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Talk-radio executive moves back to news

September 26, 2003|Steve Carney | Special to The Times

He helped propel Rush Limbaugh and Dr. Laura to their current heights and brought former Police Chief Daryl Gates, a gay couple and Jesus Christ to the airwaves at talk station KFI-AM (640). So should sober fans of straight news be dismayed that David G. Hall is taking over KFWB and KNX?

"These are radio stations that are by no means broken. Maybe in some cases they could be better focused," Hall said, but he noted that 1 million people listen to each of the all-news outlets, and there's little overlap in the audiences. "In a lot of ways, these are very healthy radio stations. There probably will not be wholesale changes."

Hall moves from being senior vice president of programming at Premiere Radio Networks, which distributes Limbaugh, Laura Schlessinger and other talk-radio heavyweights, to become vice president of AM programming in Los Angeles for the Infinity Radio chain, namely KFWB-AM (980) and KNX-AM(1070).

"When I was at KFI, I did some pretty bold things," said Hall, program director there from 1991 until 2002. But he said the moves "were always thought through carefully, even the bold things."

Perry Michael Simon, news-talk-sports editor at AllAccess .com, an online trade journal of the radio industry, said a complete makeover at either KFWB or KNX would be risky.

"There's a lot of heritage involved in both stations. It would be hard to blow off 35 years of equity in the call letters. The other element is, what do you do?" he asked, wondering what gaping hole exists on the AM dial to be filled.

Hall said he took the job because he missed local radio and found himself on the day of the Columbia shuttle explosion with no one to call, no coverage to mobilize.

Even though he made his name heading a talk station, Hall said he's returning to his news roots -- he was an award-winning reporter at KFBK in Sacramento and created the news department at KFI when he went to work there in 1989. When he took over as program director, the station had only recently taken on the emerging Limbaugh show, Dr. Laura was stuck in a weekend graveyard shift, and John (Kobylt) & Ken (Chiampou) were still in New Jersey. By the time Hall left for Premiere in 2002, KFI had shot from the ratings doldrums, past archrival talker KABC-AM (790), to become one of the Southland's highest-rated stations of any kind.

To some extent, Hall may find himself a victim of his own success. Simon said many listeners now tune to a station such as KFI because it offers both news updates and an opportunity for discussion and analysis of the stories. Even the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the war in Iraq gave scant ratings boosts to either KNX or KFWB.

But Hall insists the audiences are different and plans to make the most of the distinction.

"To listen to a talk station, you have to really be a fan of talk radio," he said. News-radio listeners, on the other hand, tend also to be music-station listeners and tune to the news for headlines, traffic updates, sports sores, etc. "It's a place where you go and get what you need and go back to what you're used to.

"You would be surprised how little [audience] the news stations share with the talk stations and how little the news stations share with each other," he said.

Infinity owns both all-news stations in New York, as well, so the company believes in the worth of what might on the surface look like a redundancy.

Simon said the key in Los Angeles will be to make sure there's enough difference between KFWB and KNX so they're not fishing from the same audience pool. Among some listeners right now, he said, the only the difference between the two "depends on when you want your traffic."

Hall said that when he starts Oct. 6, his goal is simple: Find out what KNX and KFWB listeners want from the stations that they aren't already getting and provide it to them.

As a boy growing up in Sacramento, Hall said, he used to listen to KNX when he could pick up the signal at night. And he later worked in that city for the same company that owned KFWB at the time, Group W. "I feel like I've had a relationship with these stations almost my whole life," he said, so getting a chance to oversee them, "it's humbling. It's just a huge thing to me."

He's baaaack

Art Bell, who kept Americans up nights with his discussions of the paranormal, extraterrestrial and just plain strange, has returned to "Coast to Coast AM," the show he created in 1993 and from which he retired New Year's Day.

Bell has taken over the weekend edition of the show, which airs locally every night from 10 to 5 on KFI-AM (640). He replaces Barbara Simpson. George Noory, who took over for Bell at the beginning of the year as the weekday host, will remain in that slot and just signed a long-term contract with Premiere Radio Networks, which distributes the program to 475 stations nationwide.

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