Music to Someone's Ears : How demographics transformed classical radio station KFAC into big-beat KKBT

It was two days before 58-year-old classical music station KFAC was to die and FM-92 KKBT was to be born. The new general manager, Jim de Castro, had his sales staff assembled to watch a 10-second TV ad hyping the station's new incarnation, "Rock With a Beat."

The ad featured a crowd staring down at a sleeping baby. One man in the crowd wore a Dodgers cap, another looked like a surfer, still another appeared to be a Latino immigrant. Suddenly there was a bang and the baby's eyes opened. The crowd gasped. "It's alive!" a deep voice announced.

Like a pumped-up team an hour before the big game, the sales force applauded enthusiastically.

"Goodby KFAC," yelled a blond woman, looking to De Castro for the coach's encouragement.

De Castro smiled, then caught himself. "Shhh, be careful till they go," he warned his boisterous employee. "Be respectful."

Evergreen Media Corp. purchased KFAC in January for $55 million, the most ever paid for a classical radio station. While it was increasingly clear to the radio community that the station would not remain classical for long, the actual announcement of the much-rumored format change didn't come until last month. The reaction to the loss of L.A.'s only commercial classical music station was strong. The new management was deluged by letters and phone calls from KFAC's listeners.

But Evergreen officials, with De Castro leading the way, had much more more on their minds than the past. Since January, the future has been very much in the forefront of their thinking--and the future is "urban rock." In the past six months, De Castro--who was brought in from Chicago, where he was general manager of the popular rock station WLUP--and his growing staff have been putting together their new radio station. They are conceiving a radio station based on demographics, research and a small dose of instinct. Indeed, sociology and psychology seem to be playing a bigger part in selecting the hits to be played than musical taste.

"We want to be L.A.'s radio station," De Castro says. "Most radio stations in the market don't have a sense of what they are."

What De Castro wants is a station that will "identically mirror the demographic and psychographic makeup of L.A."

What that translates to, De Castro determined from U.S. census figures and projections, is 58% white, 25% Latino, 10% Asian and 7% black.

"Our music will reflect all the ethnic groups in Los Angeles," says program director Liz Kiley. "What we're doing you couldn't pick up and move to Denver, because Denver's a very different town. Whenever you do a particular format, it should be tailored for the city you're in. This is something that's really tailor-made for L.A. and Orange County."

Says De Castro: "People kept telling us it won't work."

Will their approach work? It's too early to tell, for the station has only been broadcasting the new format since Sept. 21. The research continues and the play list is still very much in flux. But the process to reach this point provides an inside look at how radio works and how audiences are targeted, seduced and held in a very crowded, competitive market.

This is the story of that process, the process leading to the birth of KKBT. It is a story of how a contemporary radio station comes into being, told from the inside and by the people who made the transformation from classical to "urban rock" in eight months.

The Target Audience and the Format

After De Castro took the helm of KFAC in March, he became convinced that a classical format would never bring in the kind of money Evergreen needed to pay off its debt. De Castro's first task, therefore, was to find a segment of the market that would bring the most profitable returns.

Looking at advertising research, he determined that 25- to 44 year-olds were the key buying audience that he wanted to reach and out of that audience, he wanted 60% women, 40% men.

At the same time, he sent a questionnaire to 250 members of the advertising community asking such questions as "What format does the L.A. market need?," "What demographic would you like to deliver?" and "In designing your L.A. station, would you feature more personality or music?"

"We wanted to know what people want and how they're not being served," De Castro said.

Next, he had to decide which format would best reach this audience.

To aid in this decision, De Castro hired a consultant to research a handful of different formats to see which would work best with the demographic breakdown of Los Angeles, keeping in mind the wealth of existing radio stations.

Formats tested included traditional album-oriented rock (AOR), adult contemporary (A/C) "beautiful music," oldies and contemporary hits (CHR). In July, researchers called 1,213 people in the 25-44 target audience and questioned them about the formats.

This was followed by similar phone surveys about specific Los Angeles stations--KPWR, KIIS, KRTH, KOST and KLOS. The audiences of KKBT's future competitors were then broken down by age group and ethnic distribution.

