On Valentine’s Day, three days after Whitney Houston died in a Beverly Hilton bathtub, listeners of The John & Ken Show on KFI-AM (640) heard a rare conversation about insensitivity—rare because John Kobylt and Ken Chiampou didn’t become the top-rated radio show hosts in Southern California by dwelling on hurt feelings. The subject was Houston’s mentor, Clive Davis.
Chiampou brought up the story about how the music mogul met with the singer’s family the night of her cocaine-related death to comfort them—and how he didn’t see fit to cancel his Grammy preparty being thrown in the same hotel where her body lay upstairs. “He made a statement at the party concerning the death of Whitney Houston,” Chiampou said, “but the family members thought that was not appropriate—that he just went ahead with the festivities.”
Kobylt put himself in Davis’s shoes. “So how much of a pain in the ass do you think she was?” he asked. “Can you imagine, you’re Clive Davis, and she hasn’t had her head screwed on right for 20 years, and at some point you’re just sick of it all, and so is everybody else in the industry—all her friends and hangers-on: ‘Here comes the crack ho again. What is she going to do?’ ‘Oh, look at that—she’s doing handstands next to the pool. Very good, crack ho. Nice.’ After a while everybody’s exhausted, and then you find out she’s dead—‘Really, it took this long?’ ”
The “crack ho” comments led to the John & Ken Show’s seven-day suspension from the air—the first such sanction since its arrival in Los Angeles two decades ago. In the past KFI executives have defended the free speech rights of Kobylt and Chiam-pou, who attract a weekly audience of 1.2 million in the lucrative 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. drive-time slot. Stretching from the Inland Empire to northern San Diego County, it is not only the most listened-to local radio talk show in Southern California, but in the whole country. “More stimulating talk radio” is KFI’s official slogan, and Kobylt and Chiam-pou deliver. They’ll talk about celebrity farces and tragedies, lurid murder trials, and weirdness wherever it materializes, but their main theme is the destruction of California—by public employee unions, by endless tax increases, by illegal immigrants, by corrupt and incompetent politicians, and by violent criminals coddled by the system. The John & Ken Show is devoid of heroes. There are only traitors and bandits and their victims—the middle-class American taxpayers whom Ko-bylt and Chiampou speak to every weekday as their pockets are picked and their way of life is eroded by the border-crossing hordes.
The show would be grim, indeed, if the hosts didn’t possess a gift for turning all this decline, decay, and anger into entertainment. “Biggest flaccid wiener imaginable,” “union-protected pervert,” “Governor Dementia,” and “double-talking, lying deceitful sack of crap” are some of the more colorful epithets Kobylt has come up with when in attack mode. Chiampou serves as Kobylt’s stage manager of sorts, bringing him to the precipice, letting him teeter there in a rage, and then drawing him back before he tumbles. (If memory serves, it was Kobylt who called me a “bed wetter” during a dramatic reading, set to a violin soundtrack, of an article I wrote in 2009 about how Antonio Villaraigosa wasn’t living up to his promise as mayor. Even I found their performance kind of funny.)
By galvanizing their audience, Kobylt and Chiampou long ago became two of the most effective activists in the state. They were instrumental in the passage of California’s Three Strikes Law, in the recall of Governor Gray Davis, in grinding to a standstill any budget negotiation that might include tax increases, and in defeating legislation that would have expanded privileges for illegal immigrants. Republican politicians failing to uphold a hard line on taxes and illegal immigration have watched as effigies of their heads on sticks have been paraded amid hundreds of fans at John & Ken Show rallies.
KFI’s announcement of Kobylt and Chiampou’s suspension came so swiftly after the “crack ho” line surfaced on the Internet that their punishment led most of the coverage by the time the story went viral. As March approached, Rush Limbaugh, whose syndicated program also airs on KFI, would call Georgetown University law student Sandra Fluke a “prostitute” and a “slut” for her congressional testimony advocating mandatory insurance coverage of birth control. The controversy would dissipate much of the heat raised by Kobylt’s slur. But the reprieve did not last long. Since late 2011, liberal and immigrant activist groups have intensified their campaign against The John & Ken Show, mining every minute of every broadcast for more material that’s likely to inflame and offend. Kobylt, being who he is, can’t help but oblige them.
