How the music radio station became a ‘lifeline’ during the LA riots


On a typical day, KJLH-FM on Crenshaw Boulevard was playing R&B and classic soul music for Los Angeles fans. But when the Los Angeles riots engulfed the city for several days in April 1992, KJLH-FM had a front row seat to the massive civil unrest.

Following news of the acquittal of four white LAPD officers in the beating of black driver Rodney King, KJLH quickly shifted gears to becoming the eyes and ears of the community.

“When it exploded, you could see it,” recalled Carl Nelson, then KJLH’s news director. “There was a store that [had] televisions and radios, and [we saw] people coming in and smashing radios and TVs. »

As the radio station was quickly surrounded by destruction and violence, DJs and staff changed formats, dropped their music and commercials, and began taking callers and reporting on events. KJLH has become a lifeline for those who tuned in, according to the Peabody Awardswhich celebrated the station’s coverage of events.

“I said to some of the DJs that were working, ‘Hey, get out in your community and check in.'”

The unrest and violence that emerged were not surprising to Nelson. He remembers how angry people were after the March 1991 murder of Latasha Harlinsa 15-year-old girl shot dead by Korean store owner Soon Ja Du over an argument over orange juice.

“Rodney King broke the camel’s back,” says Nelson, who recalls the callers’ frustrations. “They were just tired. They said something had to be done.

People called about a range of issues, but one call that stuck with Nelson was from a black attorney who worked in Century City. Nelson says the caller cried on air, thinking she too could be shot because she was black — no matter what her upbringing, what car she drove, where she lived and worked.

“A lot of people heard that frustration, and they said, ‘Wow, if she feels like that, what about us who don’t have to go to Century City, who aren’t lawyers, who doesn’t live in Baldwin Hills and drive a Mercedes? She understands what we were going through.

LA’s Korean community was also deeply affected by the uprising, suffering approximately $400 million in losses.

After the unrest ended, KJLH included the Korean American community in their conversations about how to rebuild. One of the efforts was a joint broadcast with Radio Koreaa Korean-language station based in Koreatown.

“We decided we needed to have a conversation between the two groups. No one else – just the black community and the Korean community on the genesis of this issue.

He found the summit held between the groups to be productive because Korean residents were able to learn more about Black America beyond what they saw, read and heard. Meanwhile, the black community was able to work around distorted views that the Korean community were trespassers.

“We were like two ships passing by, really in a parallel universe, which is South Central Los Angeles. We never talked, never talked until we had the summit,” Nelson says. “All of a sudden we had Korean food trucks driving through the south-central, people enjoying Korean food.”

Although there has been progress between the two communities, Nelson worries that nothing has been done since 1992 to move the needle on police brutality and racism against the black community. A moment of deja vu came in 2020 when George Floyd was murdered by police.

“We saw his life being ripped from him on camera. [With] Rodney King, they told us that what we saw — almost beating him to death — wasn’t happening. Our eyes were lying,” he says.

Nelson hopes the next generation can focus on lessons learned to prevent similar situations from happening again, especially as the younger generation of all ethnicities becomes more aware of historical and social issues.

To research found young people who took part in the protests after the killing of George Floyd were more racially and ethnically diverse.

“They’re not going to sit down because their parents told them about slavery, and they heard about Jim Crow and all the injustices.”

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