De Castro also knew two things: The Latino population is expected to grow to become at least 40% of Southern California's population by the year 2000, and Latinos already represent at least a quarter of the Los Angeles market. Because of this and the findings from the surveys, De Castro felt that reaching Latinos was essential to a station that wants to capture an audience not yet tapped by English-language radio.

The plan evolved to "take part of Humberto Luna's audience," De Castro said. Luna is the morning man on KTNQ-AM and the No. 1 Spanish-language deejay, with ratings in the Top 10 among all Los Angeles radio stations.

However, taking Luna's loyal audience away seems unlikely.

"I'll start worrying when they start playing Jose Feliciano and some Spanish music and Vincente Fernendez and Celia Cruz and some good ranchera music," said KTNQ general manager Ken Wolt. "Then we'll take another look at them. In the meantime, I think they better just concentrate on Rick Dees (KIIS-FM) and (Pirate Radio KQLZ-FM's Scott) Shannon in the morning because they're in their ballpark. They don't stand a chance talking to our people."

But De Castro says his goal is not a solely Latino audience.

"Our question was, 'How do you attract Hispanics without saying you're totally Hispanic and turning off whites?' " De Castro said. He acknowledges that other stations like KIIS and KPWR may have already tried and succeeded in winning over Latinos.

"They have the young Hispanics and Mexicans and busboys. We want the older Hispanics. I have this image of a Hispanic lawyer. . . ." he trails off.

The solution, according to De Castro: Play oldies. The idea is that oldies satisfy a young, urban, upwardly mobile audience--regardless of their ethnicity.

"Hispanics love oldies because they know the words," De Castro says. Presumably so do whites, blacks and Asians.

Once the target audience was identified, the format was more easily decided. Based on survey research, the format that emerged on top with the target audience and which would also fill a gap in the crowded popular-music radio scene was an "urban contemporary hits" format: a combination of oldies (60%) and newer rock and soul hits (40%).

"We found adults were looking for a radio station that they could truly call their own, that played up-tempo, really bright music," De Castro says. "They were looking for a place they could stay for long periods of time and hear a great variety of music that they're not hearing on any one station."

Says program director Kiley (the former assistant program director at KOST-FM, a soft-rock station): "This station will reflect the marketplace because not all of L.A. is either a rocker or a dancer. It's so many things and people want to hear variety. I don't think any radio station really gives them that variety that we are going to be able to give.

"It's all going to be very familiar. . . . We won't be breaking new ground here musically," Kiley continues. "We won't be experimenting with unknown things, but what we will do is provide the people of Los Angeles an outlet that they won't become bored with."

Some of the more current songs on the playlist include: INXS' "I Need You Tonight," Robert Palmer's "Addicted to Love," Jody Watley's "Looking for a New Love" and Bobby Brown's "My Prerogative."

Oldies range from relatively recent hits like David Bowie's "Let's Dance" to the disco era's "That's the Way (I Like It)" by K.C. & the Sunshine Band to the Motown sound of the Temptations' "Heard it Through the Grapevine."

Again, telephone surveys were conducted to determine just which oldies and rock and soul hits would play well. Continuing audience surveys are planned in which 400-500 cuts will be played for about 100 people with the listeners ranking the music. (The participants get paid for this exercise.)

The music will continually be tested "every single week," according to De Castro, so the playlist, which consists of between 600-900 cuts, will be amended frequently.

However, the first audience survey had not occurred by the time the station went on the air on Sept. 21 at noon.

Seducing the Audience

After the programming format was selected came the task of wooing listeners.

Promotion and advertising played a big part in the formation of the station, long before the station became FM-92, "Rock With a Beat." De Castro estimates he will have spent about $2 million by January on advertising, $1 million of that on billboards.

Before the format was chosen, De Castro decided to have some fun with the advertising community and others who were speculating about the station's new format.

The fun began with KFAC's airing in July of a press conference announcing the Rolling Stones tour. Legions of irate classical music fans called and wrote in to complain.

De Castro said at the time: " I was kidding around with it. It caused all sorts of speculation and really stirred up the community."

Then, a few weeks later, he took out a billboard on Sunset Boulevard that read: "KLSX, Pirate Radio, KLOS, Move Over and Let the Big Dogs Eat."

The billboard fueled speculation that the new station would be mounting a high-profile, aggressive, Pirate Radio-style campaign and would likely be playing album-oriented rock.

