This week I lost my best friend and mentor. Ken Draper passed away at the age of 89.
I knew Ken Draper, Publisher of CityWatch, for over 50 years. Today, most people know him as a Publisher, Journalist and Political Activist. But back in the 60’s, I used to listen to radio stations that he designed in Portland, Cleveland and Chicago. In fact, WCFL in Chicago is still celebrated as one of the most revered Top 40 radio stations of all time. You can find hundreds of links on the Internet and a room on Facebook dedicated to this station and what Ken Draper achieved. And, for those of you who want to delve deeper, here is a program/interview with Ken about his radio days.
Ken and I met in 1969 when I was an up-and-coming radio DJ in my hometown of Detroit, and Ken was hired to work his magic with a local Detroit station that needed help. I heard that he was hiring new DJ’s and since I was out of a job, I figured I should meet him right away. So, I tracked him down and flew to a National Association of Broadcaster’s convention in Atlanta where he was going to give a speech. At breakfast, we hit it off and he offered me a job, not as a DJ as I hoped, but as Production Director. My job was to help him shape the sound of the station, including the commercials, the promotions, and the PSA’s or public service announcements. This is where I learned of Ken’s commitment to serve the public. Most stations ran PSA’s because they had to. Ken ran them to make a difference. So, we developed campaigns on the issues of the day: pollution, Vietnam war, racial equality, poverty, politics and so on.
Next, I followed him to Hollywood and worked at his radio consulting and syndication company where we produced programming for radio stations all over the US. The things we created were ahead of their time. Ken was always ahead of his time, a man with vision and big dreams.
Ken became the Executive Editor of KFWB in Los Angeles and created the ‘You give us 22 minutes; we’ll give you the world’ format based on all that he learned programming Top 40. This was a first for all news radio.
Ken and I continued to work together in radio syndication in the 80’s developing programs for ABC, CBS, CBC, BBC and RKO radio networks. The programming we used to do for one station, we were now doing for thousands of stations around the world.
But radio was not enough.
In the late 90’s, the City of LA approved the charter to create Neighborhood Councils as a grass roots way to connect LA’s diverse communities with City Hall. Draper helped launch Mid-City West, which was one of the first Neighborhood Councils and a model for others.
During the pre-charter years, Ken worked with long-time activist and political consultant Mark Siegel. Mark was monitoring the work of the Charter Commissions with his Charter Watch reports. Neighborhood Councils were born when the Charter was approved in 1999.
When Siegel took a sabbatical from publishing in 2000, Ken converted Charter Watch into CityWatch. It began as a printed handout, which was published bi-weekly to an email list of a few hundred. If you attended city council meetings in LA, you would invariably see it in the hands of councilmembers. If you want to see a sample of one of the first printed newsletters, click here.
This is where I crossed paths with Ken again. I convinced him that his printed blog should be transitioned to the web. So, 20 years ago, I worked with Ken to publish CityWatch online. Now, it is available 24/7 with twice weekly e-news blasts to more than 90,000 electronic subscribers and millions of users. The purpose of CityWatch remains unchanged: To hold City Hall accountable and to encourage grass roots civic engagement.
To do this, Ken enlisted the help of some of LA’s best writers, who week after week, year after year, provided original stories to be published on CityWatch. Their voices, their opinions. Left, center, right…it didn’t matter. Ken just wanted people to be passionate and involved.
Many of the writers/contributors have become famous among the many followers of CityWatch, such as: Richard Lee Abrams, Linda Abrams, Liz Amsden, Tony Butka, Beth Cone, Phyllis Daugherty, Tim Deegan, Bob Gelfand, Jay Handal, Jack Humphreville, Dick Platkin, Eric Preven, Denyse Selesnick, and more.
I asked some of them to give a thought or remembrance about Ken Draper.
Linda Abrams – “Sad news. Although I knew Ken has had health struggles for quite a while, I kept thinking he would go on forever. And I guess he almost did. He gave so much of himself to CityWatch and to the city, but also to the many individuals in his orbit. And that includes me. I will always be grateful for how he reached out to me at a difficult time in my life and gave me an opportunity to learn a new skill on the job. He will be missed by those who worked for and with him.”
Liz Amsden – “Writing for CityWatch has been a real gift for me at a time when other options of expressing myself are so limited. Ken was not an editor so much as someone who celebrated the right to free speech by creating opportunities for any stakeholder to express their views on all things Los Angeles. This at a time when too many media outlets across the country had fallen prey to corporate mergers whose executives dictated content based on advertising dollars.
I came to admire Ken as someone who both contributed to and supported the early development of the Neighborhood Council system of grassroots democracy, and his CityWatch has provided a way for both those in the City government and those they serve to understand the diversity and passion of those who live and work in Los Angeles. As a writer, Ken inspired me to express myself on many and varied issues and offered me the ability to reach out and touch others through my writing. And the satisfaction.”
