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Less Rock, More Talk on FM Dial : Radio: Rediscovery of the personality is a nationwide phenomenon as stations try to stand out and to adapt to the needs of aging baby boomers.


For years the common practice at many radio stations was "more rock, less talk." But these days, rock fans may be wondering, "Where has all the music gone?"

KLSX-FM (97.1) devotes more than 30% of its weekday schedule--3 a.m. to about 10:30 a.m.--to the comedy and raunchy chatter of Howard Stern. KROQ-FM (106.7) turns over two hours a night to "Loveline," a talk show about teen issues. And KLOS-FM (95.5), which has long devoted four hours a morning to the antics and banter of Mark Thompson and Brian Phelps, Monday added another mostly-talk show from 6 to 10 p.m. with a host who calls himself the Greaseman.

The move toward fewer tunes mirrors a nationwide phenomenon that even includes stations limiting music to weekends and late nights and devoting entire weekdays to what has come to be known as "rock talk."

"This trend is about the rediscovery of the power of personality in radio," said Randall Bloomquist, talk-radio editor for Radio and Records, a trade publication. "After years and years of everybody doing more music and less talk, at some point somebody said, 'Gee, maybe there's room for somebody doing more than a jukebox.' I think what radio stations have discovered is that well-done talk will draw listeners."


That's certainly been the case in the competitive Los Angeles market. The "Mark and Brian Show" reigned as the top-rated program during the critical morning drive period for three years, then was replaced last October by the syndicated Stern show. "Loveline," hosted by deejay Jim (Poorman) Trenton and Dr. Drew Pinsky, is the top-rated show from 10 p.m. to midnight.

In contrast, KQLZ-FM (100.3) abandoned its hard-rock format in favor of easy listening last Friday after four years of declining ratings, and KNAC-FM (105.5), a heavy-metal station in Long Beach with a limited signal, struggles along with less than 1% of the audience.

Now comes Doug (the Greaseman) Tracht, whose syndicated program already is heard in New York, Philadelphia and Washington. KLOS program director Carey Curelop said Tracht's show is made up primarily of talk, ribald humor and audience calls, with only three to six records an hour.

Radio programmers and broadcast analysts say the trend away from music at these stations in part reflects a desire to distinguish themselves from the pack. "If you have three album-oriented rock stations, how many different ways can you reshuffle the songs to be different?" Bloomquist asked.

But even more important is their desire to cater to the changing interests of their audience. The median age of KLOS and KLSX listeners, for example, is about 30.

"The average KLOS listener is certainly of a different mind-set and in a different environment than when he was 19," Curelop said. "He's worried about career, jobs, family, health, and he does not spend the amount of time as he did when he was 19 living the rock 'n' roll lifestyle."

KLSX program director Andy Bloom said executives there have made a conscious decision to have the station age with its audience.

"One of the questions we have batted around is, 'Do we chase the baby boomers to the grave or should we keep the demographics the same?' " Bloom said. "The answer is: We'll follow them to the grave."

Keeping up with the interests and concerns of the baby boomers means providing more avenues for the expression of new ideas, topical conversation and humor--the staples of talk radio, analysts say.

"With the amount of different formats on radio, everyone is looking for the next niche, the next opportunity," said KROQ general manager Trip Reeb. "I think there has been a void, so talk coming to FM is sort of a natural progression, and now people are starting to believe that it's a very viable type of programming."

Until recently, however, talk radio was traditionally regarded by programmers as an older person's format.

"The fact of the matter is that people under the age of 50 haven't had talk personalities they can relate to," Reeb said. "And now stations are trying to identify those who can speak to these people. I remember my grandfather sitting by the radio listening to Paul Harvey every day. Where are those people for young people? No one concerned themselves with finding them for a long time."

They are still in short supply.

"As an industry we have ourselves to blame for that," said Tom Barnes, a consultant based in Atlanta. "During the highly programmed and researched late '70s and early '80s, the idea was, 'Just play the music and shut up.' So we trained a legion of excellent card-readers and now, when we really need air talent that can emote a personality, they're not there to be had."

The dearth of qualified "rock talk" personalities has spawned the success of syndicated shows such as those of Stern and Tracht. Analysts agree that as long as there are so few people who can pull off shows like theirs, the syndicated personalities will reign over local talent.

"There aren't that many people of that caliber around," explained Bloomquist. 'Whatever's going on in the world, whether it's the Academy Awards or the bombing of the World Trade Center, these guys have a unique world view that you want to hear. The best ones are the guys you'd like to sit around in a bar and just b.s. with. That's what these people do on the radio."

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