A fake promotion was put together featuring the "Big Dog" theme. Published reports predicted that the new call letters would be KBDE (as in K-Big Dogs Eat).

All this was a smoke screen. The real thing was yet to come.

The choice of call letters for the station took months to decide. Speculation in the music community was rampant. Again, surveys were conducted with lists of various call letters. The eventual choice after much deliberation inside the station was KKBT, "Rock With a Beat."

De Castro set out on the task of developing a station logo and selected a design created by Eisaman, Johns and Laws, a Chicago advertising agency. The logo has what he considers a "Southwestern feel. Because we want Hispanics and blacks, this logo we think gets it."

Once the logo came into being, billboards, print ads and commercials were developed and shown to staff.

The 10-second "It's Alive!" ad campaign was a big hit among staffers. The week before the station debuted, commercial time was bought on TV shows like "L.A. Law," the MTV awards and Arsenio Hall's late-night talk show. The feeling was that these shows are watched by those considered KKBT's target audience. A 30-second ad in Spanish is also planned for airing on Channel 34, De Castro says.

Then it came down to the actual changeover. De Castro decided to make the radical transition from classical to rock in what was regarded as a rather unorthodox style. Instead of switching formats from one minute to the next, or letting an hour or two elapse between the last KFAC classical composition and the first electric guitar chords on KKBT, he opted to let 24 hours of essentially dormant air time elapse before the debut of the new station. Only the sound of a heartbeat filled the void during that daylong period, interrupted every 10 or 15 minutes by snippets of songs, 30-second riffs from the kinds of tunes the station would play. The intent was to tantalize.

"We don't want to say what time we're starting up," De Castro explained. "We want the audience to constantly tune in, to build the interest."

So far, advertisers have been intrigued, though it is too soon to tell if listeners have been.

Ad sales people are charging three times as much for advertisements on KKBT as they did when the station was KFAC, say station sales manager Greg McElroy. More than 15 advertisers signed on before the station went on the air, including Toyota, Midway Airlines and City National Bank.

"Now they're willing to sign on because of the excitement in the community," McElroy says. "People are really curious. We tell advertisers, 'Hey, listen, we're gonna spend a lot of money in promotion, a lot of people are going to be tuning in. Why not get on that bandwagon now?' "

He credits the early interest in KKBT to the almost-immediate success of Pirate Radio, which debuted last March.

"Pirate Radio with their promotions and advertising really got listeners to tune in really quickly," he says. "We hope to generate that type of excitement, but with an older audience."

Very High Expectations

De Castro is full of plans for his new radio station.

He wants to paint over the mural outside the station and create a new scene. A mural, painted in 1983, covering one of the outer walls of the Yucca Avenue station currently features composers like Beethoven, Mozart and Strauss mingling in a production studio with former KFAC on-air personnel. De Castro plans to paint a new mural celebrating the station's Hollywood origins as the Villa Capri restaurant, a show-biz hang-out. Pop music icons like Madonna and Frank Sinatra would be rubbing elbows with Marilyn Monroe and James Dean (who had a drink at the restaurant the night he died). But no specific date for the painting of the new mural has been set. He also wants to add new names to the plaques on the "Wall of Fame," which features several brass panels bearing classical music supporters, musicians and conductors. Some of the names to be added would include Bruce Springsteen, Elton John and Mick Jagger.

Another De Castro gimmick is to stage a "clean-up campaign where L.A. gangs compete to paint a mural on a wall." He wouldn't elaborate on how or when this might be pulled off.

De Castro is thinking of having morning man Paul Rodriguez give out "life-style prizes" rather than cash or trips to lucky callers. Some ideas: a month's rent paid for by the station, or "buying a house for someone."

But none of his plans include trashing competing radio stations like Pirate Radio did almost from the first day it entered the market. "I don't think we'll take a competitive approach to any other station," De Castro says. "We're spending a lot of money but it's going to be different the way we spend it. We're not going to bang people over the head. We're going to demonstrate through our actions how hip it is to listen to our station. We're not going to just tell people."

He doesn't expect to start out as big as Pirate Radio either, which made it to the top five in the ratings within weeks of its entry in the market.

"It's gonna take us a lot longer to develop," he says. "It will take a year or two, but once we develop. . . ." Again, he trails off.

