- Conventional wisdom tells us that radio talk shows never dominate in the ratings.
- Conventional wisdom tells us that talk shows don't attract an audience younger than 50.
- Conventional wisdom never met KFI's (640 AM) afternoon boy wonders, John and Ken.
Born John Kobylt and Ken Chiampou, the team has been working together for nearly 10 years, talking about things that people like to talk about. "We're not a political show," Kobylt proclaimed. "We are here to entertain, not change the world. The generation that listens to us got their political commentary from Chevy Chase on 'Saturday Night Live.' " Inverting the traditional generational profile of talk radio, KFI now attracts a weekday afternoon audience that is 62 percent under the age of 50, according to the latest Arbitron survey. Competitor and former No. 1 talk station KABC draws crowd. Yet the duo's subjects are often far from light-headed. They have dealt with such topics as: the killing of a 3-year-old girl on a dead-end street in Cypress Park, the debate over Proposition 187, which included a live broadcast from Huntington Park High School and what many consider their shining moments: coverage of the Simpson murder case and their award-winning "Hour of O. J." broadcast every day of the trial -- unless there was nothing to talk about. "Our No. 1 goal is to entertain," Kobylt said. "The ideal show would be serious but entertaining, talking about what people might talk about around the water cooler or dinner table." His partner chimed in. "We talk about things that are important to people without dummying it down, as some other shows do," Chiampou said. "If you want to find out how we compare with the competition -- if you look for a program that is between Rush Limbaugh/Larry Elder and 'Real Radio' -- it's us."
The drivetime stars began their radio careers in City, N.J. After eight months, management transferred them to top-40 FM sister station WMGM where they did a morning zoo program until moving to WKXW-FM in Trenton, N.J. They made their radio marks in the New Jersey capital, even impressing national radio consultant Walter Sabo. "I heard their tape for eight seconds," recalled Sabo. "I told [WKXW] management: 'That's what you want.' " The team had the good fortune of debuting on a brand new station, which combined talk with oldies. At the same, New Jersey Gov. Jim Florio -- a Democrat -- was sworn into office. The hosts spent weekday afternoons talking about issues surrounding their community. "One day, the local newspaper, The Trentonian, began writing a series of stories about a midnight tax vote taken by the Assembly, which resulted in a huge tax increase," Kobylt recalled. "They covered the vote, as well as some of the perks enjoyed by the governor and the Assembly, including catered meals three times each day." The radio hounds smelled a "stimulating" topic.
"We started talking about this -- kind of having fun with it when this guy calls in, all pissed off,"
Kobylt said. "He gives out the telephone number to the Assembly offices. Ten days later, 10,000 people were outside the Capitol building, hanging Florio in effigy. The revolt lasted all summer; and 18 months later, one third of the legislature was voted out of office." Chiampou analyzed the powerful response of his audience. "This came out of nowhere," he said. "The anger was there, but we didn't know about it. And there must be anger for something like this to happen; if the anger isn't there, you just can't do it. It won't work." The Trentonian reported that the hosts took credit for the revolt, but Kobylt dismissed the charge."We talked about it," Kobylt said. "But this actually happened around us. Talk radio is not the big influence everyone thinks it is; but it can help things along." Controversies followed John and Ken to Los Angeles in late 1992. KFI Program Director David Hall selected the pair to replace the popular Tom Leykis, whose disappearance from the high-profile afternoon slot was never explained. Many Angelenos resented KFI for the change. Hall hired former LAPD Chief Daryl Gates as an interim host and kept silent amid reports that the Jersey boys were on the way to the Southland. When asked about their impending arrival, Hall stonewalled, "John and Ken? Who are they?" When they first hit L.A. in November, listeners were still angry about the Leykis incident. To make matters worse, their first few programs showed a woeful lack of knowledge about their new home. They mispronounced names of some localities and complained about other places. Plus Angelenos had trouble telling apart their voices. At first, listeners thought that Kobylt was ultraconservative and Chiampou was a bleeding-heart liberal. Never mind the fact that both are essentially apolitical and generally moderate in their views. "That conservative vs. liberal label has thankfully faded over the years, due to the way we have covered the issues," Chiampou commented. To illustrate the fallacy of the conservative tag, Kobylt was against the passage of Proposition 187. ("I'm against things that don't work," he said.) During the recent gay marriage issue, he announced that he supports the idea. "It's harder to get ratings if you are predictably political," Kobylt said. "And, in reality, we just don't care that much about politics."
