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Airwaves: September 18, 2009

The End of KFI?

While the news was great for KFI this month -- the station was the dominant station in the August Arbitron ratings, the first time an AM station has led the local ratings race since I have been writing this column -- the future just doesn’t look so hot for the supposedly more stimulating talker.

What made the station so untouchable for years was a focus on local programming. Certainly having the two highest-rated syndicated shows in the nation were what put the station on the map -- Rush Limbaugh and Dr. Laura Schlessenger -- but it was the local focus the rest of the day that gave KFI its fiercely loyal audience that has stayed with it through thick and thin.

As mentioned a few weeks ago, though, the armor has begun to crack. First, Dr. Laura moved up the dial to KFWB (980 AM). Not a big deal in and of itself; certainly the station can withstand the loss of a major program even if it means losing one that is so closely identified with it for so many years.

The problem lies in how station management is dealing with that loss. First, they decided that we actually want Bill Handel two more hours a day. Don’t get me wrong, Handel has an excellent morning program that consistently rates among the top in the city. But two more hours from 12 noon to 2 PM? You’ve got to be kidding. And to make matters worse, those two hours are syndicated, meaning that in reality they have no real connection to Los Angeles ... the reason Handel is popular in the first place.

Same with afternoon hosts John Kobylt and Ken Chiampou. Yes, they have one of the top afternoon shows, or at least they did when it was local. But some dim bulb at KFI or owner Clear Channel decided that they could save some bucks by syndicating them as well, starting earlier this month. Longtime listeners may recall the last time John and Ken were syndicated ... it wasn’t pretty. Soon they were off the station.

This time not only are they syndicated (currently on a low-rated Bay Area station), they also get the remaining extra hour from Dr. Laura’s departure. Yes, that means five hours straight of John and Ken. You think the quality will hold, especially when they now have to be relevant not only locally but to San Francisco as well? For five hours, a shift unheard of with popular and successful talk shows? Well, maybe it could work if they just ignore the fact that they have a handful of listeners in San Francisco; Somehow I doubt that management wants them to do exactly that.

I may most certainly be wrong, but when it comes to radio, I usually am not. I think KFI may have hit its peak, and if any other talk station in town actually went after them, KFI’s days of dominance would be numbered. And what if a station like, oh, say, KFWB managed to steal Limbaugh away? KFI would be dead in the water with two mostly syndicated programs covering almost half its broadcast day.

Make no mistake: KFI is vulnerable. Very vulnerable, what with these ill-advised changes in programming. The station’s only saving grace? Its competitors are probably too stupid to take advantage of the situation.


Copyright © 2009 Richard Wagoner and Los Angeles Newspaper Group.

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