Missing Warren Olney’s ‘Which Way, L.A.?’
On May 1, 1992, I staffed a weekend conference for the Anti-Defamation League in Palm Desert. A group of lay leaders were gathered to learn about and discuss topics relevant to their issues of concern, including intergroup relations, the media and the Middle East, among others.
The scholar-in-residence for the topics relating to intergroup relations and the media was Warren Olney, even then a fixture among local broadcasters, having been a newsman and anchor at several prominent stations and the host of news discussion shows that were weekend staples.
The weekend coincided with the 1992 Los Angeles riots, which began on Wednesday and spread across Los Angeles on Thursday. By Friday, the police and sheriffs were gaining some control over the situation, and they were aided by the National Guard, which arrived on Saturday.
The ADL retreat began as planned on Friday night, with but a few no-shows, and Olney was the star — someone with a breadth of knowtledge of Los Angeles and an ability to call upon that knowledge to help put the unfolding crisis into perspective.
As the weekend was ending, Olney said he would have to leave a little early on Sunday morning since he had just received a call from Ruth Seymour (then Hirschman), the general manager of NPR radio station KCRW, who wanted him to moderate a special later that week. She thought he could do some interviews to plumb what had just happened in L.A. Olney had to start preparing — thinking about things like guests, issues and format.
That was May 1992. As the Los Angeles Times has written in a profile of Warren, “I thought of it as one night of interviews,” Olney said of the program that became “Which Way, L.A.?” But Seymour, “without saying anything to me, thought of it as a sort of audition.”
The first show went so well, Seymour named it and brought it back for a week starting June 1, then the rest of the month, then through Labor Day. Toward the end of that summer, she said she asked Olney, “ ‘Are you ready to wind it up?’ And he said, ‘Why should we wind it up?’ ”
That one night became a decade, then two and now, 23 years later, after close to 5,000 shows, Olney is “ready to wind it up.” A unique chronicle of Los Angeles’ history — our triumphs, our crises, our travails and our failures — came to an end on Jan. 28.
I recently looked through the “Which Way, L.A.?” home page and was struck by what an amazing resource it is. Virtually every significant event that occurred in Los Angeles over the past 2 1/2 decades is explored by Olney and his guests. Usually, they offered differing views on what had just happened or was imminent. From trials to riots to El Ninos to changing police chiefs and school superintendents to gentrification to local reaction to 9/11 — it’s all there and discussed in an intelligent, thorough and civil way.
He has done well over 100 programs dealing with the Jewish community and Israel. They ranged from benign topics such as Israel and desalination to more controversial issues revolving around terror, wars with Hamas in Gaza and 9/11. His interview with local Islamic leader Salam al Marayati on 9/11 and again the next day even made the 9/11 Commission Report. Warren was able to navigate the challenging issues involving intra-Jewish as well as intergroup matters with grace and sensitivity.
The program’s main focus, though, has always been L.A. — whether locally based issues or the local ramifications of national and international issues. The discussions are chock full of mavens of all kinds (his database of contacts has in excess of 25,000 names) and while the conversation may get contentious, it’s always civil. That is due, in no small measure, to Olney’s calm and fair demeanor. As Seymour observed, “Civility is really important in discourse. He invites guests on whose opinions are very different from each other. He does it in a way that invites a back and forth.”
As Warren himself has noted, “We’re supposed to have a democratic society and discuss things in a rational way. I want to help that process. At the same time, I also welcome and look for disagreement, because that’s what makes it run.”
In 2011, Community Advocates honored Warren with its Bill Stout Award for Excellence in Broadcast Journalism. It was well deserved.
Warren will continue to host his nationally syndicated program, “To the Point,” but that has a much broader focus.
Los Angeles will be the poorer for losing this extraordinary catalyst for self-examination and civil exploration of the issues that confront this city. Bravo to Olney for decades of serving this city in ways that few can match — teaching millions how to fairly, honestly and civilly explore tough issues and, in the process, learn what makes democracy work.
L.A. will miss “Which Way, L.A.?”
David A. Lehrer is the president of Community Advocates, Inc., a Los Angeles-based human relations organization chaired by former Mayor Richard J. Riordan. For 27 years, he served locally with the Anti-Defamation League as counsel and regional director.