A few weeks after Los Angeles radio station KKBT-FM (92.3) switched from rock and began playing rhythm and blues this spring, superstar Stevie Wonder went on the air at rival KJLH-FM (102.3) and began telephoning his celebrity friends to counter the new competition.
Wonder--who acquired KJLH from a Los Angeles undertaker in 1979--departed from his station's usual mix of music and deejay chatter and traded yarns with everyone from the Rev. Jesse Jackson to singer Little Richard. But the conversation suddenly lost its levity when Wonder talked to Bill Cosby, who was traveling in Utah.
"Stevie, what do you need? Are you in trouble?" some listeners recalled Cosby asking.
Cosby's concern was warranted, according to the latest Arbitron radio ratings.
After languishing first with a classical format (as KFAC) and then with rock, KKBT launched a so-called "urban contemporary" format in February and proceeded to rocket past KJLH and a host of other radio stations this spring to the No. 10 spot in Los Angeles.
The move marks the first time in recent memory that an urban-contemporary station has been in the Top 10 in the Southern California market. And experts say KKBT's ascendancy could foreshadow the most extensive realignment of Southern California radio rankings--and the area's $375-million radio advertising market--since the mid-1980s, when soft-rock KOST-FM (103.5) began its climb to the top and spawned a host of imitators.
"Something very dramatic is happening," said Allen Klein, president of Media Research Graphics, an Encino radio consulting firm. "There is every indication at this point that (KKBT's) success is real. They've taken a little bit of audience from everybody: KIIS lost a little bit, KPWR lost a little, KOST lost a little, the Wave, KTWV, lost--almost every major music station . . . lost listeners."
KKBT is the latest to capitalize on the popularity of the urban-contemporary format, which typically features rhythm and blues artists such as Luther Vandross and Anita Baker, rappers such as Digital Underground and M. C. Hammer, as well as dance singers like Madonna and Janet Jackson.
The station has spent heavily to promote itself and also benefits from having a stronger signal than most of its competitors. Fifty-thousand-watt KDAY-AM (1580), 1,000-watt KGFJ-AM (1230), 1,650-watt KACE-FM (103.9) and 3,000-watt KJLH (102.3) play similar music, but KKBT's 43,000-watt signal is at least 10 times more powerful than all but one of them.
Once dismissed as too ethnic to achieve widespread popularity, the urban-contemporary format is now No. 1 or No. 2 in New York, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Miami, Houston and Detroit.
KKBT's rise in Los Angeles has contributed to the format's visibility, but KKBT and Jim de Castro, its hard-charging general manager, have also drawn criticism from some observers who question the station's aggressive tactics and alleged lack of attention to issues deemed important to the black community, such as gangs, drugs and housing. Critics say that while KKBT may devote air time to these issues, seldom does it send its on-air personalities into the community to support organizations attempting to address these problems.
"Historically, there's been a disparity between urban-contemporary stations, which are low in power, and their . . . pop music counterparts," said Joseph R. Reynolds, managing editor of Black Radio Exclusive, a Los Angeles trade publication. "With their power, (KKBT) can get a broader listenership and are in a better position to solicit more advertising. But there's more to a radio station than just playing music; there's a community responsibility. You can't draw dollars from the black community and not serve that community."
"I don't have to do a black ethnic (thing)," De Castro responded. "Why can't I be one thing to you and another thing to me? Radio is the theater of the mind. We just want to be a radio station that mirrors the market."
De Castro added that the criticism that his station is not involved is unfounded. He said KKBT has focused on many community problems and has recently aired shows on issues such as gangs, homelessness and AIDS.
What's more, the fears of some of KKBT's rivals may be overblown. While the number of listeners tuned in to KACE fell by 7,600 this spring and the audience at both KJLH and KDAY dropped by about 3,000, KGFJ gained an average of 1,400 listeners in the midst of competition from KKBT.
But while many KKBT rivals have held onto most of their audience, some have lost advertising and staff.
KJLH, for instance, lost two of its top deejays to KKBT, including former program director Cliff Winston. KKBT has also tried to lure KACE personnel, according to owner Willie Davis. Meanwhile, some advertisers--attracted by KKBT's stronger signal and introductory advertising rates--defected from KJLH, KGFJ and other outlets.
Over the long run, however, some experts say the success of KKBT may actually increase advertiser and listener interest in urban-contemporary stations, who say they have been overlooked by advertisers who believe they can reach a black audience through a general market campaign rather than specialized advertising.
"Some of the retail advertisers will come back eventually, but for the most part we've had to (look) for new advertisers," said Karen E. Slade, general manager of KJLH. "Because their format is so close to ours," KKBT's ratings climb has "had a big impact on us."
GROWTH OF URBAN CONTEMPORARY RADIO Audience share and number of listeners for L.A. urban contemporary radio stations, last five ratings periods
STATION SPRING '90 WINTER '90 KKBT-FM (93.2) 3.1/50,700 1.3/21,600 KJLH-FM (102.3) 1.7/28,900 1.9/32,200 KGFJ-AM (1230) 0.9/15,300 0.8/13,900 KDAY-AM (1580) 0.8/14,000 1.0/17,000 KACE-FM (103.9) 0.8/12,600 1.2/19,800 Total Listeners 121,500 104,500
STATION FALL '89 SUMMER '89 KKBT-FM (93.2) 0.4/6,800 .7/28,800* KJLH-FM (102.3) 2.3/37,200 1.9/31,400 KGFJ-AM (1230) 1.1/18,200 0.7/11,000 KDAY-AM (1580) 0.6/9,900 0.6/10,000 KACE-FM (103.9) 1.9/31,000 1.2/20,900 Total Listeners 103,100 73,300
STATION SPRING '89 KKBT-FM (93.2) 1.5/24,200* KJLH-FM (102.3) 2.2/36,500 KGFJ-AM (1230) 0.8/13,700 KDAY-AM (1580) 1.5/25,600 KACE-FM (103.9) 1.3/21,700 Total Listeners 97,500
Shares/listeners for KFAC before it became KKBT in September, 1989. (Excluded from total listeners.)