October 01, 2004

Bill Ballance (1918-2004)


BIll Balance, a California radio legend, died last Thursday at the age of 85. At the tender age of five, I started listening to him at the advent of Top 40 radio on KFWB-AM, in Los Angeles. Ballance didn't even pretend to be infatuated with rock and roll, but he was in love with the English language. His vocabulary was vast, his wit dry, and his mind ever-lively.

Ballance found an even bigger radio audience with his "Feminine Forum," a show for women that focused on male-female relationships. Depending upon the caller, Billo, as he was affectionately known, could play the conspriratorial confidant, the leering boyfriend, or the affectionate grandfather. Ballance's popularity exploded, and his show was syndicated throughout the country. Although the callers were women, he attracted almost as many male listeners. "Feminine Forum" is usually credited as being the inspiration for "shock jocks" such as Howard Stern and Tom Leykis, but Ballance was mischievous without being crude. The show was irresistible because he relied on his unscripted banter with untutored female callers, not entertainers hawking product.

I first met Bill Ballance in 1974, when I considered writing about "Feminine Forum" for my Master's thesis in popular culture. Bill was encouraging, but it was hard to do the research from Bowling Green, Ohio, so I ended up writing my thesis about Perry Mason.

Luckily for me, our paths crossed again, when Bill moved from Los Angeles to San Diego. One of the greatest benefits of my job is the opportunity to meet some of my childhood idols. When I started going on media tours to discuss my books, I was lucky enough to be interviewed by Bill several times. In his 70s, Bill was just as fast and funny as he was decades before, and always cordial and generous to me. Because he was always curious, Bill enjoyed the Imponderables books and eliciting the mysteries of his listeners. During commercial breaks, he spoke often of his passion for studying the Civil War, and how he planned to devote even more time to his studies when he retired.

The best tribute to Bill is in his own voice. Why not listen to Billo, courtesy of Don Kent, who has a wonderful collection of air checks from L.A. radio at Reel Radio: Billo in his KFWB days from 1959, 1960, and 1962.