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REGION : KUSC Attracts Fans by Being Attuned

March 26, 1995|STEPHEN GREGORY

Five years ago when KUSC-FM (91.5) began straying from its exclusive focus on European classical music, longtime listener Rochelle Williams was dismayed.

"I thought to myself, 'Why are they doing this?' " she recalled. "It violates (the station's) original intent."

But the more the Inglewood resident listened to KUSC's "new sound of classical music radio," the more she liked the eclectic blend of traditional classical music with music considered classical in other countries and cultures. African drum pieces and 16th-Century Mexican choral movements have joined Bach and Beethoven on the KUSC playlist.

"It took a little while to get used to," she said. "But I love it more now than I ever did before."

The station suffered a small drop in listenership after the change--about 5% percent--but complaints that greeted the change have all but dwindled away as the USC-run station appears to have caught on with such longtime listeners as Williams and an emerging audience in the inner city.

Results from the station's last pledge drive show about 40 new subscribers from ZIP codes in areas that have never before or only rarely appeared on KUSC membership rosters.

"We think it's an important trend and we hope it will continue," said Wally Smith, KUSC station manager for 23 years. "We want to get the message to people that we are trying to include music that comes out of their culture."

First taking to the air in 1946, KUSC-FM now reaches more than 400,000 Southern California listeners a week with help from affiliates in Santa Barbara, Palm Springs and Thousand Oaks.

Although roughly 80% of the station's playlist is still European classical music, it is now not uncommon to hear Iranian lute music or Southern gospel.

Smith said the new format was necessary because of the area's changing demographics and a steady drop in listeners.

"It is very clear to us that the audience for traditional classical music is dying off and not being replenished," he said. "It makes sense to attach ourselves to (new) communities by highlighting their cultural achievements."

And for a station that receives 47% of its funding from subscribers, catering to listeners' tastes is essential.

The station hoped to tap into the fast-growing Latino community by launching a weekly bilingual program in 1992 that highlights classical concert music of Latin American composers.

Enrique Gonzalez, who hosts "Concierto Latinoamericano," said the two-hour program offers listeners Latin American music that goes beyond the usual fare of mariachi, tango or samba.

A composer himself, Gonzalez said Mexico and Central and South America have very rich classical music traditions, but "as soon as you cross the border that music just doesn't exist."

Last year, Arbitron reported that KUSC had one of the largest Latino audiences of any public radio station in the country.

The roots of the format change can be traced to afternoon program host Bonnie Grice, who joined the station in 1989.

Shortly after her arrival, Grice challenged the station's status quo by successfully lobbying to kill KUSC's policy of planning daily playlists two months before airing. "It kind of took away from the spontaneity (of the shows)," Grice joked.

Grice began shaking up the all-European classical music format by playing pieces from contemporary American composers, including women.

Further change came to the station when Smith hired Gonzalez and Titus Levi, KUSC's first Latino and African American program hosts, respectively.

Every Thursday night, Levi's "Songs of the Earth" program offers listeners classical samplings from around the world. One recent show, for example, featured music from China, Uzbekistan, the Sudan, Tanzania and Korea.

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