FIFTEEN YEARS AGO, in the immediate aftermath of the Los Angeles Riots, Warren Olney, a local television anchorman with a keen interest in politics and a mind that had been hidden behind a teleprompter, bolted across the threshold of public radio and began hosting the daily program Which Way L.A.? on KCRW-FM. The show was a response to the historic civil unrest that had shaken the city to its core, and Olney quickly assumed the mantle of a role he seemed born to play, presiding over the uneasy peace by asking questions of people rarely heard on the radio and smoothly brokering discussions on the air between the warring tribes in our midst. It was a star-making performance.
By the time the urgency sparked by the riots had ebbed, Which Way, L.A? had become an institution, looking beyond the crisis in South Central to “the issues Southern Californians care about,” as its on-air signature proclaimed and continues to do so to this day. The program, which recently celebrated its 15th anniversary, is now half as long as it once was and competes for its host’s attention with his national hour-long program, To the Point, begun in late 2000 and also produced at KCRW. But Which Way, L.A?, heard at 7 p.m. Mon.-Thus., remains an abiding presence in the landscape of local news. When a big story breaks, like the King/Drew hospital scandal unearthed by The Times, Olney can be expected to be all over it, finding voices to add to what’s been in the newspaper while himself adding a sense of history and a human touch.
A fourth generation Californian, Olney has a casually genteel air about him. He is bookish and well-mannered in a city known for brashness, an unfashionable personality at the ever-fashionable KCRW. Famous for his restrained moderation of arguments and keeping his opinions to himself – sometimes to a fault — he nevertheless brings more to the table than a microphone. Olney is the reporter as mediator and the mediator as reporter. Which comes first is never certain and that alternating current may define his style.
“The way I see my role is, I don’t take sides because I want everyone to be comfortable and be able to express their views,” he says at noon on a recent weekday, after finishing an edition of To the Point about Rupert Murdochs’s bid for the Wall St. Journal. Modeled after Which Way, L.A.? with all the guests speaking to the host by phone but on national topics, the show is broadcast live to the east coast at 11 a.m. and replayed an hour later in Los Angeles.
“There are times when someone comes in and says the earth is flat and I have to say, no it’s not. But if the subject is controversial, then by definition what we need to know is the richness of the argument and let people decide for themselves.”
On the short walk from the KCRW studios at Santa Monica City College to a simple 2-story house that serves as a production office for the two shows, he reflects on what has changed in 15 years. For one thing, he has an office. In the beginning he did not. He has six producers now to cover both shows. In the beginning, he had two. The KCRW basement studios have been remodeled, with better equipment. His data base of sources and experts has grown from 5,000 after two years to 20,000. “So we can do a program on anything that comes up in the news,” he says.
Now 69, Olney in 2001 was off the air for eight weeks following sextuple bypass surgery, but says he has felt fine ever since.
He has an hour or so to decompress from his intellectual balancing act on To the Point before gearing up to tape Which Way, L.A.? at 2:30. Another program, another subject – actually two: on this day a consideration of Mayor Villaraigosa’s appointment of the Rev. Jeff Carr to the new post of gang czar, plus a look at city attorney Rocky Delgadillo’s personal troubles. But before he wades into the sheaves of documents provided for him by his producers, he orders lunch from the Lazy Daisy on Pico and makes the short drive in his black Prius to pick it up.
Back in his second-floor office he eats at his desk and watches his computer screen for email. Producer Dan Konecky sticks his head in to the doorway to update him on potential guests who are available or not.
“Because it’s a longer program, with more involved, there’s probably more energy devoted to `To the Point’,” Olney says. “But we work pretty hard on Which Way, L.A? also. It’s not as difficult in the sense that we’re more familiar with the issues.”
Thinking back to the civic soul-searching of 1992, Olney knows as well as anyone that 15 years later the answer to the original question, Which Way, L.A? is not one anyone wants to hear. Little has changed about the poverty and neglect in South Central that led to the riots. “The demography has changed,” he points out. “A lot of the problems are the same. Leadership in the city failed to generate the political will to make the kind of investment that real change would require.”
Meanwhile, the appetite for good local news does not seem to have increased either on commercial television or public radio, even though the public radio audience itself has grown. When, to make way for To the Point, KCRW bumped Which Way, L.A.? to 7 p.m., “It was the only time we could put it on without interfering with our national news,” says KCRW marketing consultant Will Lewis, citing listener preference for NPR’s All Things Considered over any local public affairs programming. Still, according to research, one in three KCRW listeners tune in to one of Olney’s shows each week.
Olney says he does not bother to know about the show’s ratings or those of cross-town rival KPCC, which has steadily gained in audience share since switching to all news and talk in 2000 at the direction of parent Minnesota Public Radio. Both stations now attract more than 500,000 listeners per week, according to recent Arbitron ratings. In metro L.A. KPCC surged ahead for the first time last winter.
Which Way, L.A.?, as expected, lost about a third of its audience when it moved to a single broadcast at 7 p.m., but To the Point, distributed by Public Radio International, is now on the air in 37 cities including New York and Washington, D.C., and reaches an estimated 475,000 listeners per week nationwide.
Which Way, L.A? still attracts the city’s movers and shakers, many of whom have been on so many times you expect them to ask Olney, “How are the wife and kids?” “The city council and supervisors are no longer covered by local TV,” Olney says, “so they’re happy to have any outlet. When I was first in TV, every station had a bureau at city hall. No more.”
“Warren is a huge treasure and a gift to our democracy,” says former TV broadcaster Bill Rosendahl, now the city councilman representing District 11 on the West Side. “He lets people finish their sentences and their thoughts. It’s not sound-bite journalism.”
City Council President Eric Garcetti says about Olney, “He’s the city’s institutional memory and town center. Which Way L.A.? connects the city to itself, at least for half an hour a day. Civility reigns, but he doesn’t let people run and hide. Tough questions still dominate. He’s a Zen master the way he gets people talking to one another.”
Soon, it’s time for Olney to get ready for the show once again and he begs the indulgence of a visitor. “I need an hour or I find I’m not prepared,” he says. It’s a taxing regimen he’s not ready to relinquish. “The creative challenge is what’s fun about it – finding new ways into familiar subjects.”
As for the fractious city he interprets daily, he says perhaps it would be better to call it not a city but a confederation. “The nature of Los Angeles, it seems to me, is not to come together, yet at the same time we want to be part of the same place. Maybe that’s a tension that’s built into this place and the way it’s evolved so that we’ll always have to deal with it.”
Los Angeles Times 2007