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May 26, 1996|Steve Hochman

You love country music, right? Garth Brooks . . . Shania Twain . . . Alan Jackson . . . Jimmy Buffett . . . James Taylor. . . .

Wait a minute--Buffett and Taylor aren't country. But they are part of what L.A. radio station KZLA-FM (93.9) is now calling "Southern California's Country."

That's the slogan installed recently by the station's new program director, John Sebastian, who has tweaked the format to include "country-feeling rock songs" by such acts as the Eagles, Bob Seger and even Bruce Springsteen and Jackson Browne, alongside the regular country crew.

The move is designed to boost the station's ratings from a disappointing 19th place in the last Arbitron survey. Sebastian admits that some longtime listeners are outraged by the shift, but he thinks it will pay off.

"A lot more people say, 'God, this sounds good,' " he says. "I'm trying to turn more people on to country music by giving them bridges of familiarity."

The new programming will be given a big marketing push starting in the next few weeks. But it's already getting a lot of attention in Nashville.

Phyllis Stark, managing editor of Billboard Country Monitor, which tracks country radio, says that the country community is keeping a close watch on Sebastian, who has never worked in country before. His past experience includes defunct L.A. pop station KHJ and the New Age outlet the Wave.

"There's certainly a lot of griping and groaning here among the Music Row community," Stark says. "Stations have so few spots for new records anyway that any station that's filling them with the kind of songs [KZLA does] is taking away chances for record companies to break a new artist."

But if the ratings go up with the new format, she says, "people will be rejoicing."

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