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How and Why of KPWR’s Popularity

The morning of Jan. 11, 1986, unsuspecting employees at KMGG-FM (105.9) came to work for what turned out to be the station’s last day of traditional Top 40 rock. Before the day was over, little listened-to “Magic 106" would become “Power 106"--a mix of dance music, Top 40 and shock-jock talk.

In the face of deteriorating ratings, the station’s owners--Indiana-based Emmis Broadcasting--modified the format, changed call letters and fired much of the staff. Only the station’s place on the dial remained unaltered. As the radio industry refers to such transformations, KMGG had been “blown up.”

In its place erupted KPWR-FM (105.9). Within a year, it’s disco/urban/Top 40 music mix would make it the most listened-to radio station in Southern California, toppling previously untouchable radio leader KIIS-FM (102.7) from the No. 1 spot it had claimed since 1983.

The most recent Arbitron ratings for last summer showed KPWR in first for the fifth quarter in a row, with an average 7.4% of the audience tuned in between 6 a.m. and midnight, seven days a week. KIIS-AM (1150) and KIIS-FM (102.7) was second with 6.9%, followed by KABC-AM (790) with 5.7%, KOST-FM (103.5) with 5% and KLOS-FM (95.5) with 4.3%.

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KPWR has done so well that Emmis Broadcasting started another dance station last year: WQHT “Hot 103" in New York. Last year KPWR earned $25 million, according to station officials. The most that KMGG had ever made was $7 million.

And who is generating this money? L.A.'s 25- to 34-year-olds, who have an average annual income of $38,000, according to Marie Kordus, KPWR sales manager.

“They’re also the most loyal group. At the beginning, we knew we were going to attract a young audience, especially with the way the station sounds. That’s not to say they are not important, but the largest percentage of people in L.A is 25 to 34 years old,” said Kordus, who worked at KMGG before the switch-over.

“The result,” she added, “is that we have a consumer-oriented group, and the money is considerably greater. KMGG made money, but not as much as it could have. Now we have 11 people selling advertising. KMGG had six.”

The station’s formula for success was not exactly scientific, but KPWR did not get to be No. 1 simply through luck either.

KPWR executives boast that they reinvented radio programming by tapping into the public’s hunger for dance music--performed by artists of all ethnic backgrounds--while still providing the Top 40 hits. They chiefly cater to women, according to program director Jeff Wyatt.

“We’re a women-oriented station in that our songs are about relationships and love,” he explained. “That’s our common denominator. Other stations will be playing songs by Guns N’ Roses, or about amnesty or jobs. This is just a generality, but most women prefer to listen to songs about relationships, whether they are working right or just screwed up.

“The women--and this is another generality--like the familiarity of the Top 40,” he continued. “But this isn’t to say that we are not attracting men. We have. But we will always lean to women, whether it’s 60%-to-40% women, or even 55%-to-45% women.”

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Phil Newmark, KPWR’s general manager, said that another factor in the station’s success is its appeal to a cross section of ethnic groups. The audience composition, he said, is 44% Anglo, 46% Hispanic and 10% black. According to the U.S. Commerce Department., the population in Los Angeles is 43% Anglo, 34% Hispanic and 13% black.

“We appeal to everyone,” Newmark said. “We’re playing music by black, Hispanic and white musicians. We’re the only ones doing that. It was a matter of (analyzing) who is in this city, and figuring out what they wanted to hear.”

The station starts its morning drive shift at 5:30 a.m. with deejay Jay Thomas. Best known as “Eddie,” the hockey player in the TV series “Cheers, Thomas features a show with a wide variety of obnoxious remarks and barbed humor (see accompanying article).

KPWR listeners get the flipside of Thomas in the afternoon in drivetime deejay Mucho Morales, who lacks a comedy routine and doesn’t crack controversial jokes. There’s no news during Morales’ 3 to 7 p.m. shift.

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Morales has been a Los Angeles deejay for more than a decade, chiefly at KRLA--where he played oldies each evening until three years ago. Unlike Thomas, Morales is upbeat and not particularly fond of the type of trashing his colleague delivers each morning.

“I like to do my job. I announce the songs without any gimmicks, but with lots of energy,” Morales said. “I hate shock jocks. I like to go to the clubs and see who’s listening. I really care about my audience.”

KPWR’s music is a variety of Top 40 hits and rap, but never any hard or soft rock. A typical playlist might include Al. B. Sure, Denise Lopez, Taylor Dane and Debbie Gibson.

For some people, like Ken Barnes, editor of the trade magazine Radio and Records, KPWR is nothing more than a disco station.

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“It’s a similar disco-type format from the late ‘70s. It’s changed a little bit, but it’s still the same dance format,” Barnes said. “We thought it would work again. We would even talk about when someone would start a station for it. There was a hole here for it. Big enough for a truck.”

But KPWR officials maintain that the station does not play disco.

“We are not disco or anything like it,” Wyatt said. “Our beat is different, the sounds are more sophisticated, there are a greater number of rhythms. This is not just the beat of a base drum. People who say we’re disco are probably still listening to ‘L.A. Woman.’ They can’t dance and are still into rock and roll, which has picked up more from disco then people realize.”

Whatever KPWR’s music is called, it now seems clear that there was a demand for it long before KPWR went on the air. Until such unknown groups as Stacey Q began selling thousands of self-financed records on independent labels, there was little evidence of the dance music upswing. KPWR became the first station to introduce Stacey Q’s “Two of Hearts” and the group has gone on to national prominence--a feat that has been repeated several times on KPWR.

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“There were a lot of bands that people were listening to out there that just weren’t getting air play,” said Warner Bros. Records publicity director Bob Merlis. “You could drive to East L.A. and listen to some of the tapes people were playing, and you knew that it didn’t come off a radio. Before anybody else, KPWR tapped into that, and I think the result surprised everybody.”


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