Toward the end of his suspension, John Kobylt slumps his thick frame into an overstuffed sofa in the basement rec room of his Westside home, absentmindedly squeezing a football pillow. A John Ko-bylt bobblehead smiles toothily at him from its perch on an entertainment unit. When Kobylt’s on a verbal tear, his pupils disappear into a squint and his grin stretches his fleshy cheeks to the limit. Today, though, the cheeks are deflated, the whites of his eyes visible. When I bring up Houston, he points out the official apology he’s already made through the station.“I’d rather just leave it at face value,” he tells me. “None of us are going to comment on it. None of us are going to talk about it. We’re just going to leave it lay there.”
Emphasizing that what he is about to say does not apply to Houston, Kobylt tries to explain the occupational hazards involved in cohosting an unscripted show 20 hours a week, a thousand hours a year. “You get into situations where you’re really, like, sometimes doing stand-up comedy, stream-of-consciousness free association,” he says, “and you’re all energized and you’ve got a lot of adrenaline and you’ve got a mind that produces—my mind produces—crazy things.” He laughs, taking a breath. “It’s a high-wire act, and so every once in a while something comes out that some portion of the public or maybe three people are going to find a problem with. And that’s just the way—that’s my life.”
The unpaid hiatus has afforded Kobylt the opportunity to spend more time with his wife and three sons, ages 11, 14, and 16. Of course, when he’s home he has to watch his mouth—something he’s paid not to do on a typical weekday afternoon. “The appeal of the show is that we say things often that are true but that you’re not supposed to say out loud,” Kobylt says. “You’re not supposed to be so blunt and cutting and direct, and being on the radio is a great place to air those thoughts and feelings. Whereas if you did this as a steady diet in your private life, who would talk to you?”
On the Monday when the show is resuming, Chiampou meets me at Morton’s the Steakhouse, on the ground floor of the Burbank media complex that houses KFI and other stations owned by Clear Channel Communications. “While John is really blunt and comes up with some unbelievable ways of expressing anger, frustration, or ridicule, I’m more in the middle,” he says. “But we are both dark in our personal lives and can say really nasty things.”
At 55, Chiampou is four inches taller than his cohost and five years older. A lifelong bachelor, he lives in the South Bay. His lips are thin, his nose is long and narrow, and his brown eyes have a haunted look. Chiam-pou’s voice is fuller in person; on the radio it’s a reedy oboe playing against Kobylt’s nasal brass. While Kobylt attacks with a sledgehammer, Chiampou slips in the dagger. So divergent are the hosts’ styles that a casual listener might miss the fact that on the issues that are red meat for their audience—taxes and illegal immigration—the two are in complete agreement. “Anything we talk about that we’ve determined is strong enough to bring to our audience, I’m black and white absolutely,” Chiampou says. “There’s no gray.”
When Kobylt called Houston a “crack ho,” Chiam-pou could be heard whispering, “Oh, Jesus,” but he says his partner’s words didn’t register at the time. Nor is he willing to completely disavow Kobylt. People have asked him why he should take the heat for Kobylt’s remark. “I’ve succeeded 24 years working with him,” Chiampou says with a shrug, “and it’s like a marriage—it’s good time, bad time. Clearly that was a bad time for him and for both of us. I didn’t actually say it. I didn’t think of it. However, I’ve enjoyed the success of the show, and I also have to enjoy the difficult times as well—not ‘enjoy’ but ‘put up with.’ ”
In the mid-’80s, Kobylt was the top-rated morning radio show host in Elmira, New York, a small community whose “wow factor” peaked when Major General John Sullivan defeated the Iroquois on the outskirts of town during the Revolutionary War. Radio is where he had always wanted to be. As a kid in Saddle Brook, New Jersey, Kobylt would read the World Almanac into a microphone he made out of toy blocks or turn on his radio and pretend he was announcing the songs. His father, who was a prisoner in a Nazi labor camp before he emigrated from Poland, hardly spoke a word. His mother was obsessed with her son’s bowels. “I was compelled to eat prunes each day,” Kobylt says. “I’d come in, and it looked like somebody took a shit in my breakfast bowl every morning.” If he didn’t seem regular enough, she would take him to the doctor or even the hospital. “I caused all kinds of disruption in the house out of frustration,” Kobylt says. “I’m by nature quiet, but when I’m confronted by something ludicrous, I can’t help it. This rage just rises in me.”
