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Chris Little Has Been in the Thick Of Breaking News Stories

You always remember your first media credential. The pass was carte blanche to walk past security, sit in the press box, and interview the sole remaining honest politician in the world. For a young journalist, the credential is the ultimate hall pass. Chris Little is KFI’s news director and he remembers when he got his as a cub reporter.

Little was assigned to cover some of the California wildfires. With his credential around his neck, he was determined he wasn’t going to be denied access. It was his right as a reporter.

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“The California Highway Patrol told me I shouldn’t go past their lines for my own safety,” Little explained. Little was fresh on the job and still felt the First Amendment coursing through his veins.

“I told them by law they couldn’t prevent me.”

It turns out the highway patrol officers were not preventing Little from going closer to the fire. They were just trying to talk some sense to the kid. Let him know he was on his own if he proceeded. Nobody was coming in to save him.

A similar thing happened to Little when he covered a shooting in Lincoln Heights, California where some lunatic blasted off .223 rounds of high-powered ammunition into a neighborhood.

“The police told me I should get out of there,” Little said, “just like the highway patrol officer did with the fires. Once again I reminded them they couldn’t tell me to leave and I had a right to be there as a member of the press. They said, ‘Do what you want, but you’re in the kill zone.’ After a moment of reflection, I got out of there.”

As great as the First Amendment may be, it’s not bulletproof.

Little attended high school in Hacienda Heights, California, and was born in Pasadena. As a pre-teen and teenager Little said he did a lot of hiking and bike riding.

“Generally a lot of screwing around,” he said. “My parents were divorced when I was eight and to a large extent I was on my own.”

His mother worked and they had a housekeeper, Anna, who was from Tijuana.

“I learned to speak Spanish from Anna,” Little said. “I still get a lot of compliments on my pronunciation.” 

Tu dialet es bueno.

He and Anna listened to KHD and a lot of Spanish radio.

“All the time,” Little explained. “I called in to the stations a lot. One night, Anna walked into the room and asked me if I was calling radio stations. I said I was. She told me they said on the air that a kid kept calling, and they wanted me to stop.”

When he was a second semester sophomore, he moved to Indianapolis.

He didn’t know what he wanted to do after he graduated from North Central High School.

“My school counselor asked me what I was hoping to do, and I told her I wanted to pump gas,” Little said. “She told me that was one of the stupidest responses she’d ever heard and suggested the military, the Air Force.”

Little figured it was as good an idea as any. And he wouldn’t come home smelling like gasoline every day. After two years in the Air Force, Little was discharged and went back to Indy. That’s where he met a girl at a party who said she was moving to Atlanta. Little figured he had nothing to lose and moved to Atlanta as well.

“I may have been a late bloomer,” he said. “I remember calling the Air Force asking about my VA benefits. I asked if there was a heating and air conditioning school in Atlanta. It wasn’t because I loved heating and air conditioning. It was just something I came up with.”

The HVAC thing never panned out.

Little credits the Air Force for teaching him how to respect authority. He discovered when a person made a mistake, he had to own up to it.

“I learned to say, ‘I’m sorry sir, it won’t happen again.’ I don’t make excuses. If I screw up, I own it. I’m pretty sure the Air Force got me on the straight and narrow.”

Like many professionals in the business, he began as a DJ. First in Atlanta, then at WFBQ and WNAP, Indianapolis. Little created and hosted The Middle of the Damn Night Show, a one-man morning show from midnight to 6 AM on 95.9 KEZY, Anaheim.

He once worked on the television show Hot Seat hosted by Wally George. George was a conservative talk show guy who expounded extreme right-wing political views. The demographic was mostly males who came out to watch the show, studio audiences averaged 30-40 people.

“They used to bring people on they were sure Wally would disagree with,” Little said. “A lot of it was set up. Rick Dees would come on, who was an L.A. bigshot at the time. Dees would carry a pie in his briefcase.” One time, Rick Dees came out in an Elvis costume and smashed a pie in Wally’s face.”

Cal Ripken has the longest string of consecutive MLB game appearances. Little is the longest-serving news director of all time in the LA radio market.

That came about when Little got a call from David Hall at KFI who told Little he’d listened to his demo and liked it. He asked Little to start the following weekend.

“I told David I was grateful for the offer, but I had a vacation planned with my wife to go to the Colorado River,” Little said.

What? After they hung up Little’s wife was aghast. She asked, ‘What’s wrong with you? She knew he always wanted to work there. Realizing his mistake, Little called Hall back and took the job.

He said the mind-boggling events of 9/11 were taxing and a wonderful learning experience.

“I really wasn’t sure how to handle the magnitude of 9/11,” Little explained.  “I got a lot of direction from David Hall. We called in the troops, and everyone showed up. We went around the clock for a week or two. KFI was in Korea Town, and I stayed in a hotel for three days to be close to the station. I’d go to the station, get on the air, go back to sleep, do it again.”

Little said with that experience he was indoctrinated in the news business.

“It was such an emotional story,” he said. “I remember people running around with big posters which asked if you’d seen their mom. Their brother. It brought tears to my eyes and it took a while to get over.”

Little has taken improv classes and his son teaches improvisation classes.

“I quickly learned I’m not as funny as I think I am,” he jokes. “I don’t try to be funny, but never thought I’d be the straight guy. I’m told I’m funny, but my wife is really funny. I’ll steal her lines when I can.”

The line-stealing Little said he has a sign in his office that reads, ‘If you’re first and right, nobody remembers. If you’re first and wrong, nobody forgets.”

It’s all about accuracy for Little. When a new pope was being selected in the Vatican, media outlets were waiting for smoke from the chimney on top of the Sistine Chapel to signal the change. Black smoke meant no pope had been selected, white smoke meant they had a new guy.

KFI was on top of the story but Little didn’t feel comfortable without further confirmation.

“When Fox reported the selection had been made, Bill Handel wanted to go with the story,” Little said. “I urged him to be cautious and wait a bit.” Handel didn’t listen. “It was a special extension of the show to cover the Vatican. We were wrong.”

Surprisingly to some, Little said TMZ is often on target, journalistically sound. When TMZ reported Michael Jackson died, Little said they debated about going with the news based on TMZ’s reporting.

“There was a big disagreement in the newsroom about whether we should go with what TMZ reported on Jackson,” Little said. “We will use TMZ information if we verify the facts. They pay for news, but that doesn’t mean it’s inaccurate.”

According to Little, journalists are sometimes too quick to repeat news without being confirmed. Little thinks the verification is missing in a lot of stories.

“Some of these new professionals may be a bit naive,” he explained. “Out of the same crop may come exceptional young editors. They are into it. It’s like they’re excited to come to work and tear into the news every day.  I just make sure their stories are correct.”

As far as motivation for a young person to aspire to become a journalist, Little said in addition to being cool, they understand the power of audio.

Little said they know they can affect things in the world by stories they tell.

“If they think they want to be a reporter or an editor, I ask them to pick the top five stories of the day and write them up. I can tell by the stories they select if they should be in the business.”

If a guy with Little’s experience believes you don’t belong in the business, it might time to turn in that credential.

Jim Cryns
Jim Cryns
Jim Cryns writes features for Barrett News Media. He has spent time in radio as a reporter for WTMJ, and has served as an author and former writer for the Milwaukee Brewers. To touch base or pick up a copy of his new book: Talk To Me - Profiles on News Talkers and Media Leaders From Top 50 Markets, log on to Amazon or shoot Jim an email at [email protected].

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