Radio Tunes Up for Political, Olympic Year

The most eloquent play-by-play radio description of muscled thighs churning down the 100-meter straightaway at the ’88 Summer Olympics in Seoul could never compete with television.

It’s a safe bet that wordless pictures of bodies leaning desperately toward the thrill of victory will capture the gold medal over radio coverage every time.

But for spontaneous, up-to-the-minute details of who’s hot and who’s not on the long and treacherous 1988 presidential campaign trail, radio is determined to go the distance quicker and more thoroughly than TV.

And if 1988 is anything like 1987, radio is likely to be in the news and on top of the news the whole year through.


In 1987:

“Wave music” transformed Los Angeles’ most legendary rock station into a synthetic mood machine of impeccable demographics, as the outspoken deejays and raucous music of KMET were replaced by the prerecorded voices and synthesized New-Age sounds of KTWV-FM.

“Yuppie rock,” that blend of oldies from the ‘60s and ‘70s by such super groups as the Eagles and Steely Dan that today’s young urban professionals danced to in high school, entrenched itself on the FM scene. KUTE-FM became KMPC-FM the “new 102,” replete with a new nouveau -oldies format, and KLSX-FM and KRTH-FM charged ahead with their own versions of “classic rock.”

The Federal Communications Commission reared its head, slapping reprimands on three radio stations--including public station KPFK-FM in Studio City and college station KCSB-FM in Santa Barbara--for airing allegedly indecent material of a kind that, before this year, had never been officially indecent.


The stock market crashed, sending tens of thousands of local investors scurrying to news and talk stations and KMNY-AM, which began broadcasting as Los Angeles’ first all-money radio station earlier in the year, for moment-to-moment business reports that, when the dust finally cleared, usually ended in predictions of an economic slowdown in the year to come.

KPWR-FM (dance radio), KIIS-FM (dance/Top 40 radio) and KABC-AM (talk radio) dominated the ratings here in the nation’s most competitive radio market.

In 1988, it probably would be safe to bet that those three stations will once again battle it out for the top spots. Neither the new year, innovation, nor a new President is likely to change that.

But, according to Inside Radio, an industry trade publication, radio in 1988 will spawn at least a few surprises of its own.

The weekly tip sheet predicts that news will be the new year’s hottest format. Clearly radio is tuning up for what should be a busy news year--what with the Olympics in Canada and Korea, another Reagan-Gorbachev summit planned in Moscow this spring and a wide-open race for the presidency heating up in Iowa this February.

But the news format that Inside Radio recommends for both AM and FM stations is entirely local: An “up-tempo, young-sounding” newscast read by “reporters with a sense of urgency in their voices.”

This format would feature headlines read over a strident musical background followed with the “up-tempo” newscasters reading sports scores and providing traffic updates over a less-harried instrumental bed, according to the publication.

Whether such a jazzed-up all-news format will catch on in Los Angeles is doubtful. Los Angeles already has two longstanding, traditional news stations--KNX-AM and KFWB-AM--that score well with commuters, and an upstart “up-tempo” local news station probably would not pose much of a threat.


Robert Sims, news director at KNX, says that broadcast news is an expensive undertaking and will not yield a large audience overnight. It takes time for people first to discover a new news outlet and then more time to break their old habits and loyalties. Sims also contends that leaning too heavily on the cosmetics of how the news is presented (young-sounding voices and musical backgrounds) trivializes the news content.

“When you give them show biz instead of something with more meat,” Sims says, “you are taking your listeners as just a bunch of cattle who will be wowed by your flash and dash. There is an element of entertainment to news. It should not be a grind to listen to it. But that kind of emphasis is like offering a sugar-coated substitute for something that ought to be nutritious.”

The success of “the Wave” in 1987--ratings for KTWV have been up and advertisers appear eager to reach its highly prized 25-54 target audience--might suggest that New Age would continue to be the innovative format in 1988.

“This format will continue to expand in ’88,” said Frank Cody, vice president of programming at KTWV and one of its chief architects. “The main appeal of the Wave for many radio executives is that it represents a vision of the future. It’s new and fresh and there hasn’t been that much that is new and fresh in radio for many years.”

Already stations in Kansas City, Miami, San Diego, Detroit, Cleveland and Chicago air “the Wave’s” satellite feed, and two other stations in Seattle and Dallas program their own version of the New-Age format.

But Inside Radio predicts an ebbing of the Wave as well as other innovative formats--such as all-sports (as in WFAN in New York) or all-motivational radio (self-help lectures and affirmations by a wealth of success gurus delivered and then sold a la cable television’s home-shopping channels on the SuccessNet satellite network).

“It makes no sense to bet exclusively on pioneering formats that need time and track records,” its editor writes. “New Age needs more work. Founders are rushing a format without paying dues. . . . Uncertain economic times preclude responsible station execs from opting for such an experimental format without considering the major repercussions.”

Underlying all of radio’s 1988 prospects is the threat of economic recession. Some cutbacks in station staffs have already been forecast for the coming year.


But in general, industry sources seem confident that radio will thrive, even during an economic downturn. In 1987, radio in the United States took in revenues of $7.3 billion, according to the Radio Advertising Bureau. In 1988, despite a predicted slide in consumer confidence, the bureau estimates that total revenues should push past the $8-billion mark.

“There is little doubt that the stock market crash took the wind out of the sails of investment banking,” says KTWV’s Cody. “But radio has always done well during recessions. Advertisers now in television, who might not be able to afford television in a recession, will move over to radio.”

While a chill in the U.S. economy might not stem the revenues pouring into the radio industry, the watchful ears of the FCC might continue to put a chill into what comes out of it. Last month, the commission tried to clarify its April indecency ruling, creating a safe harbor for so-called indecent material from midnight to 6 a.m. But, according to most industry insiders, the new ruling did nothing to clarify what the FCC considers to be indecent material in the first place.

Local deejays Jay Thomas, the brash and sometimes abusive morning jock on KPWR, and Jim (The Poor Man) Trenton, the morning and evening host on KROQ-FM, whose good-humored sexual bravado is often part of his on-air banter, have both repeatedly said that the FCC crackdown--the first that reached beyond George Carlin’s seven dirty words--has had no effect on what they say or do on the radio.

But the lawyer representing Infinity Broadcasting, the company that owns KROQ as well as the Philadelphia station cited by the FCC last April for airing the allegedly offensive remarks of so-called New York “shock jock” Howard Stern, has said that the FCC’s “murky” policy has many radio personalities running scared.

Both Infinity and Pacifica Broadcasting, the nonprofit foundation that owns local station KPFK, which was chastised last spring for broadcasting a sexually explicit play about AIDS, are challenging the FCC’s constitutional power to make such rulings. Federal courts may begin ruling on these cases sometime in ’88.