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Fine-Tuning Radio : Stations Seek Niche Among the Commuters, Sunbathers

November 15, 1990|KEVIN BRASS | Kevin Brass writes about media for The Times. His column appears Mondays in Calendar.

In the eyes of radio industry veteran Tom Holiday, the North County is an array of niches and valleys, a landscape dotted with opportunity and complications.

"It is like the face of a Thomas Brothers English muffin," said Holiday, general manager of two North County-based stations, KOWF-FM (92.1) and KSPA-AM (1450).

Something as basic as delivering signals over the hills and through the canyons and into the homes and cars of listeners becomes a challenge. His advice: "If you can't get a station, simply walk across the street."

Holiday's operation is based in Escondido, which is also known as the "Hidden Valley"--not the type of nickname a radio executive likes to hear. Like all North County radio stations, Holiday is constantly struggling to make people understand that the hoppin' country tunes of his popular FM station can be heard beyond the hills of Escondido.

In addition to Holiday's, there are five other radio operations in the North County, each attempting to find its own niche in the swirl of the Southern California radio market.

Instead of tuning in far-off stations, an Encinitas resident can jam to the rock of "Magic 102" or the Top 40 hits of KKOS-FM (95.9), which is "North County and proud of it." Also programmed from bases in North County: mellow tunes, business news, religious programming and golden oldies.

In a very real sense, North County is a distinct market, separated from urban San Diego by marketing strategies, as well as geography.

In 1985, North County basically seceded from San Diego, when Arbitron, the company that compiles ratings for stations throughout the country, began issuing a separate "book" for North County. The move came after heavy lobbying from North County radio executives, who didn't feel the San Diego ratings accurately reflected their home.

Alone, North County is the 62nd largest of the 252 markets in the country, according to Arbitron, comparable in size to Las Vegas and Austin, Tex. Unlike Las Vegas or Austin, the area is not isolated; it's not an island. In addition to San Diego stations, powerful Los Angeles stations are easily picked up by North County residents, many of whom have recently moved from Los Angeles and Orange counties.

The intrusion of Los Angeles stations is simply one quirk in a very quirky radio market. Of course, quirky is not necessarily a negative to radio industry and marketing professionals, who try to use an area's special characteristics to attract listeners and advertisers.

"The North County is one reason we're pouring a million dollars into (upgrading) our AM signal to 50,000 watts at night," said Paul Palmer, general manager of KFMB-AM (760) and FM (B100). "With growth, we wanted to be even stronger there."

Palmer and others are simply responding to the numbers game that powers the radio industry. Rating numbers decide whether a station is succeeding or failing. Demographic numbers--data about the population, ranging from the number of people and their ages to the amount of money they earn--dictate the potential of a market.

Those numbers for North County look good: The area's population increased from 288,979 to 616,793 in the 1980s, according to the San Diego Assn. of Governments, making it one of the fastest-growing markets in the country. Most of the influx, marketing experts say, came in the form of upwardly mobile, middle-class, young families.

"Most people perceive it as fairly upscale," said Nancy Duvall, media director for Chapman/Warwick, an advertising and public relations firm. "There is a good strong Baby-Boomer group."

Along with the population growth have come hundreds of new businesses that want to advertise their presence.

"The amount of retail sales is incredible," said Jeff Chandler, owner of KKOS-FM and KCEO-AM (1000) in Carlsbad. "If you look at what was here 15 years ago, it was just the Plaza Camino Real (shopping center) and a whole bunch of car dealers."

Revenues of radio stations throughout the county, North County included, have increased dramatically in the last few years, even surpassing the pace of the county's growth. According to figures compiled by the San Diego Broadcasters Assn., the earnings of San Diego stations have grown by 10% to 20% a year for the past few years, one of the fastest rates of growth in the country.

Traffic jams help explain the increase.

People listen to their radios in their cars, which is one reason Los Angeles is such a powerful radio market. As the San Diego freeways increasingly resemble Los Angeles freeways, the radio audience has grown.

North County is a patchwork of suburban communities whose residents get in their cars to go to work five days a week, and who on their off days go to beaches and parks--prime activities to match with radio listening.

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