Morning Radio: Fierce Battle Among Jocks (excerpt)

By David Shaw (LA Times, September 4, 1972)
But the zaniest, most outlandish – and most oft-fired-man in the whole wacky world of early morning radio is unquestionably “Sweet Dick Whittington, the mouth that pours,” as he calls himself.

Whittington – not to be confused with Whitinghill – works for the smallest station of them all, KGIL in San Fernando Valley.

While his competitors, with 50,000 watts at their disposal, can be heard throughout Southern California and as far away as Phoenix and, sometimes, even Salt Lake City, Whittington, with just 5,000 watts, comes in clearly only in the Valley, Hollywood and the West Los Angeles-Beverly Hills area.

He fades in and out anywhere south or east of downtown Los Angeles, comes in weakly in Long Beach and Torrance and can rarely be heard at all in Orange County – where he lives.

But Whittington isn’t discouraged by these limitations. He storms irascibly and irreverently (and, some would say, irresponsibly) through his four hour show each morning as if the entire Western Hemisphere were not only tuned in but hanging on his every word.

He occasional opens his show, for example, by interviewing God.

“Good morning, sinner Dick,” God would say, in a deep, sonorous voice that is Whittington’s own, prerecorded, with a echo chamber effect.

“Good lord….it’s, it’s the Lord,” Whittington would respond.

Then the two of them will discuss such topical earthly problems as election-year politics (God’s advice: Vote yes on Commandment 3”); God’s automotive troubles (He drives a Chrysler); airport congestion (“I’m stacked up at 5,000 feet over L.A. International”) and modern education (“I’m coming back to be a remedial reading teacher for Moses”).

Invariably, God terminates the conversation by saying, “Well, I got to begat to begattin. Vaya conmingo….”

Whittington has a few other regular characters – gay sportscaster Lance LaVonne, unctuous television critic Cincinnati Armory and star-struck gossip monger Harrison Hollywood – but, unlike the other morning men, he relies more on audience participation than on stock characters, either real or imagined.

He has invited listeners – among other thing – a funeral for his warts, a porno movie, a hot-pants fashion for senior citizens, a Lash LaRue film festival, an “unmarrige ceremony” in the middle of the Mojave Desert and a testimonial breakfast for Benito Mussolini (“because no one ever had a kind thing to say about this grossly misunderstood sweetheart of a guy”).

Whittington’s satiric barbs and extravagantly absurd stunts have helped to get him fired from more jobs than he cares to remember, and he has worked for 21 difference radio and television stations in as many years, despite a fanatically loyal listening audience wherever he has worked.

(He has about 50.000 listeners now, and regularly defeats his big-city competition in the official radio rating for San Fernando Valley.)

Whittington’s popularity – and attendant controversy – is eminently understandable.

Once he reported sighting a 1,200-foot iceberg off the coast of Santa Monica, swathed in a Jewish prayer shawl. Though he dubbed it “Myron Berg,” the Coast Guard was swamped with panic calls.

Another time he nominated himself for the Nobel Prize, then telephoned officials in Sweden incessantly to check on the voting.

On other occasion, Whittington has tried to peddle a mythical hijacked airliner to the Castro regime, hung a railroad clerk’s painting in the Louve, performed a proxy marriage of the “Barbie and Ken” dolls (“they were living in sin together”) and telephoned the French government to warn them to check for stray British soldiers still wondering around the beaches of Dunkirk.

Whittington, a short, slender man whose off-the-air demeanor is surprisingly low-key, is politically liberal – if not radical – and he rarely misses and opportunity to needle President Nixon.

After Mr. Nixon met the Japanese prime minister, Whittington did an imitation of Mr. Nixon offering him a job as White House gardener. But Whittington’s best gibe – and his favorite stunt of all -  came in April, when the President announced the mining of North Vietnamese ports.

Whittington invited more than 200 listeners, each dressed in a military uniform from “the war of your choice,” to join him in “an invasion of the People’s Republic of Catalina, a war America can win.”

