Airwaves: August 4, 2006
Rising to the Top
KFI's (640 AM) rise to the top of the ratings in the Spring Arbitrons was cause for celebration among the station's personalities, staff and management. While the station has flirted with the top for some time, it never quite got over the edge. And when it finally did, it not only did it for itself, it did it for all AM stations, as KFI's ranking was the first time in almost two decades that an AM station hit number one in Los Angeles.
How did it get there? before I answer that one, let's take a trip through time to discover some of the rich history that is called KFI.
KFI began broadcasting in 1922 when Earle C. Anthony built a 50-watt transmitter on an actual breadboard. In 1931 the station began broadcasting with 50,000 watts. At one time the station featured a full pipe organ in one of its studios, and was once the local affiliate for Dodgers baseball, broadcasting games to the entire Western United States and Hawaii until the team left for KABC (790 AM) and a network of stations in 1972.
The station played essentially top-40 music in the 1960s, but began a transition to "full service" in the early 1970s with a focus on talk. When the Dodgers left, KFI found itself with an aging audience that wasn't appealing to advertisers. So the decision was made to hire John Rook, who took the station back to top-40 in 1976.
Rook's format was an immediate success, and KFI became what competitor KHJ (930 AM) had once been: fun, interesting, and a musical force with many exclusive hit song premieres. When Rook left in 1982, the station held on to its success for a time, though a softer music list began a general ratings decline.
In 1986, everything hit the fan. Longtime morning team Lohman and Barkley split up. Bruce Wayne, longtime KFI traffic reporter "K-F-Eye in the sky," died in a plane crash. That same day, station manager Don Dalton died from a brain aneurysm.
All of that combined to take KFI, a 50,000 watt clear channel station -- the most powerful station in America -- to a ratings low. The Summer 1986 share was 1.2.
Something had to be done. In 1988, the decision was made to go talk, and the station began the slow transition. A risky move, considering how long it traditionally takes for a station to make it big in the format. Up its sleeve, though, KFI had Rush Limbaugh, who began syndicating his program in August of the same year. KABC, ruler of the LA talk format for years, passed on Limbaugh ... a decision that would ultimately cost the station dearly.
So popular was Limbaugh that for much of KFI's early talk format, he literally carried the station. Other dayparts were marginal in the ratings, but Limbaugh was big almost immediately. Soon Limbaugh became the top syndicated talker in America, and KFI gained credibility in the format.
Slowly but surely, KFI increased its share of the ratings. And while the obvious casualty was KABC, with a topnotch news department KFI was also able to take listeners away from KNX (1070 AM) and KFWB (980 AM).
Today, KFI has about as solid of a schedule as a station could hope to have. Bill Handel is a fantastic morning host with a fantastic sense of humor and humility, and an amazing crew of co-hosts and producers. Limbaugh follows Handel and is still wildly popular, as is Dr. Laura Schlessinger who airs at 12 noon weekdays.
Afternoons belong to John Kobylt and Ken Chiampou, who are unafraid to take on anyone from politicians to suspected criminals. Following John and Ken is John Ziegler, who while doing his own show definitely continues the spirit and attitude of John and Ken. George Noory handles overnights with his Coast to Coast show.
About as solid a schedule as you can have, and weekends are darn good too.
It must be remembered that success wasn't overnight. Indeed, the early days of talk on KFI were low -- the station ended its first year as talk in the low 1 shares. But if patience is a virtue, KFI has virtue to spare. Ratings began an upward trend soon after, and the slow but steady and continuing rise have brought it to where it is today: the most popular talk station in America.
Copyright © 2006 Richard Wagoner and The Copley Press.
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