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RADIO | Around the Dial

Riding Out the Turbulence

Despite front-office changes, proven performers KKBT, KPWR stay the course.

May 06, 1999|STEVE HOCHMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

You think the Lakers have had some turmoil and upheaval this season with a coaching change, major trade and, of course, Dennis Rodman?

That's nothing compared to the movement that's been going on around the offices of L.A.'s two leading urban music stations, KKBT-FM (92.3) and KPWR-FM (105.9).

See if you can follow this:

In December at KKBT, known as the Beat, program director Michelle Santosuosso--having been on the job less than a year--abruptly left the station. She was replaced by Mike Saunders. Meanwhile, at the rival station commonly referred to as Power 106, a new team of general manager Val Maki and program director Steve Smith was just settling in when Smith was offered a national senior vice presidency at Chancellor Media, the company that owns the Beat. He took it.

So back at Power, a search to fill that new vacancy turned up Mike Tierney, a programming executive at VH1 television. But just a couple of weeks ago, before he'd really taken the job full time, Tierney was in New York to help oversee the cable channel's second "Divas" special, which turned out to be the biggest ratings-grabber in VH1's history. In the afterglow, VH1 bosses decided they didn't want to let Tierney go and offered him a new gig overseeing special programming. He took it.

It must really be playing havoc with the stations' programming, right?

Nope. Not a bit. In fact, most listeners probably don't have any idea there have been changes going on at all. The Lakers wish they'd had it so good.

The fact is, all these moves have come at a time when the Beat and Power are riding high. They both benefit from the strength of hip-hop and R&B music (with Power leaning more to the former, the Beat more to the latter) as well as the strengths of their on-air staffs. So while behind the scenes it's chaos in the corridors, on the air it's steady as she goes.

"We've been fortunate enough to have a very stable on-air staff," says Craig Wilbraham, the Beat's vice president and general manager since 1991. "And though programmers change from time to time, if you have a firm strategic plan--and we do--you just seek out the talent to keep it moving."

Power general manager Maki sounds a similar note about the changes she's overseeing.

"We have a very good staff in place," she says, noting that Rick Cummings, vice president of owner Emmis Broadcasting, will handle program director duties while a search is held for a new full-time executive. "We're sitting in a good spot, though I'd be lying to say I wasn't disappointed [with Tierney's change of heart]."

New Arbitron ratings bear out their desire for smooth courses. The Beat, claiming listenership equally divided among African Americans, Latinos and "others," is currently fifth-rated overall in the market with a 3.8% share of audience. Power, courting a primarily Latino audience, is third overall and tied for first among English-language stations with pop outlet KIIS-FM (102.7).

Maki is particularly proud of the progress made at Power with the morning show featuring Big Boy, who with a new cast of associates and writers and a hard-to-miss billboard campaign has moved from a weak 15th in the market to No. 8 in morning drive time. That slot has long been strong for the Beat, where "John London and House Party" has been consistently in the top five for years.

That's not to say either station is resting on its laurels. Smith says he hopes to increase focus on and awareness of London's strengths to give the morning man a higher presence beyond the station's regular listeners. And he also is a strong supporter of the Beat's community affairs efforts, which have been an emphasis since the 1992 L.A. riots.

"One thing I always respected about the Beat was that community tie," Smith says. "I don't think there's a station in the country I've heard or competed against that puts as much into the community."

A summer arts program with station personnel and music business staffers participating in youth workshops is about to start for a second year, while the station's ongoing series of town meetings and special-issue programming continues to be a strong feature.

Meanwhile, Smith has a second focus in his national capacity--taking the "Mega" rhythmic oldies format of sister station KCMG-FM (100.3) into new markets.

"It's very exciting," he says. "I just signed on a new station with that in Cleveland, and we've already had wonderful success in New York, Chicago and Dallas, as well as L.A. And we're going into other markets. It's going to be the big format of the millennium."

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