Dressed in full military regalia himself – as “Gen. Sweet Dick McWhittington Arthur Patton Person” – he led an armada of small craft from Long Beach, Newport and Marina Del Rey in the invasion, with an old B-29 circling overhead, “just in case.”

Whittington’s rag tag army tap=danced its way “across the beaches and into the hearts of the Catalina Cong,” and the mayor of Avalon “surrendered” to the conquering heroes.

“The whole damn war cost just $193, and it was over in four hours,” Whittington gloated.

Perhaps Whittington’s most notorious stunt came the day after the Feb. 9, 1971 earthquake.

He had been getting telephone calls all morning from listener saying Jeanne Dixon had talked about the possibility of another earthquake, so he asked one of the listener to play the role of Miss Dixon while he interviewed her.

The interview was so implausible it was difficult to believe anyone would take it seriously. But thousands of Los Angeles residents through it was the real Jeanne Dixon predicting another major earthquake that day.

Angry townspeople – Police Chief Edward Davis among them – denounced Whittington as irresponsible and bombarded KGIL with calls and letters, many of them demanding his dismissal.

Whittington, who now admits he shouldn’t have done the stunt, took himself off the air for four days, and by the time he returned, the furor had subsided, and the mail to the station was running in his favor.

“I got no pressure at all from the management over it,” he insists. “That was our deal when I came here. I do my own thing, No interference.”

It’s an arrangement made necessary by Whittington’s past performance.

Born and raised in the East, he started in radio in his early 20’s after an abortive career as a featherweight boxer.

But his mother ran a radio station, and one of her disc jockeys was Joe Pyne. Whittington decided that was the career for him, too.

After six months, his mother fires him and Pyne for cutting up too much and playing too few records.

Whittington moved on – and on and on and….

For two years in the mid-50s, Whittington couldn’t find a job in radio, so he washed dishes by night and got drunk by day. Then he found an opening with a station in Stockton.

That didn’t last long either, but he was moving up – after he was fired in Stockton, he was fired in Oakland and San Francisco, too.

By then, he was calling himself “sweet Dick Whittington” (he was born “Karl Whittington”) after the children’s fairy tale about “Dick Whittington, thrice lord mayor of Dublin.”

Though Whittington’s morning rival here, Dick Whittinghill, has once accused him of assuming the “Dick” when he came to Los Angeles, Whittington not only used the name before then, in the Bay area, but had it as a nickname in his adolescence.

But a new name wasn’t enough to save him in San Francisco.

“I really didn’t have my act together yet,” he admits, “I was a wild man, crazy as hell, terribly irresponsible.”

After San Francisco, Whittington came to Los Angeles and in 1963, KLAC hired him.

In 1964, KLAC fired him.

He worked 18 months as a nightclub comic (“I was strictly grade B”) before landing a radio job in Phoenix. That job blew up a month later after he encouraged a traffic reporter who’d been drinking a bit to report that a giant teapot was hovering low in the desert sky.

Back in Los Angeles, he sold oil leases here for a year, then got hired by KGIL. After five moths, the program director asked him to refer to the station offices on the air as “KGIL Radio Park.”

Whittington burst into laughter. “This weed-patch? A park?”

So much for that job.

He went back to nightclub work again – until 1967 when a personnel change brought him back to KGIL.

He has had other offers from bigger stations since then, he says, “but they either couldn’t guarantee me the freedom I need or they change people and formats like a revolving door, and it wouldn’t be secure. There’s only one other station I’d work for and they haven’t called me.”

In the meantime, Whittington’s doing quite well – earning almost $100,000 a year at KGIL, and taping his own television show for syndication in the fall.

Still, he’d clearly prefer the prestige and audience of a bigger station, and, not infrequently, he’s mildly sarcastic about the Valley.

He calls it the “Sin Fernando” and talks about “Paranoia City” (Panorama City) and “Very Noisy Blvd.” (Van Nuys Blvd.).

Though Whittington spends 90 minutes to two hours a night writing material for the next morning’s show, spontaneity – whether in weather reports, stunts or telephone calls – is a key element in his show.

