By Matthew Hendley
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Local talk-radio listeners remember Tom Leykis as KFYI's first and greatest presence, a bomb-heaving provocateur who filled our mid-1980s airwaves with entertaining yak. He left the station early in 1987 because he couldn't get along with management. Leykis landed on his feet at KFI in Los Angeles, where he became one of that city's recent broadcasting success stories. There the Phoenix evacuee (Leykis still owns a home here) made a serious dent in top dog KABC by filling his air time with zippy, often carnal, topics.
Leykis' outrageous shtick, booted from Phoenix, worked wonderfully in the City of Angels--until September 29, when Leykis was summoned to meet with station management at a coffee shop near KFI's studio. At the meeting, set for the hour before Leykis' air shift, Leykis learned first that he was out of work and second that his replacement would be the country's most notorious former cop, Daryl Gates, the ex-police chief of L.A.
Radio insiders in L.A. say Leykis had been openly searching for another job for months, that he and management had been at odds for ages, that he shouldn't have been surprised by the move. But he was.
"What do you think?" says Leykis via telephone. "My mouth dropped to the floor.
"I got in my car and Daryl Gates was on."
In the afternoon-drive slot at KFI--the upstart gunning for the market-dominating KABC--Leykis raised ratings and hell (the Federal Communications Commission has cracked down on his language). By this summer, he had pulled his station ahead of KABC in his time slot. The Los Angeles Dodgers' lousy season may have had something to do with this: KABC carries the once-great team's games and tried to run lame sports talk in the afternoons opposite Leykis' show. Leykis' numbers were good and getting better.
"I was totally shocked, because they said it's a business decision," says Leykis of his departure. "To me the question is, 'What is this business?' The business is to get as many people to listen as possible in a particular target demographic, so you can get advertisers and charge the most amount of money possible to those advertisers. That's what the business is. Our show is sold out. One advertiser said to me he had to wait a month to get on. Our ratings are the highest in the most desirable demographic, 25 to 54. So it's a bad business decision."
Although he's out of work, Leykis isn't out of cash. His contract with KFI, worth a reported $400,000 a year, is good through the spring. Leykis says the days since his dismissal have been filled with telephone calls from industry friends, reporters and his agent. He adds that he was (and still is) considering syndication offers that aim to make him the anti-Rush Limbaugh but is now waiting to see what immediate opportunities spring up. Leykis says KFI's bad business decision could work in his favor. "Hiring Gates was the best thing they could've done for me," he says, "because nobody in the world thinks this is a good idea."
Predictably, the move has met with considerable confusion among listeners. Talk audiences build slowly. The type of audience attracted by a Leykis likely will not sit still for a Gates. Telephone lines at the station were jammed for a week after the Gates hire.
David Hall, KFI's program director, says 80 percent of the calls to the station following the change were negative. "In talk radio, whenever a change is made like this, 98 percent of the calls are negative and 2 percent are positive," says Hall, who wouldn't talk about Leykis but who was more than happy to discuss Gates. "I was surprised by the number of positive calls we got. People always call to complain. Most people want to know why, and are neither for it nor against it."
Leykis, for one, is convinced that most of his listeners were against it. "We can debate whether I'm good or not, or whether people like me or don't, or whether I'm driving away listeners or bringing them in," says Leykis. "But to take Daryl Gates and replace me with him is unbelievable. Nobody who likes me likes him. I've been on the air attacking him since the day I got here. It would be like replacing me in Phoenix with Evan Mecham. In fact, there are a lot of similarities."
In two weeks, Arizona's voters will once again provide a measure of Mecham's popularity. A poll of Gates' radio supporters in L.A.--listener ratings--won't be taken for three months, says Hall. One listener, Los Angeles Daily News writer Fred Shuster, already has formed an opinion. "I think he's absolutely awful," says Shuster, who writes a weekly radio column. "He continually calls himself 'The Chief,' and he's not the chief. He's the ex-chief. And he seems to spend an awful lot of time plugging his book." Asked to judge Gates' microphone manner, Shuster says: "I can't seem to discern any sense of humor. The voice is a complete monotone." Gates' callers, though, are "all supportive," says Shuster, who deems Gates' newfound radio career "egomaniacal." "Every call is, 'You did a great job. We miss you. Are you gonna run for mayor?' It's a love fest," the critic says. New Times made several attempts to contact Gates for this story. "Gates has been doing local media," says Hall, "but not anything out of the area that can't help the station."