Beth Cone – “Ken Draper was a mensch and a tremendous mentor. He was an OG newspaper guy with a heart of gold. I first met Ken when I contacted CityWatch about some irregularities we observed in mail-in voting in Calabasas. He said, "You're a writer. Why don't you write an article on it?" I was touring Ground Zero with my family when Ken called me on my cell to tell me that my article had tens of thousands of hits. Contributing to CityWatch over the past decade and working with Ken has been one of my greatest honors”.
Phyliss Daugherty - "It has been such a treasured experience knowing Ken Draper and writing for CityWatchLA. He was always there for a quick question or to get advice about a story idea and encouraged taking chances—as long as the sources were verified, and the outcome was truthful.
A noted psychologist reminds us that no one who has a special place in our life ever dies; they just live in a quieter place. Ken was always there for his writers and for Los Angeles and we will be there for him by keeping CityWatch alive and growing."
Tim Deegan – “Seven years ago, I pitched an article to Ken Draper for CityWatch, which he ran without any editorial input other than having his copy editor check grammar, punctuation, and clarity. He asked for another, and another and another until I became a regular, weekly contributor to City Watch. Ken called my pieces Deegan On LA, and he let me write about politics, city planning, the homeless, the environment and new urbanism as my topics. In over 350 articles, Ken never gave me direction, only support. He left it to me to figure out what to write that was most timely. I felt spoiled working with Ken. Selecting a topic that motivated me, not him, has been a key to my continuing to submit to City Watch”.
Bob Gelfand – “What I noticed, and will remember, was his gravelly voice. It came with carefully rendered judgments on all manner of things, ranging from the corruption in L.A. government to the assimilation of our numerous immigrant groups. Ken had the ability to ask an interesting or important question, one which drew out the listener. One day, over the ending of a long breakfast conversation down at Jerry's Deli in the Marina, he dropped in the following: What is it you love about L.A.? I noticed that I was still talking, formulating an answer, nearly a half hour later.
At another one of those breakfasts, he asked, "When are we going to admit that the neighborhood council system is a failure?" It was the beginning of a long conversation, with me trying to argue to the contrary, but being drawn by intellectual integrity to concede some serious points to Ken. And unlike yours truly, Ken knew how to be terse. I would send him some multi-paragraph proposal for a story and usually his response would be one word: "Deal." It's that one word that I will remember best.”
Jay Handal – [Jay did a wonderful video tribute in top right column.]
Jack Humphreville - “Ken Draper and CityWatch provided an outlet for many diverse voices that would not have been heard. And for that all Angelenos should be grateful for the dedicated work of Ken over the past 20 years.
Ken was an early supporter of Neighborhood Councils. He organized and promoted numerous meetings of alliances and gave stakeholders an opportunity to “sound off” on matters of importance to neighborhoods and the City.
Starting in 2006, he gave me a voice that allowed me to comment on the financial affairs of the Department of Water and Power and the City’s budget and finances. This allowed for increased transparency that was not always welcomed at City Hall.
CityWatch provided me with the platform to argue against Proposition B, Mayor Villaraigosa’s ill-conceived plan for 400 megawatts of solar power in the City in 2009, and Measure B, the 2018 ballot measure that would have allowed the City to establish a municipally owned commercial bank. Both ballot measures were defeated despite heavy support by the political establishment.
CityWatch deserves our continued support, not only to honor Ken, but to preserve the service and transparency that CityWatch provides to all Angelenos.”
Dick Platkin – “I will miss Ken Draper very much. In a world in which the corporate "news" -- whether TV, radio, print, or on-line -- is carefully managed, he maintained a widespread and open forum through CityWatch, in which many critical voices about Los Angeles could be heard.”
Eric Preven – “Ken loomed large over a massive roster of young hungry writers eager to break in to the CityWatch game. My brother and I were such newbies some years ago and getting to know Ken (a little) has been a great joy. I speak for myself, when I say that I only had a few squabbles over the years with Ken, which for me is good. Very good. He was a newsman, a master craftsman with no taste for accolades or awards.”
Denyse Selesnick – “Ken Draper could have been the prototype newspaper man right out of central casting. You know the role Ed Asner created. The gruff exterior and the heart of gold. Unlike many of today’s publishers he never sought the spotlight. He allowed his grateful contributors to give their opinions and you readers to make up your own minds. He was an unsung hero and contributed to the betterment of Los Angeles right up to the end. CityWatch was his obsession and his way of caring about his adopted City. He embraced technology, was always full of ideas and is probably planning a “Heaven Watch” launching right now.”
I am grateful that the writers want to continue providing their stories to support the legacy he leaves.
It is hard to believe that Ken has lost this battle with his health when he had successfully beaten everything else that had ever been thrown at him.
For me, Ken’s passing is a profound personal loss. When you talk with someone almost every day for years and years and all of a sudden they are silent. It’s a lot to process. Plus, I know he had so many more dreams to fulfill - More things he planned to do with his life. He just ran out of time.
On behalf of Ken’s family and myself, and all his loyal friends and fans, I thank you. More to come.
(Jim Hampton is the content manager and editor of CityWatch.)