Some of his best stunts – he calls it “premise comedy, as opposed to joke comedy” – come about spontaneously. One morning last week, for example, a woman called in and suggested he call a particular toll-taker on the Golden Gate Bridge “because he’s a nice guy.”

Whittington called, but the man wasn’t there. On the spur of the moment, he decided to identify himself and said he’d called to “check on jumping conditions today.”

“We have a lot of people from Southern California who drive up there to jump, you know, and I though I’d try to help them.”

By the time he’d hang up, Whittington had decided he’d call that man back every once in a while to report on Golden Gate Bridge jumping conditions “as a monthly public service.”

For Whittington, incidence like these make each day an adventure. And when you start your day by stumbling out of bed about 4 a.m., you need adventure–or something.

Whittington customarily roars into the KGIL parking lot in his silver-blue Cadillac at about three minutes before his 6 o’clock air time, but if he’s late, he’ll telephone his boss, program director Chuck Southcott (“Mr. Southmouth,” he calls him) on the air, at home, and wake him out of a sound sleep to apologize for his tardiness and offer some ludicrously improbable explanation (“I met a guy named Christopher Columbus and the way in on the freeway, and he wanted directions to India”).

That done, a typical day-last Tuesday, to be exact-goes something like this:

He opens his brown attaché case, filled with clippings, hastily scribbled notes and a sketchy script or two, grumbles, “Good morning,” into the microphone and reads a telegram mentioning his resent guest appearance on television.

Then he calls Western Union and dictates a long response to the telegram-to be sent collect.

After playing a couple of records, he interviews a writer who’d visited Hugh Hefner’s mansion the previous day, chats briefly with “the Lord” (who tells him, “I saw the play ‘Jesus Christ Super Star’, but I liked the book better”), and complains about television coverage of the Olympics (“2 ½ hours of kayak racing and 15 minutes of Howard Cosell auditioning”).

After breaks for records, commercials and news, he comes on like a hard-rock disc jockey:

“Can you dig it? Gonna be a high of 95 today. Can you stand it, dudes and chickees, fruits and freaks, guys and geeks? Might as well get all this heavy stuff out of the way at once, right? Right on, right on, right on. Far out. OK. That should do it.”

He makes a crack or two about two disc jockeys on other stations (naming the names), calls an insurance man about collecting damages from a boy who ran into a listener’s car on a bicycle, then complains about the trend toward building cars without radio aerials.

“Where can I put my American flag? We’ll become a nation of commies.”

A few minutes later-mercifully-he’s done for the day. He has played 12 records in four hours (a rock station will play 15 to 18 in one hour), and now he’s ready to go home – alone.

Whittington, who claims to be 39 (he’s actually 43), is determined to keep his private life just that – private. Some of his concern stems from a traumatic incident of several years ago that he’s still reluctant to discuss, some from his desire to maintain his on-the-air image of the zany, oft-divorced single man who calls finance company in Connecticut to ask about a bill consolidation loan to handle his alimony payments to four ex-wife.

Whittington’s own personal favorite from his KGIL show, aside from the Catalina invasion, came two years ago, after the government had dumped nerve gas into the ocean off the coast of Florida.

Whittington flew a “mercy mission to Miami,” determined to provide the Atlantic “relief from the discomforts of nervous gas.”

From the plane hovering over the “exact spot” where the gas was dumped, Whittington dropped three rubber ducks and two Alka-Seltzer into the Atlantic.

Whittington rationalizes his occasion liberties with verisimilitude by saying, “It’s the premise and the execution that count, not the means to get from the one to the other.

“I deal in fantasy. My listeners know that. How much fantasy doesn’t make much difference.”

It’s an argument most early morning radio men would probably agree with. Their audience, after all, is made up primarily of commuters battling rush-hour traffic – and housewives struggling to get the kids ready for school. They have all the reality they want. If they wanted more, they’d be listening to an all-news station.

They want entertainment, diversion, fantasy. That’s why they listen to a Lohman & Barkley, a Whittinghill, a Hudson and Landry....a “Sweet Dick” Whittington.
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