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Larry Mantle remembers Steve Julian: A warm voice, a beloved friend

Steve Julian in KPCC's studios in February 2001.
Steve Julian in KPCC's studios in February 2001.
Bill Youngblood/KPCC

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To many thousands of Southern Californians he was the friendly and authoritative voice of the morning. Someone to wake up to, or drive to work with. A predictable, warm presence to help Angelenos start the day.

He was certainly that for me too, but KPCC  Morning Edition  host Steve Julian was also my best friend of 33 years. It was a friendship that began at CBS news/talk station KPRO in Riverside, continued through my move to KPCC and Steve’s shifts in and out of radio, and settled into our shared experience of working together again over the past 16 years at KPCC. We met when we were both 24 and couldn’t have guessed we’d be working across the hall from each other more than three decades later.

Steve made a point of introducing himself to me my first day at KPRO. I’d been hired in the wake of a format shift from Big Band music to all news and talk. I was slotted to host a daily three­-hour afternoon drive-time newscast. Steve had been there doing production and voice work before the change. 

Steve and I immediately hit it off, talking at length about radio, politics, music, sports and family. Overhearing our energized conversations, KPRO’s News Director asked us what we thought about co-­anchoring afternoons. For Steve it would be a move out of production and into news. He didn’t have to be asked twice.

For the next couple of months, we worked together and tried to build an audience for KPRO’s new format. Our co­-hosting didn’t last long, as I left to take over KPCC’s news department. Our friendship continued as Steve moved on to a couple of other Inland Empire radio stations before deciding to pursue his longtime love of law enforcement. 

Steve’s father, Bill, was a Pomona police officer for many years. Right out of high school, Steve worked as a dispatcher at Pomona PD, and his first wife, Judy, also worked there as a civilian employee. Steve appreciated the mission of law enforcement and enjoyed the camaraderie that came with the work. He enrolled at the Rio Hondo Police Academy. Upon graduation, he was hired as an officer with the Baldwin Park PD.

I went on a couple of ride­-alongs with him and saw how much he enjoyed the work and the company of his fellow officers. He helped train new recruits and seemed at home in his new career.

That changed quickly after Steve reported the circumstances of an arrest that he deemed exhibited excessive force. He didn’t feel supported in his decision to report the force ­­ by either departmental leadership or many of his fellow officers. What had seemed such a perfect fit was now a source of stress.

Steve left law enforcement and ended up back in radio as a traffic reporter. His split­-shift morning and afternoon reports were heard on many Southland radio stations, including KPCC. Some stations required he use a pseudonym so listeners wouldn’t know it was the same guy on another station. That’s why Steve Julian sometimes morphed into “Jack Vick.” Yes, it’s true.

After Minnesota Public Radio’s lease of KPCC, and the creation of Southern California Public Radio in 2000, Steve was hired as host of  Morning Edition . It was great for me because Steve was now working out of KPCC’s studios and we could talk briefly every morning between our shows. 

It was also the perfect job for Steve. It was a position that encompassed his many talents:­­ writing, editing, news judgement, local knowledge, and vocal performance. He was also able to mentor people coming up in the business who frequently asked his advice on how to handle a news story or event. Steve was strongly opinionated and sometimes had it out with those with whom he disagreed. But that occasionally contentious process also led to better radio.

I can’t tell you how many times over the years Steve and I talked about what we thought listeners did and didn’t like. Our mutual love for radio played out in long conversations over scotch and cigars on how to improve what we did on air. Many times we went back to our wives secure in the knowledge we’d built the perfect radio station (in our minds) and solved the Dodgers’ never­-ending relief pitching problems.

Every March, Steve and I would take a few days to drive out to Arizona for spring training baseball. Seeing the Dodger and Angel games was great, but more memorable were our conversations in the car and over dinners. We’d go from religion to social media, family to personal challenges. Nothing was off­ limits and nothing got shut down or ridiculed. Each of us could talk freely, without being concerned that our ideas had to be fully thought out. 

I appreciated that Steve didn’t take what I’d say at face value. He’d ask questions about how I came to the conclusion I did. Our conversations helped me work through my ideas and to become a better host. I hope I was similarly helpful to him.

I first knew something wasn’t right with Steve just last October. I was running lines with him to help him prepare for an understudy role in a local small theater production. He’d learn the lines as we went, only to lose them a few minutes later. He worked harder, spending hours trying to get the lines to stick. It was incredibly frustrating and concerning to him that something he had done so easily for previous acting roles wasn’t working this time. I suggested Steve see his doctor.

Steve’s wife, Felicia, was also concerned about the memory problems. Then, on the Monday before Thanksgiving, Steve came into my studio shortly before I was to go on the air. He was clearly stressed and confused. Felicia took him to the doctor later that day. An MRI the following day revealed a large mid­brain tumor. 

The week after Thanksgiving, I went with Steve and Felicia to visit specialists in an effort to determine the best course of treatment. Surgical removal was out, given the size and location of the tumor. After starting a couple courses of treatment, Steve decided that he preferred to have the best quality of life he could for his remaining lifespan. He stopped radiation and chemotherapy.

Felicia took a leave of absence from her work to be Steve’s full time caregiver. She’s been remarkable. From cooking him beautiful, gourmet, meals to lovingly helping him manage his frustration over no longer having words at his command. What was a good marriage going into this trial became even deeper and richer. Seeing the two of them work through his symptoms and her exhaustion with extraordinary grace and love is something I’ll never forget. 

I was already a huge fan of Felicia’s, but seeing her capacity for love and caregiving has made me appreciate her even more. She’s a wonderful friend, who’s been beautifully supported by all her friends.

Steve was his mother Marlene’s only child. She still lives in Pomona in the house where Steve grew up. Steve’s father Bill died years ago. I’ve been visiting Marlene every couple weeks and taking her groceries since Steve’s illness kept him from getting out. I feel inadequate in fulfilling the task that allowed her to see the son she so deeply loves and respects. But it helps me feel better to visit her and to talk about my family, Steve, and Marlene’s other big love, the Dodgers. 

Over these past five months, the KPCC family has been a wonderful source of support for Steve, Felicia, and me. The love and care shown by Steve’s and my colleagues, and by listeners, is overwhelming. I know it meant a great deal to Steve to see how much he meant to so many people in broadcasting, local theater, and our listening audience.

I have many great memories of Steve’s and my friendship and of all the things I learned about myself during our thousands of hours of conversation.  What his death leaves me with is a clearer sense of how much he meant to so many people, including our listeners. Fortunately, we’ll always be able to hear his great voice in our heads saying, “This is Morning Edition on 89.3, KPCC. I’m Steve Julian.” It will always bring a smile to my face.