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KTWV gets its voice back

After a year away, Don Burns returns to the smooth-jazz format that he helped popularize.

May 16, 2003|Steve Carney | Special to The Times

On smooth-jazz outlet KTWV-FM (94.7), Don Burns calls his afternoon drive-time show the "no-stress express." But behind the microphone, the Wave has been anything but tranquil.

Burns, the voice many listeners have equated with the station since it pioneered the smooth jazz genre in 1988, returned Monday after leaving a year ago in a contract dispute. His replacement, J.J. Jackson, the former MTV VJ, was fired several weeks ago, and the longtime program director and her assistant program director have both left within the past six months.

All this while the station -- a perennial ratings leader among adults 25 to 54 -- saw its share of the Southland radio audience tumble from 3.6% of all listeners last summer to 2.8% in the most recent Arbitron ratings for the first three months of this year.

"Having Don back on staff, a DJ who is so strong and so central to the station's identity, is just a great boon to the station," said Carol Archer, smooth jazz editor for the trade publication Radio & Records.

KTWV's vice president and general manager, Tim Pohlman, said he contacted Burns about returning five or six months ago, but Burns said he lacked the fire in the belly at that time. He recently reconsidered, and they reached the agreement that apparently was impossible last year.

"I'm excited to have him back. I'm ecstatic," Pohlman said. "He missed us and we missed him."

Burns, meanwhile, said he was amazed at the warm listener response he's heard since returning.

"I can't grasp why people like what I do so much, but I am humbled and flattered by it," he said, in his signature low, rich voice that's even smoother than the station's format. It's a soothing playlist that might feature Aretha Franklin one minute and Anita Baker the next, or Diana Krall, then Hall & Oates.

When Burns returned to the air Monday, he joked about his time away and said he felt like Patrick Duffy, whose character on the former TV series "Dallas" died and was resurrected the following season, when it turned out his demise was simply a dream. Off the air, he said his return to the Wave was "almost as comfortable as the day I was hired in 1988. It just felt like home."

"I was blessed to be put there in 1988. It was just the right fit. It was almost incomprehensibly perfect," he said. "I did not want to leave. It was the right thing for me to do at the time."

Pohlman characterized the dispute between Burns and the station as "you say you want a quarter and I say I have a dime."

Burns left, and the station replaced him with Jackson -- known to most for his work on MTV, and as a disc jockey at KLOS-FM and other rock stations here, in Boston and elsewhere.

The self-proclaimed rock guy admitted he was incredibly surprised when KTWV contacted him, but program director Chris Brodie praised him as a musicologist and cited his familiarity to L.A. listeners.

Then Brodie announced in October that she was leaving. After working at the station for 19 years and ushering it from its album-rock incarnation, KMET, to the Wave in 1987, she said she wanted to explore other opportunities.

Paul Goldstein, coming from smooth-jazz station KKSF in San Francisco, replaced her in January and soon after fired Jackson. Pohlman said the experiment didn't work. Then last week, Brodie's assistant program director and music director, Ralph Stewart, also left the station.

"He and Chris were real close. He decided to seek other things," Pohlman said. "There's really not a connection there. I don't want there to be a misrepresentation -- when Chris Brodie left, when Ralph Stewart left, when Don Burns left, that was their decision."

Upon his return, Burns called Goldstein, who worked in production at KTWV when it launched, then left to program stations in Chicago and San Francisco, a very positive, inclusive sort of person.

When KTWV went all smooth jazz on Valentine's Day 1988, it was the first station in the country to do so, according to the trade publication Radio & Records. It was consistently among the area's top five stations throughout the 1990s, particularly among adults 25 to 54 and particularly in Burns' time slot. But in the most recent Arbitron ratings, surveying listeners from January to March, KTWV was 13th among adults 25-54, 10th among English-language stations.

Pohlman said the station is employing several tools to help reverse the ratings slide, including new jingles nd new billboards that will be appearing soon. "Burns' comeback also appears to be making listeners happy, with a response," Pohlman said, "that was overwhelming and consistent: This is where you belong."

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