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AROUND THE DIAL

A Major Air Offensive

KABC-AM's battle for talk-radio supremacy may blast a hole in station's current host lineup.

July 30, 1998|JUDITH MICHAELSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's getting close to crunch time, or D-day, at KABC-AM (790).

In what clearly was part pep talk and part warning, Drew Hayes, the new program director, hosted a bagels-and-cream-cheese session two weeks ago at KABC with 40 or so talk hosts, producers and other personnel. No lox, he explained--the ratings didn't merit it.

"We're going to be No. 1," Hayes told the staff. "Some of you will be here--and some bodies will fly out of here."

Significant change for the station--38 years in its talk format--has been a certainty ever since Bill Sommers, longtime president and general manager at sister station KLOS-FM (95.5), was brought out of retirement last December to take over the beleaguered Disney-owned station.

Hyperbole aside, Hayes--who arrived July 1 from Disney's ESPN Radio Network, where he had been general manager--has a difficult road ahead. Rival KFI-AM (640) has led the local English-language talk field since 1992. In the most recent quarterly Arbitron ratings, KFI, bolstered by the one-two punch of Rush Limbaugh and Laura Schlessinger, drew 3.9% of the audience, ranking third overall, while KABC had 2.9%, ranking 13th. Back in the early '80s, KABC consistently led the market altogether.

When does Hayes hope to regain the top talk perch? "I hope before Zack [his 3-year-old son] goes to college," he joshed in an interview, chewing the stub of a dead cigar.

Don't be fooled by this levity. Hayes wants to make his mark a lot sooner than that. And after hundreds of hours spent listening to the station here and on a special phone hookup at his previous post in Bristol, Conn., after conducting his own market research by talking to checkout people at Ralphs, to bus drivers in a La Cienega coffee shop and, with assistant program director Erik Braverman, to listeners in a surprise 90-minute chat after midnight July 4, Hayes has a particular vision.

The changes, he told the staff and repeated during the interview, will come in at least two waves: "One wave is short-term--some sort of retooling" in the next few weeks, and "a second wave, six to eight months down the road from [the first]. . . . I don't know if a third wave is even necessary. Could be an aftershock."

For now, however, he won't discuss individual hosts.

As for differentiating KABC from talk rivals KFI and KLSX-FM (97.1), he notes: "If we broadly cast some radio stations as being conservative fist-bangers or all sizzle and no steak, [then] we can be--and we are--smarter and funnier."

Not necessarily ha-ha funny but something, he says, where "the listener walks away, smile on [his] face, saying, 'Gee, I never saw it that way'--[content] that makes you think."

Hayes is not happy that the average age of the KABC listener is 55; the 40-year-old executive would like to see it be somewhere in the 40s. Most advertisers, after all, target listeners 25 to 54. KFI's average listener is 51, while at KLSX, home to Howard Stern, it's 35. The average radio listener in the market is 38.

Asked what criteria he's using to determine changes, Hayes replies: "It's a mixture of ratings--current, past and prospect for the future. It's a sound that I've been trying to explain [and] a texture to a show. It is issues of whether [hosts] have done it before, and can do it again, or whether they've never done it before. And research factors into that too."

As for what he calls "the most-asked question" of them all--the fates of weekday 9 a.m.-noon host Ronn Owens and the man he bumped to weekends a year ago, KABC veteran Michael Jackson--Hayes said he hadn't made a decision yet. "To hear each of them talk," he said, "they both think they're linked up. It's not a zero-sum game. It's beyond that."

Hayes indicates that he will not go outside the Southern California market for replacement hosts. As he did in Chicago--where in 1993 he paired an outspoken liberal African American host, who had come out of local urban radio, with a leading white conservative former alderman in afternoon drive--he intends to experiment. Last Friday, he brought in Susan Carpenter-McMillan to fill in for Larry Elder.

Anyone else like that in mind? Although he hadn't spoken to him yet, he says that former Monica S. Lewinsky lawyer William Ginsburg might be someone to consider.

Beyond numbers, Hayes talks about having sound and texture that is "honest," not shouting for the sake of shouting; he wants radio that is "passionate" and "compelling."

"We need to be more local, more wired in," he says. "There was a time when KABC was the station of record--and we don't have to be No. 1 to achieve that. We have to have the people who are decision-makers and the people who are themselves sort of catalysts for debate and discussion believe that we are the epicenter again."

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