Dropping out of Seton Hall University, he worked as a sports reporter before breaking into radio. Though he’d realized his childhood dream of spinning records, he chafed at the banality of it. Kobylt wanted to raise a ruckus, like Howard Stern or Rush Limbaugh. “It didn’t matter that Stern might be heavy on sex or that Rush was heavy on the politics. That wasn’t the point,” he says. “The point was that they were cutting through with their own opinion and personality, and you couldn’t help but react to it. You would start yelling back at the radio, whether you agreed or disagreed or thought it was disgusting or thought it was funny. There was a reaction, and it seemed like that was the point of having a radio show.”
In 1988, Kobylt began developing a radio persona that was equal parts geniality and irascibility, but he’d need a partner to play off of. He went to Ken Chiampou, the morning man at Elmira’s other radio station. Kobylt and Chiampou had hit it off when they met at a tiny radio station in Pennsylvania, and it was Kobylt who had alerted him to the rival morning-DJ gig in Elmira a few years
later. Raised in Bay Shore, Long Island, Chiam-pou spent his adolescence wanting to be like the New York City DJs he worshipped. Chiampou’s father tried to set his six children straight about the pop music of their generation. “I remember he bought a Beatle wig and ran around a parking lot with it on to show us how stupid it looked,” Chiampou says. “I think that just convinced me that maybe it’s a silly idea to try to be a DJ for a living.” Chiampou was 28 and well into a career as an unhappy accountant when he began taking night classes in broadcasting.
After The John & Ken Show debuted in a weak-wattage station in Atlantic City in 1988, Kobylt and Chiampou were billed as “Radio’s Odd Couple,” another pair of smart alecks trying to work in zingers between oldies by Bobby Sherman and the Supremes. At WKXW-FM in Trenton, with a signal that reached across New Jersey, they sought ways to rile the audience. A few listeners called in to vent about proposed changes in state gun control laws. But neither of the hosts knew much about guns, and the issue didn’t stick. In June 1990, Democratic New Jersey governor James Florio furnished The John & Ken Show with more promising material by pushing a record $2.8 billion tax increase through the legislature. Koyblt’s rants and Chiampou’s wry commentary sparked a tax revolt that brought as many as 6,000 protesters to the Trenton statehouse. The following year Republicans won a majority in the state legislature for the first time in 20 years, and Florio’s approval ratings dropped to 18 percent. He would lose his reelection bid. “Nobody in the traditional established media respected us at all,” says Kobylt. “They thought we were just yahoos, but we were reaching people in a very profound way that they never did.” The John & Ken Show’s listenership grew fourfold, from 150,000 to 600,000.
Kobylt and Chiampou had found their purpose haphazardly—as the leaders of citizen insurrections. “We had not been politically oriented in our private lives,” Kobylt says, “and we hadn’t done any radio shows that were politically oriented. We found this, and it was just managing it from day to day.”
In August 1992, KFI program director David G. Hall, on a tip from a friend, flew out to New Jersey for a week to listen to Kobylt and Chiampou. By running Rush Limbaugh’s syndicated show, KFI had begun dismantling the decades-long dominance of KABC, whose leading radio personality, British broadcaster Michael Jackson, had set the tone for L.A. talk radio with his liberal and urbane discussion of the issues. Hall was building an audience by concentrating on the Inland Empire and Orange County. Skewing conservative and Republican, these regions in the early ’90s, more than L.A., were the domain of “the everyday middle-class suburban adult” Kobylt and Chiam-pou had in mind as their core listener.
After six days of tuning in to The John & Ken Show on his rental car radio, Hall knew he had to bring the hosts to Los Angeles. “The thing that did it was their ability to say things very clearly,” says Hall, “to say things that people think and aren’t comfortable with—and to just cut the crap.”
