KFI Celebrates 10 Years of Stirring Up 'More Stimulating' Talk

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Having raced through a monologue on the roots of sexual harassment and opined on the origins of . . . Now what was that again? Oh yeah, short-term memory loss . . . radio talk-show host Bill Handel closed a recent show by struggling to keep a straight face as he discussed luncheon meats with the author of a book titled "Spam: A Biography."

This is what the station calls more stimulating talk radio? Well, yes and no.

"This is entertainment," Handel confessed later as he turned away from a plate of Spam and guacamole. "But you can't do it just on entertainment. Obviously, there has to be information. The whole point of the show is to bring something new to the table that people otherwise would not know."

It's a novel approach to talk radio, mixing fact with fun--or at least it was novel when KFI-AM (640) started doing it a decade ago. Since then, however, it's come to be known by another term: successful.

"Up until that time, talk radio had been just hosts and callers," says talk-radio superstar Rush Limbaugh, whose nationally syndicated show helped define KFI's format. "And this brought an entirely different dynamic to it. I think what we've done is revitalized a lot of AM stations and made AM a place where people actually tune now."

And for a while, more of them tuned to KFI than to any other talk station in the country. Based on national Arbitron figures for the winter of 1998--10 years after KFI first switched to talk--the station's weekly cumulative audience of 1.3 million was the largest of any talk station in the United States. And although KFI has since slipped to fourth nationally, that achievement nonetheless completed a remarkable rise for the station, which joined the talk-radio wars only as a last resort, then proceeded to redefine the format entirely.

Today, for example, the station carries the conservative political commentary of Limbaugh and tough-love moralist Laura Schlessinger. But it follows them with local personalities such as Karel Bouley and Andrew Howard, an openly gay couple who host the afternoon drive-time show, and evening host Phil Hendrie, whose unique style mocks the very premise of talk radio.

"It's a whole different way of doing things," says Handel, a practicing lawyer who, for six years, has hosted one of the few issue-driven morning drive-time shows in the Southland. "KFI is a different station. It's a very unique station."

Eleven years ago, the only thing different about KFI was the fact that it had one of the largest signals but one of the smallest audiences in the Los Angeles market. It had been a music station almost since its inception, but by the time George Oliva took over as program director, music on AM was dying and KFI's ratings were fading faster than Michael Dukakis' presidential hopes.

"We needed to do something," remembers David G. Hall, who was Oliva's news director at both KFBK in Sacramento and at KFI before succeeding him as program director in 1991. "There was one huge all-talk station in town . . . and that was KABC. And then there was Spanish and there was religion. And if you're a big AM station, what are your other choices?"

New Format Arrested KFI's Ratings Slide

The obvious target was KABC-AM (790), even though the station so dominated its competitors that a court once ruled it had exclusive rights to the slogan "talk radio." And the opening skirmishes of radio's war of the words gave no indication that was about to change: Although the new format arrested KFI's slide, lifting the station five places to 20th in the local radio rankings in less than a year, the audience for third-ranked KABC grew almost as much.

Oliva made the transition slowly, phasing in talk-intensive programs hosted by the likes of Tom Leykis and a former Cleveland comic known as Mother Love around a mix of music, advice and game shows. So although the station marks its first day as a full-time talker as July 17, 1989, the day after it played its last record, it had actually adopted the format in principle more than a year earlier.

"We may or may not be 10 years old," Hendrie says. "Who cares? We're having a party anyway."

But in a sense, KFI never completely abandoned its music-format roots--a fact that has contributed to its success. The station employed rock music "'bumpers" to transition in and out of commercial breaks, irreverent "in your face" promos and a frenetic on-air style.

"There was no passion. It was just talk," Hall says of traditional talk radio. "I guess I kind of made the conscious decision that a news/talk station can sound and feel like a Top 40 station does. The whole style of the radio station, I think, comes from that. There were no other stations in the country . . . quite like us."

But while Oliva and Hall can claim credit for making KFI unique, Limbaugh is the one who made the station successful. KFI was still struggling to find its voice when it replaced Geoff Edwards with Limbaugh's New York-based show in spring 1989. Limbaugh's entertaining style, unabashed point of view and eschewing of guests provided a jolting contrast to the more balanced, interview-intensive approach of Michael Jackson, who was a Southland morning fixture on KABC. Twenty months after joining KFI, Limbaugh's show was outperforming Jackson and, by fall 1992, KFI had passed KABC as the top-ranked talk station in Southern California.

"I truly believe that Rush Limbaugh has had a lot do with the re-attention and the success of AM radio," says KFI traffic reporter Mark Denis. "He set a trend. The product was working; it was going to work. [But] it seemed like we filled the car up with supreme when Rush came."

And the station did just as much for Limbaugh. Before it was picked up by KFI, Limbaugh's show was heard in 109 markets, but his home base of New York was the only major market that carried it. But after going on the air in Los Angeles, Limbaugh was suddenly drawing more listeners in one market than he had drawn nationally just a few months earlier.

"Los Angeles was technically and literally the acquisition that woke everybody else up," Limbaugh says. "I've enjoyed a lot of success in Los Angeles. Early on, they promoted the show. When they took it, they didn't act ashamed of it. They were very proud of it, which was a key factor. I mean, they hired a PR guy. First time I ever worked with a PR guy was when KFI had one."

Perhaps more important, however, was the fact that Limbaugh's vision mirrored that of Hall's; both thought talk radio should be about more than just talk.

"I had always wanted to do things other than just talk," says Limbaugh, who is still the most listened-to English-language radio personality in L.A. "I had always wanted to use music for themes and as entertainment. I looked at talk radio not as a political vehicle, but as an entertainment vehicle."

Of Course, There Have Been Rough Patches

KFI has encountered some bumps in the road along the way, of course. The station endured a wave of protests for its ill-conceived--and ultimately unsuccessful--attempt to send a pair of neo-Nazis to the Auschwitz death camp with Handel in 1994, for example, and a suit filed in March by former overnight host Tammy Bruce--charging the station, Hall, Hendrie and General Manager Howard Neal with sex discrimination, sexual harassment, wrongful termination and slander--is still pending.

In just the last five months, the station has had to deal with the loss of popular afternoon drive-team hosts John Kobylt and Ken Chiampou--who jumped to rival KABC--and the weekend duo of Scott Hasick and Casey Bartholomew, who did their final KFI show on Sunday. They will soon join "New Jersey 101" in Trenton.

"Any time we do something that works, someone else copies it or they hire away our people," says news anchor Terri-Rae Elmer. "So we have to continuously keep coming up with something that's new and different."

That's all part of the process, says Hall.

"We did a billboard [that] said, 'We Don't Know What the Hell We're Doing.' I loved that because, to a large degree, that's true," he says. "We never expected to beat KABC. We never expected to be the leading talk station. We certainly never expected to be in a position where every time a show would leave here, one of our competitors would pick it up.

"That puts us in a very different position, to tell you the truth. And a very interesting one."

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