Michael Jackson, the KABC radio talkshow host whose erudite, courtly style and liberal sensibility have defined the station’s weekday morning personality for more than 30 years, is being bumped out of the spot he has occupied since 1966, in a move inspired by Rush Limbaugh’s continued dominance of the timeslot on rival KFI.
The veteran host presides over his final weekday broadcast this morning.
Syndicated personality Tom Leykis will fill in for Jackson during the week of July 7. Ronn Owens, a 22-year talk vet of KGO in San Francisco (KABC’s ABC Radio sister station), takes over Jackson’s 9 to 11:45 a.m. spot permanently on July 14. Owens will split time between L.A. and the Bay Area, with his show being simulcast on the two stations.
The move in some ways marks the end of an era: Jackson has served as one of the radio dial’s last passionate voices of liberal politics and has interviewed virtually every major newsmaker of the era during his long career at KABC.
However, Jackson will remain with the station in an unspecified weekend time period, signing a contract to host a three-hour program on Saturdays and Sundays that could ultimately be syndicated nationally by ABC Radio. Sources put the length of his pact at two years.
KABC execs made the decision to remove Jackson from his weekday chores, but until he made his on-air announcement, they were uncertain whether he would accept the weekend gig.
Most of the station staffers were caught off-guard Wednesday morning when Jackson took to the air and explained that he was leaving his longtime daily perch for the far-less-prestigious world of weekends.
Maureen Lesourd, prexy and G.M. for KABC as well as its Disney-owned sisters KTZN and KLOS-FM, admitted Wednesday that, with a few exceptions at the top level, the staff discovered the developments at the same time as the listening audience.
“We really had not yet completed the cycle (of negotiations),” Lesourd said. “Hearing him discussing it on the air set us back a little. It was news to just about everyone.”
In the wake of Jackson’s disclosure, KABC was reportedly so besieged by listener response that station staffers were able to do little Wednesday morning besides field phone calls.
The timing of Jackson’s weekday ouster could not be worse for KABC in one respect. Jackson, whose contract was due to expire on July 16, was last week honored as Radio Talk Show Host of the Year in a nationwide competition of some 4,420 candidates. He has long been viewed as the medium’s most accomplished interviewer.
Clearly, the decision to leave weekdays was not Jackson’s, who admitted he was “surprised” but maintained he was “not a victim in this situation.”
Jackson added, “I’m ready for a new challenge, and I hope to take the weekends to a whole new level and create a very exciting program. I have the complete backing of the station to do anything I want with it. Weekends are one of the most underdeveloped areas in radio, and I intend to change that.”
Jackson, 62, stressed that he is not being put out to pasture and that his new weekend shift will leave him “ample opportunity” to pursue a “Larry King Live”-type interview show on television. Jackson has subbed for King on his nightly CNN show 22 times in the past.
“I loved my old job, I would have loved to have stuck with it,” Jackson said. “But I’m faced with reality here. I’m just going to have to make the most of this new opportunity, and candidly, I’ve never felt more on top of my game.”
Lesourd, who had reportedly been pondering a change away from Jackson since arriving in Los Angeles more than a year ago, noted that Jackson “had a difficult time meeting the challenge against Rush Limbaugh. This is a business decision.
“On the other side of the coin, we love Michael. He’s a hard worker, a real professional, and a tremendous asset to the radio station. His skills as an interviewer are legendary. We feel his presence will really strengthen our weekends.”
Jackson spent the better part of 25 years as Los Angeles radio’s most popular mid-morning fixture with his 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. program. But conservative Limbaugh, with his daily syndicated show on KFI, now far outdistances Jackson’s program in the 9 a.m. to noon slot (Jackson’s show was trimmed by an hour two years ago and by an additional 15 minutes this spring).
In the quarterly Arbitron radio ratings survey for winter ’97, Limbaugh tallied a 6.8 rating in Los Angeles with listeners aged 12 and above, more than double the 2.9 pulled in by Jackson. With the prime buying demographic aged 25-54, Limbaugh generated a 4.7 rating to Jackson’s 1.4.