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KSCA Taking Small Bites for Starters : Pop Beat: Though the young adult-alternative station's ratings aren't much better than those of the old KLIT, it's building a quality fan base.


When KSCA-FM (101.9) launched its adult-alternative format 15 months ago, many disaffected rock fans thought it might signal the beginning of a radio revolution.

To fans alienated from the hip-hop, Top 40 and harder-edged rock that dominates most pop formats, the station seemed an aural oasis, offering an eclectic mix of generally softer, more thoughtful music by artists such as Van Morrison, Sheryl Crow, Counting Crows and Hootie & the Blowfish.

But far from creating a major splash in the nation's No. 2 radio market, KSCA has barely caused a ratings ripple.

While the station has attracted a loyal following of listeners who speak of it in almost reverential tones, its ratings until recently were only slightly higher than those garnered by the easy-listening station that previously occupied its spot on the dial under the already-forgotten call letters KLIT.

KSCA attracted only 1.4% of Los Angeles and Orange County listeners--about one-third as many as the region's top-rated stations--during the Arbitron ratings period that ended Sept. 13, leaving the station 25th in the market.

Of the more than 1 million people who turned on the radio to listen to some form of pop music from rap to ranchera to rock during an average quarter hour last summer, only about 24,000 tuned to KSCA.

"Ratings-wise, it has not lived up to the industry's expectations," says Shawn Alexander, alternative-music editor at Radio & Records magazine. "All eyes in the industry were watching this station as kind of the role model to see whether this format was going to expand into other markets and whether this format was going to reach the next level."

The adult-alternative format, which generally eschews the formulaic approach of '90s radio playlists and incorporates the free-form spirit of the old progressive-rock music mixes of the '60s and '70s, has been successful in a handful of other markets.

KSCA was a latecomer to the format, preceded by about 35 other stations across the country.

Industry consultant Jeff Pollack, chairman of the Pollack Media Group, calls it an ill-defined format that has yet to live up to its promise.

"It tends to have a problem when it comes to being a little too eclectic or not being interesting enough," he says.

But radio consultant Dennis Constantine, who built a successful Denver station during the 1980s that many consider a forerunner to the adult-alternative stations that have followed, says the format tends to grow on listeners. And KSCA's overall rating for the summer ratings period was up 40% from the spring period.

"It's very slow in building an audience," says Constantine, who has worked as a consultant for KSCA. "It builds a loyal core [of listeners] and they become your evangelists. They go out and tell their friends about the station, and then their friends listen."

KSCA officials, who have spent little money promoting the station, say they are encouraged by the results despite the unimpressive Arbitron numbers.

Because the average listeners drawn to the station--men and women ages 25-49, with generally above-average incomes--are attractive to advertisers, KSCA officials say that revenues have grown by 2 1/2 times since they switched to the new format on July 1, 1994.

"KSCA might not have the highest numbers in the market, but it has a very desirable and a very loyal audience," says Ken Deutsch, senior vice president and media director for Davis, Ball & Colombatto, one of the largest radio ad buyers in Los Angeles. "If an audience is loyal to a station, it's going to have more of an interest in listening and, therefore, it's going to be hearing our commercials a lot more, which is the entire reason we do advertising."

Says Bill Ward, KSCA general manager: "If you've got a quality audience, you don't need to be [highly rated] to demand high enough ad rates to make a good profit for the owners."

The record industry also has embraced adult-alternative, believing that the format has been invaluable in promoting artists--ranging from Joni Mitchell and John Hiatt to Los Lobos and Blues Traveler--that might not have otherwise found a radio niche.

Shows such as KSCA's "Music Hall," which offer bands a showcase to play live on the air, have become must-stops for adult-alternative artists.

"This format was a real savior for the more adult artists that other formats just weren't embracing," says Nancy Stein, vice president of promotion and special projects for Warner Bros. Records. "If we had released a Joni Mitchell record three years ago, we would have had nowhere to go with it."

The huge success of Sheryl Crow, Counting Crows and Hootie & the Blowfish, record company officials say, is at least partially attributable to the exposure they first received on adult-alternative stations.

"It's going through growing pains, like any other new format," says J.B. Brenner, vice president of album promotion at A&M Records, "but at the end of the day it's an important piece of the puzzle for us in putting our marketing plans together."

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