Unusual Programming Succeeds at KFOX Radio : Gab, Guitars and Gay Issues on the Air

Community Correspondent

From radio station KFOX's second-floor office at Seaport Village, one can hear the surf pounding and watch a film crew shoot an episode of NBC's "Riptide." An unlikely location for a broadcasting operation, perhaps, but no more unlikely than the programming, an unusual mix of special-interest shows, some broadcast in one of five foreign languages.

The 3,000-watt FM station, at 93.5 on the dial, features programs on everything from sports and horse-race handicapping to psychic phenomena and homosexual issues; from real estate financing to holistic health; from country music to handwriting analysis; from trivia games to voice improvement. Some programs are broadcast in Russian, Persian, Armenian, German or Spanish.

"To a certain extent, there is a loose connection between all the programs," said program director Jim Dolce. "Everything we have on the air can help people--whether it's winning at the race track or buying a home."

KFOX offers what is known as block programming. It sells time on the station for $250 to $300 an hour to programmers who handle their own content and advertising.

Format Changed

The block format is "one of the only avenues available for ethnic and special-interest programming," said Harry Spitzer, vice president of the Southern California Broadcasters Assn. In the Los Angeles area, he said, only KIEV in Glendale and KMAX in San Gabriel use similar systems. KFOX was an adult contemporary music station until April, 1984, when it changed formats. "Frankly, we could not do the $10,000-a-week giveaways and a lot of other things that it takes for radio stations to thrive during ratings periods," said Dolce, 35, who has been the station's program director for two years.

Most of the current programs are live call-in shows, he said. "We can tell by the number of callers that our listenership has increased since we first started as a talk-radio format.

"A year ago," he said, "we would go all day and get only three or four calls." The station does not subscribe to a ratings service.

The program that has generated the most interest recently, he said, is "Leigh Spear--the Straight Talk of L.A.," which Spear describes as "the only commercial gay radio program in the country." The weekly program, which airs on Sunday afternoon, includes gay entertainment news, celebrity interviews, in-studio guests from the gay community and listener-participation discussions of gay social issues.

Unique Program

"I was flabbergasted" by the attention the show got from the media, Dolce said. "We do have a large gay community that needs to be addressed," he said, noting that the station's signal reaches beyond the South Bay to West Los Angeles, Santa Monica, Hollywood, the San Fernando Valley, Malibu and parts of north Orange County. "It seems strange to me that this little radio station in Redondo Beach is the only one that's doing this."

The gay program began in the spring when Spear--the son of Jackie Gleason's former orchestra leader Sammy Spear--shifted the focus of his former program, "The Leigh Spear Show," which had been an entertainment-oriented show.

"The response has been very positive," he said. "We expected some hostile reactions, but instead all we got were congratulations." Judging from phone calls and letters he has received, Spear speculates that his audience includes a significant number of gays in the Los Angeles area. He said he has more than a dozen sponsors and hopes to expand to a second hour of air time each week.

"As far as subject matter is concerned," Dolce said, "I tend to favor things that fit into the New Age category." As examples, he cited weekday programs such as "The Elizabeth Show" with psychic Elizabeth Nachman, "Crystal Healing" with Joan Sotkin, "The Astrology Hour" with Farley Malorrus and "Octave Beyond" with metaphysician Betty Finmark.

Alternative Programming

"I like programs that can impact people's lives," Dolce said, "and if I had a choice, I'd rather call up and win chocolate chip cookies on our trivia game show than listen to the latest Madonna song for the fourth time that day. So I guess the criterion is putting on shows that give people an alternative to what they've already got. They're all playing the same records out there."

The station's slogan proclaims KFOX to be "your talk alternative."

Besides acting as program director, Dolce, a former disc jockey, said he produces commercials, does much of the engineering, works as a "kind of sidekick to several of the on-air people" and is host for the "Great American Trivia Giveaway Show," which airs weekday afternoons and is sponsored by merchants who provide contest prizes.

He said the program, initiated last year, was the only daily radio trivia game show in Southern California until the recent premiere of a similar show on a San Fernando Valley AM station.

Other 'Firsts'

Dolce points to other programs on the station's roster that are "unique to L.A. radio." Beverlee McLaughlin's show "Search for Self" on Friday mornings is the only radio program on handwriting analysis, he said. "The Elizabeth Show," he said, is the only program aired four times a week--Monday through Thursday mornings--that gives psychic readings to callers on the air.

"Paul Bowman's Million Dollar Country Music Show," which airs for 11 hours each day, is "the only program to play pure traditional country music," host Bowman said. "All the others are crossover stuff that sounds like rock 'n' roll."

Bowman, a veteran country entertainer, has been on the station for 2 1/2 years. Sandwiched some days between "Let's Talk Bargains"--a program in which merchants call in touting special prices--and "The Famous Computer Cafe"--a talk show devoted to discussions of computer technology--Bowman is reluctantly tolerant of the disparate company.

"The station has to do what they feel is right," he said. "But it would be full-time country music if it was up to me."

Bowman says he has more than 400 advertisers and gets 3,000 letters a month.

West Covina Fan

"One guy from West Covina would drive down to a Torrance grocery store parking lot, just so he could sit in his car and pick up the station there," Bowman said.

However, Dr. Murray Susser says the response has been "underwhelming" to his program, "Questioning Medicine," which debuted in April. Susser, a Marina del Rey physician, vows in his on-air promotions to tackle everything from "hangnails to hernias." Described by Dolce as a "medical maverick," Susser says his program provides a forum for an alternative form of medicine, with discussions on topics such as megavitamins, home water purification and acupuncture. The half-hour program on weekday mornings is sponsored by Mineral Ice, a topical pain-killer.

Susser has mixed feelings about being part of the wide-ranging programming. "I wish it were all-talk," he said, "but it's a vital station and it seems to be growing in the right direction."

Like Susser, Joan Sotkin, host of "Crystal Healing," which airs Monday mornings, claims that "there is no one else doing what I do on radio." Sotkin uses quartz crystals "to help people experience total life change in all areas--physically, spiritually, emotionally, financially." She frequently leads her listeners in meditations, encouraging the use of quartz crystals and other minerals to facilitate "positive energies." On the air since March, Sotkin said response has been so strong that the show--sponsored by her own business, Joan's Crystals in Venice--"more than pays for itself."

Not All Praise

Although block programming offers diversity, not everyone likes it. "Speaking as a broadcast purist, I object to the fact that virtually anyone who is willing to pay the money to buy time can be on the air," said Harvey Mednick, director of marketing for "Radio and Records," a broadcasting industry trade magazine. "There is little regard for content . . . and the primary goal is to maximize profits."

Dolce has heard that accusation before. "Certainly, ability to pay would be one of the considerations for accepting programs, since we are in business to make a profit. But that's not the only criterion.

"The station is doing very, very well financially," he acknowledged, after "some hard times a few years ago." He declined to discuss the station's ownership, but the Federal Communication Commission said that the station is owned by KFOX Inc., whose president and largest and stockholder is B. J. Howell of Los Angeles. The out-of-the-way Redondo Beach location has never been a problem, Dolce said. "We happen to be situated in the South Bay, but our programming is of interest to people everywhere." And there are distinct advantages to being in Redondo, he said, looking out his office window at a sun-drenched beach.

Dolce and KFOX general manager Tom McCulloch are optimistic that a planned booster to the station's transmitter on the Palos Verdes Peninsula will open up a second market in south Orange County.

"Damien Simpson, the host of 'Quest Four,' a Monday morning program on metaphysics, had a psychic impression of KFOX's future," Dolce said. "He saw rings and rings of influence going out, and I'd like to think that will come true."

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