Retuning for KSUR as Owner Tries to Hit Right Notes

Levine: KSUR will keep its adult standards format 'forever'.

By CLAUDIA PESCHIUTTA
Staff Reporter

Saul Levine does things few other radio station owners would dare do. His stations play music that appeals to older listeners and draws weak ratings. He pushes aside generous offers to sell.

His latest dare: changing the call letters of his KJAZ-AM (1260) station to KSUR (short for "surf") and switching formats from jazz to adult standards, with a line-up that ranges from Natalie Cole to Frank Sinatra. The switch is one of several transformations for the AM station, which has been through all-news, all-Beatles and all-show tune formats since Levine's Mount Wilson FM Broadcasters Inc. bought it in 1993.

"He changes it as often as his underwear," is how one local industry source described it.

Levine conceded that he has been too quick to change the station over the years, but expressed confidence in the most recent incarnation. The new format was launched on March 23 with a full day of Nat King Cole tunes and followed by 24 hours of Sinatra.

Levine vowed that KSUR would remain an adult-standards station "forever." "I mean it," he said. "Everything has fallen into place. The stars have aligned."

Renewed opportunity

The station began playing adult standards when he took it over nine years ago, but soon thereafter KLAC-AM (570), which has a stronger signal, took on the same format, and Levine's station lost some of its audience. He tried an all-news format in 1996 that fizzled.

This time around, adult standards stand a better chance. KLAC recently went all-talk, thereby eliminating the threat of competition, and Levine has invested $500,000 to boost KSUR's signal later this month from 5,000 to 20,000 watts. The stronger signal will allow the station to broadcast beyond the Westside and San Fernando Valley and reach most of L.A. and Orange counties.

Also, the definition of "adult standards" has changed. Before, much of the music was from the 1930s, 40s and 50s. "It got to the point where I couldn't stand to hear Patty Paige sing, 'How Much is That Doggy In the Window,'" Levine said. "It would make me nauseous."

Levine can afford to experiment with his AM property (he calls it his "fun avenue") because it's his other L.A. station, all-classical KMZT-FM (105.1), that he depends on financially.

KMZT, formerly jazz-format KKGO, came in No. 24 in the market, with a 1.8 rating for the latest tracking period. While those numbers are far from spectacular, the station has a loyal following and attracts advertisers that want to target older listeners with higher levels of education and more disposable income.

Levine says that ratings tracker Arbitron Inc. does not accurately reflect his stations' listenership because only a "certain breed of people" will agree to fill out the diaries used to determine ratings. Classical stations in other markets have managed to post high ratings, but the format usually attracts lower numbers than, say, pop music or talk outlets.

Like other stations, KMZT was hurt last year by the recession and drop in ad spending. Levine wouldn't reveal financial figures but said that 2001 was a bad year because upscale advertisers stopped running ads. Asked about KMZT's 2001 revenues, he said: "I would hate to tell you because it's disgusting."

Purchase offers received

Levine has received several offers from buyers interested in the FM station, including an "incredible" one recently made by a group of Korean broadcasters. While he has reduced his Mount Wilson's holdings to just three stations, including X-BACH in San Diego, Levine is an acknowledged radio nut and unlikely to get out of the business anytime soon. He's also optimistic that KMZT and KSUR will make it into the black this year.

He could make a lot more money if he dropped classical and adult-standards in favor of a more popular format, like alternative rock, but Levine is certain there is a large group of radio listeners 50 and older that certain advertisers will want to reach. Besides, Levine said, the thought of having "these people with pierced ears and the tattoos" wandering around soon put the idea of switching formats to rest.

"It's ridiculous (for advertisers) to put all their efforts into reaching the 25-year-old who doesn't have the disposable income," Levine said. (But other stations, such as KFI-AM and KABC-AM, get higher ratings and also offer advertisers access to older listeners.)

While he criticizes advertisers' focus on youth, Levine won't reveal his own age. He will only say he is old enough to be retired and recalls pumping gas as a 10-year-old when it sold for 10 cents a gallon.

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