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POP EYE

KLOS Rides the Big Retro-Rock Wave

July 24, 1988|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

It hardly comes as a surprise that L.A. radio's answer to New-Age crystals, KTWV-FM (The Wave), is slipping into the ratings cellar barely 18 months after its much-ballyhooed arrival on the scene. In fact, rumors are flying that KTWV may convert to a Top 40 format before summer is out.

But the real shock in the latest Arbitron ratings wasn't The Wave's demise or dance music Power 106's continuing dominance in the local market. It was the amazing ascendancy of a rock station reviled by critics, scolded by record labels and--most ironic of all--featuring a format pioneered by KMET-FM, the station which was obliterated to make room for The Wave.

We refer to KLOS-FM, which emerged as L.A.'s album-rock leader by finishing fifth among all stations in the market with a stunning 4.3 share, up from a 3.6 during the last ratings period and its highest ranking since it scored a 4.8 in the fall of 1985.

What makes KLOS' showing even more impressive is that industry experts had written off its dreary album-rock format, saying that aging baby-boomer listeners have long since defected to either CHR (Top 40) radio, which specializes in current hits, or classic-rock stations, which rely largely on oldies. (To give you an idea of just how cobwebby KLOS' appeal is, note that its heavy-rotation playlist features new songs from the likes of the Rossington Band, Pat Benatar, Elton John, Rod Stewart, Hurricane and Jimmy Barnes).

So how is it that a station with a modest promotional budget and a fondness for recycling rock war horses like Led Zeppelin, the J. Geils Band and Eddie Money managed to become a contender again?

Give much of the credit to the station's juvenile morning team of Mark & Brian, whose bratty, sit-com antics have catapulted KLOS to No. 1 in the market among 18-34 men, a key rock demographic. "They're really a main reason for our success," said KLOS program director Charlie West. "Everyone is always talking about their show--it's really having an impact. In fact, their numbers outperform the rest of the station in most areas."

Lacking the budget for extravagant promotions, West said the station has relyed on more imaginative stunts, such as Mark & Brian-model back-scratcher shoehorns or kneepads. "We've tried to create a fun, innovative atmosphere," West said. "It's easy for a station to outspend the competition. We're trying to outthink them."

It's hard to get revved up about KLOS' playlist, especially since music director Stephanie Mondello acknowledged that the station plays, at most, three or four new songs each hour. But she insists the station is trying to please its key constituency--its listeners.

"We've really tried to adapt to what they want to hear," she said. "But you just can't play too many new songs, because your audience will go searching the dial for something more familiar."

This has led to poor relations with several record companies, who have dismissed KLOS as an dull oasis for oldies. "The bottom line is that KLOS isn't helping anyone in the record business," said Geffen Records promotion chief Al Coury. "Hey, my teen-age son listens to them, but only because he's sick of everybody else. When it comes to dealing with record labels, the station has been insensitive and a little arrogant. So I applaud their ratings, but I wonder if they're getting the numbers because they really don't have much competition."

Competition may come soon--KNX-FM appears to be moving from soft pop into an album-rock direction--but KLOS execs defend their independent programming stance.

"We do make record companies mad, but mostly because they try to dictate what you play," responded Mondello. "In fact, on several occasions they've told us that if we're not willing to play the track they're promoting, they'd rather we not play anything at all."

Programmer West isn't worried. "We do buck a lot of national trends. But that's what gives this station its uniqueness. We can't buy the ratings here, so we're trying to earn them."

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