This week, Los Angeles radio listeners will lose an extraordinary element of our civic life — a unique vehicle for the exploration of issues that confront this city. In an age when hyperbole, sensationalism, rancor and mindless chatter occupy so much of the airwaves, "Which Way L.A.?" — one of the few on-air havens of serious, rational dialogue on contentious issues — will be gone.
Warren Olney, the show's host for the last 23 years, will be ending the broadcast on Thursday. Olney and the program have been a unique keeper of L.A.'s historical record — our triumphs, our crises, our travails and our failures. From gang warfare to the 1992 riots, from water shortages to traffic, from government boondoggles to elections analyses — Olney was there, discussing the issues with his guests thoroughly, fairly and civilly.
But it isn't simply the chronicling of events that has made "Which Way L.A.?" so special. Even more importantly, the show has been an instrument for people of opposing viewpoints coming together as guests of the show and engaging in a dialogue. By virtue of the show's format and Olney's firm, friendly and thoughtful demeanor, they were compelled to express their views without rancor or bile — a true rarity in our era of partisan bickering.
Having been on the program a number of times, I can vouch for the vigor with which Olney pursued his lines of questioning. On a 2006 broadcast discussing an Islamic leader and the plan to honor him by a local governmental commission, Olney asked the tough, but fair, questions that made myself and the other panelists think twice — to listen instead of talking over one another.
There are lots of pleasant hosts who work on air who move nimbly from guest to guest. But promoting actual dialogue and understanding in the context of a limited broadcast is a tremendous challenge — and one of Olney's gifts.
Things may have gotten contentious on "Which Way L.A.?", but they were always civil.
As Olney himself has noted, "We're supposed to have a democratic society, and discuss things in a rational way. I want to help that process. At the same time, I also welcome and look for disagreement, because that's what makes it run."
This city faces serious challenges in the years ahead — from transportation to housing to sustaining a steady water supply. Hopefully, KCRW and other stations will fill the void that the show's ending will create — a forum to give these issues the kind of serious scrutiny, accountability and open-mindedness that Olney offered.
Who will fill that void, for the moment, remains unclear. Too few broadcasters, it seems, take their role as licensees of the public's airwaves — promoting the "public interest" as part of their mandate — as seriously as Olney.
Bravo to "Which Way L.A.?" and to Olney for decades of serving this city in ways that few can match. He has taught multiple generations of Angelenos how to honestly, civilly and fairly debate contentions issues — and in the process learn about what makes democracy work. L.A. will be the poorer for losing this extraordinary catalyst for our civic self-examination.
David Lehrer is the president of Community Advocates, Inc. an L.A.-based nonprofit chaired by former mayor Richard J. Riordan.