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L.A. Deejay Wars: Morning Becomes Electric : With the arrival of New York’s most popular radio personality, a.m. drive time has become the front line

There’s a war going on each morning for the hearts and minds and ears of Southern California radio listeners. The battle cries go something like this:

“Wake me up, Ken and Bob Company, wake me up. . . .”

“Rick Dees in the morning! Live all over Southern California!”

“This is Jay Thomas, Power 106, at 6:55 in the morning. . . .”

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“Hello, this is Mark and Kim along the KOST. . . .”

“Pirate Radio. Welcome to the jungle. . . .”

Nine million listeners populate the Los Angeles radio market. Only the New York market is larger, with about 1 million more people. But Los Angeles for the past several years has been No. 1 in terms of advertising sales.

Duncan Media Enterprises, a Michigan radio consulting firm that keeps tabs on advertising expenditures, says that the 80 or so Los Angeles-area radio stations divided $334 million in advertising last year. The two top stations, KPWR-FM and KIIS-AM/FM, shared $60 million of that, according to industry sources. New York took in $294.2 million in ad revenue in 1988, according to Duncan.

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“It’s so competitively fierce in Los Angeles that some stations can charge $1,000 for a 15-second spot,” said Ken Costa, vice president for marketing at the Radio Advertising Bureau. “The reason they beat New York is simple: Everybody’s on the road (and playing his car radio) out there.”

At least once a day, the bureau says, virtually every man, woman and child in Los Angeles hears a radio. For many it’s in the morning, between 6 a.m. and 10 a.m., when much of the city is rubbing sleep from its eyes and getting on a freeway to travel to work or school or a shopping mall. Mornings are to radio what nights are to television: prime time--when the most people tune in and advertising rates are the highest.

Accordingly, radio doesn’t sound quite the same in the morning. It’s brighter, faster, more intense . . . when off-color wisecracks and big-money giveaways are most likely to hook a listener. More music, less talk, fewer commercials. . . .

Celebrities are interviewed. Comedy routines are performed. Porsches are awarded to the lucky 14th caller if he or she can only identify the artist who sang this 1973 hit or give the title to that set of mystery lyrics.

But something more is in the air these days.

The gimmicks and hooks and hype are rising. KIIS morning star Rick Dees is on the road much of the time, interviewing celebrities at Universal Studios or on top of the Capitol Records building. The KLOS-FM morning team of Mark and Brian play their lurid live phone interviews closer and closer to the line of good taste, sometimes slopping over to the other side with unabashed references to coitus interruptus and not-so-interruptus.

On St. Patrick’s Day, KPWR’s Jay Thomas gave away $10,000 in cash. The same day, KIIS announced its own contest: a $1-million “Dash for Cash.”

The contests are richer. The comedy is bluer. The competition, more cruel.

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With the arrival in Los Angeles 16 days ago of the most popular deejay in New York, the stakes suddenly went up in the Los Angeles radio wars. Rock, talk and one-liners are the weapons. Morning drive time is the front line.

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“Nobody willingly leaves New York when they’re on top. It’s not done. I never would have done it . . . just for money,” said Scott Shannon. “The reason I left New York was to do something new.”

There’s nothing funny in disc jockey Michael Scott Shannon’s carnivorous blue eyes or the high cheekbones of his coyote profile. He paces in a laughless, lean and hungry way through the labyrinth of offices at Westwood One Inc.--where he is now a vice president as well as morning deejay on the company’s new station, KQLZ-FM, which it purchased for $56 million from Outlet Communications.

Shannon has a well-thumbed, much underlined copy of the modern management manual “Thriving on Chaos” sitting at the edge of his desk. It is his bible, the former No. 1 deejay of New York City says.

“One of the problems with people when they first meet me is they expect Eddie Murphy,” he said, hunched over his desktop like a test pilot in an ejection seat. “I’m not a comedian that plays records. I don’t always make you laugh. I’m a human being that has certain emotions and I run a passionate radio show. There’s a tremendous amount of passion involved. Intensity.”

