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KMPC turns back dial to its golden age

Special to The Times

KMPC gave Southern California the Angels and the SigAlert, but the memories at a staff reunion Wednesday night were of the talents -- on- and off-air -- that made the station a fixture on L.A. radio dials in the 1960s and ‘70s.

Before singing cowboy Gene Autry sold the station to ABC in 1994, 710 on the AM band was where listeners could get “a little happiness, a little news,” according to former general manager Stan Spero.

“We tried to be everywhere anything happened. We tried to provide entertainment, information, sports and civic involvement,” he said, whether it was through pioneering traffic reports, use of news helicopters, broadcasts of Rams, Bruins and Angels games, or the efforts of a lineup of celebrity DJs. “We have a government license -- we have to be, and should be, involved in civic activities.”

And he believes that integration into the community was what resonated with the audience and made the station such a ratings leader.

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The tribute was organized by radio historian Don Barrett, host of the “Los Angeles Radio People” Web site (www.laradio.com) and author of two almanacs of Southland radio personalities.

“Without these kinds of events, this history goes away. And KMPC was such an important station,” said Barrett, who added that the evening’s focus was the “golden age” of KMPC, “when the personalities were at their best. Each one was unique, and in today’s homogenized radio, you can’t tell one personality from the other.”

The station was full-service, offering music, news and sports, and played a middle-of-the-road format that preceded Top 40, which Barrett said could feature Elvis Presley one minute and bossa nova by Antonio Carlos Jobim the next. But it was the freewheeling on-air hosts who, with their knowledge of music, or idiosyncratic humor, kept the listeners dialed in.

“KMPC was one of the most successful radio stations in the country, and had the lineup -- the most envied talent in the radio business,” said Roger Carroll, who played records on KMPC. The key to their success, he said, was a rapport with the audience. “Everybody who listened to the station thought we were their friends.”

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“We had a great audience,” added news director Bob Steinbrinck. “They were bright, they had a sense of humor, and they wanted to be informed.”

The main feature Wednesday night was a discussion panel, which included Steinbrinck, Spero and former DJs Carroll, Johnny Grant, Geoff Edwards, Gary Owens and Johnny Magnus, who answered questions and reminisced before an audience of about 120 former listeners and station employees.

Grant, best known now as the honorary mayor of Hollywood, talked about the origins of traffic reports on his show, which evolved into “Johnny’s Freeway Club,” complete with its own jingle.

“Somebody called me when I was on the air between 2 and 6 and said, ‘You’re not going to believe it: There’s a mattress in the No. 2 lane.’ I said, ‘Is there anybody on the mattress? And if so, what are they doing?’ ” Grant said.

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It was in traffic reports that former station co-owner Loyd C. Sigmon saw an opportunity to attract listeners. In 1955 he rigged a device that Los Angeles police dispatchers could activate during freeway tie-ups that would relay their radio traffic to KMPC, so the station’s announcers could alert listeners to the problem. Police Chief William Parker said the system was too valuable to be exclusive to one station, but honored Sigmon by naming the warnings SigAlerts.

In addition to news, the station was known for its sports programming, which not only included Bruins basketball during the team’s John Wooden dynasty, but also the genesis of Angels baseball. Autry went to major-league baseball owners’ winter meetings in 1960 because the Dodgers had pulled their games from KMPC, and he wanted to secure the broadcast rights for one of the new expansion teams the following year. Instead, he came home with a team -- the then-Los Angeles Angels -- after the prospective owner dropped out.

In addition to trading anecdotes about Autry’s generosity and easygoing nature, the group paid tribute to the late Dick Whittinghill, who died last year, and to his successor, Robert W. Morgan, who died in 1998. The former, the morning host who spent 30 years at KMPC, made Angelenos inquire, “Did you Whittinghill this morning?” while the latter’s signature was wishing his listeners “Good Morgan” every a.m.

Grant said the station was imbued with a spirit “that made us do outrageous things. You’ve got to be a little off the wall.” Such as ferrying 1,000 listeners to Catalina for a golf match between Whittinghill and evening host Clark Race, or Carroll’s hosting a program from a jumbo jet en route to Hawaii.

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“Compared to radio today, there’s nothing left to the imagination,” said Bob Maryon, longtime engineer on Whittinghill’s show. “It wasn’t so formatted. It wasn’t so structured. People never knew what was going to happen, and everything didn’t always go smoothly.”

But the staff often spun the slip-ups into gold. A segment in which Owens breaks up while reading an advertisement -- a Christmas greeting from Preparation H -- was replayed as a holiday tradition for years afterward.

“It’s nice to be known for something sophisticated,” said Owens, who took his non sequiturs and deadpan humor to the national stage on NBC’s “Laugh-In,” one of several talents who found even greater fame on television.

When “Shotgun” Tom Kelly of KRTH-FM (101.1) was a teenager, he was such a fan that he rode the train up from San Diego to watch Owens work, and even ran into his idol once while sneaking into the station office. Owens invited him in and showed him around.

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“It was ‘The Radio Station of the Stars.’ Any stars that were in Hollywood, they were on somebody’s show,” said Kelly, who attended the reunion. “It was just a class radio station.”

Sharon Benoit, who handled public relations for the station, among other jobs, said the camaraderie kept employees there for decades, and made it as enjoyable a place to work as it was to listen to.

“KMPC can’t be duplicated,” Benoit said. “It was truly a magical time in Los Angeles radio.”


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