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George Lopez Using His Wits to Find a Morning Following

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Los Angeles morning radio is taking its comedy seriously.

While comedian Steve Harvey’s morning drive-time show began bringing listeners back to KKBT-FM “The Beat” (100.3) in the fall, George Lopez made a quiet backstage entrance to the studios of KCMG-FM “Mega” (92.3) in November.

What seemed at first to be a little comic first aid to John London’s ailing “House Party” Mega morning show is now shaping up to be a battle for Los Angeles’ diverse radio audience.

London’s out. And Lopez, 39, has emerged as the heart of what is clearly a long-planned offensive to boost Mega’s sagging ratings and put the station back in the forefront.

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Tony Novia, an editor and industry expert at Radio & Records magazine, said London, while a talented DJ, couldn’t hold up against a comic powerhouse like Harvey. “Steve Harvey wiped him out,” said Novia. “Now they’re kind of hoping what happened with Steve Harvey will happen with George over at Mega. . . . The way that radio works is that if you move the needle you keep the job.”

The mandate for Lopez is the same--build an audience, and fast. Despite the pressure and the lousy hours--he’s in the office at 4 a.m.--this is exactly where he wants to be. He’s playing the music he loved growing up in the San Fernando Valley, pop oldies from Santana to Michael Jackson. And he believes he’s filling a void in the Latino community.

“Everything in L.A. radio has always been very black and white and the Latino part has always been Spanish-speaking,” Lopez said. “It’s the right time for someone like me.”

He has only been headlining the morning show for a couple of weeks and Lopez is a little overwhelmed by the strawberry-scented smell of his own success. His eyes water after taking a whiff of the air freshener bearing his likeness, a freebie--part of an on-all marketing blitz being planned to promote the show--that he hopes will be hanging in a lot of L.A.'s autos.

“Whoa! I think I got a little too close,” Lopez says and coughs. “At least it doesn’t smell like me.” A few months ago, Lopez put his stand-up career on the back burner to become a rarity in L.A.--a Latino with his own show on an English-language radio station.

While it’s too soon to measure Lopez’s impact, station managers at Mega are counting on his sharp, self-depreciating wit and local roots to lure listeners from the competition, which primarily comes from Harvey on the Beat.

Executives at the Beat are a long way from feeling any heat from Lopez. “We’re very excited for [him],” said Loren Henderson, producer of Steve Harvey’s morning show. “We respect him as a great comedian and we think L.A. is a big enough market for several comedians to prosper. We’re even more excited about the Steve Harvey show, and we welcome any challenge that will make us better.”

But Roy Laughlin, vice president and general manager of Mega, KYSR-FM Star 98.7 and KIIS-FM, said that Lopez is more than just a countermove to Harvey. He sees Lopez building a broad coalition of listeners while also increasing the Latino audience. In Lopez, Mega executives believe they have someone with the personality potential to rival that of morning radio’s king, El Cucuy (The Bogeyman) on Spanish-language KSCA-FM (101.9), which had been the market leader for two years until it dipped in the most recent Arbitron ratings.

“The two Spanish stations are untouchable in the morning,” said Jeff Schimmel, executive producer of Mega 92.3’s morning show. “If you really want to kick butt, No. 3 has always been the best you can do. We think George can destroy that myth.”

While Lopez began his stint at Mega alongside London, whose “House Party” show filled Mega 92.3’s mornings for 15 months, there was, it seems, never any real intent to create a morning team. Mike Marino, program director at Mega and Los Angeles market manager for station parent Clear Channel Communications, said: “There was a lack of connection with our audience, even after 15 months. We saw the ratings going down instead of going up. We feel that the show we have now is a much better fit.” London couldn’t be reached for comment.

A fixture on the L.A. comedy scene, Lopez, 39, first took the stage while still a student at San Fernando High School. Since then, he’s become a regular on “The Tonight Show” and a headliner on Showtime’s “Latino Laugh Festival.” He is currently working on the upcoming Showtime miniseries “Fidel,” his film “Bread and Roses” will be released in March, and while he’s no longer on the road, he’s not putting aside his stand-up career entirely.

A Benefit for Earthquake Victims

If anything, Lopez is relentless. He puts in 12-hour days at the radio station. On Monday he’s performing two sold-out shows at the Icehouse in Pasadena to benefit earthquake victims in El Salvador. And Lopez and his on-air sidekicks Irma Blanco and John Murphy, both morning radio veterans, seem to be clicking after only three weeks, riffing Murphy’s white-boy “Kenny Loggins hair” . . . and Orange County. Interviewing an ousted contestant of ABC’s new reality series, “The Mole"--a Latino--Lopez quips, “They’re getting rid of the minorities. It’s like Orange County on ‘The Mole.’ ”

“We’ve never really had this recipe on morning drive time,” said Laughlin. “We really think George is a star in the making in Southern California.”

Will Lopez be able to siphon off fans of local Spanish-language radio? Gary Stone, general manager of Spanish-language leaders KLVE-FM (107.5) (No. 1 in the most recent Arbitrons) and KSCA, thinks not. Stone says the Latino comic may boost Mega’s ratings, but not at the expense of his Spanish-language stations.

“They’ll probably take audience from KIIS and Power, but not us,” Stone said. “Unless you speak Spanish and play music in Spanish, you’re not going to get predominantly Spanish speakers to spend time with you.”

Lopez is more intent on building his own community of listeners. And he isn’t wasting any time. When he found out the station’s marketing plan, everything from billboards to those air fresheners, wouldn’t be ready until later this month, he created an “Expose George Lopez” contest, encouraging listeners to promote his show any way they legally can.

One listener painted a mural on the side of his mom’s North Hollywood house. Another tattooed Lopez’s name on the side of his head. The winner gets $25,000.

Even at Mega, Lopez is still doing stand-up. He doesn’t sit for the five hours he’s the morning show, culling 13 years of one-liners that allow him to riff on topics from Jesse Jackson’s illegitimate child to how the state’s power crisis plays in Pacoima.

“Blackout. Brownout. Why does it always have to be about color?” he says. “It’s like Muhammad Ali said, ‘Why is angel food cake always white, and devil’s food cake black?’ I’m calling it a power outage.”

And, though he’s on radio, he can’t go on the air without donning the same stylish suits he’d wear on “The Tonight Show.” It’s a mental cue that brings out his sharp wit--and his suit of armor to fight the morning radio battle. “It’s like Batman. He never fights crime in jeans and a sweater,” Lopez said. “This suit is my batsuit.”

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George Lopez can be heard weekdays from 5-10 a.m. on KCMG-FM (92.3).


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