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The Dance of the Dial

The L.A. radio market is in turmoil as stations change formats in search of a winning niche, with women and Latinos the big demographic targets.

March 16, 1997|Steve Hochman | Steve Hochman writes about pop music for Calendar

Confused? If you're a Los Angeles music radio listener, you should be. It's a time of turmoil and change all around the dial.

Adult alternative station KSCA-FM (101.9) went off the air, replaced with a Mexican music format. KOST-FM (103.5) has aggressively campaigned to change its image from "easy listening" to a "soft rock" format featuring contemporary artists from Phil Collins to Melissa Etheridge.

Classic rock has made a dramatic comeback, not only via rock stations KCBS-FM (Arrow 93.1) and KLOS-FM (95.5), but even as a feature on country outlet KZLA-FM (93.9). There are now not one, but two dance-pop stations, KIBB-FM (100.3) and KACD-FM (103.1), trying to grab listeners from rhythm powerhouses KPWR-FM (105.9) and KKBT-FM (92.3).

And even venerable KROQ-FM (106.7) has a pesky challenger just to its right in KLYY-FM (107.1). Meanwhile, KROQ itself is exploring ways to become more established with Latino listeners.

And there's probably more to come.

"This market is going to change a substantial amount in the next three months," says Jeff Pollack, an L.A.-based radio programming consultant with a clientele of more than 100 stations across the country.

Part of that he attributes to shifts in pop music trends, as the alternative-rock wave has slackened and new sounds and acts are emerging.

"There's been a fragmentation of the alternative format into several sub-formats--adult alternative, so-called active rock, and so on--and dance music is back in full swing, it seems," he says.

But what has really stimulated movement in most major U.S. radio markets has been the deregulation of broadcasting, removing restrictions on ownership of multiple stations in the same market, which has fueled a series of huge corporate buyouts and mergers.

What results, analysts say, is a trend toward specialization. While the top outlets, the pillars of L.A. music radio, are secure, each pulling in 5% or 6% of the market's listenership in fairly broad demographic sweeps--KROQ featuring modern rock, KPWR and KKBT with contemporary R&B and hip hop, KIIS-FM (102.7) with mainstream pop hits--many less prominent stations are narrowing their focus.

"I think what is going to happen is, people are going for smaller niches because you have to try to get an audience anywhere you can," says KROQ vice president and general manager Trip Reeb. "There are so many stations, and mainstream radio--there is no such thing any more."

The result is an increasingly mad scramble for shares of this lucrative and intensely competitive market that has become, as Ken Christianson, general manager of both KYSR-FM (Star 98.7) and KIBB, terms it, a "radio shake and bake."

Right now, there's a fight going on particularly for women and Latinos, and it's intensifying on a daily basis.

Those are the two demographic groups whose rising cultural and economic power make them the primary targets of radio broadcasters.

KYSR, which programs a blend of '80s pop hits and current singer-songwriters, and KIBB, which in October started with a rhythm-heavy mix of new dance tracks and classic disco, are clear examples of that trend.

"Business is going where the opportunities are," says Christianson. "Both of our stations are targeted at adult women. If you're successful with the dance and rhythm [format] and at the same time the modern adult contemporary [format of Star], you can have a big pile of women to sell advertisers in a market. The automotive industry, for example, is targeting women more and more, and that is the trend all through business."

Ron Rodrigues, managing editor of the trade publication Radio and Records, says: "One trend we are noticing [in large markets like L.A.] is more innovation as a result of consolidation. This is mainly because what was a small, failing station with an independent owner is now part of a big company and can try more of a niche format."

The two latest are particularly illustrative of the trends. While the demise of adult alternative station KSCA last month got a lot of attention, the bigger element of the story may have been Spanish-language media giant Heftel Inc.'s purchase of the station from Gene and Jackie Autry for a whopping $115 million, giving the company a dominant position with three L.A. stations.

And even more recently, Evergreen Media Corp. and Chancellor Broadcasting Co. announced plans for a $2.7-billion merger, with intent to purchase Viacom's radio holdings, including L.A. outlets KYSR and KIBB, giving the new entity five in the market. Westinghouse/CBS is also increasing its Southland presence via a station swap with Greater Media that gives it KLSX-FM (97.1) (the former classic-rock outlet now devoted to talk) and oldies station KRLA-AM for a total in the market of eight stations.

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