Over the past decade, the population of Los Angeles has swelled, turning its already congested freeways into rivers of motionless slag.

It's a pretty grim scenario for most of us, but there is one group that looks on L.A.'s traffic problems with nothing but pure delight: radio executives. The more time people are stuck in their cars, with nothing to do but stare at creeping taillights and stew, the more time they spend listening to their radios.

The result is that there have only been two years since 1987 when advertising sales at L.A.-market radio stations did not increase over the previous year, according to figures from Miller, Kaplan, Arase & Co., which conducts a monthly survey of sales revenue at 27 L.A.-area stations.

And if the past decade has been good for radio advertising, the past month was positively awesome. Local advertising sales in August for Miller, Kaplan's 27 stations were $36.04 million, a 21.1 percent increase over August 1996, and national ad sales were $14.6 million, a 39.7 percent increase over August 1996.

It was the best August ever in local radio, and was all the more surprising considering nothing much happened last month there were no local elections or big sporting events, or any other unusual programming that could be expected to attract those kinds of numbers.

Year-to-date through the end of August, overall radio revenues in L.A. were running 11.1 percent ahead of last year, according to the survey.

Increases in radio sales parallel increases in listenership. Gordon Mason, president of the Southern California Broadcasters Association, said the amount of time Angelenos spend listening to the radio has increased between 12 percent and 14 percent over the past decade.

Traffic increases are part of the explanation, although there's more to it than that. Mason says the improving L.A. economy has a lot to do with the recent increases in radio ad sales.

In addition, the emergence of Spanish-language radio in Los Angeles is turning heads among media buyers. Spanish stations like KLVE-FM 107.5, which dominates the L.A. market in the Arbitron ratings, are attracting mass audiences not seen here since the arrival of television, and that in turn is prompting advertisers to spend more on the medium.

"The assumption (among advertisers) is, L.A. has this infusion of newcomers, and a lot of them have greater listening habits than reading habits," Mason said.

For proof of the explosion of Spanish-language radio, one need look no further than KSCA-FM 101.9. Purchased early this year by Clear Channel Communications Inc.'s Heftel Broadcasting unit, the station is an astonishing example of how quickly a format change can produce a mass audience.

KSCA used to be an "album alternative" station, a format popular among white, college-educated baby boomers but not popular enough overall to pull down impressive ratings. Under its former ownership, KSCA was seldom able to break into the top 25 area stations in listener share.

But Heftel changed the format to Spanish popular music, and the response was almost immediate: In the first six months of 1997, KSCA rocketed to the No. 5 station in the L.A. market in listener share, according to Arbitron.

Unfortunately, it's impossible to tell how much of a role Spanish stations are playing in this year's radio ad sales bonanza, because Miller, Kaplan does not list sales figures for individual stations those are confidential. Four of the 27 stations surveyed are Spanish-language.

PromoToys clowns around

Sometimes television commercials promote more than the advertiser paying for the spots. They've certainly done a lot for Burbank-based PromoToys Inc., whose antenna balls are enjoying a free ride in more ways than one.

You know those talking clown-head antenna balls in the Jack in the Box commercials? The latest features an antenna ornament whose nose has been singed off in an auto accident, and the talking head convinces a sympathetic fireman to give him a ride on the fire engine antenna.

Well, those Jack-heads are made by PromoToys, which is turning its antenna balls into a major promotional vehicle.

The five-employee subsidiary of Irvine-based Strottman International had been humming along for five years as a small but moderately successful designer of promotional giveaways when executives at TBWA Chiat/Day Inc. approached it three years ago with a new job: to make small rubber figures shaped like the company mascot that could be attached to auto antennas, much like the styrofoam orange balls long used by Unocal Corp. to promote its Union 76 gas stations.

Chiat/Day planned to use the antenna balls in commercials, as well as sell them in Jack in the Box restaurants. It didn't count on creating a whole new line of business for PromoToys.

"I think (the Jack in the Box commercials) are a key reason why a lot of people are responding to these things," said PromoToys President Pat Pattison.

The Jack-balls have gotten so much exposure over the past three years that they prompted Walt Disney Co. to hire PromoToys to produce at least 100,000 antenna balls shaped like five Disney cartoon characters, for sale at Disneyland. The company is currently in discussions with several professional sports franchises to make antenna balls shaped like team mascots or logos, Pattison said.

Today, antenna balls make up about 30 percent of the business at PromoToys, which does about $2 million a year in revenues, according to Pattison.

"Cars are obviously a huge marketing device, because there are so many of them on the road, but there's not a lot of things you can do with them," Pattison said. "Bumper stickers and antenna balls are about all there is."

News Editor Dan Turner writes a weekly marketing column for the Los Angeles Business Journal.

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