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RADIO | AROUND THE DIAL

Getting Their Signals Straight?

1998 looks as though it will be a year of change for many stations--but who knows for sure?

January 01, 1998|JUDITH MICHAELSON and STEVE HOCHMAN and KEVIN BAXTER | Judith Michaelson and Kevin Baxter are staff writers; Steve Hochman is a contributor to Calendar

Planning to listen to your favorite radio station in 1998? Enjoy, but don't be too devoted. Someone else could buy it and change the format overnight. If there is one certainty in this market of 80 stations, where as little as 6% of the listening audience can put you at the top of the ratings heap and where quick-fix change is routine, it is uncertainty. Looking ahead to '98:

NEWS AND TALK

So talk radio is still hot. Or not.

George Nicholaw, vice president and general manager at Westinghouse news station KNX-AM (1070) is an optimist, especially with a governor's race and other political seats up for grabs this year. "With these major elections, we're going to zero in and provide our listeners with as much as we can. You are going to [hear] different types of features. We might bring in political analysts or people that survey voters in a different kind of way."

Ruth Seymour, general manager at public station KCRW-FM (89.9), worries. "Radio is hot, increasingly hot, but the neighborhood station is becoming a thing of the past. There was a time when localism was the hallmark of radio, but with consolidation the public stations end up as the only local stations left."

"Talk radio has peaked," Seymour says. "It's my hunch. People are bored listening to other people's ideas."

She dismisses talk of talk's revitalization with the elections, adding: "There is tremendous exhaustion at the end of the century. There's a dignity that's missing from public life, and people are searching for it in other places--in artistic, cultural expression, in pop music. There was a time you had to listen to 'All Things Considered' every night. Not now. The appetite is what's decreasing. We have to re-imagine, reinvent."

Nicholaw offers that what's good for Southern California is also good for radio. "I really feel 1998 will be a solid year. Stations will be increasing listenership and revenue. Some people say [the economic revival] is a flash in the pan, but I think we're going to experience a very strong increase."

George Green, former president and general manager at KABC-AM (790), sees Los Angeles radio as being "increasingly attractive" to investors and advertisers, and radio syndication continuing "at an accelerated pace."

But David Hall, program director at leading talk station KFI-AM (640), offers that the radio market is "going to settle. There's been so much buying and selling going on that investors are going to sort out and see what they have."

MUSIC

In music radio in 1998, the effects of consolidation are also expected to settle. Some see a potential end to head-to-head competition as stations that were once fierce rivals find themselves under the same corporate umbrella.

Roy Laughlin, general manager of pop station KIIS-FM (102.7), says diversification is part of a natural trend. "That's always good for music. You include more people."

Kevin Weatherly, program director of KROQ-FM (106.7), however, encourages conglomerates such as Westinghouse, which took over his station in 1996, to let everyone fight for market share. "Each station should be programmed to win. Listeners aren't aware that one group owns six stations. Let them compete, even if they're under one roof. If you try to split the market, you end up with no winners."

He says KROQ's challenge is to separate itself from the rest of the rock pack. Its greatest success had come from playing music that does not fit other formats, but in 1997 most of its music was picked up by others. "At one point, we were an island. Then everyone came to ourlittle island and now we have to search out new territory."

Marie Kordus, general manager of hip-hop leader KPWR-FM (105.9), agrees that any change to dull the competitive edge "really doesn't make it healthier. We're looking for more money to be put into radio advertising, and you stand a better chance if you stand alone rather than program as part of a group."

Oldies leader KRTH-FM (101.1) recently got a new competitor with the shift of KIBB-FM (100.3) from a vague dance-music format to mostly oldies, though skewed more toward Latino women.

Still, two music formats could reenter the market with virtually no competition: Adult alternative has been missing since February with the switch of KSCA-FM (101.9) to Spanish-language music. And there are rumblings that KLYY-FM (107.1) will go to an active rock format, dropping attempts to chip away at KROQ's audience.

And there are expectations that the Arbitron ratings service will take steps to supply its radio clients in Los Angeles with data on Asian listenership--as it does with Latinos and African Americans.

SPANISH

In Spanish-language radio, the 1998 World Cup soccer tournament has the potential to shake up the market. A monthlong tournament will be played in France this summer, much of it during the key morning drive time here.

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