All of us living in Los Angeles on April 29, 1992, have our own memories of that day etched into our minds—in particular, where we were when the riots started. Me? I happened to be on the air hosting a music show that night, and my shift started at 7:00 p.m., before the incendiary verdict of the Rodney King beating trial became public. As we all know now, after a predominantly white jury in Simi Valley acquitted all the police officers involved in King’s beating, parts of the city began burning.
I think I may have began the show with some world music and jazz, but then the station phone started ringing, four to five lines at a time, swamping my production assistant Christian Casparian. Callers yelled at us in disapproval: “How can you play music when the city is going up in flames?!!” They provided news updates, too: “There’s a building on the SMC campus that’s on fire.” “Pic ‘n Save on Lincoln in Santa Monica is on fire!” Listeners didn’t understand why we weren’t covering the news. Someone on the phone screamed, “Don’t you have a news department at KCRW?!”
Christian and I watched local TV in master control as the events unfolded. We were upset and busy down in the KCRW basement studio, answering calls and following bulletins from the wire services on the DACS machines. We tried to patch in TV audio from the local station to try to do something to cover the news, but the phones were all busy and we couldn’t get through to the TV station to get permission. This was before cell phones, and we couldn’t reach KCRW’s General Manager and our Publicity Director on their home phones. We felt anxious and helpless.
I had to keep playing music, and I remember some of the songs I played later as the crisis unfolded. There was “Sixty to Zero” by Neil Young, “California Uber Alles,” a song by the Dead Kennedys, and I recall some Public Enemy song as well. Maybe a track by Fela Kuti? My memory of the music is hazy as it’s been 25 years. I wish I had kept a copy of the playlist, but they were all handwritten back then and are now long gone.
Driving from KCRW to my Venice home that night, I saw Santa Monica police officers carrying rifles. National Guardsmen patrolled on Venice streets nearby. Stores were being looted on Lincoln Blvd. It was a tough time for Angelenos, me included. Recently single, I felt emotionally vulnerable and lonely those nights, especially with the curfew. I stayed up late, watching the violence on TV and feeling a dreaded sense of déja vu from the 1965 riots.
Warren Olney started his award-winning Which Way L.A.? program shortly afterwards to address all the concerns raised by the riots. The station has also since built a first class news department to report on local events. In case you missed it, a recent episode of Olney in L.A. examines what’s changed for South L.A.’s residents 25 years after the riots.