On March 17, he unleashed that intensity on Los Angeles in the form of Pirate Radio. The 100.3 spot on the FM dial where K-LITE once broadcast innocuous soft pop hits started playing something that Shannon calls “free-form Top 40"--a few oldies, some dance music, an occasional heavy-metal hit and a liberal helping of traditional Billboard Hot 100 singles.

So far, in an effort to attract attention, it has been nonstop rock with no commercials and little comment from Shannon or the other KQLZ deejays. Beginning Monday at 6 a.m., Shannon will go on the air with a more traditional morning wake-up program, with jokes, song parodies, deejay banter and comedy exchanges with on-air guests.

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“I think it’s important to give the feeling of urgency to your radio station,” he said a few days before going on the air. “You don’t want it to sound repetitious. You don’t want it to sound boring. But you do want it to sound familiar. If you look at the menu of McDonald’s, it changes frequently but it’s still McDonald’s.”

With a salary-plus-equity compensation package that ultimately could be worth $15 million, Westwood One President Norman Pattiz bought Shannon’s services for the next five years, not only as morning drive-time deejay but also as the music programmer for Pattiz’s expensive new broadcast property. Shannon’s mandate: to make KQLZ Pirate Radio the most popular, profitable radio beacon in Southern California.

For weeks, the competition had been keenly aware of Shannon’s imminent arrival in Los Angeles. At KIIS (1150 AM, 102.7 FM), where Dees climbed to the top of the morning heap six years ago, the morning team is trying to meet all of its listeners’ needs. “Commander” Chuck Street is on the air every 10 minutes during drive time to update freeway traffic conditions. The station seems to offer a new contest or cash giveaway every other week. Dees interviews a constant stream of celebrities and would-be celebrities, promoting everything from their next record album to a speaking role in an upcoming movie.

Since his early success, when wife Julie used to join him on the air as Groaning (as in Rona) Barrett or a whining clerk from Buttocks department store, Dees’ show has evolved into a smooth, tightly scripted, slickly produced program. He relies (as do many on-air personalities, including Shannon) on prepackaged gag services and actors who appear on the show as running characters.

In his KIIS mobile unit, the blue-eyed, baby-faced North Carolina native often gets out of the studio and roams from promotional stop to promotional stop these days. He’s bolstered by the largest entourage of any Los Angeles radio star. Besides his producer, engineer, sportscaster, traffic reporter and newscaster, Dees has a promotional crew handing out KIIS T-shirts, bumper stickers and flyers wherever he goes.

Dees--who appears to have been edged out by Jay Thomas as the most popular FM morning personality in Los Angeles, according to the most recent audience ratings results--declines to discuss Shannon or any other morning rival. Dees’ one-sentence reply to a recent question put to him about Shannon’s arrival in Los Angeles was:

“I love to make people laugh and I spend all my time doing it.”

For doing so, he reportedly earns $2 million a year--a figure he will not comment upon.

Dees’ refusal to comment on Pirate Radio extends throughout KIIS; the station’s strategy has been simply not to acknowledge Shannon at all. “Johnny Carson won’t grant interviews if the questions are going to be about Pat Sajak,” explained KIIS promotion director Karen Tobin.

Jay Thomas, whose morning program on KPWR is currently running slightly ahead of Dees, predicts that “Dees will suffer the most” from Shannon’s arrival because the veteran KIIS personality has become complacent, poorly prepared and old-hat. Broadcast industry veterans generally give a morning drive-time personality a five-year tenure before he wears out his welcome in a market and must move on. Thomas believes Dees peaked more than a year ago and is currently sliding slowly but inexorably down the ratings ladder.

“If he’d spend more time on his show and less time playing golf at Lakeside, he might stand a better chance,” Thomas said.

One of the most listened-to morning radio shows in Los Angeles nowadays doesn’t play music, doesn’t appear on the FM dial and doesn’t seem shaken by the arrival of Scott Shannon.

