Is Country Music Radio Being Put Out to Pasture in L.A.?
Is country music riding into the sunset of Los Angeles radio?
One of Los Angeles-Orange County’s two country stations, Orange-based KIKF-FM (94.3), this week said adios to country and replaced it with an adult-rock “mix” format of new music and rock oldies.
Meanwhile, country fans and industry veterans are nervously eyeing what Indiana-based Emmis Communications will do with its latest acquisition, country station KZLA-FM (93.9).
Emmis officials say they will give country a chance, but that they would consider a change if research indicates that another format would be more successful. Emmis also owns hip-hop station Power 106 (KPWR-FM [105.9]), currently No. 3 among English-language stations in L.A., according to Arbitron.
Should Emmis drop country at KZLA, 19th-ranked in the market, it would be “very scary” to the country music industry, said Phyllis Stark, Nashville bureau chief for Billboard magazine. (Riverside-based KFRG-FM [95.1] continues to do well, but its signal doesn’t reach all of Greater Los Angeles and Orange County.)
“The problem is that L.A. and New York are such media centers that country, to succeed nationally, needs to be front and center in those markets,” Stark said. “Media buyers, talk-show bookers and the like need to have exposure to country music, they need to see billboards for KZLA, and they need to see the kind of events stations do in town to keep country at top of mind.
“If there’s a danger that one country station--or even two--might go away,” she said, “it’s a scary time for the whole format.”
Emmis still needs FCC approval of its proposed acquisition of KZLA, but Emmis chief executive Jeff Smulyan said Wednesday that “our preference would be to leave it country.”
“One of the things we’re looking at is why country hasn’t been more successful in Southern California,” he said. “Our priority would be to make it more successful, and we will explore ways to make that happen. But you always try to do what makes the most sense for each property.”
Program director R.J. Curtis is “very optimistic” about KZLA remaining a country station. The format change at KIKF also could help boost KZLA’s audience, he said.
“I think they [at Emmis] see like we do that there is a tremendous upside for country listening in the L.A.-Orange County area,” Curtis said. “This radio station’s been through a lot over the years, through a lot of different owners and a lot of different ways of approaching this format, but there is a viable audience out there who likes [country music].”
The size of that audience, however, had been shrinking in recent years for KIKF, prompting the format change, said Craig Powers, vice president of programming for Astor Broadcasting, the Carlsbad-based company that owns several stations in Southern California.
“Over the past few years there’s been an overall downswing in country music album sales and listening, and for Orange County especially,” Powers said. “It’s a very trendy market. Country does well when it’s a fad here, and that’s usually on a 10-year rotation. In 1980 we had the ‘Urban Cowboy’ fad, and in 1990 we had Garth Brooks. Here we are at 2000 and there just isn’t one.”
What’s most unusual about the change at KIKF is that the station’s entire on-air talent lineup is staying put, even though the deejays will now be spinning hits new and old by the likes of Sting, No Doubt, Third Eye Blind, Bon Jovi and the Beatles instead of Brooks, Alan Jackson, Clint Black and Reba McEntire.
“From the phone calls and e-mails we’ve been getting,” Powers said, “it seems like a lot of the people who listened to KIK are going to keep listening because of the personalities that are here. Usually the program director is the first to go, then all the on-air talent, but the owners have decided to keep everybody and see if we could hang onto our old listeners.
“So far 99% of our [advertising] clients have stayed on, and we’ve actually gained quite a few new clients,” Powers said. “So that’s something completely unusual.”
What’s not unusual, however, is that a major metropolitan area is left with just one country station.
Within the last year, second- or third-ranked country stations in Seattle, Las Vegas, Detroit and Dallas have abandoned the country format that most adopted during the country boom of the mid-'90s.
“Often in those situations,” said Billboard’s Stark, “one group owned both and felt they could better compete with a second country station.”
That same philosophy, she said, could induce Emmis to “flank” its Power 106 format with a complementary format at KZLA.
Another factor is revenue. The St. Louis stations Emmis is trading Bonneville International Corp. to get KZLA collectively generate more revenue than the L.A. country station--Smulyan estimated an aggregate of $20 million to $22 million for the St. Louis quartet, against about $17 million currently at KZLA. That revenue shortfall, some suggest, could be a harbinger of change.
“Emmis is a really smart company,” said KIKF’s Powers. “Common sense says they’re going to switch to something else. If I was them, I’d go after KIIS, which is what they did years ago when they started Power 106.”
Even if KZLA does change formats, it’s unlikely that L.A., the No. 1 market for country record sales according to SoundScan, would go long without someone else stepping in to plug the gap.
“That would be considered a hole in the market big enough to drive a truck through,” said Billboard’s Stark, “or a semi as the case may be.
“The whole industry is hoping like hell the new owners will keep country, or at least give it a chance,” Stark said. “It’s a good station that’s really well respected. That on top of the fact that the industry just really needs a country station in L.A.”