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ON THE MEDIA

KFWB has a deal for you

The news station has started running round-the-clock infomercials on the weekends.

April 29, 2009|JAMES RAINEY

I remember gaping in amazement when the big outdoorsman on "Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom" would once again allow himself to be ordered into harm's way by gray-haired host Marlin Perkins.

As Perkins cooled his heels back at camp, waxing about nature, big Jim wrestled an anaconda, or faced down a water buffalo. My brother, sister and I would laugh ourselves silly.

But when Perkins closed every show with an insurance pitch ("As the beaver protects its young with a dam, so you can protect your children with Mutual of Omaha's . . . blah blah.") we would tear, running, from the room. Along with a nascent sense of irony, I suppose we were expressing disdain at the melding of content and commerce.

That's much the way it has felt in recent weeks, hearing stodgy, dependable old KFWB News Radio (AM-980) turn its weekends over to round-the-clock infomercials.

"Give us 22 minutes and we'll give you the world," KFWB has promised since I can remember. But now, on Saturdays and Sundays, it's "Give us 22 minutes and we'll give you . . . fish oil, gold coins, cut-rate mortgages."

The change crept on me one recent Saturday. Everything seemed normal through a "Traffic on the Ones" freeway update, then a weather report. But instead of following with its regular staple of headlines and terse field reports, KFWB jumped to an interview program.

The earnest host assured us we would get to the bottom of this sticky mortgage mess. He bantered lightly with an expert guest, who sounded as blandly affable as the computer Hal in "2001."

Together, they promised a wondrous payoff, if only I would call this toll-free number or visit that website.

Somewhere before the next segment ("Experience the miracle of fish oil!") I emerged from my haze, realizing that dear old News 980, "All News All the Time," survived in name only.

I tuned in a few more times and found the weekend infomercial jag went on without end. But that might seem like the least of KFWB's changes to longtime listeners.

The station will carry 110 Angels baseball games this year. It has shifted a good portion of its news coverage during the week to Hollywood and entertainment news.

The changes come as KFWB consolidates operations with its sister station, KNX-AM (1070). And there has been a human cost -- about two dozen reporters, anchors and writers losing their jobs since October. Included on the hit list were familiar names Vicki Cox, Laura Ornest, Jennifer Bauman, Lonnie Lardner and Larry Carroll.

CBS Radio owns both stations and management said it no longer made sense to have two all-news stations in Los Angeles.

Andy Ludlum, director of news programming at KFWB and KNX, says he plans for KNX to maintain its general news format, while KFWB increasingly focuses on entertainment, which he called "a vibrant, $38-billion industry that has a vital effect on the lives of many people here in Los Angeles."

Some veterans inside the station worried, however, about the steep learning curve for generalists thrown onto the Hollywood beat. They also wondered whether the mix of baseball, entertainment news and infomercials would make KFWB "something that is neither fish nor fowl," thereby hastening its demise.

Ludlum called KFWB's move to infomercials from 6 a.m. Saturday to midnight Sunday "a business decision on the most effective way to support the radio station."

He said the station "rejects a lot of stuff because it doesn't meet our standards and might try to appear to be part of the news content."

One recently departed KFWB employee said he didn't like the infomercials but that, in a troubled time for advertising, it has become harder to sustain an argument against anything that brings in money.

Ludlum insists that the weekend ad blocs will be honed so they offer more worthwhile information, while never leaving a doubt about the source of the programming. "If it's a commercial," he said, "you know it's a commercial."

Most listeners could probably guess. But right now the station tends to identify the ad content at the top and bottom of the hour. You can listen to long pitches without hearing once that the guy giving advice is trying to make a buck.

Advertisers might not love additional transparency. But that seems like the least KFWB should do, for its listeners and its long tradition of delivering straight news.

--

james.rainey@latimes.com

On the Media also appears Fridays on Page A2.

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