Furor-stoking L.A. radio duo defies pigeonholing
Four hours a day, five days a week, John and Ken swoop from substantive to sophomoric faster than you can change the station.
They are conservative, campaigning against what they deride as the “Illegal Alien Dream Act.”
They are liberal, hosting an in-depth conversation about income inequality with Occupy Los Angeles protesters.
They also can be totally tasteless, calling that same movement “Occupoo” after weeks spent cackling over encampment Porta Pottis.
It is possible for a single radio program to contain all of the above, and more, while drawing a drive-time audience of 1 million-plus loyal listeners each week. But chances are only if it is the much loved — and much reviled — Burbank-based “John and Ken Show” at 640 on the AM dial.
GOP lawmakers struggle to stay in John Kobylt and Ken Chiampou’s good graces. Gov. Jerry Brown has described them as part of a clutch of activists who can “stop any bill in the Legislature where Republican [votes] are needed.” Their opponents deride them as right-wing functionaries.
The truth is more complicated.
Broadcasting from a Democratic stronghold in a politically deep blue state, Kobylt and Chiampou have created one of the most popular local radio talk shows in the country by tapping into the contradiction that is California. Not a single Republican holds a statewide elected office. The Legislature is solidly Democratic. Still, in the past, Golden State voters approved the fiscally conservative Proposition 13 and sought to keep immigrants out with Proposition 187.
The angrier the Californians, the likelier they are to listen in.
Kobylt and Chiampou “cross the line just about every day,” said John J. Pitney Jr., professor of government at Claremont McKenna College. “They’re mean. They’re nasty. But they’re also substantive. If you want to find out what’s going on in California, they’re the people you listen to.”
Just before 3 p.m. on a crisp fall afternoon, the door to a motor home parked at Fullerton City Hall swings open. Kobylt and Chiampou descend the stairs. The crowd cheers.
Dressed in black and flanked by bodyguards, the pair make their way to a broadcast booth. Today’s topic is Kelly Thomas, the schizophrenic homeless man who was beaten by Fullerton police officers. Thomas’ death has been ruled a homicide, and two veteran officers have been charged.
Local activists have called for the ouster of three-fifths of the City Council, largely longtime members they believe have been unresponsive to concerns about the Police Department.
Ken: It’s a great day for a recall!
John: A great day to kick politicians out of office!
Fullerton’s outrage is the perfect vehicle to showcase the softer side of the name-calling duo: There is the image of Thomas’ battered face, widely broadcast. The alleged criminal action of baton- and Taser-wielding cops — and the politicians who activists say protected them.
“Three dirt-bag politicians,” Kobylt declares, his face shiny with perspiration as he urges listeners to come sign recall petitions. Kobylt and Chiampou give out autographs and pose for pictures with clamoring fans. They offer up their bully pulpit to Thomas’ furious father.
J. Steven Davis has driven from Riverside to show his support for the Thomas family. While the commentators “do kinda sorta stretch the limits of the 1st Amendment,” Davis said, their interest has been a benefit to the recall effort.
“One of the advantages they have is 50,000 watts of power” on KFI, said the retired Air Force officer and member of the self-proclaimed Constitution-loving Oath Keepers. “What in a bar or at a party is personal opinion, on the air becomes darn near policy.”
That is, if you agree with them. If you don’t, you can always think boycott.
For much of their tenure in Southern California, the New Jersey radio transplants have hammered away at illegal immigration. They spent weeks calling on Brown to veto the second half of the California Dream Act, which gives taxpayer-supported college grants to illegal immigrants.
When the governor signed the bill, Kobylt and Chiampou helped launch a campaign to repeal it, arguing the law denies college educations to “native-born Americans.”
They also gave out the cellphone number for Jorge-Mario Cabrera, spokesman for the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, and urged listeners to give him a piece of their minds. More than 500 did, Cabrera said.
Transcripts of about 40 calls provided by Cabrera are filled with profanity. One man who called 42 times, Cabrera said, offered this sentiment: “You pig. I hope you die in your own vomit.”
The National Hispanic Media Coalition has called for an advertiser boycott and wants the commentators fired. The group lists more than a dozen firms on its website that it said have either pulled ads or pledged not to advertise on the “John and Ken Show,” among them General Motors.
“We have absolutely no desire for our brand to be involved … with programming that is divisive and potentially offensive,” wrote Don Butler, vice president of Cadillac marketing, in a letter posted online.
KFI program director Robin Bertolucci said the economic boycott has had no appreciable effect.
“John and Ken are having a huge year,” she said. “They have the largest audience in afternoon drive-time in Southern California.... They are extremely effective with advertisers.”
As Talkers Magazine publisher Michael Harrison put it, if controversial hosts are worth the trouble, stations keep them. “John and Ken are an immense radio attraction,” he said.
The duo did apologize to Cabrera on their show — repeatedly though a little grumpily — and also on Univision. But Kobylt and Chiampou also believe the coalition is trying to censor them.
