Mayor Richard Riordan and State Sen. Tom Hayden have gotten to know the block-long stretch of Nebraska Avenue in an industrial section of Santa Monica. So have senators, congressmen, presidential candidates just about any politician of significance.
That’s the address of the tiny studios of Century Cable Television, where Bill Rosendahl has held court for nine years as host of the Century’s public affairs programming.
Riordan and Hayden were there last week for what could be the first and only mayoral debate before the April 8 election. And while the 27-minute session was seen by relatively few L.A. households, it’s no accident that both sides agreed to the Rosendahl-moderated session.
“Rosendahl’s shows have such a powerful impact because Century runs them over and over,” said Allan Hoffenblum, an L.A.-based Republican political consultant. “If you are in the Century (service) area, you never have any excuse for not being well informed on the issues and candidates.”
It helps that Century’s viewing area includes relatively affluent, politically active communities.
“You have to consider who Rosendahl’s audience consists of,” said Joe Cerrell, a Democratic political consultant. “Those types of demographics can’t help but contribute to the success of his shows.”
Added Hoffenblum: “Both Vice Presidents Dan Quayle and Al Gore have appeared on his shows. What national politician would not want to appear on a show whose viewers live in Beverly Hills and Bel Air?”
Specifically, Rosendahl’s public affairs shows provide candidates and community leaders access to 198,000 households in its service areas of Santa Monica, West L.A., the San Fernando Valley and Eagle Rock. They also are distributed to other cable networks around the state.
Rosendahl, 51, began the shows, which include the popular “Week in Review,” as well as numerous public affairs specials, as part of Century’s requirement to provide local public access programming.
At first, booking guests wasn’t so easy.
“We used to have to beg guests to appear,” said Rosendahl, Century’s vice president of corporate affairs.
Now, it’s not uncommon for Washington officials to tell Rosendahl and his staff of their travel plans in order to secure a spot on the show when they are in town.
“I have no competition,” Rosendahl said. “I wish the networks weren’t so concerned with ‘If it bleeds, it leads’ and would spend more time on public affairs programming. I have an audience as large as it is because I am the only one doing this.”
He credits part of his success to the spontaneity he tries to inject while interviewing guests.
“I do not rehearse or script my shows,” Rosendahl said. “I don’t use big words or try to impress anyone. My stuff is pure, straight and unrehearsed.”
He sees himself as an educator and facilitator and has tried to give people the information they need to make better decisions as voters and citizens.
“People in L.A. are no different than anywhere else,” he said. “They want their lives to make a difference, to count. I am blessed with access to this station that enables me to present information, plain and simple, so that people can say, ‘I understand.’ ”
Rosendahl grew up on the East Coast and admits to being bitten by the political bug during the Robert F. Kennedy’s 1968 presidential campaign. A large photograph of Kennedy occupies a table in his office with smaller photos attached that show him with Kennedy.
Following the Kennedy campaign, Rosendahl completed his master’s degree in social work and was set to enter the Peace Corps but was drafted into the Army.
Upon discharge, he worked for the Rockefeller Foundation, but could not resist another presidential race and joined up with the George McGovern campaign. After that, he took to the road for 18 months and upon his return, was appointed by the Carter Administration to head the U.S. Trade and Development Department. He eventually entered broadcasting and began working for Century.
On the morning of last week’s debate, Rosendahl strode into his office with two bags of fresh eggs from the hens he raises at his home in Mar Vista. He admitted to being nervous.
“Hey, I’m human,” he said. “I did my homework and I am just about ready for the debate, but I still have to finalize the questions I will be asking the candidates.”
Spreading out a dozen or so pieces of yellow papers in front of him, he wondered aloud about asking the candidates where they got their millions from.
“The million dollar question may prove interesting, ” Rosendahl said. “Since there is only one debate, I have more questions than I have time for.”
Rosendahl scoffed at the media perception that L.A. isn’t interested in the election. “It’s still three weeks away, it’s early yet,” he said.
Some may question whether having Century Cable conduct the debate with its studios not even in Los Angeles will generate as much interest than if it had been handled by a broadcast outlet.
There also was the suspicion that Riordan’s staff concerned by the mayor’s discomfort in public arenas chose this format because of the lack of an audience, the limited debate time and Rosendahl’s less confrontational style.
Nonetheless, it was clearly a coup for the little studio on Nebraska Avenue.
“When you think of all of the organizations and schools that were begging for this debate, Rosendahl getting (it) is a testimonial to his reputation,” Cerrell said.