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Switch Hits

KXTA and KRLA say their investments in local baseball broadcasts helped attract new listeners.

October 01, 1998|STEVE HOCHMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The baseball season's over and it's time to evaluate a year full of turmoil and change, firings and hirings, ownership and management shake-ups, free agents and question marks about the future.

No, not the Dodgers and Angels--the radio stations that carried their games.

This was the year that the Dodgers left powerful KABC-AM (790), the team's home since 1974, for a five-year deal with new all-sports outlet KXTA-AM (1150). And the Angels exited their only radio home since their 1961 inaugural season--the former KMPC-AM (710), which last year became first KTZN (The Zone) and then signed on to owner Disney's children's network as KDIS. The Angels moved to mostly oldies KRLA-AM (1110), also for five years.

One big difference between the radio world and the baseball world: Everybody involved seems to be happy with the results.

In its first season, KXTA--which converted from KIIS-AM and boosted from a tiny 5,000 watts to a major-league 56,000 watts--got the jewel in the L.A. sports crown with Vin Scully, baseball's top announcer, leading the Dodgers broadcast team. KABC, for its part, concentrated on rebuilding its status among local talk stations without having to juggle its lineup around the baseball schedule.

KRLA, with the Angels in the pennant race until the final weekend, got a steady influx of listeners, many of them younger (and more cherished by advertisers) than the graying oldies audience, and KDIS focused on becoming a key outlet in the child-targeted Disney Radio network.

"We are damn lucky to have a cume [cumulative audience] magnet such as the Dodgers," says KXTA program director Mike Thompson, who arrived at the outlet in midseason.

The season may have been a disappointment on the field for the Dodgers, but it was certainly an active one in off-field dealings. The turmoil surrounding the Dodgers--including Fox's ownership, the trades of popular Mike Piazza and Hideo Nomo, and the firing of manager Bill Russell--may have even helped KXTA in its bid to establish an identity in a market where San Diego-based XTRA-AM (690), also owned by Jacor Broadcasting, had been the lone all-sports voice.

Thompson notes that the Dodger turmoil generated listeners and callers eager for information, insights and opinions, and the Dodgers did their part to help make KXTA the site for the official word.

"They respect this being talk radio," he says of the Dodgers staff. "Tommy Hawkins [Dodgers vice president of communications] and Tom Lasorda [the former team manager who served as general manager for part of the season] called in a lot, and they were up front in discussing everything."

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KXTA won't give up on baseball just because the regular season is over. The station is carrying the playoffs and World Series games, and in November will begin a new round of off-season updates, with Dodger broadcaster Ross Porter on for a one-hour slot, probably Tuesdays at 6 p.m. Dodger pregame host Geoff Witcher will also be on hand for brief "Dodger Focus" segments Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays after the 5 p.m. sports news report.

KABC program director Drew Hayes was also a midseason arrival, ironically from the ESPN Radio sports operation, and says he's happy to let KXTA enjoy Dodger Blue on two counts. It allows his outlet to focus on its main programming, having fallen behind KFI in the talk wars, and it puts less strain on the budget--it's estimated that Jacor paid between $7 million and $8 million to secure the Dodgers broadcasts.

"This eliminates the mixed message for us," Hayes says. "This is a talk radio station that deals with issues, has high-profile personalities and isn't about sports."

He says it even helped in ratings. The latest monthly Arbitron Trends survey, he says, showed his station's afternoon and evening slots--when the bulk of baseball games aired--ahead of where they were last year at the same time, as Larry Elder and Stephanie Miller could establish their presences more consistently.

In contrast, KRLA programmers were delighted to send out a mixed message of pop music oldies and Angels baseball.

"From our perspective, it was one of the most significant things KRLA has done in its 40 years on the air," says general manager Bob Moore, noting that the station will take on Kings hockey games this year after having the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim last year. In the late '80s, KRLA broadcast Raiders football and in the early '90s Clippers basketball.

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Moore cites a 75% boost in the evening audience among men 18 and older since before the season, up from a 1.2% share in that category to 2%. He acknowledges concern about diluting the station's overall format as well as the expense, but says he will take the results.

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