What will it take to rule the sports radio airwaves in Southern California? Controversy? Style? Personality? Credibility?

With five all-sports radio stations in the area now competing for the lucrative 18 to 49 male demographic, the answer may be all of the above.

Sports fans in L.A. have long supported XTRA-AM (690), a 50,000-watt station based in San Diego. These days, KAVL-AM (610), KXTA-AM (1150), KMPC-AM (1540), and KSPN-AM (1110) will be trying to succeed in what appears to be an overcrowded market.

"If you're asking me will they all be a ratings success? The answer is an absolute no," said Don Barrett, executive editor of LARadio.com, which tracks the performance of local stations. "However, from a revenue standpoint it's a successful format. It attracts advertising targeted to a male audience, and the overhead is next to nothing because it's mostly network programming."

The challenge each station faces is strengthening its ties to the local community in a region long considered not to be a big sports market, unless the Dodgers or Lakers are having a winning season.

KSPN, for example, has strong ties with the ESPN Radio Network based in Bristol, Conn., but station officials say they want local programming to help attract additional listeners and advertisers.

The station airs a local show featuring Joe McDonnell and Doug Kirkorian, a columnist with the Long Beach Press Telegram, from 3-6 p.m. weekdays.

"We are not necessarily trying to unseat Howard Stern, but what we are trying to do is build a sports station that has credibility," said Erik Braverman, program director of KABC (790) and KSPN. "Our goal is to have the top-rated all-sports station in Southern California."

Braverman believes that if his station can establish itself as a credible outlet for both local and national sports news and talk then other stations will have a harder time staying in the sports radio game.

To help separate them from the rest of the pack, KSPN is looking to add another local program from 1-3 p.m. weekdays.

"The idea is to try to bring someone in who has a name in the market, and has the ability to break local news stories because of their local connections" said Braverman. "We are taking our time in hiring someone because we want to see what is out there."

Meanwhile, at KMPC, Nancy Cole, the station's general manager, said stations have decided to go to network programming because of costs. KMPC carries One-on-One Sports, while XTRA, KXTA and KAVL carry the new FOX Sports Radio Network.

"This is not a battle of all sports radio stations," said Cole. "This is a battle of networks."

Cole agreed with the assessment that listeners are looking for local programming that is credible as well as having style and personality.

"We are still in negotiations with several potential hosts," said Cole. "I'm not looking for Jay Leno types. I'm looking for sports reporters."

In the race to be king of L.A. sports talk, Barrett said stations won't need to capture the same ratings as news outlets KNX-AM (1070) or KFI-AM (640), because one-tenth of a point in terms of ratings will mean millions of dollars for a station.

Data from Arbitron shows that in the September through November ratings period, KXTA earned a 0.5 rating, while KFI garnered a 3.0 and KNX a 2.4 rating.

The ratings are low, partly because L.A. listeners tend to gravitate toward talk programs such as Rush Limbaugh and 24-hour news. Despite the low ratings, sports radio is still attractive to advertisers because even a 0.5 rating is dominated by men 18-to-49 with money to spend on consumer goods from cars to electronics.

Mike Simpson, director of national radio sales at Carat USA Inc., a Los Angeles-based advertising agency, said sports radio has enjoyed an increase in advertising revenue over the past few years because of the robust economy and the audience it attracts.

"We sell sports radio to clients looking for the young male audience, for example, dot-coms looking for male shoppers," he said. "General market clients will consider it but don't purchase sports radio on a regular basis."

Simpson said national sports radio advertising has helped the agency increase its radio revenues to $55 million last year. Carat expects radio advertising to top $75 million this year.

That advertising has been targeted to ESPN, One-on-One and Fox Sports, he said.

Leonard Madrid, sales manager at KSPN which has been on the air just over a month, said that station has signed a number of deals with clients that already advertise on sister station KLOS-FM (95.5). However, he declined to comment on which advertisers had signed on with the new station.

Radio executives say the jury is still out on whether five sports stations can succeed in a market with more than 80 stations.

"We are already exceeding our expectations before our first ratings book arrives in April," said Erik Braverman, "We underestimated the significance of the ESPN brand in the market when we switched to an all sports format."

KRLA switched formats from talk to sports on Dec. 1. The station features ESPN Radio Network programming including Tony Kornheiser from 7-10 a.m. and Dan Patrick from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.

At KXTA, Ken Christiensen, the station's general manager, said five sports stations in L.A. could be too many. He predicted a shakeout.

"Everybody in this format has the potential to take audience away from another station," he said. "You have to be better at delivering your product than the other stations."

Christiensen said the syndicated Jim Rome show, from 9-12 weekdays, was the station's most popular program and has helped give the station an identity among listeners.

At KMPC, Cole said that with 425 affiliates and 13 million listeners, One-on-One is the largest sports radio network, giving the station an edge over both ESPN and Fox .

One-on-One was recently purchased by Vulcan Ventures Inc., the investment group of Microsoft Corp. co-founder Paul G. Allen.

The network's assets will be folded into The Sporting News and rebranded The Sporting News Radio Network. Cole said the sale should have little to no affect on KMPC.

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