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Radio AM to FM: April 21, 2000

So hot its sizzling: the fate of KABC (790 AM) program director Drew Hayes as well as most of the personalities may be at stake as owner Disney/ABC decides to finally do something about the sagging ratings at the once powerful talk station.

For most of its existence, KABC had talk to itself, consistently making the Arbitron top-10 and often breaking into the top-5. The last few years have not been so kind to the station, however, as ratings have continually dropped, threatening to take KABC out of the top-20 for the first time in decades.

Certainly new competition from KFI (640 AM) explains part of the drop, but not all. And not all of it is related to what might be called "interesting" programming decisions over the past few years.

At least one observer says that programmer Hayes is on the way out. Another claims that Hayes will stay but will be "held accountable" for his success or lack thereof. But focusing on Hayes takes the attention away from the real story: perhaps KABC's time is up.

What KABC has to face is that it is on the declining side of a cycle. KABC, the old guard of talk radio, has essentially become irrelevant to the majority of radio listeners, who have either moved on to other talk stations, other music stations, or left radio altogether for the numerous informational television and cable programs running throughout the day. KABC is old hat. Everything else is shiny and new.

This is common in radio and in fact many other areas. Many popular night clubs and dance spots are all but forgotten in just a short time as new businesses come in to steal the thunder.

Often in radio it is overreaction on the part of programmers that ultimately destroys the station. KHJ (930 AM) was seen as a station people liked but were afraid to admit they listened back in 1975, so owner RKO hired John Sebastian to take the station in the direction of the popular FM AOR stations of the time, KMET (now KTWV, 94.7 FM) and KLOS (95.5 FM). Many observers feel that the creation of "Position 93," playing Led Zeppelin and The Bee Gees back to back, was the beginning of the end for KHJ. Going Country when the Urban Cowboy trend had it's 5 minutes of fame in 1980 cemented the station's decline.

Can KABC be saved? Yes, although it will most likely take time, far more time than Disney is willing to give. It took KFI years to gain any credibility in the talk wars, and it had the tremendous advantage of having Rush Limbaugh under contract when his popularity was exploding. Even KLSX (97.1 FM), while a financial success due to the key demographics it attracts, is a ratings disaster outside of the Howard Stern and Tom Leykis programs. And KRLA (1110 AM)? They barely get any callers, let alone listeners.

The more realistic question for KABC may be, should it be saved? Should KABC try to save itself as a talk station when a quick glance around the dial and across the nation reveals a startlingly low number of real talk talents ... the kind of talent that could quick-start KABC as Limbaugh, Dr. Laura Schlessinger, Howard Stern and Tom Leykis have done for KFI and KLSX.

Los Angeles has more talk stations than most other US cities. Perhaps its time for KABC to admit its time is up and move on to something new.


Copyright © 2000 Richard Wagoner and The Copley Press.

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