“One difference between our audience and the audience of our FM competitors is that our audience can actually spell their names,” said Ken Minyard, half of the KABC-AM (790) morning “Ken and Bob Company.”

Though FM has traditionally drawn a younger audience because it offers superior reception of music, a significant number of FM listeners switch to AM in the morning just to listen to Minyard and his longtime partner, Bob Arthur. The pair don’t do anything special to lure the FM audience, Arthur said. “In the morning, I think there is just a lot more crossover,” he said. “People want information.”

That’s what Ken and Bob have been delivering since 1973, when AM listeners still outnumbered FM audiences 2-to-1. Sixteen years later, the ratio is reversed most of the time. The major exception remains the Minyard/Arthur homey mix of news and quizzes and advice on everything from restaurant selection to money management.

“We’ve never reacted to other deejays,” said Arthur, a veteran of more than 30 years in Los Angeles broadcasting, both on radio and TV. “Maybe we’re a little bit corny, but we’re all a little bit corny at times. That’s the way we are and it works.”

Long before the morning music programs began instituting comic exchanges between deejays, news announcers, sportscasters and guests--the so-called “Morning Zoo” concept--Ken and Bob were using a mild version of ensemble radio.

“But we didn’t invent it. Arthur Godfrey was doing it 40 years ago,” said Minyard. Trying to do shtick every day gets old, he says, and the pressure is always there to keep changing characters and comedy bits in order to keep the program fresh.

“In that way, we’re fortunate,” Arthur said. “Our show is based on the news, so whatever happens keeps it fresh.”

Though neither one sees Shannon’s Pirate Radio as a threat to KABC’s lofty perch in the morning ratings, Minyard and Arthur both predict a pitched battle on the FM dial unlike any that Los Angeles has seen for a long time.

“Shannon’s very smart,” Minyard said. “He comes in and sets this up and scares the hell out of the FM guys and all of a sudden they start doing things they wouldn’t normally do. They change their routine. And, boom ! They start making mistakes.”

“Good psychology,” said Arthur, chuckling.

Like Thomas, Minyard and Arthur say that Rick Dees, as the best-known radio personality in Los Angeles, has the most to lose. Minyard, who claims that Dees borrowed two of the “Ken and Bob Company’s” best-known catch phrases, is not rooting for KIIS.

“When we first went on the air, we were like the world’s biggest underdogs,” he said. “We were existing from day to day because what we were doing hadn’t been done around a news format before. So we were getting lambasted from every quarter. We were ignored by everybody in the industry.

“So we weren’t exactly a big-budget show and we started saying ‘We have . . . NO BUDGET !’ ” he continued. “So Dees comes along six or seven years later and picks up this thing intact. I mean, it’s a little thing, but I would have been embarrassed to have done exactly the same thing. We also did a thing years before Dees came to the L.A. market where we said we only had seven listeners and he used that too. Seven listeners. You’d think he’d at least have made it eight.”

Across the hall from Ken Minyard and Bob Arthur in the KABC building on La Cienega Boulevard are Mark Thompson and Brian Phelps.

Since coming to Los Angeles from Birmingham, Ala., 18 months ago, the two morning deejays have established a reputation for raw, ribald morning comedy at ABC-owned KLOS-FM (95.5) that regularly seems to cross the line between good and bad taste. They have also leaped to the top rungs of the ratings, placing among the five most popular morning programs in Los Angeles.

Three weeks ago, Phelps tried to arrange a date on the air between a male caller and a woman who works at KLOS. Thompson began a sing-song grade-school taunt about a couple who are “sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G,” but substituted a sexually explicit word for “kissing.”

The following week, Phelps and Thompson were off the air for a week’s involuntary vacation. Thompson said that the spelling of the sexually explicit word was inadvertent, was not supposed to have been broadcast and was not the reason for their absence. But they would not comment on why they were off the air.

Despite their reputations as the bad boys of morning radio, they claim they are not “shock jocks” in the mold of New York’s Howard Stern. They liken their “Mark and Brian Thing” to the days of live television, when laughs were chancy but the audience was involved.

