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Saying bye y'all to Bach, Mozart

KMZT-FM is trading its classical format to sister station KKGO-AM for country offerings.

February 24, 2007|Steve Carney | Special to The Times

Trading Bach and Beethoven for Brooks & Dunn, classical music station K-Mozart will switch to country at 6 a.m. Monday, bringing the genre back to FM radio in the Los Angeles-Orange County market.

KMZT-FM (105.1) will swap names and formats with sister station KKGO-AM (1260), now billed as "Go Country," said owner Saul Levine, president of their parent company, Mt. Wilson FM Broadcasters.

"After 18 years of programming classical music, which I love, it's been an agonizing thing, something we haven't done on the spur of the moment," Levine said. "I really hope the classical music audience will be understanding. I sympathize with those who will be upset."

Country music fans were the ones upset last August, when KZLA-FM (93.9), which once billed itself as "America's most listened-to country station," dropped the format after 26 years, changing to dance- and R&B-flavored pop music as KMVN-FM.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday February 28, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 61 words Type of Material: Correction
KKGO: An article in Saturday's Calendar section about KMZT-FM (105.1) and KKGO-AM (1260) switching formats and positions on the radio dial said that the change would return 105.1 to its original call letters, KKGO-FM. It should have said the frequency was returning to its previous call letters. KMZT was KKGO prior to a change in 2003, but it originally was KBCA.

"Losing a station in Los Angeles unfortunately was a dim spot in what otherwise was a great year for country radio last year," said Ed Salamon, executive director of Country Radio Broadcasters Inc.

Bereft fans of Kenny Chesney and Faith Hill were left straining to catch the signal of KFRG-FM (95.1), San Bernardino's country powerhouse. Then in December, saying he wanted to fill the unmet needs of country listeners, Levine switched KKGO from adult standards by the likes of Frank Sinatra and Diana Krall to country, even adding some former KZLA air talent. Now they move back to the cleaner signals on the FM band.

"Both the country and the classical music audiences are very passionate. I'm sure there will be great relief and excitement on the country side," as well as disappointment among classical listeners, said Jeff Pollack, a leading radio consultant and chief executive of the Pollack Media Group.

"When any market loses a country radio station, people don't hear the music, then the records don't sell and the artists don't have as good a touring opportunity," Salamon said. "But in Los Angeles, the impact is even greater because it's such a media center. People in the creative communities involved in film, television and other media aren't exposed to the music, so it's that much more important. It's certainly good to have an FM signal back."

Although the classical music audience might be well-heeled, the advertisers who buy airtime on stations are looking for younger listeners. Levine said much of the KMZT audience is in its 60s, whereas advertisers covet the 25-to-54 age group. He added that KMZT revenue had dropped 80% in the last year, losing accounts with BMW, Mercedes-Benz and AT&T.

"If we don't get the support we need, what can we do? We are a for-profit corporation," he said.

As the rare independent owner in the radio industry, he's refused numerous offers from media chains to sell, saying he's satisfied to make his payroll and a "fair living." But the recent tightening has put stress on that outlook.

He called the void left by KZLA's departure "an act of God," which gave him a chance to improve his bottom line, as well as slide into a comfortable format. "I would not have been happy to go to alternative rock or hip-hop," Levine said.

"Saul has very unselfishly kept this radio station when he could have sold it years ago," Pollack said. "I think that, having done his sort of civic duty to keep it alive, it's very difficult, competitively, to have a commercial classical station."

KMZT is one of the few commercial classical-music stations in the country, and the format is even vanishing from many public-radio stations. Los Angeles had the rare distinction of having more than one classical music station, and Levine noted that fans of Mozart and Mahler can still tune to KUSC-FM (91.5) and KCSN-FM (88.5), as well as KMZT on the AM dial.

"There were three FM classical stations in this market, and there wasn't one FM country station," Levine said. "We're doing a juggling act, because our history has been to serve orphaned formats."

In fact, Levine -- who has owned the 105.1 frequency since 1958 -- changed it from jazz to classical music in January 1990 after longtime classical station KFAC-FM (92.3) dropped the format. Jazz fans were incensed.

Monday's switch will return 105.1 to its original call letters, KKGO; Levine renamed the station KMZT in 2003 to highlight its classical offerings.

Although K-Mozart will remain on the air, classical fans are bound to be disappointed by the fidelity of the AM signal -- a reason most music programming has abandoned the AM dial to news, talk and sports. Listeners with HD radios will be able to hear K-Mozart on FM, on the secondary digital stream from the new KKGO, Levine noted.

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