In Southern California newsrooms the prevailing wisdom is that local issues are, if not dead issues, then at least deadly dull ones. The Los Angeles Times long ago ceased publishing its Metro section, and it’s become axiomatic that a drunken actress colliding with a lamppost always bumps a major municipal scandal from the 6 p.m. news. During this past winter and in early spring, The John & Ken Show devoted several dozen hours to Villaraigosa’s stewardship of the city, L.A. police chief Charlie Beck’s impound policy for unlicensed drivers, spiking public employee pensions, the spiraling cost projections of California’s high-speed rail project, and competing tax initiatives vying for the November ballot.
Kobylt explains his method for bringing such dry material to the top of the Arbitron ratings. “The key to this is to identify who the bad guy is and what the bad act is so that people feel it viscerally,” he says. “Getting them viscerally involved and pointing out how they were screwed in some way.” Once the outrage has been identified, the hosts return to it—over the four hours of a single afternoon’s broadcast and over weeks or possibly months of programming. “The thing is to add momentum,” says Kobylt. “If there’s 300,000 people angry about it at three o’clock, and then there’s another 300,000 angry at five o’clock and maybe into six o’clock, now you’re building a movement. Eventually what you want to ideally do with the big stories is to have all 1 million people aware of it and pissed off and then ready to spring into action.”
The Miramonte Elementary School child sex abuse scandal that broke in late January was a natural for The John & Ken Show. Not only did the story have the ghastliness of teacher Mark Berndt allegedly feeding semen-laced cookies to students, but plenty of familiar “bad guys” for the hosts to single out: There was the teachers’ union, whose contract demands enabled Berndt to continue collecting his pension and made it all but impossible to fire him; there were the administrators who allowed Berndt to remain at the school despite abuse allegations in the 1990s. And there was proof, as far as Kobylt was concerned, that educating poor kids with taxpayer money was an investment simply not worth making:
Kobylt: “To me, this is the ultimate in racist acts by white society. I love how the activists come after us for our opinions, but look at the actions taken by the white liberal establishment that runs the L.A. Unified School District.”
Chiampou: “You mean the inaction.”
Kobylt: “Well, yeah, the white union members and union leaders and the white school board members and I know…”
Chiampou: “They’re not all white—”
Kobylt: “But the majority—”
Chiampou: “In fact, the head is Mónica García, who is a Latino.”
Kobylt: “Right, yeah! Well, she ought to be ashamed of herself because what happened here is that we’ve taken all these illegal alien kids, and everybody carries on how we’re legally required and morally required to give them an education and why shouldn’t we invest in their future? That’s the chant all the time in order to get more tax money out of us, right? Look what they really do. What they really do is that they set up a dumping ground of child molesters and perverts and enablers…”
Early on Kobylt and Chiampou were actually at odds with their fan base when it came to illegal immigration. In 1994, they opposed Proposition 187, the initiative denying illegal immigrants access to education and social services, which passed by a wide margin but was overturned by a federal judge. “We realized then that probably constitutionally it wasn’t going to stand up,” Chiampou says, “and we took a lot of heat from the audience on that. I would say, though, that I wasn’t convinced the problem was that huge. A lot of our listeners who had obviously been here all their lives were trying to tell us it was.”
Kobylt says illegal immigration was an issue that sneaked up on him. “By its nature it’s an incremental problem that gets worse gradually, day by day…,” he explains. “And it’s one of those problems that you don’t notice until you remember what it used to be like or how much it’s costing.” In 2004, a decade after Proposition 187, The John & Ken Show held a political human sacrifice contest featuring five Republicans from California’s congressional delegation whose voting records against illegal immigration had apparently failed to live up to their get-tough rhetoric.
