One day in 1967, a fashion model named Kelly Lange got into a line at a Buena Park shopping mall, figuring “they were giving something away.”
The handouts turned out to be applications for two positions as “Ladybirds” on KABC-AM (790) radio. The lucky duo would become the first female traffic/weather reporters in this area to patrol in helicopters.
Lange was chosen for the 6 a.m.-to-9 a.m. segment and re-christened Dawn O’Day. Another applicant, a film studio secretary named Lori Ross, got the afternoon shift as -- surprise -- Eve O’Day.
“The two women in their tight-fitting, silver-lame jumpsuits paved the way for today’s less-exploited women deejays and announcers,” The Times later wrote.
Within a few years, Lange would be co-anchoring the news at KNBC-TV Channel 4 -- as Lange, not O’Day.
The “Ladybirds” promotion came at a time when commuters on the ever-more-crowded freeways were learning the importance of tuning in to radio’s whirlybirds to find out about the latest calamity on the roadways.
A writer for the New Yorker, studying traffic reporters in L.A. back then, theorized that the reporters also served a psychological role, giving “the lone freeway rider a sense of belonging to a larger whole.”
One of the first traffic personalities was helicopter pilot Max Schumacher of KMPC-AM (then 710), who was known for his quiet heroism and for such folksy sayings as “Watch your driving and leave the accidents to us.”
He had a limp, the result of a 1958 crash in which he steered his disabled chopper into a tree rather than land on a crowded school ground in Glendale.
Eight years later, Schumacher was killed along with four other people when his aircraft collided with a police helicopter near Dodger Stadium. Schumacher’s successor, Jim Hicklin, died seven years later, shot to death in 1973 by a stalker who had followed him onto a cruise ship.
Two other L.A. traffic- reporter pilots also have perished in helicopter crashes: KNBC-TV’s Francis Gary Powers in 1977 and KFI-AM’s Bruce Wayne in 1986. Powers, a former CIA pilot, had survived being shot down while flying a U-2 spy plane over the Soviet Union in 1960.
“I’ve always said that any time you make a living being more than 3 feet off the ground, you’re taking a chance,” said Mike Nolan, who has reported traffic for KFI-AM (640) and KOST-FM (103.5) for a quarter century with nary an accident.
“I damn near got killed by airliners twice,” recalled car dealer Cal Worthington, who doubled as a traffic reporter for four local radio stations in his Piper Cub airplane from 1965 to 1974.
One pilot “flew by -- never even looked at me,” added Worthington, who did the reports in exchange for free commercial time for his car business.
Nolan is part of a more recent generation of airborne reporters who became household (and in-car) names to listeners, including Jeff Baugh of KNX-AM (1070), “Commander” Chuck Street of KIIS-FM (102.7) and KTLA Channel 5, and “Captain” Jorge Jarrin of KABC radio.
Who cares if Street and Jarrin gave themselves their military titles? Their jurisdictions include Hollywood, after all.
Traffic reporting on the radio side has declined in recent years, in part because of the recession, the consolidation of radio stations, and such in-car technology as GPS traffic reports.
Street and Baugh are among the few local radio reporters who still monitor traffic from overhead.
Nolan works most days from home in Corona, using the California Highway Patrol website and other sources. Except for when he takes his Cessna 182 into the air, he is no longer billed as “the KF-I in the Sky.”
Gone are the playful days when a KFI in-studio guest such as voice actor Mel Blanc would introduce Nolan by asking in his Bugs Bunny voice, “What’s up, doc?” Nolan seldom chats with the anchors anymore.
Baugh sees personality being squeezed out of TV traffic reporting too.
“They sound like drivers talking in their car,” he said. “Just once I’d like to see the reporter look into the camera and say, ‘Put the kids down. Put the toothpaste down. I have to tell you the southbound Hollywood Freeway has been shut down.’ ”
There are signs that TV reporters are not needed quite as much, either.
KCAL Channel 9 recently ran a video of a fire in Diamond Bar with no reporter narration. It had been sent in by a viewer -- part of what the station calls its NewsCentral Street Team.
TV stations are also using silent video from stationary Caltrans cameras. One morning, Jillian Reynolds of “Good Day LA” on KTTV Channel 11 showed some Caltrans footage and said, “The 110. . . . Is that the 110? Whatever, it’s moving.”
But while radio has had layoffs, TV has done some hiring.
KCBS Channel 2 recently added a helicopter reporter/photographer from a Denver TV station.
Her name: Amelia Earhart.
Earhart, 26, who is not a pilot, says she is a distant relative of her famous namesake.
So that’s what’s up, doc.
Dawn and Eve O’Day may be gone, but Amelia Earhart has landed in Los Angeles.