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Taking Flight at KUSC : New general manager hopes larger staff, programming will improve station.

September 18, 1997|JUDITH MICHAELSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Meet Brenda Pennell, incoming general manager of classical music station KUSC-FM (91.5). She is a licensed pilot who flies Cessnas, insists that she likes "almost every kind of music, not just classical," and has the candor to say, when asked her age, that by the time she begins the job Nov. 3, she'll be 38.

But it's classical music that is her passion, ever since fourth grade.

Pennell, general manager at WGUC-FM, Cincinnati's classical public station, was in town this week to meet KUSC staff, USC officials, the media and to lease an apartment in downtown Los Angeles.

She has no plans to change KUSC's all-classical format. But she does have some definite ideas about having on-air hosts "provide context for the music, being able to say something really interesting about the music that helps the listener connect to it, and maybe listen to it in a different way."

"I don't mean chatty," she says when it's mentioned that a former KUSC host, Bonnie Grice, ran into trouble on a seemingly similar issue.

"Fine-tuning programming and announcing" was one of the things Pennell talked to the staff about when she met with them Monday. "How do we make a stronger connection between the people and the music?"--not only on the radio but within Southern California's arts and cultural community. "How do we talk about an event in such a compelling way that it makes people write it into their schedule?"

The problem, she explains, is that KUSC is short-staffed. In Cincinnati, the nation's 25th-largest radio market, she has six full-time hosts. Here, in the nation's second-largest market, there are three--Alan Chapman, Jim Svejda and Martin Perlich, and a music librarian, Marilyn McClellan.

So she has promised that KUSC will hire another host.

A native of Cary, N.C., Pennell is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, with a degree in clarinet performance. She has a master's degree from Michigan State in clarinet performance and another master's from Notre Dame in musicology.

She got her first job in public radio in Fort Dodge, Iowa, in 1985 and later worked at a public station in Harrisonburg, Va., before taking her present job in 1993. Since then, audience support at the Cincinnati outlet has risen 17% while the station's share has climbed from 2.6% to 4%.

Asked how she achieved those results, she replies: "Programming. Everything comes back to that."

Unlike Wallace A. Smith, the man she is succeeding, Pennell will not have the title of president of KUSC. That belongs to her boss, Martha Harris, USC's associate vice president for external relations. Harris says she took it because KUSC also is involved in the production of the syndicated shows "Marketplace" and "The Savvy Traveler," which will be her responsibility, allowing Pennell to concentrate on the classical music side.

Talking Heads: With the switch to children's programming at KTZN-AM (710) just before Labor Day, the local talk radio market changed abruptly. And promises to continue to change.

The most immediate involves women. For a while this year, it seemed like the only home for issue-oriented female hosts was KTZN--with its lifestyle- and female-oriented format, known as "The Zone"--while the guys held sway at both KABC-AM (790) and KFI-AM (640) from 6 a.m. to midnight. (Despite the high profile of Laura Schlessinger, her KFI show is still within the advice format traditionally done by women.)

But now former KTZN host Stephanie Miller, whose show has a comic bent, will be getting the 6-9 p.m. shift at KABC once the Dodgers' season ends. And KFI recently gave late-night host Tammy Bruce an extra hour to fill, starting her weeknight show at 11 p.m. instead of midnight.

Meanwhile, KABC, which like KTZN is owned by ABC Radio, has been using some other former Zone talent. Joe Crummey and Merrill Markoe, who had a mid-morning weekday show on KTZN, now air 7-10 p.m. Saturday and 4-7 p.m. Sunday. They bumped Gloria Allred from the Saturday slot but she is now heard for an hour longer on Sundays, 7-10 p.m.

Robin Abcarian, who had been KTZN's morning drive co-host with Tracey Miller, substituted for KABC's Ronn Owens on Labor Day, and last Monday, she, Crummey and Markoe filled in for Ken Minyard and Peter Tilden.

The game of musical chairs has to do with ABC Radio wanting to give its old KTZN talent some exposure--and getting something for the money it is still paying them on their contracts.

Change also is underway at talk station KLSX-FM (97.1), the local outlet for Howard Stern. Program director Jack Silver, who took over Aug. 11, says he wants to take the station in a new direction.

Silver's first major shift was to bring Tom Leykis back to the Los Angeles market. The former KFI and KMPC host, whose syndicated show has 200 stations nationwide, began his 3-7 p.m. afternoon drive slot Sept. 2.

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