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Radio AM to FM: December 19, 2003

Reel History

Anyone wondering why KIIS-FM earns only about one-third of the ratings it earned in its 1980s heyday need look no further than Uncle Ricky's Top-40 Radio Repository at This week's featured exhibit is a recording of Dave Murphy from September,1983, during a period in which KIIS was rocketing up the Arbitrons. Within one year KIIS-FM would set the record for the highest-rated FM station in Los Angeles ... ever.

No other station has come close to the 10 share KIIS-FM earned in the Summer of 1984, and the elements that led to this were fully in place -- for a while actually -- when this aircheck was taped. A music mix that appeals to adults as well as teens, just as KHJ did in their heyday. As well: Jingles that were simple, yet allowed the station to stand out; personalities who were professionals and could talk to listeners as individuals; contests that were simple and fun; a real newsperson who actually did news AND public affairs; and a staff that got into the streets to meet people ... without charging them.

It was a carbon-copy of what made KHJ, and just about every other successful top-40 station in history, successful. In fact, it was thought at the time that top-40 was dead; little did people realize that it was not dead, it was just dormant, as no one really remembered how to do it right.

Now again, many people think top-40 is dead. And the ratings over at KIIS-FM, the lowest they have been since 1982, prove it ... except that now, as was then, the real reason is that no one is doing it right.

KIIS-FM of today doesn't even try to appeal to a wide audience. It does nothing to set itself apart from the other Clear Channel stations in town (every top-40 station needs jingles), and it really isn't that fun. Sad, when you hear this aircheck and realize just how magical radio could be in the early to mid 1980s.

Even sadder: this kind of radio is probably gone forever from the Los Angeles radio landscape. Today, KIIS, as is most stations, is owned by a radio conglomerate that owns multiple stations in the same area. And any listener that moves to KIIS most likely would come from another co-owned station such as Star or KBIG. The net result? No incentive to attract a larger audience to one station if the sum ends up being zero to the corporation as a whole. Even if the current personalities on KIIS have the potential do do great things if programming would let them.

Unless ABC, Infinity or Emmis decide to launch a great top-40 station, KIIS-FM really has no direct competition. And those companies probably won't, as they have their own niche stations as well and they too don't want to disturb the status quo.

Return of The Surf

Actually it was never gone, but listeners to the 540 AM simulcast of K-SURF (540 and 1260 AM) were frustrated by interference from a new station at 550 AM over the past few weeks. Some even thought it was a pirate station operating illegally, since 550 is only one channel away from 540 and both were broadcasting from border areas of Mexico.

Turns out that the 550 AM broadcast was a mistake, and Mexican officials shut the station down. It now broadcasts on 560 AM, which is still close but actually legal under Mexico's allocation rules.

Of course this now causes interference with a host of other stations, including those as far away as San Francisco and Yuma, Arizona. So far I have not noticed any signal problems with KLAC (570 AM).

Drama Hour Expands

Radio drama fans who were disappointed when that news station dropped their favorite programming were relieved when K-SURF picked up the ball and added their own Drama Hour to the airwaves. Now they're doing cartwheels through the streets: the station has announced an expansion of the programming to three hours every weeknight, one on Saturdays and two on Sundays.

Here's the schedule:

8:00: When Radio Was, with host Stan Freberg
9:00: The Drama Hour, as was presented on that other station.
10:00: Imagination Theater

Saturday nights at 9:00: Jack Benny and The Great Gildersleeve

Sunday nights:
8:00: The Twilight Zone Radio Theater
9:00: The Lux Radio Theater


Ed Berger, newsman on KFI weekends as well as a host of other stations in Los Angeles, as well as Mark Sheldon, afternoon host on KUSC, both died last week at the all-too-young age of 43.

Sheldon died of a rare form of eye cancer, while Berger -- considered one of the nicest people in radio -- died of pancreatic cancer.

Both worked through their diseases until the end; both will be missed.


Copyright © 2003 Richard Wagoner and The Copley Press.

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