Their typical day begins with perusing the papers -- lots of them. Kobylt searches the Internet for interesting stories while Chiampou reads the local newspapers and magazines. Their producer, Johan Beckles, searches through the tabloids for oddball news items. At about 11 a.m. each day, they phone each other to talk about the day's show. They neither discuss how they feel about a topic or story, nor do they decide who will take which side (if any). "There really isn't much preparation for the show," Kobylt admitted. "We don't want to sound rehearsed." They have an instinctive rapport. "After working together for nine years, we have a good idea of what each other will be thinking," Chiampou said. Lack of preparation has prompted complaints about their show from some radio industry observers and competitors. "Their research consists of reading the newspapers," one reporter said. "Yet they often act as if they are experts, even if they are obviously incorrect about something." John and Ken brush off such comments. "We don't have time to cover all the details of a topic," Kobylt said. "We are trying to attract an audience that is 'trigger-happy' with their car radio. If we spent all of our time fully explaining the issues, we would never get to the entertainment, and we would have no ratings." Another critic, Leykis, who now is heard on KCKC 1350 AM, asserted that the John and Ken formula is not unique. "It's not a bad show," he said. "But there's nothing special about it either. 'The Regular Guys' do the same thing over on KLSX [97.1 FM]." Whether they are special or not, they know the recipe for success. "The idea is to get a reaction and keep people tuned in," Chiampou concluded. And the idea has worked. In the winter 1996 ratings, the wonder boys placed first among all afternoon talk shows in the Los Angeles and Orange County metro survey. Future plans for the duo include a nationally syndicated show, as long as it is a good deal for John, Ken and -- KFI. "We have been talking with a few people," Kobylt admitted. "But I can't go into the details." Is the team concerned that a national show may take away the local feeling for Southern Californians, as others have found when they go national? "We've thought about that, but we don't think it will be a problem," Kobylt said. "We looked at all of the topics we covered one week and found that only about 10 percent of them did not have universal appeal. Even now, if we covered something that affected only metro Los Angeles, we'd be alienating over two-thirds of our audience -- those listening in Riverside or Orange County, for example." Both guys possess a drive that tends to push personal interests to the back of the line. This is a common trait among highly successful talk hosts, including Howard Stern, Don Imus and Rush Limbaugh. They also keep their private lives private.
John, 35, likes hamburgers, is married to CNN/Turner Entertainment reporter Deborah Zara Kobylt and has a baby boy, Justin Anthony. Ken, freshly 40, is single, a sports fan and a regular visitor to Las Vegas. He recently traveled back East to see his family and is one of the few people in L.A. who admits to listening to sports talk radio. He is also a certified C.P.A. They rarely quarrel outside of the heated arguments heard on the radio." We may get into it about once every three months or so," Chiampou admitted. "But after it's done, it's done. We don't really have any serious disagreements." Their friendly attitude permeates the entire station. "I like John and Ken," KFI Marketing Director Bill Lewis said. "I listen every day for four hours and then at night when they are on tape." The duo grew on KFI News Director Terry Rae Elmer, who announces the news during their shift. "Now I think they're great," adding quietly, "John is like a different person since he had the baby." The feeling is mutual and extends even further to their audience. On a recent day, a listener sent a letter to the dynamic duo suggesting an idea for a show. He accidentally included his telephone bill payment with the letter.
As John walked out of his office to mail the payment, he remarked with a chuckle, "See, we'll even mail our listeners' bills for them if they send them to us. We care that much." Just another public service from the top-rated afternoon talk show in Los Angeles.
Story By Richard Wagoner · Photos By Ben Jacoby