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RADIO | Around the Dial

KFI Celebrates 10 Years of Stirring Up 'More Stimulating' Talk

July 29, 1999|KEVIN BAXTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Having raced through a monologue on the roots of sexual harassment and opined on the origins of . . . Now what was that again? Oh yeah, short-term memory loss . . . radio talk-show host Bill Handel closed a recent show by struggling to keep a straight face as he discussed luncheon meats with the author of a book titled "Spam: A Biography."

This is what the station calls more stimulating talk radio? Well, yes and no.

"This is entertainment," Handel confessed later as he turned away from a plate of Spam and guacamole. "But you can't do it just on entertainment. Obviously, there has to be information. The whole point of the show is to bring something new to the table that people otherwise would not know."

It's a novel approach to talk radio, mixing fact with fun--or at least it was novel when KFI-AM (640) started doing it a decade ago. Since then, however, it's come to be known by another term: successful.

"Up until that time, talk radio had been just hosts and callers," says talk-radio superstar Rush Limbaugh, whose nationally syndicated show helped define KFI's format. "And this brought an entirely different dynamic to it. I think what we've done is revitalized a lot of AM stations and made AM a place where people actually tune now."

And for a while, more of them tuned to KFI than to any other talk station in the country. Based on national Arbitron figures for the winter of 1998--10 years after KFI first switched to talk--the station's weekly cumulative audience of 1.3 million was the largest of any talk station in the United States. And although KFI has since slipped to fourth nationally, that achievement nonetheless completed a remarkable rise for the station, which joined the talk-radio wars only as a last resort, then proceeded to redefine the format entirely.

Today, for example, the station carries the conservative political commentary of Limbaugh and tough-love moralist Laura Schlessinger. But it follows them with local personalities such as Karel Bouley and Andrew Howard, an openly gay couple who host the afternoon drive-time show, and evening host Phil Hendrie, whose unique style mocks the very premise of talk radio.

"It's a whole different way of doing things," says Handel, a practicing lawyer who, for six years, has hosted one of the few issue-driven morning drive-time shows in the Southland. "KFI is a different station. It's a very unique station."

Eleven years ago, the only thing different about KFI was the fact that it had one of the largest signals but one of the smallest audiences in the Los Angeles market. It had been a music station almost since its inception, but by the time George Oliva took over as program director, music on AM was dying and KFI's ratings were fading faster than Michael Dukakis' presidential hopes.

"We needed to do something," remembers David G. Hall, who was Oliva's news director at both KFBK in Sacramento and at KFI before succeeding him as program director in 1991. "There was one huge all-talk station in town . . . and that was KABC. And then there was Spanish and there was religion. And if you're a big AM station, what are your other choices?"

New Format Arrested KFI's Ratings Slide

The obvious target was KABC-AM (790), even though the station so dominated its competitors that a court once ruled it had exclusive rights to the slogan "talk radio." And the opening skirmishes of radio's war of the words gave no indication that was about to change: Although the new format arrested KFI's slide, lifting the station five places to 20th in the local radio rankings in less than a year, the audience for third-ranked KABC grew almost as much.

Oliva made the transition slowly, phasing in talk-intensive programs hosted by the likes of Tom Leykis and a former Cleveland comic known as Mother Love around a mix of music, advice and game shows. So although the station marks its first day as a full-time talker as July 17, 1989, the day after it played its last record, it had actually adopted the format in principle more than a year earlier.

"We may or may not be 10 years old," Hendrie says. "Who cares? We're having a party anyway."

But in a sense, KFI never completely abandoned its music-format roots--a fact that has contributed to its success. The station employed rock music "'bumpers" to transition in and out of commercial breaks, irreverent "in your face" promos and a frenetic on-air style.

"There was no passion. It was just talk," Hall says of traditional talk radio. "I guess I kind of made the conscious decision that a news/talk station can sound and feel like a Top 40 station does. The whole style of the radio station, I think, comes from that. There were no other stations in the country . . . quite like us."

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