Yes, Kobylt said in a recent interview, he is “sorry about the knuckleheads” who harassed Cabrera. But those who would boycott the show, he said, “don’t want us to talk about illegal immigration because of the influence we have.”
Kobylt, who grew up in Saddlebrook, N.J., got his first radio when he was 7, a Holy Communion present from his godfather. He turned it on, heard a Yankees-Angels game and was “mesmerized.”
His Polish-born father was a factory worker who spent his teens in a Nazi work camp. His mother was a part-time department store stock clerk. They put their son’s $2,000 broadcasting school tuition on their MasterCard.
The stocky 50-year-old is the voluble half of the John and Ken team, a baseball fanatic and Johnny Carson acolyte who spent five years in a newspaper sports department before he “had to get out.…There were a lot of really overweight, drunken zombies working there.”
To this day, Kobylt marvels over the six weeks in 1988 that he says changed his life.
He and Chiampou broadcast together for the first time that January on an oldies station in Atlantic City. Shortly thereafter he met a TV reporter named Deborah Zara. They married in 1992 and have three sons.
Chiampou, 55, is the voice of reason to his mercurial partner. In person, the ex-accountant is terse. He grew up on Long Island, one of six children, the son of a civil engineer and a part-time teacher. He is single and, he says, leans libertarian.
David Hall, the former KFI program director who brought the pair to Southern California in 1992, described their on-air dynamic: “Ken does a good job of fanning the flames and then, right at the second John’s going to explode, pulls him back from the brink.”
Through the years, the pair have gained ratings and made headlines by turning current events into theater.
For example, they stormed former Rep. Gary Condit’s Modesto office in 2001 during the search for missing intern Chandra Levy; Kobylt asked female staffers if they were required to sleep with their boss. The women called the police.
The show’s format, Kobylt said, evolved by accident.
In 1990, the two were hired by New Jersey’s first statewide radio station. “Their idea of … topics was, hey, what’s the best pizza, what’s the worst intersection,” Kobylt recalled. “Ken and I were driving in together for a short time, and [decided] This is really stupid. But we didn’t know what we were going to do.”
Then one day while on air, they made fun of gun owners. At the time, Kobylt said, he was in his late 20s and didn’t have a well-thought-out political ideology. He probably leaned Republican, because the Democratic presidential candidates “seemed to be one wiener after another.”
“I had no idea that if you made fun of gun owners, they’d go berserk,” he recalled. “We started arguing with them and … mocking them. It turned out to be really entertaining radio.”
Both men are registered on election rolls as “declined to state.” They don’t talk about social issues much on the air. But Kobylt said both are basically “pro-choice, pro-gay marriage, don’t really [care] about guns either way as long as I’m not getting shot. Marijuana’s fine.”
Chiampou sits in a green chair in the KFI broadcast studio, legs jiggling up and down. The “John and Ken Show” website on his computer screen showcases Moammar Kadafi’s corpse, shirtless and bloodied.
The show is in its first half-hour, and the hosts have moved from discussing Harold Camping’s latest failed apocalypse scenario to the circumstances of the dictator’s death. Kobylt and Chiampou have a soft spot for Kadafi: They met in 1986 on the day President Reagan bombed the Libyan leader’s compound.
Every morning, the sandy-haired Chiampou puts together a list of topics for the unscripted show. Around 10:30, he e-mails it to Kobylt and producer Ray Lopez, who prints out newspaper and television stories that will inform the banter.
In addition to articles on Kadafi and Camping, the inch-thick pile this day includes a Los Angeles Times story on the California Air Resources Board approving regulation of greenhouse gas emissions, an ABC News story about the Energy Department lending millions to a company that plans to build electric cars — in Finland — and pieces on the Conrad Murray trial.
It’s the kind of line-up that appeals to their target audience, 35- to 54-year-olds, many of whom are stuck in their cars during long daily commutes. Kobylt points out that their most regular callers live in the Inland Empire and are angry at just about everything.
Chiampou and Kobylt are not fans of the mainstream media, and The Times is a popular target. The pair have taken particular umbrage at the paper’s coverage of their run-in with the National Hispanic Media Coalition and their trip to Occupy L.A., as well as The Times’ polling. On this day, their focus is the Orange County Register’s coverage of their visit to Fullerton.
Before the show ends, they are back to Kadafi. In the land of talk radio, there are few greater gifts than a dead dictator who said: “Zenga, zenga, dar, dar!”
It means “alley to alley, house to house” — the way Kadafi vowed to search for the opposition rebels. But that doesn’t matter to Chiampou and Kobylt. They play the bit over and over for the sheer sound of it.
They mock his hair, his countrymen, his final public appearance — lying dead in a refrigerator unit.
Chiampou speculates about reports that Kadafi had salted away a vast fortune in bank accounts. Kobylt wonders why the strongman stayed in Libya if he had "$200 million and naked Ukrainian nurses?”
“Zenga, zenga, dar, dar!”
And they laugh.
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