KFWB's Goal: 'More Personable' Presentation of News

TIMES STAFF WRITER

For local radio mavens and trivia buffs, the name of Dave Cooke evokes his turbulent 22-month tenure as second-in-command at talk stations KABC-AM (790) and the old KMPC, later KTZN-AM, otherwise known as the "Zone." He was program director in July 1997 when then-veteran KABC host Michael Jackson was demoted to weekends.

A month later came what Cooke calls "probably the darkest day in my career," when the 6-month-old KTZN was suddenly terminated by owner Disney to become part of the Radio Disney network of children's programming on KDIS-AM (710), and Cooke was forced to fire 26 people he had hired for the female-skewed lifestyle talk outlet that had been his baby. Cooke himself was gone in June.

Now the native Texan has returned to Southland radio as program director at CBS' "all news, all the time" stalwart KFWB-AM (980) in Hollywood. In the long run, his mark here might be more memorable. In the four months since his arrival, Cooke has been cooking, making changes about as fast as you can say, "Give us 22 minutes and we'll give you the world."

They are changes in style and substance, from the revamping of his lineup with male-female anchor teams to the creation of the new "Noon Business Hour," hosted by Ron Kilgore--who used to be a morning-drive anchor (5-10 a.m.) until Cooke brought in former TV anchor Kathleen Sullivan as a star and paired her with Dan Avey.

"What we're seeking to do with KFWB is make it more human, more personable," Cooke says in a large office off the main newsroom. Above him on a high shelf are 16 Golden Mikes, the size of Oscars, among the dozens the station has won since it went to a news format in March 1968. "We're trying to make it a more top-of-mind experience where it doesn't tend to, as with all-news stations, fade into the woodwork. It has traditionally been a very mechanistic style, which was more or less a slave to the news wheel, that 20-minute cycle.

"And certainly we wouldn't abandon anything which is critical to what we do," Cooke continues. "That is basically the content, which is the most important element. But beyond that, just in terms of style and delivery and approach, we're trying to warm it up a little bit, so that when you tune in, it may give you another reason to remember that you're listening to KFWB."

Roger Nadel, KFWB's vice president and general manager, who has known Cooke since 1986 when Cooke began consulting for CBS news stations (including KNX-AM [1070]), shares that vision. "Unfortunately we don't live in a vacuum. The format has faced a lot of competition ever since CNN came on and was providing a video version of what we do on the radio. We want to be seen as something reliable and dependable as a light switch, but at the same time we have to come up with ways of being more interactive, of helping people relate."

Cooke's goal is to make KFWB--which ranked 22nd in the market with a 2% share of audience in the most recent Arbitron quarter--the second-highest AM station, behind talk station KFI-AM (640), which was fifth overall with 3.9%.

Cooke insists that KFWB's commitment to news remains intact. "Southern California has relied on this station for urgent, emergency news coverage for over three decades now, and we're not going to let 'em down," he said.

But his warming approach includes the broadcast script. "That is still very much in the early stages but it's 'write like you talk.' Very down to earth. Simple. Communicate. Tell a story. Beyond that, it's really an approach of encouraging people to inject a little bit of themselves into the air product," he says. "Certainly not editorializing or anything like that. But we're allowing people to be a little bit more personal in their approach and have a little bit of repartee where it's appropriate."

As for those male-female anchor teams, Cooke notes that the research shows that "the vast majority of listeners prefer a man and woman together on radio, particularly delivering the news. Maybe it's because they've been conditioned to a man and woman together on television."

Other changes Cooke has made include hiring Joe McDonnell from KXTA-AM (1150) to report sports at 15 and 45 minutes after the hour during the 3-7 p.m. afternoon drive slot; debuting "Motor Trend Minute" weekdays at 1:57, 5:57 and 10:27 p.m., with the latest automotive news; placing KCAL-TV's Alan Mendelson's "best buys" reports at 12:25 and 6:27 p.m.; and adding an "Ask the Mayor" feature with Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan on the third or fourth Wednesday of every month from 10 to 11 a.m.

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There have been questions along the way. On March 8, KFWB aired some "hot gossip" regarding the marriage of a major Hollywood producer and his actress wife, which the station said "may be on the rocks" because of another actress. The story, which identified the people by name, also was displayed on the Chicago Sun-Times' Web site. The next day, that Web site carried follow-up denials from representatives of the three parties. When KFWB became aware of it last week, Cooke said that to do a follow-up at that point would require repeating the gossip, so after reviewing the matter, KFWB decided to pass on a clarification. The story, he said, is "no longer newsworthy."

At his office, Cooke was asked if such gossip is appropriate for KFWB. "It's not the kind of news that we want to be known for," he responded. A bit later, he noted: "In this day and age, the difference between news and gossip is somewhat blurred at times, and I'm sure that from time to time we may become part of that blurring. I hope it's minimal." He said he regrets having aired the rumor.

As for on-air repartee, that, of course, is a matter of taste. Cooke particularly liked an exchange on March 16 between Sullivan and Avey about Oscar ballots. After noting that the 1,500 Oscar ballots were due at 5 p.m., Sullivan quipped: "Only two nerdy accountants will know the winners until Sunday night." Avey responded: "But this week, they will be the most sexy accountants in town."

On March 17, Sullivan announced she was wearing green underwear. "It put a smile on my face," Cooke said. "And I got a lot of news in between. Green underwear on St. Patrick's Day doesn't bother me. [The comment] wasn't blue. . . ."

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