“We’d rather do a live bit with our audience than a scripted bit,” Thompson said.

“We’re paid to come in and laugh at life and laugh at ourselves,” Phelps said.

“We won’t prerecord a character coming in,” Thompson continued, jumping in before Phelps finished his sentence. “We’ll do the characters live. We won’t prerecord a phone call to Washington or Guatemala. The audience knows it’s live and they get more excited about it because they’re discovering a bit with us. Instead of ‘Here’s a bit now. We did this yesterday. Our engineers, writers, producers put this together.’ It’s not like that. It’s live.”

Thompson recalled a woman who called in last month, complaining that her husband had been out of town on a business trip. She explained that they liked to phone each other and “talk dirty.”

“So we called him up and didn’t let him know that we were putting him on the air,” Thompson said. “And his wife starts cooing: ‘Oh, honey, what are you going to do to me when you get home?’ And this poor guy’s just waking up, you know, and he starts mumbling, still half asleep, ‘Ah, we walk into a forest and, uh, I get you up against a wall and you start to scratch my back. . . . ‘ “

“And she starts going, ‘Oooooooo!’ ” chimed in Phelps. “Now, there wasn’t one questionable thing in that whole bit, but it was great! There’s a buzz when you do live comedy.”

What 32-year-old Thompson and 29-year-old Phelps do is distinctive enough that they remain unflappable about the heightened morning competition.

“Rick Dees is great. Jay Thomas is great. Scott Shannon is great,” Thompson said. “We’ve heard them all. And they are very, very good at what they do. But we like to feel so are we. We’re just an alternative. We’re not like they are.”

A third top-rated drive-time team suffers (or thrives, depending upon one’s point of view) from an image problem.

“We’re not as Ken and Barbie-ish as everybody thinks,” said Kim Amidon, the female half of the morning drive team of Kim and Mark Wallengren.

Three years ago, when she first went to work at KOST-FM (103.5), Amidon posed with Wallengren for a picture that went on RTD buses all over Los Angeles. Since then, neither of them has been able to shake the “yuppie couple” image. It has paid off for the radio station’s ratings, though: Its audience for the full broadcast day is second only to that of KPWR-FM, according to the most recent Arbitron figures. Program director Jhani Kaye attributes at least part of that success to the calm, comfortable morning talk offered up by Mark and Kim.

But in terms of the deejays themselves, they feel they are wrongly perceived by their audience as “goodie two-shoes,” according to Wallengren.

“The key to our success is that we haven’t changed,” Wallengren said. “We’ve been consistent. We’re kind of mom and pop.”

The mild-mannered jokes and soft-core teasing that the pair dish up on their morning program appeals to their target audience.

“Nice, educated people,” Amidon said. “Young couples who are raising their families.”

“People who listen to us are keeping their eyes on the interest rates, hoping the variable rates on their mortgages aren’t going to go up,” Wallengren said.

The death of K-LITE has been a boon to KOST. When K-LITE went off the air, the new Pirate Radio deejays suggested that fans of the previous format tune to KOST or one of the other easy-listening stations on the dial: KJOI-FM (98.7), KBIG-FM (104.3) or KSRF-FM (103.1).

“I think we’re kind of on the sidelines (in the morning radio wars), but we’re happy to pick up the (K-LITE) listeners,” Amidon said.

Morning radio is a matter of loyalty and mood, she believes. Push-button technology and frequent format changes have turned the Los Angeles audience into one of the least loyal in the country. It is not unusual to find a heavy-metal station, classical music station, easy-listening station and country music all programmed on the same car radio, Amidon said.

“Especially in the morning, driving to work, people punch all over the dial,” Wallengren said. “Depending on their mood, people’ll switch from religious programming to love songs on the KOST to dance music at KPWR.”

“OK, here we go. It’s Power 106. Good morning from Jay Thomas--a man who uses his own personality for birth control.”

