KFI in the Middle of a Firestorm - A look back on KFI's coverage during the 1992 LA Riots

by Bill Lewis

Reprinted with Permission from LARadio.com 

(April 20, 2017) "I saw in the LA Times today that there are at least five King Riot documentaries scheduled to air over the next month," wrote Bill Lewis. "Documentaries certainly are valuable, but they examine events through the filter of 25 years. I’m glad that at least one of the documentaries is including tapes of calls to KJLH.   

Radio had no filter during the Rodney King Riots. It served as a vital source for Southern California and the nation on what was happening in real time. And it also provided some of the why.   

KFI was a primary source for information and understanding for the three days of the King Riots and beyond. I’ve written a remembrance of those three days and some of what happened at KFI and to its people."

This is Bill's story accompanied with scenes from that riot courtesy of the LA Daily News and the LA Times  

KFI in the Middle of a Firestorm

by Bill Lewis

In April 1992, I was working as the marketing and promotions director of KFI radio. Our offices were at Sixth and Ardmore in Koreatown. I’d been with the station for about six years, starting off as an intern, then working as a news editor and occasional reporter before moving into the marketing role in 1989.  

When the verdicts came down at 3 p.m. on April 29, I had just finished a meeting with an ad agency in Beverly Hills. Rather than head back to the station, I went home to Costa Mesa down the 405. It’s about a two hour drive with traffic. I’d listened to our news department covering reaction at the Simi Valley courthouse and in other spots around LA. We also got a lot of listener reaction ranging from incredulous anger to smug satisfaction. I flipped on the TV when I got home and watched along with everyone else as fires and protests started to flare up around LA. 

Monitoring KFI at the same time, I heard our field reporters put themselves in very difficult situations while trying to provide first hand information. Andy Friedman was at Parker Center and took a bottle off the head. And kept on going.   

As the night came on, the flames at Florence and Normandie and the rioting downtown dominated the coverage. There was a sense of the rioting expanding, but not to the point of an area outside of South Central. Still, it was clear that it was going to be a long night and maybe a long couple of days for the news staff at KFI. 

I grabbed a little sleep and got up around 1 a.m. I picked up some food and water from the market for the news staff. Healthy stuff like oranges and bananas and stuff that the staff would actually eat like chips and soda. Around 2 a.m. I started the drive back to Ardmore.    This wasn’t received very well by my wife Katie. Our son Ben was only five months old at the time. Katie didn’t like the idea of being home alone with civil unrest going on. However, nothing had been reported in Orange County and there was no sense that anything would be happening. Of greater concern to Katie was the fact that I worked at a radio station. Katie had lived in Ghana for two years.  In that time, Ghana had two coups and neighboring Togo had one. In each of the coups, rebel forces had made tv and radio stations high priority targets. Control the media and control the message.

While it didn’t seem likely that control of a radio or tv station was on the minds of rioters, it was still a factor in Katie’s thinking. And she just didn’t want me heading into an area that was in harm’s way.

The impression from the news was that the rioting, arson and looting were all contained south of the 10 Freeway and west of the 110. As I drove north on the 110, I could see fires to my right. And turning west on the 10, there were fires to my right again. That was the direction of the station. Not a lot of fires, but fires nonetheless.  

The next twelve hours are pretty jumbled. KFI staff reported for work and then were sent home at noon by general manager Howard Neal. It was clear that the area was not going to be safe. Shortly thereafter Mayor Bradley issued a city wide curfew. 

Chief engineer Marvin Collins set up a satellite studio in his home in La Canada. Rather than have hosts come to Koreatown, they went to Marv’s home and broadcast from his living room. The decision was made early on Thursday to keep programming local. That meant no Rush Limbaugh for the LA audience. The news team kept following and reporting on rioting as it moved north from Florence and Normandie toward and into Koreatown. And Howard brought in our security adviser, an ex FBI agent and his team, to evaluate our situation on Ardmore.  

By about 3 p.m., there were very few of us left in the building. Program director David G Hall, producer Marc Germain, Howard Neal, the security guys and me. I grabbed about an hour’s nap and woke up at four. The light outside the building was not right. Going up on the roof, the reason became clear. There were fires in every direction. The largest and closest were six blocks west at Sixth and Western and six blocks east at Sixth and Vermont. 

While there were no cars on the street, there were groups of rioters/looters on most of the streets. They didn’t seem particularly angry. Just looking for opportunities to smash something of high visibility or grab some available merchandise. Our building was very non-descript and we may have covered the call letters on the side of the building. However, with the fires and the looters, we were now inside the perimeter of the riots.   

Over the next couple of hours, with night coming on, we were weighing the safety of staying at the station. There were benefits to staying in the building as going on the streets was not really a great idea. But if the building became a target, it wasn’t going to be a whole lot of fun to stick around. From the roof, we’d scouted a couple of ways to move to the roofs of adjacent buildings if we had to make our way out that way. And our calls to the LAPD Emergency Operations Center hadn’t yielded any guarantee of assistance if needed. They had plenty of other things to do. 

