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Jumping a Country Mile

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In 1993, poor ratings prompted radio station KLAC-AM (570) to drop its country music format of 24 years in favor of one emphasizing “adult standards.” Meanwhile, KZLA-FM (93.9) gamely persevered with country in its longtime struggle to become a heavyweight contender.

Despite an enormous nationwide growth in the popularity of country music and country radio in the first half of the ‘90s, most Angelenos just didn’t appear interested in tuning into the latest Garth Brooks or Reba McEntire hit on radio. Some pundits argued that the populace was too ethnic and the area too urban for a country station to flourish.

But a recent ratings surge by KZLA suddenly has folks reconsidering the potential of country music radio in the lucrative but highly competitive Los Angeles and Orange County market. The Glendale-based station made a dramatic jump in the latest Arbitron survey, from 19th place last summer to 11th place in the fall, its listener share rising from 2.1% to 2.9%.

And though country fans are predominately white, the station says it has increased its Latino audience from approximately 10% to about 20%.

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Lon Helton, the country editor for the music industry trade publication Radio and Records, is impressed by KZLA’s sudden turnaround.

“Whenever you succeed [in elevating radio ratings] as much as they have in a short period of time, you can tell they have increased their appeal across the board [in terms of attracting a variety of new listeners],” Helton says.

KZLA’s reversal of fortune is rooted in the sale of the station last February to radio giant Chancellor Broadcasting. The Dallas-based company owns 51 stations (eight of which are country) across the United States. After purchasing the sputtering KZLA, Chancellor hired John Sebastian, a veteran program director with a reputation for resuscitating flagging stations.

Sebastian immediately set out to broaden KZLA’s audience by adding country-tinged rock artists like the Eagles, Bob Seger and Bonnie Raitt to the station’s playlist. He felt he could successfully court older rock listeners who were put off by today’s abrasive, punk-accented alternative rock bands and hard-boiled rap acts.

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“There are so many disenchanted former rock and Top 40 listeners that are looking for something that makes sense within their frame of reference,” states Sebastian, who helped popularize the New Age music format at L.A.'s the Wave, KTWV-FM (94.7), in the late ‘80s and who most recently programmed a classic rock station in Phoenix. “They are people who like good lyrics and melodic music. That’s what country offers. People are really looking for something that harkens back to what music used to be. They want music that isn’t really negative or hard on the ears.”

Yet it would be a mistake to attribute KZLA’s growth in popularity solely to its inclusion of rock acts. According to Sebastian, he only programs about one rock-based song per hour. KZLA may lure disillusioned rock fans into its tent with a Jackson Browne folk-rock track, but these listeners still need to be sold on the merits of contemporary country music.

Many new KZLA consumers are discovering that country today is more apt to sound like a slickly produced pop song colored with some pedal steel guitar licks than something raw that’s been unearthed from the bowels of the Appalachian Mountains. Indeed, whether it’s a fevered, Springsteen-type live performance by Garth Brooks or a tuneful ballad by John Michael Montgomery, country has increased its appeal nationwide by becoming less country and more pop or rock.

So you won’t hear a lot of traditional-sounding country songs on KZLA, though the station does occasionally play music by rootsy, heritage artists such as Hank Williams and Patsy Cline.

“My tendency is to tell you that we took out a lot of twang [since my arrival],” Sebastian says. “But to say that is misleading, because there are instances of songs with twang which we’ve put in because they were such strong songs.”

Chancellor Broadcasting’s willingness to spend liberally to promote and fine-tune KZLA has undoubtedly contributed to its higher profile. Sebastian says the station did little advertising prior to the ownership change. Since then, he says, KZLA has “aggressively advertised and marketed ourselves for perhaps the first time.”

Helton says the station’s fall advertising campaign was the most intense he’s seen by a country radio station in at least a decade.

“They put out a huge marketing campaign on television,” he says. “Certainly in the last 10 years no country station has spent as much money on advertising.”

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KZLA also hasn’t been reluctant to open up its coffers for market research. Sebastian says he’s cut down substantially on commercials and disc jockey chatter in order to fulfill a listener demand for a more music-intensive approach.

KZLA’s corporate clout would seem to give the station a distinct advantage in Orange County, where it has competed with country station KIKF-FM (94.3) for the last 17 years. In 1994, the comparatively small KIKF leased a station in Los Angeles County in order to expand its broadcast range. But that experiment was terminated last November due in part to poor listener response.

KIKF owner and general manager Art Astor claims he’s not overly concerned about KZLA’s recent ratings burst. He says his station’s commitment to country has gained it a loyal following of Orange County fans who dislike KZLA’s appropriation of country-rock artists.

But Astor agrees that he’s fighting an uphill battle with KZLA. “I’m flattered that anyone would call us their [competitor],” he says.

Sebastian says KZLA now has promotional deals with two of Orange County’s leading country venues, the Crazy Horse Steakhouse and Saloon in Santa Ana and Cowboy Boogie Co. in Anaheim.

Helton believes the key to maintaining or increasing KZLA’s listenership lies in marketing.

“It’s important for them to continue the marketing campaign they started in the fall,” Helton says. “Maybe not to the huge degree they did. But it’s difficult to play with the big [competitors] unless you’re doing that marketing.”

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