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103.1: Airing on the Side of Optimism

Members of the staff at 103.1 are confident the format will survive--even if the station itself doesn't.

May 18, 2000|STEVE HOCHMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The guillotine blade is poised over KACD/KBCD-FM (103.1), ready to fall at any time.

The adult alternative station--known as Channel 103.1--is in the process of being sold off as part of the merger between its owner, Clear Channel, and AMFM Inc., with a Spanish language group ready to take over and change the format. Expectations are that it could happen as soon as July 1.

And yet, around the station's Santa Monica offices, there's no sense of gloom 'n' doom. Rather it's quite the opposite, a mood of business as usual, with smiles and optimism.

Are these people in denial?

Nope, says music director Nicole Sandler, who was the first employee of the station in late 1998 and remains its primary on-air persona in her afternoon deejay slot.

"It hasn't affected us around here, not in the least," she says. "I have a job to do--make the best radio station I can while we're here."

'World Class Rock' May Continue to Play

It's a little different when she's not focusing her attention on that duty, though. After all, she's been through this before. She was also music director of adult alternative predecessor KSCA-FM (101.9) when it was sold and changed to Spanish-language music.

"When I'm home at night, thinking about what might happen in my life, of course it does concern me," she admits. "I would like for things to stay as they are. I haven't been happier in a job ever. But life is full of changes."

This time, though, the change may not be as dramatic as last. In fact, it may prove to be not much of a change at all. Plans are being devised to keep Channel 103.1 and its brand of what they call "World Class Rock" available in Los Angeles.

"Our programming will not be on 103.1 when all these deals go down," says program director Keith Cunningham. "But we're confident our programming will survive. We don't feel the sky is falling."

It helps that their boss, Roy Laughlin, who is not only 103.1's general manager but also oversees pop mammoth KIIS-FM (102.7) and sports-oriented KXTA-AM (1150), is all but promising to keep the station going, one way or another.

"We genuinely do not know what is going to happen with the station," Laughlin says. "But there are three distinct possibilities. One is the radio station gets incorporated into an existing station, or at least part of its programming. The second is that it completely moves to another signal in our [ownership] cluster. Third is it goes to an Internet-only existence."

There is a fourth possibility.

"Fourth is it just says farewell, but we don't think that's going to happen."

No one's willing to guess which current stations might accommodate the format either whole or in part, and the Internet is still a hit-and-miss territory for audio programming, though it's not too much of a stretch to imagine this station achieving some name-brand status there the way former L.A. rocker KNAC has.

But why bother at all? It's not like 103.1 has burned up the L.A. airwaves. Its signal is weak and can barely be picked up in the Valley. And Clear Channel hasn't felt it worthy of much of a promotional budget, keeping public awareness at what Sandler and Cunningham kindly call a "word of mouth" level. The station's overall Arbitron rating was a mere .1 with just .6 share of the market--not enough to crack the Top 30. Even in its target demographic of listeners 25-to-54, it has only gotten a 1.1 ratings share. And the total cume (the term for cumulative audience estimate) stands at a fairly paltry 400,000--negligible compared to KIIS' roughly 2 million, the region's largest.

So why does Laughlin even care if the station continues?

"This has just 400,000, but we like to think they're a special 400,000," he says.

Special, in radio parlance, means that advertisers love them--the adult alternative audience is among the highest in income and education in commercial radio. It's also an audience that spends hours a week listening to the station. That has led to 103.1 being consistently profitable since going on the air, with revenues growing.

"We just had our first million-dollar month," Laughlin boasts.

And he also notes that many advertisers themselves seem to be listeners.

Positive Feelings Despite Sense of Limbo

Perhaps more importantly is where the format fits into the overall scheme of Laughlin's duties. With KIIS pretty much dominating the teen and young adult demographics--including a healthy share of the Latino population--and KXTA bringing in adult males, the baby boomers of 103.1 round out what can be offered to advertisers as a package deal covering a wide spectrum.

One way or another, there's plenty of incentive to keep the format alive. So even if there's a sense of limbo there now--plans for a second anniversary concert in the fall are on hold, as are various other promotions and marketing campaigns--there's still a lot of positivity.

"Everyone here genuinely likes their jobs and we have a great working environment," says Cunningham. "If people weren't enjoying it, the morale would be pretty bad. But everyone is remaining positive."

Adds Sandler, "I don't think whatever powers there are out there will let L.A. be without this kind of music again."

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