The Beat Goes on, but a Shift in Format Is Likely

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

There are going to be some changes to the Beat.

And it's not just that R&B;/hip-hop station KKBT-FM is moving up the dial from 92.3 to 100.3 in a swap of signals with Latino-targeted "jammin' oldies" outlet KCMG-FM that is expected to take effect around the end of June.

The tone and focus of KKBT will likely have some dramatic changes under new owner, Maryland-based Radio One Inc., which is buying the Beat format and the 100.3 dial position as part of a divestiture sale due to the in-process merger of broadcasting behemoths Clear Channel and AMFM Inc.

"I don't know what you mean by dramatic," said Alfred C. Liggins, president and chief executive of Radio One, the nation's largest minority-run radio ownership group. His remarks came Thursday before participating in a minority ownership panel at the annual convention sponsored by industry trade publication Radio & Records at the Century Plaza Hotel in Century City.

But Liggins, a 35-year-old, straight-shooting industry wunderkind, made it clear that his company did not spend in the neighborhood of $400 million to get into this market--the No. 1 radio revenue region in the country--to take a hands-off approach on a station that has seen its ratings slide from a healthy 3.8 in the winter quarter of 1999 to a sad 2.6 in the spring 2000 rankings collected by Arbitron.

"I believe our goal is to clearly maximize the audience potential KKBT has as the heritage-dominant station for R&B;," he said. "It's lost some luster, and we specialize in reviving stations that have heritage positions but have lost their edge."

While unwilling to detail specific plans, Liggins made it clear what direction he sees KKBT taking.

"One thing that certainly happened is the Beat has lost a significant part of its African American audience," he said, noting the station's "No Color Lines" campaign in recent years, which was designed to bring in more Latino and white listeners. "Yes, it has 'No Color Lines,' which is great. But the African American audience has always been its driver."

Beyond that, he also indicated that strategies such as going head-to-head with hip-hop dynamo KPWR-FM (105.9) will likely be reversed. It's certainly hard to ignore that the moves in the last year--including the import of morning team Ed Lover and Dr. Dre from New York (with longtime fixture John London moving to KCMG) and afternoon stars the Baka Boyz from rival KPWR--coincided with the ratings slide. While apparently unable to chip away at KPWR's young, male-heavy audience, the Beat seems to have alienated many of its longtime listeners.

"The station's now more male-friendly than it needs to be," said Liggins, citing advertiser affection for adult female listeners. "Women listen to radio more than men do. The 'time spent listening' figures in the ratings books are very important to advertisers."

Emphasis May Be on R&B; Over Hip-Hop

The implication is that the music will shift more to the smoother R&B; side of the equation, with less emphasis on hip-hop, and accordingly the hip-hop-oriented Lover-Dre team and Baka Boyz could be in jeopardy. The station's history of community involvement, though, is expected to remain.

Outside of the changes that will take place on the air, though, Liggins does not expect the station's fans to have much awareness that it will now be run by an African American-controlled company.

"I don't think either the advertisers or listeners [care]," he says. "Here in L.A. listeners don't know who the heck [station owners] are."

The radio industry does notice these things, though, and in many circles, the entry of Radio One into the L.A. market is a big deal, with the KKBT purchase the shiniest jewel in a package of eight Clear Channel/AMFM stations the company is acquiring for a full $1.4 billion.

"You're a pretty serious player if you're in L.A.," said Erica Farber, publisher and chief executive of Radio & Records. "And if anyone had a doubt that Radio One was a serious player, this proves they mean business."

Radio One's growing clout is significant beyond its minority-ownership. The company was founded in 1980 by Liggins' mother, Catherine Hughes, with the purchase of WOL-AM in Washington, D.C. With Hughes--experienced in radio management--taking an on-air role as host of a call-in talk show targeted to the area's large African American community, the station found a connection with an eager and up-to-then underserved audience. She remained a star on the station for the next decade, slowly expanding the company, purchasing a few stations in other markets.

Young Alfred, though, was drawn to the business side of radio. He studied at the Wharton School of Business and went to work in sales for Radio One in 1985. Rising through the ranks, he oversaw with his mother further expansion and, in May 1999, the conversion of the privately held company into a public entity, a move that made the recent acquisitions financially possible. He and Hughes, though now technically owning 21% of the company stock, hold 56% of the voting stock and thereby retain controlling interest.

With the new stations, Radio One will have a weekly audience approaching 9 million, and presences in nine of the top 11 African American population centers and 14 of the top 20. That, Liggins said, gives the company a national reach that will appeal to the large corporate advertisers designing campaigns for the urban, African American community.

Liggins was joined on the R&R; convention's minority ownership panel by Pierre Sutton, president and chief executive of pioneering New York-based Inner City Broadcasting, and Russell Perry, president and chief executive of the smaller, regional Oklahoma-based Perry Broadcasting and Publishing--as well as that state's current secretary of commerce.

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