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The Last Word in Lonesome Is Country : Radio: Country music is the most listened-to format of all, but not in Los Angeles, which will soon have only one station playing those tunes.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Judging by record sales, country music has seen a huge growth in popularity in Los Angeles in the past couple of years with the runaway success of such new artists as Garth Brooks and Clint Black. But the growing numbers of people buying the music are not tuning it in on the radio.

Despite the expanding appeal of a cadre of young singers and musicians, country music is floundering on Los Angeles radio.

After 24 years as a country station, KLAC-AM (570) is turning Monday to an “adult standards” format. Country is no longer viable, it concluded.

The switch leaves only KZLA-FM (93.9) playing country music here--and none too successfully. It consistently has gotten lackluster ratings, ranking 19th in the most recent quarterly Arbitron survey of listening habits.

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In sharp contrast to the situation in Los Angeles, country radio stations in other parts of Southern California have never done better. Country stations are No. 1 in San Diego, Riverside-San Bernardino, Bakersfield and Ventura.

And nationally the picture is even more dramatic.

This year country music became the most listened-to of all radio formats. During the last year, 10 million new listeners tuned in to country stations around the country, according to Simmons Study of Media and Markets, a marketing research report. The number of adults listening to country music stations has climbed 33% in the last three years. There are now 2,600 country stations across the United States out of a total of 10,000 radio stations. (The next most popular format is easy-listening, or adult contemporary, rock with 1,578 stations, followed by news-talk stations, with 802.)

And country stations are not just concentrated in the South, as was the case years ago. Cities with a No. 1-ranked country station include Minneapolis, Detroit, Cleveland, Buffalo, Albany, Seattle, Washington, Denver and Dover, N.H.

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In fact, among the top 100 markets in the country, 72 have a country station in the No. 1 or No. 2 spot, according to Lon Helton, country editor for Radio and Records, a radio-industry publication. And many markets have two or more country stations faring well in the ratings.

So why hasn’t Los Angeles jumped on the country radio bandwagon? How can a country station be on top in San Diego and in the Inland Empire and only in 19th place in nearby Los Angeles?

There are several theories.

“The real reason is the demographic makeup of the city,” said media analyst Allen Klein. “In Riverside-San Bernardino, 65% of the market is Anglo. Here it’s 40% Anglo. The pool from which (country stations) have to draw here is smaller.” Indeed, Los Angeles is nearly 40% Latino, and the city’s No. 1 station is all-Spanish KLAX-FM.

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But others aren’t buying that explanation.

“If you just extrapolated the Anglo demographic,” said Ron Rodrigues, managing editor of Radio and Records, “there’s still a large population--as big as Minneapolis. If you have a big chunk of just the Anglo demographic, you’re going to do well.”

More important, say some in the radio industry--particularly those from competing country stations--is the quality of the station. What songs and artists it plays, how effectively it is promoted and how responsive it is to its audience are said to be the main determinants of success.

“I believe a properly programmed, researched and marketed radio station should be getting higher ratings,” said an executive with a very successful country station outside of Los Angeles. “If we took our radio station and put it on in L.A., we’d be in the top 5. Our formula works.”

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That sentiment was echoed by executives at KSON-FM (97.3), a country station in San Diego that has been No. 1 for nearly three years.

“I don’t know that a country station could be No. 1 in Los Angeles (given the ethnic composition), but it could do better and could probably be in the top 6 or 7,” said Mike Shepard, director of operations at KSON.

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Even KZLA program director R.J. Curtis agreed that his station could do a better job than it has.

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“You definitely have to take the ethnic composition of the market into consideration,” Curtis said. “However, if you’re a great radio station you have to cross those borders. The station in the past was off target. We’d been under-performing. There’s a tremendous audience out there for country music but we weren’t playing what folks wanted to hear. We’ve needed to work on becoming a better station that happens to play country music.”

Since being purchased last July by Burbank-based Shamrock Broadcasting Inc., KZLA has made some refinements, notably a revamped morning show and a new focus on the most popular artists, such as Brooks, Black, Reba McIntire, Allen Jackson and Dwight Yoakam.

But a “non-traditional country market” like Los Angeles is a tough one to crack, KSON’s Shepard acknowledged.

“It has to be 100% right,” Shepard said. “There’s not a lot of margin for error in Los Angeles, as there might be in Houston or Phoenix, where just an adequate country station could do well because there is a long-standing heritage of country. In more urban areas like Southern California, you can’t afford a lot of mistakes. L.A. views itself as a very sophisticated market.”

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Although the wave of hot, new artists of recent years has made the music more widely accepted, Shepard believes that there remains substantial resistance to the idea of a country station in urban areas.

“I still go places and people ask me where my hat and spurs are,” he said. “People assume you have to drive a pickup truck and go to chili cook-offs (to listen to country stations). I think some of those stereotypes still linger on.”


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