The rhythms of Los Angeles' two top rhythmic music radio stations are undergoing some alterations. Both KPWR-FM (105.9) and KKBT-FM (92.3) have shaken up their management staffs--a bit of a shock considering that they're ranked Nos. 4 and 5 in the market's ratings, and Nos. 1 and 2 among English-language music stations.
But each also suffered ratings slips in the 1998 first-quarter figures compiled by Arbitron, with KPWR (known as Power 106) dropping from a 4.6 for the same period a year ago to 4.0 and KKBT (The Beat) falling from 5.5 and a No. 2 overall ranking to 3.9.
It was plenty to spur the changes, but station executives insist that no wholesale make-overs are in the works. It's just part of the process of evolution in a competitive market.
"When you're a 12-to-24-age-group contemporary station in a melting-pot market like L.A., by definition every five years or so it has to be reinvented," says Rick Cummings, executive vice president of programming of Emmis Broadcasting, which owns Power, of the recent dismissal of the station's general manager, Marie Kordus, and program director, Michelle Mercer.
Michelle Santosuosso, who herself only arrived as program director of the Beat in November, gives an almost identical analysis of her recent appointment of new music director Dorsey Fuller, a move that surprised some in radio due to Fuller having had no experience in radio programming.
"You have to continually push and reinvent yourself," says Santosuosso, a former member of the Beat's programming staff who was brought back by owner Chancellor Media from the company's KMEL-FM in San Francisco, where she'd had great success. "Our changes weren't based on changes in the market, just basic evolution of the station."
But that doesn't mean there won't be some significant on-air changes, especially at Power, where ratings have dipped over the past year. While the search for a new general manager and a new program director goes on--Cummings expects to fill the posts within a month--midday deejay Cherry Martinez has already been let go, and Big Les, one of the regulars on the morning drive-time show featuring Big Boy, is being given new assignments.
And most significantly, Big Boy is in jeopardy as the morning host, having taken over the crucial slot last year when the popular Baka Boyz were moved to afternoons.
"One thing we're assessing is whether Big Boy really has that ability and desire [to succeed in the morning slot]," Cummings says. "He's tremendously talented and I want him at this station. Whether it works in the morning or not, I don't know. It's nothing we haven't discussed. He's even talked about it on the air."
Power's moves come, not surprisingly, at a time when ratings have slipped to a point lower than at any time in the past seven years. Having staked its name on hip-hop in recent years--its slogan is "Where hip-hop lives"--the station has been hurt by the current rise of pop music, heard locally on KIIS-FM (102.7), a format that draws on the top figures in all genres, including rap.
At the same time, Power's largely Latino audience has been chipped into by increasing competition for its time, not just from the surge in Spanish-language programming in L.A., but from other English-language stations targeting that market--most notably KCMG-FM (100.3), which introduced its Mega100 format of Latino-skewed pop oldies last year.
"Mega has had an impact on both us and the Beat," Cummings says.
On the surface, Mega would seem to be harder on the Beat, with the latter station's somewhat softer edge in its approach to hip-hop and R&B and its slightly older audience. But, Santosuosso points out, the Beat relies on Latino listeners less than Power, striving for an equal mix of African Americans, Latinos and whites. And, she also notes, Mega100 and the Beat are both owned by Chancellor, and the new station is "sort of designed to stay out of our way."
Santosuosso doesn't foresee making major changes in the Beat's on-air staff, though the hiring of Fuller from outside the radio world is intended to bring in "new attitudes and perspectives." Fuller's experience includes doing P.R. for rap artists, serving as promotions director for Rap Sheet magazine and running his own event production and marketing firm.
"Hopefully, what you'll hear is the same things that kept the station on top for so long," she says. "Musically our sound is dictated by the music released, since we play current hits. But there's a lot of incredibly good R&B stuff coming in '98 and '99, and I want to be able to play all of it."
Cummings, too, notes the music trends that drive these stations are cyclical, and promises no drastic alterations of the sound of Power. But changes will be made.
"We certainly own the [hip-hop] position," he says. "But it needs a new coat of paint. A lot of the features that have been on for six or seven years need to be replaced."