It’s 8:44 a.m. on the eighth floor of a Burbank high-rise and comedian/actor/deejay Jay Thomas is standing at the console inside the KPWR (105.7) sound studio. His newscaster, Monica Brooks, stands nearby. There are no chairs. Thomas and his “Morning Zoo” mates stay on their feet for four hours each morning, careening over the airwaves on the strength of raging, Type-A adrenalin.

“If you don’t act like this, you don’t have a radio career,” he says as a record is being played. “It’s almost like being one of those Wall Street guys (pit traders) who yells and screams and all that nonsense. It’s all pretty artificial.”

Thomas has the tools of the trade arrayed across a narrow counter: maracas, a dirty-joke book, plastic jewelry, a whoopee whistle, a coffee cup, an electronic sound effect toy that delivers a machine gun’s rat-a-tat-tat. The Arbitron ratings of the rival rock stations are written in grease pencil on the wall with an urging from KPWR program director Jeff Wyatt to “keep winning!”

The Jay Thomas at Power 106 is a far cry from the Jay Thomas familiar to TV viewers who know him as Rhea Perlman’s husband on NBC’s “Cheers.” Like the character of Eddie Lebec, a slow, shy ex-hockey player, the KPWR morning man is a character too, but a sharp, loud and abrasive one. On this particular day, he is chatting on the telephone over the air with Bruce Lansky, author of a children’s book and board game entitled “The Stork Did Not Bring Me.”

“What do you think is going to happen with all the religious fanatics in this country when they find out that you have a book with all the organs laying out in little colored pages for the little boys and girls?” Thomas screams.

An hour later, Thomas sits quietly in his office, the picture of serenity. He is off the air, finished for the day. He answers questions about his archrival Rick Dees and the impending threat of Scott Shannon with a soft voice, as though he were some kind of radio Zen master.

“I remember years ago sitting in an acting audition,” he says. “I remember being very nervous because we all looked alike. Everybody’s the same height and it’s a real pain in the ass. And I remember hating all the people who were going to audition for this part. And I remember an older actor saying to me, ‘You know, you’re really wasting a lot of time with all this competition crap. You’re really only in competition with yourself and you’re becoming very self-destructive. You should relax and not worry about the competition.’

“That has been very instructive to me in radio. When you’re a young disc jockey, you keep the radio on the other station across town and you listen to what they do. But it’s almost like running a race and looking over your shoulder. Whenever you do that, you’re gonna lose the race.”

Thomas has faced off against Shannon twice before in New York and lost. But fresh from a guest appearance on “The Golden Girls,” Thomas says he is not upset about the coming ratings war. His acting career is revived and he’s also dabbling in some screenwriting. He has a couple of careers to fall back on if he loses.

“It’s like the big team from the East playing the big team from the West,” he says. “When Penn State comes out to play USC, is USC frightened? No. This is my home court and I’ve been here awhile. I’m going to do the same show no matter who comes to town.”

“Don’t let anybody tell you that Scott Shannon expects to be an overnight success in Los Angeles,” said Shannon. “There are stations trying to position me as that loudmouth from New York City. Well, 5 1/2 years ago I was a nobody from Florida--a Southern guy who wasn’t going to make it in New York. I’m not some hotshot coming from New York to Los Angeles, and I wasn’t a Florida cracker coming up to New York. I’m a professional radio deejay.”

Before he left the Tampa station where he and fellow deejay Cleveland Wheeler first coined the phrase “Morning Zoo” nine years ago, Shannon had the phrase registered with the U.S. Department of Commerce as a service mark. It has done them little good. More than 300 stations in the United States currently call their morning programs “zoos,” by Shannon’s count, and he feels it’s futile to try to get them to change.

“The ‘Morning Zoo’ concept is a mixture of music, comedy, listener participation, song parodies and current events,” he said. “A cross between ‘The Tonight Show’ and ‘Saturday Night Live’ on the radio. Mark and Brian at KLOS probably do the best job of knocking it off anywhere in this market, but KIIS and KPWR are moving in on them.”

