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Sale of KACE, Home of R&B; Oldies, Reflects Changing L.A. Landscape

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was an announcement that quickly reverberated far beyond the city’s radio airwaves.

R&B; oldies station KACE-FM (103.9), one of the last remaining historically black-oriented radio stations in Los Angeles, was being sold for $75 million to Hispanic Broadcasting Corp., the largest Spanish-language radio broadcaster in the United States.

How could this be?

Los Angeles, a city with a rich African American presence in radio, once boasted five black-oriented radio stations, a different station for practically every taste. The 1965 Watts riot battle cry “Burn, Baby Burn,” originally came from a Los Angeles deejay who would use the phrase while playing hot tunes over the air.

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Black radio was the engine that thrust black music into mass appeal--from gospel to jazz, from rhythm and blues and rock ‘n’ roll to hip hop. And radio is still considered the most popular means of communication in African American communities.

The new owners have told KACE that they plan to adopt a Spanish-language talk show format, KACE officials said.

“This is a tremendous loss,” said KACE program director Kevin Fleming. “Radio stations in the black community are not just outlets for music, but centers for all kinds of communications.”

Fleming said that radio was the glue that linked the community together, where people turned not only for music, but when they wanted to hear about issues like job training, police brutality, scholarships or how to finance a home.

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But when the sale of KACE is finalized early next year, it will leave only one black-oriented, adult station in the city: KJLH-FM (102.3), a low-powered station owned by musician Stevie Wonder.

In many ways, the story of KACE has come to symbolize the demographic shift that changed the face of America.

In Los Angeles County, the Latino market is estimated to be 4 million strong, roughly 44% of the population. That’s more than four times the number of African Americans, who represent less than 10% of the total.

In its agreement to sell KACE-FM and its simulcast sister outlet KRTO-FM (98.3), Atlanta-based Cox Radio Inc. was getting out of the Los Angeles market. Dallas-based Hispanic Broadcasting, which already owns several stations in the Los Angeles area, was merely consolidating its hold on the country’s largest Spanish-language market.

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Reformatting Is a Part of Corporate Strategy

“Acquiring and reformatting English-language radio stations to our Spanish-language formats is an important part of our strategy,” said McHenry T. Tichenor Jr., president and CEO of Hispanic Broadcasting, in announcing the sale in October.

The sale marked an end of an era for KACE, which was purchased five years ago by Cox from pro football great Willie Davis. Under Davis’ ownership, the station experimented with a number of formats and was one of the first stations to refuse to air rap music that glorified violence and denigrated women.

KACE was among a handful of black-owned stations that abandoned its regular format and rallied to call for calm during the riots in 1992, said Kerman Maddox, a talk show host and political science professor at Southwest Community College.

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Maddox said he was on the air until 3 a.m. on the now defunct KGFJ-FM, trying to calm tensions, answering desperate phone calls from family members seeking to reconnect and attempting to shepherd police and fire protection to those in need.

“We became an important tool for people in need,” he said.

When Cox took KACE, the station maintained its roots in the black community, focusing on R&B; hits of the 1960s and 1970s by artists such as Sam Cooke, the Temptations, Gladys Knight and Al Green. It also picked up the popular Tom Joyner show, an adult contemporary show that is syndicated by ABC Radio Networks to nearly 100 radio stations across the country and heard by 7 million listeners a day.

“Those who would normally have no voice in our community were given a voice by this radio station,” said the Rev. Mark Whitlock, the executive director of FAME Renaissance, an economic development program operated by First African Methodist Episcopal Church.

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At the station, news of the sale came as a shock, said KACE-FM radio host Gillian Harris.

“Talk about the devastation we felt, like someone dying,” Harris said. “We knew we were going to lose our jobs, because like everyone else we accidentally took French in high school. Right now Spanish is the bomb and the only Spanish I know is how to read the menu at Taco Bell.”

Officials at KACE said that having a major media company like Cox at the helm did little to shield the station from the typical hardships experienced by minority-owned stations who face an uphill struggle to attract advertising and face stiff competition for listeners from stations that offer similar music formats. Chief among the complaints has been the impact of the Telecommunications Act, which eased local ownership restrictions.

“Major broadcasters are coming in and buying up smaller stations in local markets,” said Delbert Tyler, treasurer of the Black Broadcasters Alliance, which represents 100 African American broadcasters. “The number of minority owned broadcasters are declining.”

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William Barlow, a professor of communications at Howard University and author of “Voice Over, the Making of Black Radio,” agreed, adding that the market has become much more competitive.

Early black radio offered a variety of music.

“The first generation of black disc jockeys were civic leaders in their communities,” he said. “Everyone knew who they were. They were the people called in to mediate conflicts.”

But as the community changed and spread out, so did the stations.

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“Major radio stations have started programming hip hop and other forms of black music because it’s popular among suburban white youth,” he said. “Even though the music is coming out of the ghetto, it is migrating to the suburbs. That’s where advertisers are looking for youth with disposal income. Advertisers who are looking to target youth are much more interested in targeting youth in the suburbs than in the inner city.”

But as the racial makeup has grown more diverse, the discussion of race is not going to be limited to blacks and whites.

“When we look at the future of blacks in this city . . . we will have to change our view of race,” said Todd Boyd, professor at the USC School of Cinema and Television. “Race is traditionally defined as black and white. It is not that simple any more.”

But while others speak of broadening the concept of race, the focus of KJLH will remain solidly as a station that targets African Americans.

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A Focus on the Black Community

“Our owner [Stevie Wonder] dictates that we remain focused on the African American community,” said Karen Slade, vice president and general manager at KJLH. “Everything we do is geared toward the African American community. That has worked well for us and I can’t see it changing.”

Facing the microphone at KACE, Harris ponders why the ratings at her station don’t reflect wider support for the station and its classic oldies formula.

With the Supremes singing “Where Did Our Love Go” in the background, Harris turned away from the microphone to comment further on the widespread appeal of the classic Motown sound. “I get calls from all over the city, many whites requesting this music,” she said. “They love it even though the ratings don’t always reflect it.”

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The voices on the phone reflect a variety of ethnicities.

“You get calls from people who sound like they should be asking for the Rolling Stones and what they want is ‘Papa Was a Rolling Stone,’ by the Temptations.”

And there have been times when the requests are not always for black artists, she recalled.

There was the time she said she angered the program manager by playing Elton John’s “Bennie and the Jets.”

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“He said it was the wrong vibe and asked me to take it off,” she recalled. “We got tons of calls from people saying they wanted it back. It turns out the song was 15 on the R&B; charts and Elton John performed it on Soul Train.”

The phone rang off the hook, she said.

“The people loved it.”


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