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KABC-AM Talking Change

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The decline of talk station KABC-AM (790) to a 2.6% share of the local market--its lowest rating in three years--is stunningly evident in a breakdown of the broadcast day. Those Arbitron ratings, released this week after the more general station rankings were unveiled last week, show serious audience erosion in nearly all time periods, especially among the key demographic group of 25- to 54-year-olds.

In the broadest band of listeners, those age 12 and older, KABC slipped during the first three months of this year from the 3% share it had registered in the final quarter of 1997. The station had also been at 3% in the first quarter of 1997. Among 25- to 54-year-olds, the group targeted by most advertisers, the station fell to 1.4% from 1.9% in the previous survey and last year.

Meanwhile, rival talk outlet KFI-AM (640) seems to be picking up the listeners KABC is losing. It took top honors among English-language stations with an overall 4.4% share, up from 4% last quarter and 4.3% a year ago. Among 25- to 54-year-olds, its share was 3.4%.

Quite a reversal of fortunes. For years, KABC ruled talk radio. Then in the fall of 1991, KFI’s Rush Limbaugh surpassed KABC’s Michael Jackson. A year later, KFI eclipsed KABC.

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Acknowledging last week that there are indeed problems, Bill Sommers, KABC’s president and general manager since December, said he will evaluate both the current Arbitron ratings and an audience survey on individual KABC programs, which is due shortly, and “then we’ll make decisions on what changes might be necessary.”

The big question is, where to start?

According to the Arbitron breakdown released this week, KABC’s morning drive show (from 5 to 9 a.m.), hosted by Ken Minyard and Peter Tilden, was down 19% in overall audience from the same period a year ago--and 33% in the 25-to-54 age group.

In the 9 a.m. to noon slot, Ronn Owens, who came on board last July and is simulcast on KGO-AM in San Francisco, slipped 15% in overall audience from the previous three months and was down 24% from Michael Jackson’s ratings of a year earlier.

Owens says wait until next quarter. “It looks like there’s going to be a turnaround,” he says. “The new general manager [Sommers] has put money into promotion, and it’s wonderful to see billboards and TV commercials. As of a month ago, I have totally revamped and gone back to the show that’s made me successful in the past. . . . I strayed from doing what I like to do. Now I’m back to doing a show more like Newsweek or Time--60% news stories, 40% guests.”

His agent, David Katz of Don Buchwald Associates, sounded a stronger note. “The station never gave Ronn a legitimate chance to succeed. There had never been any promotion, and previous management forced Ronn to change his show, which had made him successful in San Francisco. With the negative publicity surrounding Michael’s departure, he never had a chance.”

KABC host Dennis Prager, who airs from noon to 3 p.m., increased his overall audience one-tenth of a percent over the previous year, but he experienced a 32% drop among 25- to 54-year-olds.

Afternoon drive from 3 to 7 p.m.--which underwent some flip-flops with Larry Elder on for the full four hours until last November, when he was cut back to two, then restored again in February--was mixed. KABC upped its 12-plus audience by 7% over last winter but fell back 13% among 25- to 54-year-olds.

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In the 9 p.m. to midnight berth, “Mr. KABC"--Marc Germain--lost 50% of the audience KABC had during the same period last year. Syndicated host Art Bell, who airs from midnight to 5 a.m., lost 51% of the audience KABC had last year when he was airing from midnight to 4 a.m.

The only relatively bright spot at KABC right now, in terms of ratings, is in the 7 to 9 p.m. slot, where Stephanie Miller, who began at KABC in November, rose 29% in overall audience and a whopping 73% in 25- to 54-year-olds over last winter’s “Sports Talk.” She apparently hurt KFI’s Phil Hendrie, whose 12-plus share in that time slot dropped from last quarter’s 2.6% to 1.8%--though he still was up 29% over his own numbers a year ago.

Boomerang: Michael Jackson made a boo-boo at the Museum of Television & Radio’s talk-radio seminar April 22, when he said, “I was replaced by the miracle man from San Francisco [Owens]. My worst rating ever, ever, ever was a 3.2. In the book that came out yesterday, he zoomed up to a 1.2.”

Problem was, Jackson was comparing apples to kiwis, and before the demographics for individual programs were out. Jackson was supplying 12-plus audience numbers for himself while attributing figures for listeners age 25 to 54 to Owens.

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Both numbers were wrong, as it turned out. Jackson’s lowest rating in 12-plus over the past three years was not 3.2% but 2.3%, in the winter of 1995. Owens’ lowest 12-plus share came during his debut here last summer--also 2.3%. That quarter, Owens drew a 1.1% share among 25- to 54-year-olds--the same share in that demographic that Jackson got in winter 1995.

As for the most recent ratings, Jackson stole his own thunder: Owens’ 25-54 share turned out to be an even worse 0.8%.

Owens, who read about Jackson’s comments on Don Barrett’s Los Angeles Radio People Web site (https://www.laradio.com), fired off an e-mail: “I have tried to be gentlemanly with Michael. . . . But behind my back he has worked feverishly at damaging my chance of success. It’s unfortunate. I do feel for him. But the class I thought he had was permanently eliminated with his remarks last night.”

Jackson, who did not dispute the revised numbers, declined comment--except to say that he (or anyone else) used to draw low numbers in a winter quarter because virtually the entire month of March had been preempted by preseason baseball.

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Hey, There’s K-HAY: On April 9, this column reported that there are two local country music stations: KZLA-FM (93.9) in Los Angeles and KIKF-FM (94.3) in Anaheim. That’s true for the market of Los Angeles and Orange counties. But Matt Michaels, the 7 p.m. to midnight host of “The K-HAY Santa Fe Cafe,” correctly points out that there are readers in Ventura County and environs who can hear his top-ranked station. So for you who can tune in, hey, there’s country on KHAY-FM (100.7).

The End: KCRW-FM (89.9) preempts Warren Olney and “Which Way, L.A.?” at 1 p.m. and 7 p.m. Friday for the 12th and final episode of “The United States of Los Angeles"--its yearlong series about neighborhoods and ethnicity that began last April, in commemoration of the fifth anniversary of the Los Angeles riots.

The finale includes a visit to Monterey Park, once marked by cultural conflict, now working hard at inter-ethnic harmony. The series was produced and hosted by Celeste Wesson.


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