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KUSC-FM Will Play More of Classics

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

After seven years of airing an eclectic mix of classical, jazz, world and folk music, KUSC-FM (91.5) is doing a major about-face and is returning to its longtime format of traditional classical music.

The changeover, prompted in part by listener dissatisfaction, will take place in November. It comes as KUSC’s finances and programming are under review by a USC task force after the station finished its most recent fiscal year $500,000 in the red.

“While listeners have appreciated our airing a wide variety of music, we have determined that what they really appreciate the most is classical music,” Wallace A. Smith, KUSC’s president and general manager, declared in a news release.

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Jane Pisano, USC’s vice president for external relations, said that two independent consulting firms have been hired and are expected to deliver their reports by the end of the month so that the task force can make recommendations in October.

The $500,000 shortfall is “a deficit of substantial magnitude,” she said. According to Pisano, KUSC’s overall budget for the fiscal year that ended June 30 was $4.9 million--including $1.9 million for its popular and self-supporting syndicated show “Marketplace.”

One source, who requested anonymity, indicated that the financial problems stemmed from the university’s decision to stop underwriting KUSC and begin charging the station rent.

Pisano, declining to reveal the exact amount of the prior support, confirmed that the university halted its underwriting about three years ago.

“Within the last five years, the university has required all academic units and other [campus] activities to operate in a way that made them self-sufficient. So it’s not something with KUSC as a target, but rather an across-the-board effort to hold deans and directors accountable for balancing the budget without university support.”

Asked if there was a connection between USC’s review and the station’s decision to alter its format, Pisano declined comment. But she did allow that such a change was discussed by the task force in the one meeting held thus far.

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Regarding the programming changes, Smith’s statement added that “recent changes in the Los Angeles radio market find less classical music on the dial. All four of the area public radio stations have different formats, and our only commercial classical music radio station recently announced a lighter classical music format.”

Smith was referring to commercial outlet KKGO-FM (101.5). But Saul Levine, the station’s president and general manager, said flatly: “It’s baloney. KKGO is dedicated to presenting the world’s greatest classical music and we have not changed one bit that goal and performance.”

Levine said that recent remarks by KKGO’s new program director, John Santana, that the station would be playing “shorter, brighter pieces in morning and evening drive” were a “misinterpretation” of KKGO’s intentions.

Stephen Lama, KUSC’s vice president of broadcasting, said the “programming decisions we’ve made were made internally by KUSC senior programming staff, and they are completely independent of the task force.”

Asked whether the changeover had anything to do with listeners upset over program content, Lama said, “Yes, of course. We have paid attention to our listeners.” But he said the majority were “ambivalent”--they appreciate the variety but prefer a concentration on classical.

KUSC began playing its diverse musical mix in a limited fashion in 1989, at the same time that it moved to more personality-driven programming. The station fully embraced the new musical format in 1993.

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Lama said that with the changes in November, KUSC will move from an estimated current classical repertoire of about 60% to 90%.

To inaugurate its new format, KUSC announced two new programs:

* “Performance Today,” a National Public Radio show, hosted by Martin Goldsmith, to air weekdays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. with an emphasis on concert performances recorded live throughout the United States. The program is billed as offering listeners a daily portrait of what is happening in classical music, including outstanding musical performances and incisive reviews and commentary.

* An as yet unnamed arts-music-interview program to be hosted by KUSC personality Bonnie Grice. Airing Monday to Thursday from 5-6 p.m., beginning in December. Grice will continue to host and produce “Live on Hope Street,” which will expand to an hour and move to 5 p.m. on Fridays at a yet-undetermined date. She will, however, step down on Oct. 31 as host-producer of “Wake Up L.A.!,” the morning show that airs Mondays-Thursdays. A new morning show and host will be announced in October.

Meanwhile, Pisano said that Coopers & Lybrand is conducting a management and financial audit of KUSC.

“It’s standard,” she said. “There is absolutely no expectation on our part that there’s anything out of order or anything improper. What we are trying to do is to pinpoint what are the problems so that we can fix them. It’s a prudent and good thing to do.”

Station general manager Smith, who is a member of the task force, was unavailable for comment.

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She noted that the firm will be looking at all the positions at KUSC and whether more efficient management is possible. “Restructuring is a possibility to save money,” she said.

KUSC has 46 full-time employees, 16 of them for “Marketplace.”

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