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Good morning, L.A.

DJs and formats may come and go, but several a.m. drivetime jocks have helped Angelenos ease into their day for years.

December 25, 2006|Steve Carney | Special to The Times

Radio is infamous as a mercurial medium in which longtime formats can change without warning and jobs can come and go with such regularity that station call letters spill across DJ resumes like alphabet soup.

So how to explain the stable of Southland morning hosts deep into their second decades, or longer, on the air?

For 19 years, Mark Thompson and Brian Phelps have broadcast their antics on KLOS-FM (95.5), while fans of talk station KFI-AM (640) have awakened to Bill Handel since 1993. Kevin Ryder and Gene "Bean" Baxter have been rousing party people for 16 years from their KROQ-FM (106.7) perch, and the amiable duo of Mark Wallengren and Kim Amidon on KOST-FM (103.5) have held their morning post for 21 years.

"We bought into that thing that radio was flaky. If we had known it was going to go on this long, I'd have bought a bigger house," Amidon quips.

But no one knew. At the beginning of their run at KOST, Wallengren recalls, "every 12 weeks, they had an option to get rid of us."

Likewise, Handel says he started his morning show at KFI with a one-year contract but didn't think he'd last that long.

"The formula of finding a show, making it work and keeping it compelling is pure alchemy," he said.

"If you combine the right people with the right type of format, something just clicks," Handel said. "They've found their audience and their audience has found them. And then with their audience, they become as comfortable as old shoes. It really is the comfortable relationship you have with old friends."

And that's the first key to explaining the longevity: Once the bond is made, stations are inclined to stick with it, favoring consistency over a change that might produce higher ratings but could just as easily produce lower numbers.

The Los Angeles-Orange County radio market is a big one -- the nation's second largest, trailing only New York -- and there are plenty of listeners to go around, segmented by their tastes.

Thus, enthusiasts of Kevin & Bean's search for Miss Double D-cember might not enjoy Handel's riffs on current events, nor would fans of Mark & Kim's reveries about hot chocolate and Christmas music be likely to tune in to a chat between rapper Snoop Dogg and Kurt "Big Boy" Alexander, the morning DJ at KPWR-FM (105.9) for the last nine years.

Wallengren, however, identified a common thread among the long-running shows.

"Without being modest -- talent. The cream rises to the top," he said. "Success sticks around, and mediocrity leaves pretty fast. You've got some really great morning-show talent in this city. The market draws it."

And keeps it. That's the second important factor in explaining longevity here: Why would they go somewhere else? New York has a larger audience, but L.A. can open doors elsewhere in the entertainment industry. Mark and Brian, Kevin and Bean, Bill Handel and Rick Dees have all appeared in movies and television, and, in the case of Big Boy, even a video game.

"It's a privilege to be in a market this size," said Jimmy Steal, program director for KPWR and KMVN-FM (93.9) and vice president of programming for their parent company, Emmis Communications.

"I don't think there are too many people on in L.A. who are saying, 'I can't wait to get to Saginaw,' or, 'I can't wait to get to Pocatello.' Once you make it in L.A., I would think working in about any other market would be anticlimactic."

Behind the levity on-air, morning radio is serious business. Because most listeners tend to stay where they start the day, the ratings of an entire radio station can rise or fall with the morning drive.

"The investment you make to be competitive in morning drive is the biggest investment you make for the radio station," said Kevin Weatherly, program director for KROQ and KCBS-FM (93.1) and vice president of programming for their corporate parent, CBS Radio. "You put the time and energy into a show you believe in. Once you're in the zone, and once you have a show that has some traction, you can have a really long run. Listeners are creatures of habit."

Because of that, shows that don't work disappear pretty quickly, while those that do tend to have long life spans -- barring a change in format or in management's opinion of a host. The king of morning drive in L.A. had been Dees, who debuted on KIIS-FM (102.7) in 1981. But management dumped him in 2004 for a hot new thing, "American Idol" host Ryan Seacrest.

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