KJLH’s Pivotal Role During the LA Riots Garnered the Community Station a well deserved Peabody Award but would corporate urban radio be able to handle and cover and event of this magnitude today? I’m sure we all know the answer.
I had just been in LA for two years when the “Not Guilty” verdicts of the four white policeman who used excessive force during the videotaped arrest of Rodney King were read. I was working at Urban Network which was in Burbank California miles away from Crenshaw and Florence and Normandie where the rioting began. I remember we were glued to the TV at Urban Network watching the developing coverage of the riots. It was endless, when I got in my car to go home I tuned into the various radio stations KKBT, KFWB, KACE, KFI and then KJLH. At the time, I was working for KKBT when it was THE station to work at in LA. KKBT was in the process of embracing the LA Gangsta rap culture and the station wanted to appeal to a multi cultural audience with that genre of music so KKBT was not in a position to cover the riots. None of the stations in LA did as good of a job covering the riots as KJLH. The community station came through with flying colors to give non stop coverage and a much more in depth account from all sides of the riots. Here’s more coverage of the Riots from J.J. Johnson and Isidra Peson Lynn. Kevin Ross
I never liked doing the all-night shift. I did it for awhile at KFRC/San Francisco and I’d hated it. Then, I did it as a form of once-a-week training at KMPC/L.A. in 1976-77. That was mostly OK in that I was on full-time at 1580 KDAY and was getting ready to take the morning shift. It was limited, so it was alright, though I never liked the “all-night” part. That’s another story.
In 1992, I was working the all-night shift at the Stevie Wonder-owned KJLH (102.3). My ex-KDAY colleague, Lee Michaels, was the programming consultant/Operations Manager for the station at that time and he hired me with what he had, which was overnights. I was grateful to him as I needed a gig. But, I still didn’t dig the all-night aspect.
The LAPD cops involved in the Rodney King beating had been tried and the world was awaiting the verdict. On Wednesday, April 29, it was announced: Acquittals all around. L.A. was not in the mood for this, evidently.
I received a call that afternoon requesting that I come to the station ASAP. So, I got in my car and drove in from Sherman Oaks. The full-tilt violence had not yet started, though there was activity and tension in the air. At the station, which was located at Crenshaw Boulevard near 39th Street at the time, fellow air personality George Moore and another staff member or two were standing outside the front door watching what was happening across the street: Looting.
People had torn down the protective grating on the front of the liquor store and were climbing in, grabbing whatever they could, then climbing back out and leaving. I turned to George and asked;
“How long has this been going on?”
“About a couple hours.”
“Where are the cops?!”
It was on. Station management knew it and was preparing for the worst, which was about to happen. We received our marching orders, which boiled down to; “Open the phone lines and let people express themselves.”
For the next three nights, the worst nights of the rioting in my recollection, I would mostly work the phones, then intersperse the talk with an occasional song pertinent to the moment; the music being a kind of relief. I would arrive at the station before sundown and would not leave until sunrise. I wasn’t afraid of the rioters, though perhaps I should have been considering the collective state-of-mind. I didn’t wish to encounter LAPD or the National Guard at night. Not by myself in the darkness.
Larry Milov, my friend and business manager, urged me not to go into the “˜hood. He was concerned for my safety. But, as I pointed out to him, the disturbances - which is to say the burning and looting – contrary to revisionist myth, were not limited to L.A.’s Black community. Most of those arrested were not Black. And, on the other end, I was driving through an area wherein I’d long been known from my years on L.A. Black radio. Plus, I was traveling in the daytime. Most importantly, as I pointed out to him, this was when the job became truly important.
Driving in, I saw burning buildings as far west as Robertson Boulevard. The disturbances, apparently, were citywide, though I saw only a limited area. L.A. is vast. And, I imagine that the situation provided perfect cover for insurance scams. But, that’s a cynical guess.
On the air, I talked to people. One young woman was in her apartment with the power cut off. She was terrified. She could hear gunshots and sirens (I could hear them on the phone) and could see at least the glow of fires. And, she was in the dark. The only comfort I was able to provide was to point out that the darkness couldn’t hurt her. She calmed down, we chatted a little longer, then I went to the next caller.
Given our position in the community and the irresponsible, and ultimately incendiary, content spewing forth on certain other broadcast outlets (There. I said it.), KJLH was the Voice of Reason. We expressed to our listeners our dismay at the verdicts and that we felt the same anger that they felt. But, wanton destruction was no solution.
I received calls from rioters:
“Yeah, I looted! I’m mad about Rodney King!”
“So, that makes it OK to loot and burn?”
“Hey, man, I’m real mad about this!”
“I got that. So am I. But, here’s my question; is it ever OK to steal from somebody – anybody – and burn their place down?”
“What they did wasn’t right!”
“Agreed. Now, is it OK or not to steal from a person and burn their place down?”
“Well”¦ Uh”¦” (Pause)
“Hey, man, just do what you know is right. And, thanks for calling.”
I had given him relief and had vicariously spread a modicum of relief to others by our on-air exchange. That’s what we did for three solid days and nights. All of us. In addition, we provided a forum for opinion leaders from State Senator Diane Watson to Jesse Jackson to the comedian, Sinbad, among numerous others.
We offered to receive any loot from anyone feeling bad or having had second thoughts, no questions. We ended up with a lobby full of loot waist-deep from people who’d gone crazy, returned to sanity and felt bad for their actions.
By Saturday morning, the worst was over. Disturbances were not entirely concluded, but the big explosion was done. The clean-up along Crenshaw was about to begin. People in the area were out with their brooms and shovels. People shuttled in from the predominantly white San Fernando Valley, where I lived, equipped with clean-up gear and ready to help their neighbors.
I once saw a nice little movie where the alien, in a human body, observed that humans are “at your best when things are the worst.” Black people had taken it upon themselves to rescue their non-Black neighbors, including the severely injured Reginald Denny, when the disturbances began. Some had stood in the path of firebomb-armed looters intending to burn down non-Black-owned businesses whose owners were known to be good people; “Not here!” And, in the Valley, white people who lived miles from the violence thought they should throw in and help to get things back together for their fellow Angelenos. That’s real.
The following year, KJLH received the prestigious Peabody Award for its “timely, exhaustive and important coverage of the Los Angeles riots.”
It was well-deserved. I was part of that.
Isidra Person Lynn’s video account
The Huffington Post has an Excellent entire write up about the riots here…