As the sun set, our security guys deemed the situation to be unsafe and recommended evacuating. Evacuating would have meant that KFI would go off the air. While the hosts and the broadcast studio had been moved to La Canada, we still needed the central controls on Ardmore to stay on the air. 

Howard, David, Marc and I decided to stay. The security detail decided to leave after observing hand guns and rifles in the groups walking the streets. David and Marc had been running the board most of the day. They were coordinating the hosts, our field reporters and phone calls that went on the air. 

Howard was working to evaluate the station as well as conferring with his bosses in Atlanta on what to do about the facility. They left it up to him to make the call based on our situation locally.

I spent the hour from 6-7P working the phones to get a commitment from either LAPD or the National Guard to station either a black and white or a small detail at the station. The reasoning was that, as the strongest radio signal in Southern California, we were needed for emergency broadcasts and official announcements. That might have been true thirty years before, but in 1992, there were plenty of stations that could get the word out.  Internally, we didn’t want to give up and go off the air.  Somehow, that would be a capitulation and a defeat.  

Shortly after seven, Howard decided that an unprotected building put his personnel at risk. Howard certainly didn’t do it for his own safety. He’d been out on the street earlier assessing the situation. He’d gotten a flat tire and had calmly changed the tire and got back to the station. Howard was a dual target: a black man driving a Mercedes 450SL. His concern was that David, Marc and I would be in danger without security in the building and keeping the station on the air wasn’t worth that risk.   

At 7:15, we signed off. At 7:18, I got a commitment from the National Guard to send a small group to the station. That commitment was enough to tip Howard back. We reconnected with Marvin and were back on the air by 7:30. The National Guard showed up 24 hours later.   

For the next twelve hours, David and Marc manned the board.  They kept the station on the air. Howard continued to monitor the situation. And I became the phone screener and field reporter coordinator.        

It may be poor memory, but I remember only Andy Friedman and Tammy Trujillo as being in the field. It really was too dangerous for either of them to be out. As noted earlier, Andy had been hit by a bottle while at Parker Center. And the LA Fire Department unit that Tammy was shadowing came under fire at least three times during the evening.   

The other extraordinary part of being on the phone was that I was on the receiving end of calls from listeners and their stories. It gave me and KFI a network of eyewitnesses to what was happening throughout Southern California. Regardless of how many news crews a television station or network might have, they can’t cover everything. A radio station, with an inbound phone line, can be any where there is someone with a phone.  We and our listeners were able to see all of Southern California.   

We could also see outside. KFI has the strongest signal on the west coast. It can be heard from Maui to Anchorage to Lincoln, Nebraska. I took calls that night from all over the western United States. And the calls weren’t from people who wanted to be on the air. They just wanted to make sure that we were okay and that we stayed safe. As the sun came up on Friday May 1, there was a sense that the worst was over. 36 hours of rampaging had exhausted the rioters. The targets of opportunity had been hit. The looters had taken what they could. The fires had burned themselves out or were just smoldering. The National Guard presence was beginning to be felt. It’s one thing to turn over a police car.  It’s another to stare down a tank muzzle. Tanks don’t tip over very easily. It was also evident that the station was going to be fine. Howard said it was time for me to go home.

Around 9 a.m. on Friday, I left 610 S. Ardmore for the drive to Costa Mesa. My route took me up Vermont. A number of stores and businesses had been broken into and burned. Small fires dotted the eight blocks to the freeway onramp. Vermont was also a major staging area for the National Guard. They had control of the street and were branching out into other parts of the city.    Smoke hung over the 101. It began to clear at the transition to the 5. 

The further I got from downtown, the less the sense of danger, damage and unrest became. When I pulled onto my street, it was like driving onto the set of a Spielberg movie in which he has created an idyllic suburb. The sky was clear. Birds were chirping. Neighborhood kids were in the streets. My last couple of days didn’t have any impact on home.   

I got a call at home on Saturday morning from Rush Limbaugh. Rush had wanted badly to be on the air in his 9A-Noon time slot on KFI during the rioting and civil unrest. Howard and David had decided that this huge local story needed exclusively local coverage. If Rush wanted to fly into LA and broadcast from Marvin’s house, he was welcome. He chose to stay in New York. In his call with me, Rush wanted to know if he had been kept off the air out of concern that his political views would have been inflammatory. I assured him that it was the demand and need for KFI to be hyper focused locally that drove the decision.   

1992 was pre-social media. TV could only have impact where they had a camera. Print was on at least a twelve hour delay from an event occurring to a reader’s hands. Radio, via phone calls and reporters, could be anywhere. And for the King Riots, KFI was everywhere. Howard Neal was an exemplary leader. He placed the safety of his people first, but did everything he could to keep our listeners informed and engaged. David G. Hall and Marc Germain determined that staying on air was their responsibility. Andy and Tammy out on the street. And Marvin Collins wizarding the technical side. 

It was an incredibly intense 72 hours in which KFI served its local and national audience with creativity and bravery. I am incredibly proud to have been part of the station.  

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