When they're merging onto the freeway and figuring whether they need "traffic on the ones" or on the fives -- that, for many Southland listeners, used to be the sole distinction between all-news radio stations KFWB and KNX.
Now the two are trying to stake out separate identities, even while they pool their newsrooms for the first time ever.
"It has been the case that people didn't quite understand if there was a difference, or if there should be a difference," said Andy Ludlum, director of news programming for both KFWB-AM (980) and KNX-AM (1070). Now KNX is being fashioned as the go-to source for world and national news and an in-depth local report, while KFWB offers quick headlines and specializes in the news and business of the entertainment industry -- what Ludlum called "the ultimate local story."
And because KNX's signal is 10 times that of its sister station, Ludlum said, "if the ground starts shaking or the hills are on fire, that should be the station you go to. It really doesn't make a lot of sense for two stations to try to be doing the same thing."
For more than four decades, however, that's exactly what they did -- from 1968, when they switched to all-news formats within a month of each other, until recently, even though they've been owned by the same company since 1995, what is now called CBS Radio.
KFWB was always more short-form, with a staccato, headline-news style carried over from its days as an affiliate of the Westinghouse chain, exemplified by the slogan, "Give us 22 minutes and we'll give you the world." Meanwhile, KNX took a broader approach and played up the cachet of its CBS News affiliation.
However discrete the differences between the two, apparently they were enough for many people to pick a favorite, Ludlum said. According to station research, 75% of the stations' listeners stuck with one or the other, with only 25% crossing over between the two.
George Nicholaw, general manager of KNX from 1967 to 2003, said that even after the merger, the two stations remained independent and continued pushing each other, seeing that as the best way to serve listeners. However, he instructed his sales staff never to bad-mouth KFWB: "We want as many news listeners as we can get."
But in the current shrinking economy, the stations have trimmed staff and pooled resources, so now reporters are filing dispatches for both stations. "We're like every other business, where we're going to be practical," Ludlum said.
CBS Radio also owns all-news stations WCBS and WINS in New York City, a redundancy that might seem strange to the layperson, said Perry Michael Simon, news-talk-sports editor of the online radio trade journal AllAccess .com.
But when KNX and KFWB were independently chasing the same story, their reporters could dig up different facts, he said. "The fewer news organizations you have out there, the more likely it is things will slip past.
"In this case, I doubt if there's anybody within that building that's overjoyed that they've had to cut back and have to combine staff," Simon said, "but you have to try to make lemonade.
"It's an interesting thing to skew one of the stations toward the local industry," he said. "It's a niche that hasn't been served. In this era, it's probably a smart thing to try something like that. Might as well."
Simon pointed out that a down economy is a good time to experiment: With less revenue coming in for all stations, the stakes are not as high in case of failure.
The ultimate parent company of KFWB and KNX, CBS Corp., said its profits fell 52% in the fourth quarter last year because of weak advertising sales, while overall revenue slipped 6%. The radio division took much of that hit, with its revenue dropping 18%, to $367 million, from the same period the year before.
But figures released last week show another distinction between KFWB and KNX: Their ratings are moving in opposite directions. In February and again in March, KNX garnered 3.1% of the Los Angeles-Orange County radio audience, tied for 14th in the market. Ludlum said the last time KNX's audience share was that high was 1995, when it carried the O.J. Simpson trial gavel-to-gavel.
Meanwhile, KFWB tied for 27th in March, with a 1.3% audience share -- a figure that has been dropping since January. In the summer of 2008, KFWB had even led KNX slightly in the ratings, though it traditionally has lagged behind its sister station.
But Simon said the current KFWB experiment probably won't be judged by ratings but revenue, and whether it can drum up trade-specific advertising, such as new show announcements or "for your consideration" pitches to award show voters.
Another change at KFWB is the addition of infomercials on the weekends, also known as "sponsored programming" -- shows made to sound like topical call-in programs that are mainly sales venues for the hosts' real-estate, financial or health services. Ludlum defended the shows as "interesting and informational," while acknowledging they're a nod to the bottom line.
Nicholaw called their addition to the lineup "a monetary decision, not a news decision. Times are tougher -- you've got to find the best way you can to meet that challenge."
Simon warned that listeners who don't hear the shows' disclaimers might think they're products of the station.
"To my taste, it's something that puts you at risk of losing credibility," he said. "In another era, when times were better and revenues were higher, you could argue that it hurt the station long-term. It's a necessary evil at the moment."