Saturday morning on one of Los Angeles’ longest-running radio programs, the hosts will announce the death of John Retsek, who created The Car Show on KPFK in 1973. They will talk about John and possibly take calls from the legions of listeners who have listened to the show or been guests in its nearly four decades on the air — the odd duck among the politically charged news, talk and revolutionary rhetoric at the Pacifica-owned radio station. They don’t do politics on “The Car Show.” It’s just the one place in the vast Los Angeles media web for people who like to drive, buy, race or look at cars. It might be the most natively Southern California program on the air, which may be why it has lasted 39 years.
Retsek died in his sleep during the night on Wednesday, according to co-host Dave Kunz. I don’t have his age or any other details. He lived in San Pedro and raced sailboats in addition to being a a car guy. (Added: Retsek was 75.)
Retsek’s story is an LA media story. He was working at TV station KCET, and doing an occasional car story on the air, when consumer reporter Wina Sturgeon invited him onto her KPFK talk show to give people tips. Ruth Seymour, who later made KCRW into what it is today, ran KPFK then. She invited Retsek to take a regular slot, which he did with co-host Jack Kirkpatrick, a friend and the head mechanic for the California Highway Patrol. A series of co-hosts followed, including the late Leonard Frank for more than a decade. The current hosts are Kunz, who is also the automotive reporter for KABC-TV, and Art Gould, who started guesting on the show around 1990.
In 2003, KPFK threatened to take “The Car Show” off the air, but screams could be heard across the region and cooler heads prevailed. The show stayed on the air, cut back to an hour.
“Ruth Seymour has approached us on a couple of occasions to go down to KCRW, but I’ve always managed to work with The Regime,” Retsek told interviewers at LA Car.com some years ago. “Some people perceived The Car Show as problematic because it carried voices from the entire political spectrum. Even people from the far right were on The Car Show. On the other hand, we are raising some pretty significant money for the station….Some of the high rollers at the station were interested in cars and supported the show. So I get a call back, ‘I’m sorry but we want you back. But we can only give you an hour because we scheduled something else in your time.’ They were begging.”
Retsek retired recently after 43 years at KCET, much of the time as an art director and archivist, with a bunch of Emmys on his shelf. The one time we met, I had run into him in a back passageway on the KCET lot on Sunset Boulevard. He invited me up to see his office, located in an upstairs corner of the storied old former movie studio, off by itself. I remember thinking this had to be one of the coolest offices in LA. He didn’t make the station’s move over to Burbank.
I haven’t actually heard “The Car Show” much since it moved earlier in the morning. I’m not a car buff at all — I enjoy open-road driving but that’s about it. Still, I wrote in 2003 as an admirer of listening to people I didn’t know reveling in their passion.
Planting my garden Saturday I listened to all two hours of The Car Show on KPFK (90.7 FM) and I don’t care anything about cars except you turn the key and they go. But The Car Show is like eavesdropping on a conversation between well-informed, friendly aficionados discussing their passion, and that can always be compelling. This week, two professors from Cal Tech came on and dissected everything about hydrogen and fuel cells. Even the phone calls were smart and on point. Now I get it. It reminded me why the show has been on the air in Los Angeles for thirty years, and on KPFK no less, without a shred of political content.
“The Car Show” airs on KPFK, 90.7 FM, from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m.
Photo: Retsek on the old KCET lot from LA Car.com