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KFWB's surprise sale and expected format switch throws Clippers broadcasts into question

The Los Angeles Clippers have been on a winning streak lately, a welcome relief for fans concerned about the team's spotty showing late last year.

But the team may have been thrown for a loss with the surprise sale of KFWB-AM 980, the radio home of the Clippers and the site of "The Beast," a fast-paced, irreverent format featuring popular sports personalities such as Jim Rome and KNBC-TV's Fred Roggin.

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The sale of KFWB, disclosed Wednesday, does more than raise questions about the future of Clippers broadcasts. It also highlights the travails afflicting the once-mighty AM industry in the nation's No. 2 market. The development also marks yet another upheaval in the history of one of the city's most well-known radio stations, which in the last 90 years has undergone several format changes ranging from rock 'n' roll to 24-hour news.

KFWB's owner CBS Corp., which has managed the outlet through a trust since 2011 after being forced to sell it because of government ownership rules, is selling the 5,000-watt station to San Jose-based Universal Media Access, which specializes in Asian, Indian and other ethnic radio, according to station chief Diane Sutter.

Universal — affiliated with veteran Buffalo, N.Y.-based media investor Charles Banta — is expected to turn KFWB into a foreign-language niche broadcaster, possibly as early as mid-February.

The sale ends the decades-long legacy of KFWB as an English-language programmer, dating back to when studio founders Sam and Jack Warner started the station to help promote their movies. During the 1950s and '60s, KFWB — amid numerous ownership changes — became one of the most influential and popular stations in the U.S. But its ratings and fortunes have tumbled amid a rapidly changing media market.

"KFWB was once a major radio station in Los Angeles. It was gigantic," said Michael Harrison, publisher of the radio trade magazine Talkers. "And now, it's a property that was in trust, being let go — I hesitate to use the word 'dumped' — to serve a specialty format."

Terms were not disclosed, although sources close to the situation pegged the purchase price as less than $20 million. Dozens of current KFWB staffers are expected to be out of work if the Federal Communications Commission, which has jurisdiction over the public airwaves, approves the transaction as expected in the next few weeks. News of the sale was first reported in the L.A. Daily News.

The most uncertain question surrounds future broadcasts for the Clippers, the NBA franchise controlled by billionaire and former Microsoft chief Steve Ballmer. The team is in the first year of a five-year broadcast deal with KFWB, and now faces the prospect of having its games air on a station that otherwise will not broadcast in English.

A Clippers spokesman said the team had no comment. But details of the sale appeared to surprise club officials, who according to a source close to the team had assumed that if the station were sold, the programming would still hew to a sports format.

"It is their option whether they choose to stay on that station through the end of the season or whether they choose to change,"

Sutter, who manages the station as a trustee for CBS, said of the Clippers. She declined to discuss the purchase price. A spokeswoman for Banta referred a call back to Sutter.

Whatever happens, the switch reveals the stark challenges facing AM radio as the 21st century moves on. Said Harrison: "Foreign-language and specialty might be the future of AM radio."

At its peak, KFWB was indeed a fixture for Angelenos. During the early years of the rock era — after Warner Bros. sold the station to a group led by its general manager — KFWB battled for the No. 1 spot against KRLA-1110 and KHJ-930. DJs such as Bill Ballance and Wink Martindale became local celebrities.

As FM became more popular with rock fans in the late 1960s, KFWB — then owned by Group W, the broadcasting entity controlled by Westinghouse — moved away from music and switched to an all-news format. For decades its slogan "You give us 22 minutes, we'll give you the world" was heard in traffic jams all over the area.

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But news radio has been dealt a harsh blow by the Internet, where a much richer array of updates and information is available. Smartphone GPS apps have obviated the need for real-time traffic bulletins on news radio.

In 2009, CBS tried to boost KFWB ratings by adding syndicated talk shows to the mix. Then in 2014 it swung to sports, with Rome, Roggin and Los Angeles Times columnist Bill Plaschke connecting with fans.

But nationwide, AM radio has watched its one-time dominance dwindle. In the December ratings from Nielsen Audio, nine of the top 10 Los Angeles radio stations were FM (the lone exception was KFI-AM); three were Spanish-language. KFWB ranked near the very bottom, tied with religious programmer KKLA-FM. Harrison believes the most recent format change was a last-ditch gamble.

As Harrison put it, "We're going through an incredible transition in terms of the media paradigm."

Staff writer Greg Braxton contributed to this report.

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