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Airwaves: September 16, 2011

Trust in KFWB

In what may be one of the stranger decisions made by the Federal Communications Commission in the past few years, CBS will be allowed to keep KFWB (980 AM) in a trust seemingly indefinitely under a stipulation that the trust itself cannot change the format.

The once popular former all-news station has been in a trust since 2002, after CBS (then Viacom, actually) bought KCAL television Channel 9 and by owning seven radio and two television stations ended up one over the broadcast ownership limit. In most cases the sale would have been forced years ago but for reasons unknown to mere mortals, the FCC has dragged its feet enforcing the rule while CBS has waited and lobbied for the ownership limits to be changed.

Truly, this is unusual. CBS was indeed forced to sell KFRC in San Francisco more recently under circumstances in which the company wasn’t even over the limits in the city by the bay. In that case it had to do with the way the powerful AM station reached into other cities that put it over the limit on a technicality more than in reality. I am not sure why KFRC had to be sold (coincidentally removing any real reason to visit San Francisco) and not KFWB. Not that I’m necessarily complaining, just curious.

Regardless, the most resent decision had to do with Saul Levine (owner of Go Country 105 and K-Mozart 1260) filing a complaint regarding the trust. It seems that in 2010, CBS added language to the trust agreement that the trust cannot change the format of the station. In effect, said Levine, that means CBS is still calling the shots at the station and is thus running the station as if it was its own rather than allowing it to operate independently under the direction of the trust as it awaits a buyer.

In effect, the complaint is that, essentially, CBS is running the station as if it has no intention of selling it. And of course, Levine is right: CBS has no intention of selling it, or they would have done so over the last decade or so.


Of course one might wonder why CBS would go to all the trouble to save a format that few even know exists ... at least outside of another local newspaper that ran a story last week that, for lack of a better phrase, totally got it wrong.

CBS claims -- and they probably are partly right -- that they added the format change language in 2010 to bring it in line with another FCC rule regarding trusts. But the real reason is most likely less technical ... they want to keep their syndicated talk programming on an LA station so that they can more easily sell the programming in the rest of the country. Sure no one listens here, but in the world of radio it doesn’t matter ... it is a huge deal for a program to be “cleared” in Los Angeles, and it impresses the small-town owner who doesn’t know no one listens.

Which brings us back to that interesting yet incorrect story that ran in the other newspaper last week that told of all the wonderful changes programmer Andy Ludlum has made to KFWB as of late in order to breathe new life into the station that has been on life support since dropping all-news two years ago.

Yes, Ludlum has added great local coverage with the monthly “On Your Corner” series that features live broadcasts from various cities and covers important local and business issues. Yes, he was able to expand news coverage with newscasts in the morning (Penny Griego and Phil Hulett) and afternoons (Maggie McKay and Michael Shappee).

But he is still hobbled by the the CBS syndicated programming that ties his hands and prevents any real chance for building a decent listenership. Dave Ramsey, Michael Smerconish, Laura Ingraham, Todd Schnitt ... all syndicated must-carries and comprising about half of KFWB’s broadcast day. And while many of these hosts are fine hosts in their own right, they just don’t get the ratings needed to make KFWB anything but the has-been that it is now.

It got even worse when the station’s star, Dr. Laura Schlessenger, left traditional radio for Sirius/XM Satellite. Prior to Schlessenger’s departure, the station was close to 1 shares. In the last ratings release, the station earned a 0.5 share ... lower than even KLAC (570 AM) or KSPN (710 AM) which tied at 0.6.

So the real question is ... what to do? My suggestion? Let Ludlum actually program the station. He knows how to do it. Trust him. Let him go wild. Maybe bring back the “22 minute” format that ran successfully for years, or maybe keep the news-talk format. But most importantly, let him program it the way he wants without the constraints of the must-carry syndicated fare. Then we’d have a real station at 980 again.

(Note: After this ran, Ludlum called to explain that no KFWB programming is distributed by CBS. A correction can be found in the October 14th column)


Copyright © 2011 Richard Wagoner and Los Angeles Newspaper Group.

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