Last fall Jerry Brown said in an interview with The New York Times that Kobylt and Chiampou belonged to a short list of opinion makers who control the California Republican party. “If they give you a condemnation, there’s no way to get [Republican legislators] to vote,” he said, likening the group to the Catholic Church’s bygone Legion of Decency. But while The John & Ken Show touches on issues central to the Republican party, Chiampou disclaims any affiliation. “We represent the angry masses who will give them hell and could cost them votes,” he says. “When you’re a politician and you hear from people in your district—hundreds if not thousands of them—that scares you. I don’t know if it would scare me, but it scares them.” To better gauge the show’s influence with Republicans, I called the offices of state senate Republican leader Bob Huff and assembly Republican leader Connie Conway; neither would grant an interview.
The hosts are not boilerplate reactionaries. They support gay marriage and opposed Proposition 8, the 2008 initiative that made same-sex marriage illegal in California. During the Republican primaries, they have savaged Rick Santorum more than they have Barack Obama. In fact, Chiampou voted for Obama in the last presidential election, and Kobylt voted for John Kerry in 2004—“not because I was 1 percent impressed with him,” he says. “I thought he was a boob, but George Bush was such a disaster, he absolutely deserved to be fired.” In late March, discussing the murder of 17 Afghan civilians by army staff sergeant Robert Bales, Ko-bylt made clear who ultimately was to blame. “He’s got to go to jail or get the death penalty or whatever,” Kobylt told the audience. “But the military should not do this and we should not have a war machine that creates this kind of situation. This war situation just absolutely sickens me—just the amount of lives lost and the amount of traumatized soldiers we’re going to have wandering around the country for decades and how little we got out of it, how much money was spent on the whole thing…. Our government—and this is all the administrations—they’re just awful. Awful, stupid people.”
For much of last year The John & Ken Show was focused on defeating the California Dream Act—in reality two pieces of legislation that would make illegal immigrant students eligible for state financial aid at California’s public universities and colleges. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger had vetoed earlier versions of the Dream Act, but its main sponsor, Assemblyman Gil Cedillo (or “that traitor Gil Cedillo,” as Kobylt calls him), reintroduced it.
The afternoon before the Dream Act’s impending passage, Kobylt gave his audience the office and cell phone numbers of Jorge-Mario Cabrera, communications director for the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles. KFI had received a press release from Cabrera celebrating the triumph. “I have his office number—you might want to congratulate him on his victory…,” Ko-bylt said of Cabrera. “They’re going to be releasing doves and throwing flowers…. They want to celebrate the theft of tax money for illegal alien college students.” John & Ken Show listeners were inspired to leave messages like this one in Cabrera’s voice-mail box: “You illegal immigrant piece-of-shit motherfucker. We will do everything to fight you motherfuckers until you’re all dead—you’re all motherfucking dead.”
“We want them off the air,” says Alex Nogales, president of the National Hispanic Media Coalition. “Bottom line: We’re going to put pressure on them until we pull them off.” Fifteen years ago Nogales waged a campaign against Howard Stern after the radio host had mocked the musical tastes of the “Spanish people” who were mourning the murder of the singer Selena Quintanilla-Pérez. Condemning the attack on Cabrera, Nogales appeared in articles and on TV news programs for the better part of two months. He branded Kobylt and Chiampou as hatemongers. On the coalition’s Web site, Cadillac and Vons were lauded for dropping their sponsorship of The John & Ken Show because of the controversy. In late January the W.K. Kellogg Foundation announced a $200,000 grant to Nogales’s organization to “strengthen awareness and develop viable solutions to address anti-Hispanic sentiments in the media.”
As part of its belated attempt at damage control, KFI uploaded the clip of Kobylt and Chiampou’s appearance on Univisión news, translated into English. In it Kobylt apologizes to an absent Cabrera and complains about being slathered with the same kind of broad brushstrokes the hosts had been painting their enemies with for years. They’d decided to come forward, Kobylt says, “just to answer the charges that have gone on for several weeks—which is, We do not do ‘hate radio’…. ” When you have 1.2 million people,” Kobylt continues, “you have some lunatics. And these are a lot of people who call in the middle of the night, and some of them are deranged and drunk or on drugs, but they’re listeners. Any family has a few crazy people.”
