Talk radio station KFI-AM on a roll with top ratings

Riding wave after wave of pop hits that carried the station into more radios than any other in the market, Top 40 outlet KIIS-FM (102.7) dominated Los Angeles-Orange County ratings for most of the last three years. Now another station has finally started its own winning streak.

After already claiming January and February, talk station KFI-AM (640) — home of commentators such as Bill Handel, John Kobylt, Ken Chiampou and Tim Conway Jr. — placed first in the March ratings, released Monday. It was the first time any station other than KIIS had won for three straight months with regular programming since Arbitron began publishing monthly standings in mid-2008.

“We’re delighted,” said KFI program director Robin Bertolucci, who joked, “We think the people of Southern California have great taste.”

“We’ve definitely been on a roll. It means we are connecting with the Southern California community, and they like what we do,” she said. “It is great validation; it is not something we take lightly.”

Arbitron divides the year into 13 four-week ratings periods, one for each month plus a year-end holiday segment. Previously, KFI finished first in August and September 2009, and again in October and November 2011. For the last three years, soft-rock station KOST-FM (103.5) has won the December and holiday periods by switching to Christmas music, and this year it tied with KFI for first in January.

With every ratings release, stations parse the numbers carefully, trying to discern if they’ve attracted the demographic groups they’re targeting, whether that’s women 25-54, or men 18-34, etc. Then they can pitch themselves to advertisers as the best place to reach those specific audiences.

So how important is the overall horse race, then? At first glance, it might appear that KIIS and KFI aren’t fighting for the same listeners — how populous can the overlap be between fans of Lady Gaga and Rush Limbaugh?

“You want to win your core demos,” conceded John Ivey, KIIS program director. To place first among the total audience in the market — all listeners age 6 and older — “is more bragging rights,” he said.

But Bertolucci tries to keep a broader view. If someone is listening to another station, they’re not listening to KFI, and she wants to know why. The goal is for KFI hosts to cover a broad enough spectrum of topics to hook listeners of all types. Grab them with a discussion of the tension between stay-at-home moms and working mothers, or the story of a black Labrador retriever who refused to leave the side of its dead fellow Lab, and hopefully they won’t be punching buttons to hear what’s playing on KIIS or KOST.

“More than looking at another competitor, we look at ourselves and make sure we’re on point. Is what we’re doing compelling? Is what we’re doing what people want?” she said. In the end, though, “we don’t consider ourselves in direct competition with anybody else as much as with ourselves.”

But KFI should check its rearview mirror. Its winning audience share for March was 4.9%; KIIS finished at 4.8%.

“I feel like we’re coming into our real time of the year,” Ivey said. “This is the time to roll down your car windows and listen to pop music.”

After so much success at KIIS, Ivey knows the feelings of being both challenger and champ: “It’s what you shoot for, and when you’re No. 1, you feel like everyone is shooting at you. You have people coming at you from all angles.”

The one sure winner in the ratings battle is Clear Channel Communications. The nation’s largest radio chain is parent company of KFI, KIIS, KOST and five other stations in Los Angeles, including KBIG-FM (104.3), another standout in the March numbers.

The adult-hits station, dubbed “MYfm,” sat in 11th as recently as November. It’s been fourth throughout 2012 and in March, for the first time, KBIG edged past KOST in average weekly audience — 3.1 million versus 3 million people who tuned in for at least five minutes a week. (KIIS remained comfortably in first place, with nearly 3.6 million.)

KBIG program director Andrew Jeffries said the recent surge is the culmination of changes at the station dating back four years. That’s when Clear Channel, trying to shake some listeners’ image of KBIG as a secondary sibling to KOST, created the MYfm brand and began targeting a younger, more female audience with an updated playlist, adding Green Day and even an occasional Eminem song.

“When you try and make a change to a product, it takes time for perceptions to sink in,” Jeffries said.

Sean Valentine, onetime afternoon DJ at KIIS, took over the KBIG morning show, and in January “Extra"television host Mario Lopez was handed the keys to his own nighttime program on the station.

Jeffries said KBIG now shares listeners with not only KOST and KIIS, but also with KIIS’ rival Top 40 station KAMP-FM (97.1), alternative rock KROQ-FM (106.7) and even classic-rock KLOS-FM (95.5) and hip-hop station KPWR-FM (105.9). He said the crossover stems from a KBIG playlist that skims appropriate songs from the other stations and creates a place where Taylor Swift, Sublime, Bon Jovi and Selena Gomez can coexist.

“We’re an adult, hit-based radio station,” Jeffries said. “It’s just a very good place to be.”