Singing a new tune

IT’S PROBABLY ONLY A MATTER OF TIME before someone writes a song about it. KZLA-FM, based in Burbank, abruptly changed formats this month. It now plays something called “rhythmic pop,” and the city that was once home to Gene Autry no longer has a country music station.

The format change, as in other big cities that no longer have country stations, stems in large part from changing demographics. A top executive at Emmis Communications, which owns KZLA, told The Times that 60% of the local audience is Latino, Asian or African American, while “country fans are about 98% Caucasian.” The top slots in Arbitron’s local radio rankings have been dominated in recent years by stations offering Spanish programming, hip-hop, R&B; and pop hits, while KZLA’s ratings have been mired just outside the Top 20.

The other significant change in the last decade was the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which triggered a wave of consolidation in the radio business. Instead of a local limit of two stations (one AM, one FM) and a national limit of 40, the law allowed companies to control up to eight stations in the largest local markets and an unlimited number nationally. Opponents of deregulation blame it for many of radio’s ills, including narrower playlists and less diversity. But advocates -- particularly Clear Channel Communications, which skyrocketed from 40 stations to about 1,200 -- say the more stations a company owns in a market, the more formats it will offer.

There’s logic to that argument. If a company has only a few stations, it is likely to target the biggest demographic groups in a market. The more stations, the more incentive to expand its reach by going after smaller niches. In reality, though, many groups offer multiple variations on one or two formats, hoping to capture as much of the biggest audience segments as possible. KZLA’s switch brings its format closer to that of Emmis’ other station in Los Angeles, KPWR-FM, which is an urban-hits outlet. Similarly, Clear Channel’s five stations in and around Los Angeles all offer hit songs from a narrow range of genres.


Southern California’s country music audience is nothing to sneeze at -- more country CDs are sold in Los Angeles than in any other city. Granted, country doesn’t dominate the Billboard Top 200, but neither is it a niche genre. So you’d think that some local radio broadcaster would leap at the chance to fill the void left by KZLA. Otherwise, the field will be conceded to competitors in neighboring counties and on satellite, putting more distance in the public’s mind between “local” and “radio.”