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Sale of KACE, Home of R&B Oldies, Reflects Changing L.A. Landscape

Demographics: Buyer plans to switch to a Spanish-language talk show format, leaving one black-oriented adult station in the city.

December 12, 1999|JOHN L. MITCHELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was an announcement that quickly reverberated far beyond the city's radio airwaves.

R&B oldies station KACE-FM (103.9), one of the last remaining historically black-oriented radio stations in Los Angeles, was being sold for $75 million to Hispanic Broadcasting Corp., the largest Spanish-language radio broadcaster in the United States.

How could this be?

Los Angeles, a city with a rich African American presence in radio, once boasted five black-oriented radio stations, a different station for practically every taste. The 1965 Watts riot battle cry "Burn, Baby Burn," originally came from a Los Angeles deejay who would use the phrase while playing hot tunes over the air.

Black radio was the engine that thrust black music into mass appeal--from gospel to jazz, from rhythm and blues and rock 'n' roll to hip hop. And radio is still considered the most popular means of communication in African American communities.

The new owners have told KACE that they plan to adopt a Spanish-language talk show format, KACE officials said.

"This is a tremendous loss," said KACE program director Kevin Fleming. "Radio stations in the black community are not just outlets for music, but centers for all kinds of communications."

Fleming said that radio was the glue that linked the community together, where people turned not only for music, but when they wanted to hear about issues like job training, police brutality, scholarships or how to finance a home.

But when the sale of KACE is finalized early next year, it will leave only one black-oriented, adult station in the city: KJLH-FM (102.3), a low-powered station owned by musician Stevie Wonder.

In many ways, the story of KACE has come to symbolize the demographic shift that changed the face of America.

In Los Angeles County, the Latino market is estimated to be 4 million strong, roughly 44% of the population. That's more than four times the number of African Americans, who represent less than 10% of the total.

In its agreement to sell KACE-FM and its simulcast sister outlet KRTO-FM (98.3), Atlanta-based Cox Radio Inc. was getting out of the Los Angeles market. Dallas-based Hispanic Broadcasting, which already owns several stations in the Los Angeles area, was merely consolidating its hold on the country's largest Spanish-language market.

Reformatting Is a Part of Corporate Strategy

"Acquiring and reformatting English-language radio stations to our Spanish-language formats is an important part of our strategy," said McHenry T. Tichenor Jr., president and CEO of Hispanic Broadcasting, in announcing the sale in October.

The sale marked an end of an era for KACE, which was purchased five years ago by Cox from pro football great Willie Davis. Under Davis' ownership, the station experimented with a number of formats and was one of the first stations to refuse to air rap music that glorified violence and denigrated women.

KACE was among a handful of black-owned stations that abandoned its regular format and rallied to call for calm during the riots in 1992, said Kerman Maddox, a talk show host and political science professor at Southwest Community College.

Maddox said he was on the air until 3 a.m. on the now defunct KGFJ-FM, trying to calm tensions, answering desperate phone calls from family members seeking to reconnect and attempting to shepherd police and fire protection to those in need.

"We became an important tool for people in need," he said.

When Cox took KACE, the station maintained its roots in the black community, focusing on R&B hits of the 1960s and 1970s by artists such as Sam Cooke, the Temptations, Gladys Knight and Al Green. It also picked up the popular Tom Joyner show, an adult contemporary show that is syndicated by ABC Radio Networks to nearly 100 radio stations across the country and heard by 7 million listeners a day.

"Those who would normally have no voice in our community were given a voice by this radio station," said the Rev. Mark Whitlock, the executive director of FAME Renaissance, an economic development program operated by First African Methodist Episcopal Church.

At the station, news of the sale came as a shock, said KACE-FM radio host Gillian Harris.

"Talk about the devastation we felt, like someone dying," Harris said. "We knew we were going to lose our jobs, because like everyone else we accidentally took French in high school. Right now Spanish is the bomb and the only Spanish I know is how to read the menu at Taco Bell."

Officials at KACE said that having a major media company like Cox at the helm did little to shield the station from the typical hardships experienced by minority-owned stations who face an uphill struggle to attract advertising and face stiff competition for listeners from stations that offer similar music formats. Chief among the complaints has been the impact of the Telecommunications Act, which eased local ownership restrictions.

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