Local TV and radio personalities were once part of every city’s identity. Chicago had Bill Kurtis and Walter Jacobsen on WBBM-TV and the quintessential Top 40 disc jockeys like Larry Lujack of WLS radio. New York had Cousin Brucie on WABC and Don Imus on WNBC, Ernie Anastos and Roseanne Scamardella on Eyewitness News. Even the smaller cities proudly laid claim to their own crown jewels – KMOX in St. Louis, KOA in Denver and WWL in New Orleans.
At one time, L.A. boasted a bevy of AM radio stations with considerable reach and influence: KFI, KHJ, KRLA, KMPC and KFWB. L.A. radio gave us Gary Owens (who became the announcer on TV’s Laugh-In), the morning team of Lohmann and Barkley, The Real Don Steele, Charlie Van Dyke and Shadoe Stevens. From Valencia to Venice, San Dimas to Santa Monica, every listener had their favorite radio companion, and everyone was tuned in. There wasn’t a kitchen counter without a transistor radio and car radios were an essential traveling companion.
They say the Golden Age of Radio was the 30s and 40s, but the 60s and 70s were the Golden Age of local radio, and each market had its own unique sound. After all, listeners in Boston are not the same as listeners in Miami. Lifestyles, climate and customs vary, and so did the programming nuances of the radio stations catering to those audiences. While the playlists were often the same, local tastes dictated the flavor of local radio, manipulated by high-energy disc jockeys who mixed a multitude of audio sources like fine chefs. When you heard a personality didn’t make it in a particular market, it was often because he didn’t understand his audience or couldn’t deliver that elusive X factor cherished by the audience.
Today’s radio landscape in Los Angeles is different. Sure, you’ll still find a few drive-time personalities that manage to distinguish themselves from the pack: Ryan Seacrest, Shotgun Tom Kelly and two guys named Kevin and Bean. But, short of Seacrest, few if any jocks are household names and listeners have more options than radio, thanks to the viral and instantaneous nature of social media and the indispensability of mobile devices.
There is, however, one LA radio personality who upholds some of the old traditions.
Tim Conway, Jr. would probably be the first to admit he’s swimming against the current and that there’s no fighting the inevitability of social media. Conway hosts a weeknight show on KFI (640 on your AM dial) that beams clear across the Western United States from studios in Burbank. It’s unapologetic in its mainstream appeal and hearkens back to the traditional talk radio format. Not like today’s talk radio, fueled by political agendas. Nope, it’s a look at the stories of the day through an irreverent lens. And, oh, does he have a treasure trove from which to choose: Manti Te’o’s imaginary girlfriend, Lance Armstrong’s much ballyhooed confessional and a constant stream of developments involving law officers trying to keep the peace in this sprawling, densely-populated metropolis.
Conway can be garrulous, funny, sarcastic, self-deprecating and self-aggrandizing all at once. It’s hard to believe this guy is the son of the soft-spoken, unassumingly hilarious Tim Conway from the Carol Burnett Show. Sure, you remember him if you’re of a certain age. The diminutive, balding guy with the understated antics.
The younger Conway carries on like a house afire, a runaway freight train. His wingman – newscaster Aron Bender – has a Conway-esque voice so you often can’t tell them apart. Bender will sometimes challenge Conway’s shoot-from-the-hip hectoring, but his primary role is serving up current events for Conway’s commentary. Bender is the front-man for a still formidable news operation – a point of pride for the station in an era when radio news seems to be marginalized.
The show’s greatest value is its ability to produce gratuitous laughter. Conway’s wit is above average, while his father was the real comedic genius. Quipped the elder Conway once to his son: "Comedy is in your blood. Too bad it's not on your show." (So, comedy is in the eye of the beholder.) Instead, Conway and his crew take a more surgical approach to generating laughs, using one of the oldest tricks in the radio book: taking liberties with recorded statements of newsmakers.
A weekly feature is What the Hell Did Jesse Jackson Say, billed as Southern California’s longest-running radio game show. Conway’s producer combs Jesse Jackson speeches, looking for phrases that are virtually unintelligible. Conway will then play the soundbite over and over until a listener can interpret it correctly. The winner receives a prize; I can’t remember what it is, but that’s immaterial. There’s something funny – in a very juvenile sense – about repeatedly hearing bursts of the Jesse Jackson patois. (No offense to Rev. Jackson. I was honored when he put his hand on my wife’s belly when she was pregnant with our daughter.)
Examples: “Bowel weela fod” is “battle we fought.” “Be arrever gee” is “be a refugee.” “Come ow wig” is “come our way.”
In a similar vein, Conway and Bender poked fun at famed foodie Paula Deen. When it was revealed that Deen suffered from diabetes, Saturday Night Live’s Kristen Wiig did a spot-on impression. The following Monday, Conway had a field day with Wiig’s impersonation, playing drop-ins such as “booter and awwrl.” (butter and oil). It had me belly laughing so hard I was getting a good core workout.
The world according to Tim Conway is a middle-class place, curmudgeonly at times but mostly well-intentioned and good-natured. His key demographic must be middle-aged white guys – the same people who remember watching his pop on Carol Burnett as youngsters. The only time he rankles me is when he rants about the decline of downtown L.A. As a recent arrival to this city, I want to believe things are looking up.
If you tune in to Conway’s show without knowing where it originates, you probably wouldn’t guess Los Angeles. The show’s mainstream personality speaks to the fact that southern California – for all of its diversity and an otherworldly ethos – has a very mainstream element. Think of the seemingly endless suburbs in the San Fernando Valley or the once-dynamic defense and aerospace industry which fueled the dizzying growth of the South Bay. There’s an all-American substance behind the veneer of style in the Southland – if you want proof just examine the body of work of two guys named Tim Conway. Not flashy, just funny.