up to the early ‘90s,” Fistell explains later on the courtyard patio of the apartment complex where he lives. “Since the recession of 1992, advertisers have largely ignored anybody over 40 because they argue that people under 40 buy more, but there is a great market with people over 40, who have more discretionary income. They just buy different things. . . .

“We see this as an opportunity to bring back some sanity and some real substance, and some good humor--not in a preachy way, but in a good-natured and friendly way that will appeal to vast numbers of people who simply have been ignored.”

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Whatever he’s doing appears to be working. Fistell’s ratings outpace KRLA’s station average, and he is now syndicated live on eight other stations, mostly in California and Florida. In the most recent three-month Arbitron survey, Fistell pulled a 1.3% share of audience at KRLA from 10 p.m. to midnight, up 30% from the previous ratings period, and tied for third among the market’s five talk stations. After midnight, he fared even better with a 2.2% share, up 16%, and ranking second.

That still leaves him well behind syndicated behemoth Art Bell’s 4.5% (from 10 p.m. to midnight) and 8.2% (from midnight to 2 a.m.) on KABC, though Fistell and his syndication boss, George Green, are seeking to position him as the down-to-earth alternative to extra-terrestrials and out-of-body experiences--two of Bell’s favorite topics. Fistell believes that it will take time for more people to find him, there not being much promotion for a nighttime show.

Childhood Dream: A Career in Radio

From the time he was a kid in Chicago, Fistell, an only child, knew that he wanted a radio audience. “It was the only ambition I ever really had,” he says. Radio was a constant companion. He listened to everything--mysteries such as “Mr. Keen, Tracer of Lost Persons,” late-night music (his father sold musical instruments; his mother was a piano teacher) and, of course, to baseball. In that era before talk, that was his ticket into the medium. Fashioning himself an announcer, he’d rattle off scores at the drop of a bat, even doing a running commentary during games while playing right field in the schoolyard. He says he was a lousy athlete.

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His parents also provided him with his lifetime interest in trains and in American history: “By the time I was 10, I had traveled to 38 states.”

Although Fistell got a law degree from the University of Chicago and a master’s in American history from the University of Wisconsin in 1967, radio remained his goal. As an undergraduate he began doing part-time gigs in noncommercial radio, and in 1968 he landed full time at a station in Madison. He moved to Milwaukee in 1971, then to KABC here in 1977. For a time in the 1980s, in addition to his nighttime duties, he hosted “SportsTalk.”

Despite his veteran status, a certain youthful enthusiasm remains. On the morning following a recent show, he was still crowing over a line he used about presidential aspirant Buchanan. “I don’t think anyone else has compared Pat Buchanan to George Wallace lately,” he said.

Fistell’s troubles seem not to have shaken his self-confidence.

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Here is a hard-luck yet resilient host who has undergone two firings, first in 1992 and then in 1995, with a rehiring between--all done, as it happens, by the same George Green who now syndicates him and was back then the president of KABC. Fistell indicates that both firings were the result of the station needing to cut its budget.

In 1993, Fistell and his wife, Tonda, a nurse, were forced to sell their house; their income had been reduced by 80%. With six children--four from her previous marriage--he took a variety of “floating” radio jobs--part-time, vacation relief stuff, from baseball commentary on XTRA Sports after the first firing to Hollywood Bowl reviews for KKGO-FM (105.1) and other classical stations after the second. He also began teaching English and history in private high schools--and still does.

Even after landing at KRLA, problems persisted. Just after his arrival, he was out for three weeks with a bout of pneumonia.

Hit-and-Run Charges Reduced to Misdemeanor

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But Fistell’s most turbulent period came with a fatal car accident in February 1995, two months after he had returned to KABC to take over Ray Briem’s overnight slot.

Fistell was on his way to the station on a Friday night when a car broadsided his vehicle while he was waiting to make a left turn; the passenger in the other car, a 16-year-old girl, was killed. Though Fistell was not faulted with causing the accident, he initially faced felony hit-and-run charges for departing the scene. He had left after 30 minutes to report to work.

His troubles mounted when he at first denied to police that he was driving, and his wife, who had arrived at the scene afterward in a cab, was accused of aiding and abetting him by claiming she was at the wheel. Witnesses contradicted their account.

In August, the charges against the couple were reduced to a misdemeanor. That November, two months after his second firing from KABC, Fistell pleaded no contest. Charges against his wife were dropped, and Fistell was fined $2,500, given three years’ probation and ordered to do 480 days of community service. He worked with a neighborhood watch patrol.

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Fistell prefers not to discuss the matter now: “It’s done, it’s over, it’s four years ago, it doesn’t have to be raked up.” Still, a few callers did mention it shortly after he returned to KRLA. He then allows: “I had nothing to do with causing the accident, and I didn’t hit anybody, I didn’t run away. Everyone knew where I was.”

But misleading the police as to who was driving? “That was the dumb thing. You know the reason for that, off the record? My license had expired.”

When it was pointed out to him that his expired license was part of the official record, Fistell says the expiration was “like two days before. Nobody remembers that much about it. . . . What do I think about it in retrospect? I’m sorry it happened, it was a stupid thing.”

His KABC firings pale now by comparison. Both Green and Fistell brush them aside. “I have fired and rehired several people who are good people,” Green says today. “The good ones don’t keep a chip on their shoulder.”

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“It doesn’t do any good to be mad,” says Fistell. “I was upset, obviously, but I know this business. There is nobody in this business who hasn’t gotten fired at one point or another.”

Meanwhile, you won’t find Fistell complaining about the night shift. The self-described night owl explains: “You have more time to talk to people at night. There’s less pressure, less interruptions. There’s something fascinating about listening to that voice in the darkness that just isn’t there in the daytime. It’s like a train whistle in the night.”


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