Of course, it was understandable that after listening to Kobylt and Chiampou rail against the Dream Act, some listeners wouldn’t be in their right minds. When the legislation passed, Kobylt gave what amounted to a eulogy for the American dream. “There’s something that middle-class families hold sacred,” he said, “and that’s their desire to try to get their kids into college. The kids don’t always get there—they don’t always survive aca-demically—but you know just to get in there, and the sacrifice people make for a long period of time. Most of their adult life they’re sacrificing to send their kids off to do better, and to find this out—that at the last second, grant money has been pulled, taking away from them and given away to squatters—it’s just unfathomable. It makes people blind with rage.”
Before David Hall left KFI as program director in 2002, if you were interested in listening to a John & Ken Show broadcast and hadn’t heard it live, a good place to start would be with a lawyer. “Our policy was anybody could hear anything they wanted—with a subpoena,” says Hall. “We had a logger who kept 18 months’ worth, and other than that, we never gave anything out, and we would never send you a tape.” Hall fielded his share of complaints from activists, including Nogales, but because of the subpoena policy, offenses were difficult for them to substantiate. “You used to say things,” Kobylt recalls, “and they would disappear.” Now the KFI Web site and a smart phone app stream the broadcast live. Podcasts for the show are often available the same day on the site and the following morning on iTunes. These days, Kobylt says, his words “are scrutinized, taken out of context, shopped to the press, and turned into issues that weren’t intended.” He began noticing the cherry-picking on the Internet a few years ago. “Someone would exaggerate things or take things meant as sarcasm, but they wouldn’t hear the lightness or the satire.”
In his campaign against The John & Ken Show, Nogales enlisted Media Matters for America, the progressive watchdog group that helped publicize Limbaugh’s comments about Sandra Fluke. Every weekday morning in Washington, D.C., two Media Matters researchers listen to the previous afternoon’s broadcast, scanning it for fresh outrages. In January alone, via Twitter and its Web site, Media Matters released alerts and clips of Kobylt talking about “Korean painter scam guys” and about how “gays like bodies that remind them of a 14-year-old boy.” Media Matters missed the “crack ho” segment, but Ko-bylt’s words went viral anyway.
“There are large organizations that are strictly politically motivated that might try to use moments for their political gain,” says Robin Bertolucci, KFI’s current program director. “The truth is, we have a 50,000-watt station. We broadcast all over the Internet and conceivably all over the universe. What we do is not a secret, and what we do is not something we’re ashamed of or try to hide…. There are no secrets when you’re a broadcaster.”
With so many listeners, The John & Ken Show isn’t going to be yanked off the air anytime soon. The question is how Kobylt’s act will fare as the worst of what he says is documented and pounced on. “If you listen to the show more critically, you might think that John is racist,” Chiampou says, “but what goes on up here—to me it’s not what people say, it’s what they do, and John does not treat anybody badly because he has these attitudes or opinions. Those are just in his head. And because he gets a platform like talk radio to espouse them, they do rise to another level, but he would never…. He does size people up, based on ethnicity, based on the South or where they’re from. I’m not saying it’s entirely wrong. I try to impress on him that when you’re dealing with one person in front of you, it could be an exception to the rule and you have to be open to that.”
After the Whitney Houston controversy, Bertolucci and other KFI executives released a “Memorandum to the Los Angeles Community,” promising more diversity in the station’s internship program and rehabilitation of sorts for the station’s most prized talent. Kobylt and Chiampou would be undergoing “cultural sensitivity training to further their awareness of the cultural melting pot that is Southern California.” Could management have forgotten that Ko-bylt and Champiou appeal to their middle-class, tax-paying, suburbanite listeners by treating Southern California’s melting pot as a cauldron that could boil them alive? For the hosts of The John & Ken Show, Los Angeles—plagued by political correctness, ruled by crooks and clowns, and overrun by illegal aliens and the poor—is no reality to be embraced. Rather, it is a future to be forestalled, if only the audience can be mobilized against it in an insurrection that will reverse time and save us all yet.
Ed Leibowitz is a writer-at-large for Los Angeles. His last piece for the magazine was a profile on Gloria Allred in the January issue.
ALSO: Listen to The Essential Podcasts of The John & Ken Show
This feature was originally published in the May 2012 issue of Los Angeles magazine