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Wise Words for AM Music Radio

Even competitors say KRLA is smart to switch from oldies rock 'n' roll to an all-talk format.

November 19, 1998|JUDITH MICHAELSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For KRLA-AM (1110), the coming transformation from a backwater rock oldies station to the sometimes maddening world of talk radio can only lead up. There is no one, including competitors, who says it isn't a smart move, a logical move.

As an AM music station, KRLA has been languishing around 30th in the Los Angeles-Orange County market, attracting, on average, less than 1% of the audience. StartingNov. 30, it will challenge entrenched talk outlets KFI-AM (640), KABC-AM (790), KLSX-FM (97.1) and KIEV-AM (870) with a parade of well-known names: Michael Jackson, Don Imus, Dr. Toni Grant, G. Gordon Liddy.

"We will definitely be a player," says Bob Moore, vice president and general manager of KRLA and KLSX, both of which are owned by CBS. He predicts that KRLA could, in the not-too-distant future, register a 2.5% share of the audience.

Like two supermarkets sharing the same corner, KRLA's format change will be good for everyone, says Bill Sommers, president and general manager of KABC. "I think interest in the talk arena will grow just by having another facility doing the same format. It does that with music," he says.

But others caution that the market can only grow by so much, because most people who like talk radio are already listening to talk radio, leaving the stations in a scramble to maintain position.

Radio consultant Allen Klein predicts that talk listenership may rise by a percentage point or so--the current talk market (not including sports stations) accounts for 9.1% of the overall audience--but then adds that there is "a finite point at what the top can be. It goes up a little bit, and then there's cannibalization--eating each other's listeners."

Most local talk executives believe that KRLA initially will run fourth among the five stations, behind the current order of KFI, KABC and KLSX, and with KIEV still in last place. But Moore is more optimistic. "I think we could be as high as No. 3," he says. "KFI right now is still in a dominant position, so it's a battle between our FM [KLSX] and KABC and us."

Change for KRLA was inevitable as soon as CBS acquired the station in April 1997. Not only was then-CBS Radio Chairman Mel Karmazin willing to pay for a make-over after researching the best way to go, but he also had in syndicator Westwood One, which is 25% owned by CBS, a readily accessible pool of talent for the nation's second largest market.

Then about a month ago, KRLA began talking to Jackson, a fixture in Los Angeles talk on KABC for more than three decades. He had been yearning for the restoration of a daily talk show since his demotion to weekends in July 1997.

Jackson, who brings a loyal core of followers, will be the centerpiece of the new KRLA lineup, although because of contractual obligations at KABC, the earliest he can begin anew in the familiar 9 a.m.-noon slot is Dec. 28. KRLA will make do with guest hosts until he arrives.

For Southland listeners, there will be more talk choices than ever.

Consider that on Nov. 30 at noon, listeners will be able to choose between the high-church morality of Dr. Laura Schlessinger on KFI, the top-ranked syndicated host in the Los Angeles market, and the warmer, more empathetic Dr. Toni Grant on KRLA, who pioneered the genre of advice radio in 1975.

With recent shifts in the Arbitron rankings, however, afternoon drive from 3 to 7 p.m. promises to be the most competitive part of the day.

KRLA's conservative Liddy (on tape delay), who served more than four years in jail for his role in the Watergate burglary, will be pitted against Tom Leykis on KLSX, who opens each show boasting that he's "not a right-wing wacko or a convicted felon." Also in the mix are John Kobylt and Ken Chiampou on KFI, Larry Elder on KABC, and Michael Medved and Ray Briem on KIEV.

"Everything goes in cycles," philosophizes Dave Armstrong, vice president and general manager at KIEV. "KFI, not that many years ago--you couldn't give it away. [That was] before [Rush] Limbaugh came along. Now they're king of the hill. KABC used to be king of the hill, and now they're not. So this market changes all the time."

Tuna Time: With Don Imus moving to KRLA, KLAC-AM (570) will return morning drive to the easy-listening music format that it features the rest of the day, with veteran deejay Charlie Tuna taking over the 6-10 a.m. slot sometime in December.

Imus leaves the station next Wednesday. After that and until Tuna's arrival, the station will temporarily substitute Westwood One deejay Jeff Rollins.

Tuna, who currently has a morning-drive show on KIKF-FM (94.3), gave notice Wednesday that he was leaving.

Tuna, who says he has worked as a morning-drive personality for more stations and formats than anyone in Los Angeles radio history, had been part of the legendary KHJ Boss Jock lineup in the late '60s. He was also the first morning personality on KROQ-FM (106.7) in 1972.

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