If it ain't broke, why fix it?
Though ratings at KKBT-FM (92.3) have slipped in recent months, it was nothing that led most in the radio and music business to expect the drastic changes that are being made at the hip-hop/R&B station.
John Madison, the Beat's acting general manager and senior vice president of regional operations for the station's parent company, AMFM Inc., has an explanation prepared. In fact, he has it written on a piece of paper, ready to show anyone who wants to know.
"We cannot be what we need to be by remaining what we are," reads the missive he holds in his office at the station's Wilshire Boulevard high-rise headquarters, accompanied by AMFM vice president of programming Steve Smith, marketing director Beverly Tilden and KKBT program director Harold Austin.
To put it another way, he elaborates, "It's kind of like what [hockey player] Wayne Gretzky says. He went to where the puck was going to be, not where it was."
So, out is John London and his popular "House Party" morning team--shuffled over to sister station KCMG-FM (100.1), where they'll hold court amid the "jammin' oldies." In for the morning shift at the Beat, as the station is known, are Ed Lover and Dr. Dre, the pair who brought hip-hop to mainstream America as original hosts of MTV's "Yo! MTV Raps" and have been a hot morning team in New York for the past decade.
Out is afternoon drive-time host Theo. In is the team of the Baka Boyz, who in recent years have been the top-rated personalities of cross-town rival KPWR-FM (105.9).
Also changing is the midday slot, with Big Les leaving in favor of a woman named Lala, who comes from a very successful station in Atlanta.
The new roster will officially debut Monday at 7:10 a.m. (said to be the key time for morning listening), kicking off a week of special events and big-name guest visits.
The old talent was fine, the management team insists. But the new lineup is one that more reflects the changing face of Los Angeles, and more suits the music that is, and will remain, the station's trademark.
"It wasn't broken," says Madison. "But we want to prepare for the year 2000 census. That will show the L.A. market dramatically changed, and those results will be used by Arbitron in their ratings surveys. We have to align ourselves with what L.A. will be."
And that, it seems, means young and ethnic. London, a 50-something Caucasian, long seemed an odd fit at the station, and that was starting to show in the ratings. The Arbitron figures for the 1999 spring quarter showed a dramatic drop among listeners 18 to 34 from what had been a steady audience share of about 6% to a weak 4.3%, while KPWR had risen behind its aggressive campaign promoting morning man Big Boy.
Dre and Lover, in contrast, are 30-something African Americans who have long been key figures in hip-hop's development and popularity.
"What we bring to the station is from being deeply involved in the music," Lover says by conference call from New York with his partner. "And we bring relationships with every artist in the field that you can name."
Adds Smith, "John did an incredible job here, but we wanted to bring in the morning show that best represented the music. Ninety percent of what's important here is the music, and that's not changing."
But London has a relationship with the L.A. audience, where the new guys have tailored their comedy and patter to New York listeners.
"In L.A. you have people who like to laugh and have fun, right?" says Dre. "We're not coming there with a tattoo of New York City on our behinds. . . . It doesn't matter that we come from New York. Funny is funny."
The Baka Boyz--brothers Nick and Eric Vidal--already have a strong L.A. base, and it's no small matter that much of it is Latin, as are the two themselves. KPWR, in fact, has long targeted the Latin audience and claimed it to be as much as 70% of its listenership. The Beat's staff has generally stated that it seeks an equal balance of white, African American and Latin listeners. Baka's arrival, though, is certainly in part meant to shore up ties to that latter, increasingly important sector of Southern California's population.
"They'll come," says Eric, joining the station brain trust in the office alongside his brother, of the pair's old audience. "The music will speak to them, and when they hear us, they'll like it."
Reaction has been positive in the L.A. music business, where the Beat and Power dominate the urban music world.
"It was time for a change and it will be good with the people they've chosen," says Violet Brown, urban music buyer for the Wherehouse stores. "The change and where people are going fits very well. It will be refreshing to have new people in there."