Format Change in Offing With KFWB Deal for Dodgers

Staff Reporter

The city's first all-news station might consider changing its famous slogan to "Some news. Most of the time."

KFWB-AM (980) will be adjusting a format more than 35 years old when it breaks from 24-hour news programming and begins adding regular season Dodger games in 2003. The move will cost the station about $7 million over five years but likely will boost KFWB's ratings and advertising revenues, as well as hasten its long-awaited power upgrade.

The Dodgers recently agreed to switch to KFWB from KXTA-AM (1150) when their current radio broadcasting agreement runs out at the end of the 2002 season. KFWB will have to dedicate at least 650 hours of broadcast time a year to sports broadcasts.

"It's a departure from what we've done for 35 years but I think it will be accepted by our listeners," said KFWB General Manager Roger Nadel. "We've done a great job of doing all news all the time but if you can bring another 200,000 listeners to the radio station for professional sports... that's a win-win (situation)."

Nadel said the audience for news has declined over the past decade and he needed to find new ways to attract listeners and advertisers. "It's a departure for people. It's going to take some getting used to," Nadel said.

To celebrate the Dodger deal, Nadel presented the station's staff with Tommy Lasorda bobble-head dolls.

Loss for Clear Channel

The agreement represents a victory for Viacom Inc.'s Infinity Broadcasting Corp., owner of KFWB and seven other local stations. Competitor Clear Channel Communications Inc., which also has an eight-station cluster in L.A., had placed much of its hope for sports-talk outlet KXTA on the Dodgers. But the station has lagged in the ratings and failed to break into the Top 25 since its launch in 1998, despite holding the broadcasting rights for Dodgers, Clippers and Lakers games. KFWB was ranked No. 23 in the L.A. market in the summer Arbitron ratings.

While KFWB only matched Clear Channel's offer for the Dodgers, the station agreed to forego the Spanish-language broadcasting rights included in the current agreement.

The team's decision to hold onto its Spanish-language broadcasts led Clear Channel to bow out of the negotiations, said Roy Laughlin, Clear Channel's L.A. area regional vice president.

"We had the vision, in 1995, to see the importance of the Spanish-language radio Dodgers broadcast in a radio market where the top radio stations are (often) Spanish-language," he wrote in an e-mail to the Business Journal. "Now, after educating the Dodgers to this value, they want to retain it and package it with increasing signage at the stadium for sale to advertisers."

The Spanish-language audience is an important demographic for the team, which attributes more than a quarter of its game attendance to Latinos, and the Dodgers want to deal directly with broadcasters in that area, said Bob Graziano, Dodger president and chief operating officer.

"From my perspective, in Southern California, capitalizing the Spanish-language rights is really important," he said.

Dodger games are currently broadcast in Spanish on KWKW-AM (1330). Under the new agreement, the club can sell the Spanish-language rights to KWKW or keep advertising sales for those broadcasts in-house.

As part of a station cluster and media giant Viacom, KFWB can offer the Dodgers cross-promotional opportunities similar to those available with Clear Channel. The station also provides a broader audience for games than KXTA, whose target demographic is men 25 to 54.

In addition, a power upgrade will make KFWB available to more listeners in the area. KXTA was missing pockets of the San Fernando Valley and Orange County, according to Graziano. "That was a continual and constant complaint we got," he said.

Bigger audience

The combination of news and sports has worked well for many radio stations, including KFWB sister news station KNX-AM (1070), which broadcasts National Football League games.

"KFWB has nothing to lose in this deal and everything to gain," said Mary Beth Garber, president of the Southern California Broadcasters Association. "It gives them the high profile. It helps people remember their name."

Many of the Dodgers' 162 regular season games will be broadcast on weekday evenings and weekends, periods when KFWB's ratings tend to drop. The games also could also boost the station's ratings at other times by becoming a promotion vehicle for its news and traffic reports. "They obviously have a loyal fan base that we hope to tap into," Nadel said.

But to make the most of the Dodger deal, KFWB needs to strengthen its signal. The station has spent nearly a decade trying to upgrade from 5,000 to 50,000 watts, which would allow it to expand and fortify its reach. While KFWB has obtained the necessary zoning approval, it still needs to get Federal Communications Commission approval.

"Infinity is making this power upgrade a higher priority now," Nadel said. "Now they care. Now they see the benefit of investing the money in us."

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