More than $1.5 million will be spent in 1990 on programming the station, De Castro says. that includes the salaries of on-air talent, consultants, music testing, focus group research, jingles and programming promotions.

The consensus at a programming meeting a week before the station went on the air: "I think we should have a very straightforward sound," De Castro tells program director Kiley. "The beat and all that."

Those in attendance nod.

Then, De Castro asks Kiley (almost as if he was testing her): "Are we going to give cash away and all that?"

"No!" Kiley says with determined voice and a tight smile.

"Great!" proclaims De Castro.

The End of KFAC

On the day that KFAC ceased playing classical music, De Castro staged a frontal attack.

He threw a big party and invited all the staff (both those about to depart from KFAC and those newly hired at KKBT), KUSC-FM personnel, a handful of classical music fans and large numbers of potential advertisers.

Usually format transitions are made swiftly, without much fanfare, until the new station debuts. The effort to deflect criticism over the controversial decision to scrap classical programming and focus attention, instead, on the station's new incarnation seemed a dubious public relations move. But a top-flight public relations firm was involved in the planning of the event--a "passing of the baton" from all-classical commercial station KFAC to nearly all-classical public radio station KUSC.

"We want the transition from classical music to be smooth," De Castro said. "It's not something we're hiding. And we want them to know where classical music can be heard."

It was intended as a tribute to the passing of a classical radio tradition, but it turned into more of a raucous introduction to its successor, KKBT.

The party began rather solemnly at noon. Its first hour was devoted to classical music and to the KUSC baton-passing. The players made the expected perfunctory speeches and De Castro handed over a $35,000 check to KUSC general manager and president Wallace A. Smith. "Classical music is alive and well in Los Angeles," Smith attempted to assure the audience, raising his glass in a toast.

But at 1:05 p.m., after the final notes of Haydn's "Farewell" Symphony had faded and after 60 seconds of silence had been observed out of "respect and admiration for Southern California's classical music," De Castro announced: "Thank you very much. That will be all for KFAC."

"Urban rock" was about to hit Los Angeles. The KKBT coming-out party had begun in earnest.

The first few bars of the Stones' "Miss Ya" blared from speakers, and a skywriter, perfectly timed, flew overhead filling the blue skies with "It's Alive. FM-92." The few classical music aficionados present shifted uncomfortably.

Then the 10-second "It's Alive!" spot was aired on monitors (first, with no sound). Copies, on one-inch videotape, were made available for all television reporters to take back to their stations with them. ("We'll get a half-million in television time that night," De Castro had crowed to his sales staff when discussing the idea a few days before.)

However, reporters weren't buying it. Most of the national and local news reports that day focused more on the demise of Los Angeles' only commercial classical station than on the birth of yet another rock format.

The last moments of the KKBT coming-out party featured the introductions of on-air personalities, with comedian Paul Rodriguez painted as the lineup's crown jewel. The collection of deejays hired also mirrors the ethnic diversity De Castro seeks to attract. "The on-air staff will look exactly like if you took a picture of Los Angeles," De Castro had said earlier.

Rodriguez has said he may only stay with the station for three months because of other commitments, including starring in a television sitcom set to air in mid-season. But De Castro is convinced that even if he stays only a short time, "Paul will bring Hispanic people to our station. Paul is L.A."

Others who have since listened to the morning program are not so sure.

"I don't think the Hispanic under 30 is going to listen because they've got Paul Rodriguez on in the morning," says Gordon Mason, president of the Southern California Broadcasters Assn. "I don't think that's a strong enough reason."

A new station may not wrest the loyalties away from KPWR and KIIS, he says, two stations that consistently place in the Top 5 among Los Angeles stations.

Rodriguez, however, is excited about the opportunity to be on the radio. "Principally I want to be an actor, but to have the opportunity to talk to millions of Hispanics and all the area of L.A. up to Orange County, it was an opportunity I didn't want to pass up," he says.

"If I do a good job here on the radio in the morning, believe me, every station will have a Hispanic," he says. "It'll be Rick Diaz and Jose Thomas," referring to top morning jocks Rick Dees (KIIS-FM) and Jay Thomas (KPWR-FM).

KKBT Is Born

The 24 hours of thumping heartbeat stopped at noon on Thursday, September 21.