Shannon is flattered and mildly amused at the flurry of activity at Los Angeles’ rock stations these days. KPWR began calling the Jay Thomas show the “Morning Zoo” only a month ago and KIIS has begun using a series of phrases and contests that Shannon first used in New York several years ago: “the worst to first” contest, the Juke Box From Hell, “lash Wednesday.”

“Both stations that perceive themselves as our competition have been airing every contest or promotion or phrase that I ever invented,” Shannon says. “I guess they are anticipating what we’re going to be doing and they’re trying to preempt us.”

But Shannon is, first and foremost, a student of radio history. He collects air checks the way some people collect baseball cards. He claims to have 2,000 hours of vintage KHJ-AM tape from its “Boss Radio” days in the early 1970s, and 500 hours of the original “Color Radio” tapes when KFWB-AM was still the home of the first Top 40 radio format in the nation in the early 1960s.

Shannon knows that there is nothing new in radio and that, paradoxically, a program nevertheless has to appear new in order to sell. He describes his “Morning Zoo” format as nothing more than “a racier version of the old ‘Don McNeil Breakfast Club’ or Arthur Godfrey with 1990 humor.”

“What I managed to do was bring a human touch to high-structure radio,” he said. “In other words, it’s familiarity without repetition. I’m not an especially talented disc jockey. I prepare. I spend hours preparing. I’ve had no lucky breaks. And it’s not skill. It’s determination. It’s a passion for excellence.”

Shannon is already a radio legend for taking New York’s WHTZ “from worst to first” in the Arbitron ratings in only 72 days five years ago, but he makes no pretense about storming into Los Angeles and toppling Rick Dees or Jay Thomas the same way.

“I’m starting over again. I’m nobody. I’m not fooling myself,” he says, stone-faced and deadly serious. “The Los Angeles listeners could care less who Scott Shannon is. There’s a few who’ll tune in to hear what I sound like. And then they’ll say, ‘Well, he’s not so hot.’ ”

Shannon pauses, maybe for effect, maybe not. But, momentarily, his grim intensity eases and a predatory smile plays over his face.

“But then they’re going to come back when some of their friends say, ‘This guy’s pretty good.’ That’s exactly what’s gonna happen. That’s how it will happen. Guaranteed.”

MORNING DRIVE-TIME RATINGS

Here are the most recent quarterly ratings for morning drive-time radio in Los Angeles, as measured by the leading radio rating service, Arbitron Rating Service.

The left-hand set of figures below represents the 10 most popular morning radio programs as reflected in the monthly Arbitrends survey for February.

The set of figures on the right reflects the 10 most popular morning radio programs as reported in the so-called Arbitron Rating Service “book,” which is compiled each quarter. The most widely used radio audience survey, the Arbitron “book” is released at the end of each seasonal quarter. The figures below are from the fall book, released in January. The winter book is scheduled for release in mid-April.

Arbitrends

M-F 6 a.m. to 10 a.m.

February, 1989

(Each rating point equals about 9,250 listeners per each average quarter-hour of programming.)

1. KPWR-FM 7.3

2. KABC-AM 7.0

3. KIIS-FM 6.4

4. KLOS-FM 6.0

5. KNX-AM 4.8

6. KFWB-AM 4.6

7. KOST-FM 4.4

8. KJOI-FM 3.9

9. KBIG-FM 2.8

10. KLVE-FM 2.7

10. KZLA-FM 2.7

10. KRTH-FM 2.7

Arbitron Fall Ratings

M-F 6 a.m. to 10 a.m.

12/88--2/89

(Each rating point equals about 9,250 listeners per each average quarter-hour of programming.)

1. KIIS-FM (102.7) 7.2

2. KABC-AM (790) 6.7

2. KPWR-FM (105.9) 6.7

4. KNX-AM (1070) 5.3

5. KLOS-FM (95.5) 5.0

6. KFWB-AM (980) 4.6

7. KOST-FM (103.5) 4.1

8. KTNQ-AM (1020) 3.8

9. KJOI-FM (98.7) 3.4

10. KBIG-FM (104.3) 2.9

10. KLVE-FM () 2.9


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