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Steve Julian, longtime voice of KPCC's Morning Edition, dies at 57

Steve Julian, the host of KPCC's Morning Edition since 2000, died at his home Sunday morning at the age of 57 from complications from brain cancer.

For 15 years, Julian's smooth, soothing voice woke up tens of thousands of listeners in Southern California, providing the day's news, weather and traffic.

"He was a singular talent," said Larry Mantle, host of KPCC's AirTalk and Julian's best friend. "He is completely irreplaceable.

"The tone and richness of his voice," he added, "perfectly conveyed the man behind it."

Julian was born in Pomona in 1958 and spent the majority of his life in Southern California.

“He came across as someone who was knowledgeable, friendly and accessible, and that’s the kind of sound we wanted – one that was not lecturing to you but was riding along with you in the car to work,” said Bill Davis, president of Southern California Public Radio/KPCC.

A chance meeting launches a career in news

Julian's news career began when he met Mantle while working at KPRO, a Riverside radio station, in the early 1980s. KPRO was in the process of switching its format from big band music to all-news and talk. The boss overheard Julian, who worked in production, talking to Mantle, who was the assistant news director, as they discussed the day's events in the newsroom.

"The news director said that we had such great chemistry that we should co-anchor the afternoon drive time," Mantle recalled.

It was a successful, if short-lived, pairing. Mantle soon left to join KPCC as the news director, and Julian decided to follow in his father's footsteps and become a police officer.

Steve Julian (bottom row, far left) in 1991, when he was a police officer.
Courtesy Felicia Friesema
Steve Julian (bottom row, far left) in 1991, when he was a police officer.

Julian went back to school, attending the police academy at Rio Hondo College and joined the Baldwin Park Police Department. 

"His dream wasn't to work in radio, it was to be a cop," Mantle said. 

But while on the job, Julian observed an incident where he believed his fellow officers were using excessive force and reported it. Afterwards, he felt shunned by his colleagues and decided to leave the force.

In 1995, Julian returned to broadcasting as a traffic reporter for AirWatch America based in Santa Ana.

Five years later, he joined KPCC as the host of Morning Edition. He was on the air the morning of the 9/11 attacks in New York and broke the grim news to Southern California listeners.

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

When NPR was slow to break away from its taped programming to go live, Julian took matters into his own hands, insisting that KPCC switch over to coverage from New York's WNYC, according to Davis.

"That decision really accelerated the change in our view of ourselves of an institution," Davis said.

Julian always sounded calm and collected to listeners even if behind the scenes, his producers were scrambling to cover unfolding news. 

"You could get in his ear during a five-second sound byte and say two or three words about something that had just broken, and the way he delivered it, it sounded like poetry on the air," said Nick Stoffel, KPCC's Morning Edition producer.

A busy second act in theater

Hosting the magazine meant Julian had to be at work by 4 a.m. He spent his free time in the early afternoons and evenings pursuing playwriting, directing and acting in local theaters.

He directed classics such as "A Streetcar Named Desire" and "Death of Salesman" at the Covina Center for the Performing Arts as well as new plays at L.A.'s Coeurage Theatre Company, a "pay what you want" theater where Julian served on the board of directors.

"I never knew that all this work could come out of one person and that he could wear so many different hats,” said Eric Czuleger, a playwright who frequently collaborated with Julian.

When Steve Julian of KPCC was diagnosed with a terminal brain cancer, his wife Felicia Friesema turned to social media for solace, support, and the space to process this heart-breaking journey.
Rachel Myrow/KQED
When Steve Julian of KPCC was diagnosed with a terminal brain cancer, his wife Felicia Friesema turned to social media for solace, support, and the space to process this heart-breaking journey.

Julian is survived by his mother, Marlene Julian, and his wife of two years, Felicia Friesema, the director of marketing and communications at Foothill Transit. She chronicled her husband's final months in moving detail online. 

"Steve being Steve, he has accepted most of it with humility and grace," Friesema wrote in one of her final posts. "But there are times when there is a complete awareness of everything he has lost in such a short time."

Julian was diagnosed with cancer in November and has been off the air since then. In January, KPCC renamed the studio where he hosted Morning Edition "The Steve Julian Studio."

From Steve's wife, Felicia: Donations can be made to Coeurage Theatre Company where Steve served as a board member or Ensemble Studio Theater Los Angeles where Steve was an active member.  And of course, donations can be made to KPCC, because he believed so strongly in his employer that he was also a longtime contributing member. 

You can hear a few clips from Steve's time at KPCC below.