The first few songs on the air were allusions to the new venture: Lou Reed's "Walk on the Wild Side" followed by the Rolling Stones' "Start Me Up" and the Go-Go's "We Got the Beat."

Other songs to follow that day included "So Alive" by Love and Rockets, "Don't You Want Me" by the Human League, "1999" by Prince and "Fame" by Irene Cara. (That last one is off the playlist, De Castro announced a few days later. "It's a song that worked well in research but it isn't consistent with our sound.")

Several people in the radio industry acknowledge that a good deal of fine-tuning is the norm during the first few weeks of a station's life.

"We're not going to be our final radio station the day we go on," program director Kiley had said.

Comparisons to Pirate Radio, the last radio station to hit the market, are inevitable, particularly given the almost-overnight success of the hard-rocking station.

Despite his reputation for knocking competing stations, KQLZ's program director and morning deejay Scott Shannon did not criticize the new station.

"(KKBT) received a lot of attention when they signed on but most of it was focused on the demise of the classical format rather than the arrival of a new radio station," Shannon said. "And then to complicate matters even more, they were following our sign-on (on March 17, 1989), which turned out to be probably the most recorded sign-on in modern radio history. So it was very difficult for them to hit with a big splash."

Despite all this, Shannon said, he expects KKBT will gather a substantial audience.

"There's some really talented people involved in the KKBT project and the station will certainly be a competitor," Shannon said. "A new station never sounds like you want it to sound when it first goes on. We had a lot of problems when we first signed on."

KKBT is not without its early problems and need for adjustments. De Castro has said that he is unhappy with the sound of the morning show and plans to restructure it to feature Rodriguez more prominently. The comedian is currently sharing the 6-10 a.m. shift with deejays Tim Kelly and Patty Lotts.

Audience reactions are the key and so far those have been hard to read since only a fraction of listeners ever call or write radio stations, Kiley said

One staffer says she knows of only one fan letter sent to the station. But Kiley said she has received "less than 50" letters and between 1,000-2,000 calls, including those on the request lines.

Said letter-writer Robert Ray from West Hollywood, "I like it. I drive 4-6 hours a day and I'm sick of changing channels. . . ." Wrote Maurice Holloway: "The programming really connects with the Baby Boom generation. The overall sound is like old Top 40. . . . Everything you played had a danceable beat."

The Future

Radio industry officials understand the strategy behind KKBT, but they are split about how successful the station will be.

"I think it's gonna work . . . because of the ethnic makeup of the marketplace," says one official with a ratings service. "I mean, I don't think it's going to be the No. 1 station in the marketplace, but it's going to do well."

But he has heard a lot of comments that the station's playlist is "all over the place. Most people liked bits and pieces of it."

The diversity of the playlist is a common criticism.

"I would have preferred to hear the station more together from the onset," says a program director at a rival station. "But I guess they'll make some changes on the air."

Says another industry veteran: " I wouldn't put a lot of money on their big success. . . . It's just another rock station. I know what they're doing. I see the design they've chosen. . . . They'll probably get to a 2 share. The market is just reaching the saturation point. There was a stronger reason to listen to the Pirate, if you're into that bag, than there is to listen to this, now that Pirate's here.

"I see it gaining some audience but I don't see it getting an awful lot of audience," he continues. "One reason (is that) it's low on the dial; there's not much traffic down there. All your hot 18-40 stations are up higher on the dial. The test will be how much audience they can wrestle away mostly from KOST and a little from some other rockers."

Says a general manager of a competing station: "What KKBT is undoubtedly trying to do is similar to urban/adult contemporary stations in Chicago and Miami, which have been quite successful. They're probably hoping to take a couple shares from A/C KOST (which has a 6 share) and a couple shares from the urban side of KPWR (which has a 7 share) and if they can just come out with a 4 share, they'll be doing dynamite in this market."

Because of the glut of rock and pop radio stations in Southern California, a newcomer to this market is increasingly hard-pressed to find a niche.

Says Pirate Radio's Shannon: "In Los Angeles, there are so many good radio stations that do just about every format well that they were almost forced into creating a hybrid--in other words, a new animal, and that is very difficult to do and takes a long period of adjustment. And it's almost impossible to do off the air. You have to be on the air to do it and it kind of develops as you go along."

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