Column: Remembering sports radio’s freewheeling Jim Healy, who never let listeners get bored
Actually, it is true: Twenty-five years ago Monday, Jim Healy signed off from his earthly existence, becoming a voice that lives on in museum archives and on YouTube.
In an appreciation piece by former Times columnist and sports editor Bill Dwyre on the 20th anniversary of Healy’s death, “Journalist Bill” noted that Healy’s freewheeling, one-man sports radio show “was like nothing before and certainly nothing since.” That remains a fact.
It started at 5:30 p.m. sharp, and was supposed to end at 5:45. It rarely did, thankfully. The 20-year-run on KLAC-AM (570) and KMPC-AM (710) ended shortly before his death, as he never really retired.
“Some sports people call me Dr. Heckle and Mr. Snide,” Healy said in a Sports Illustrated profile in 1978. “And some call me a lot of other things as well. But I do the kind of stuff that isn’t pap.”
Today, Healy would be a supersonic TMZ sports media feed. A podcast might not contain his immediacy.
He was a UCLA-educated Daily Bruin reporter who started in the newspaper world, married a serious journalist and fellow Bruin alum, and produced a son who continues a decades-long run as a resourceful and trustworthy news reporter for KNBC-TV Channel 4.
Patrick Healy says at least once or twice a week, someone will ask him about his father. It happened recently at a family retreat at Lake Arrowhead, as former Dodgers scout Artie Harris wanted to reminisce about the famous Tommy Lasorda-Dave Kingman clip captured more than 40 years ago.
“It astounds me that 25 years later [so many people] — not just older people, but those who listened as kids and teenagers and are now in the 40s — have a vivid memory of the show,” said Patrick Healy, who acknowledges his career choice was to avoid comparisons to his dad.
There were important lessons to instill from one generation to the next. Jim Healy started at KLAC in 1961 after writing shows for sportscaster Bob Kelley for more than a decade. Healy spent 15 years as a TV sportscaster at KABC-TV Channel 7, perfectly balanced between Baxter Ward as the trusted news anchor and Rona Barrett as the entertainment gossip columnist.
Developing reliable sources, some of whom called themselves out anonymously on embarrassing capers, was a must. At the top of Healy’s Rolodex were NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle (known since his days as the Rams’ PR man) and former Dodgers and Angels general manager Buzzie Bavasi.
“He managed to get the news in between the gossip and the joke,” Patrick Healy reminds us. “And the core of the Jim Healy philosophy that he beat into my head: You can’t let people get bored. You need to get their attention, keep them entertained, keep people in suspense for updates. To him sports was much more about the personalities, what they’re thinking, the characters they are, as much as it is athletic performance.”
So, would it, or could it, work today? Do you find hints of it anywhere?
“If someone tried to recreate it now, even as a podcast, it might not be current or topical enough,” Healy said. “A show like his has to be entertaining and fast paced, like Petros Papadakis.
“He is the perfect example of someone who’s bombastic one moment and inquisitive the next, and you’re riveted by what you’re hearing. He’s thoughtful and knows his stuff and is such a fun listen.”
Papadakis has teamed with Matt “Money” Smith since 2007 for the weekday “The Petros and Money Show” on Jim Healy’s former home base of KLAC — without a pause for the dreaded 6 o’clock tone. A notable thread running through it is an array of Healy sound bites inserted by Smith, producer Tim Cates or engineer Ronnie Facio at timely moments, such as “My wife!” and “That’s the truth!” and “Not much!”
The 42-year-old Papadakis remembers when his father, John, drove him and his older brother home from football practices and had to wait in the car until Healy’s show ran its course. When his relatives gathered over drinks, Healy sound bites were recited as ritualistic touchstones.
“When you’re young and something is funny to your parents, you think it’s the greatest thing ever,” Papadakis said. “That was the only real context I had to sports radio at the time. When I really got started [in 2001], I had no structure, and I struggled. But the more I tried to channel Jim Healy and just entertain and inform, the more success I started to have.
“I still talk openly about how much I loved him. It’s crazy to think we’re living in L.A. now and 25 years after he’s gone, he still feels present.”
Ted Sobel, a radio reporter in L.A. starting at KNX-AM (1070) in the mid-'80s, helped procure Healy audio, working with him at KMPC when the Gene Autry-owned station launched an all-sports format try in 1992.
“His timing was impeccable hitting the cart machine [for sound effects],” said Sobel, finishing a book about his career, titled “Touching Greatness,” that devotes an entire chapter to Healy. “Maybe it would work today if it’s on SiriusXM, where you could do more cursing and goofing around. I don’t know if anyone would have the patience today to stay still through a 30-minute show.”
Paul Olden, like Sobel, at one time was a Los Angeles City College student trying to get into the business. He landed at KLAC as a paid news intern when he started feeding sound to Healy. Olden had a run as the Rams and UCLA play-by-play man in the 1980s for KMPC, but his past 11 years as the New York Yankees public address announcer haven’t given him a chance to be recognized as the reporter who asked famed Dodgers manager Lasorda the question, “What did you think of Kingman’s performance?” — and then navigate the bleep-filled response.
What Olden thinks about a Healy-type performance today: “That’s an easy ‘no’ for me. Healy had inside information. With social media now, athletes can bypass any standard outlet and either deny or corroborate any information related to them. The mystery has been taken out of gossip. We find the truth too soon after we hear something.”
You may stumble on a link in the Internet black hole to find Healy preserved cracks, quips and backhanded compliments.
The family donated recordings to the Museum of Radio and Television in Beverly Hills, yet more boxes of his shows sit in Patrick Healy’s garage. His father taped every one, then went back to critique himself each night.
“When people ask about him, sometimes I’ll dip into the well, scoop up a half-dozen cassettes and give them out,” Patrick Healy said. “I figure at this rate, I’ll give away all the cassettes, if anyone can still play them, by 2185.”
There was no hint Healy in any way was being “bragiocous.”
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