Conservative Tack Taken in KABC's Play to Gain Share

By CLAUDIA PESCHIUTTA
Staff Reporter

One conservative talk show host knocked KABC-AM (790) out of its spot in the Top 10 among L.A. radio stations.

Another conservative could get it back on the list.

Being chosen as the L.A. home for a soon-to-premiere radio show hosted by Fox News star Bill O'Reilly was the latest but perhaps biggest step in a long, hard climb that appears to be leading KABC back to prominence.

Once the top biller in the lucrative L.A. market, KABC began a long ratings slide in the 1990s due to internal turmoil, the loss of Dodger game broadcasts and the popularity of Rush Limbaugh and Dr. Laura Schlessinger on rival KFI-AM (640). In 2000, the station's audience share dropped to its lowest level in four decades.

Many of the problems came after Walt Disney Co.'s ABC network took over the station in 1996. Executives came and went while well-known personalities got shuffled around and others, such as Michael Jackson and Dennis Prager, left the station.

But KABC seems to be regaining its footing in the seven months since John Davison began heading the station and the three other local ABC-owned outlets. In the latest ratings period, KABC was at No. 12, up from 19 in the summer period and 21 last spring.

The O'Reilly factor

Capturing O'Reilly was considered a key part of the strategy for bringing the station back. Davison spent months pursuing O'Reilly and was working out the details of the deal up until shortly before syndicator Westwood One announced "The Radio Factor With Bill O'Reilly" would premiere May 8. The nationally syndicated show broadcast from New York will debut in L.A., New York and other cities.

"I was extremely aggressive," he said. "I camped out at their door step."

While O'Reilly will add another out-of-town talent to KABC's line-up, Davison said he doesn't want the station to lose its local appeal. Several KABC personalities, such as Gloria Allred, Larry Elder and Al Rantel, broadcast in town and the station provides local news, traffic and sports breaks.

"The L.A. audiences have shown over and over again that they will listen to good programming, whether it's local or national," Davison said.

Before taking over KABC, Davison was director of sales for three ABC radio stations in San Francisco, including the successful KGO-AM. Prior to that, Davison had served as vice president and general manager of the Bay Area's KICU-TV and of two Sacramento radio stations.

Davison said that in overhauling the station's lineup he is looking for "star power" and edgier programming in order to appeal to younger listeners and presumably advertisers. One such voice already on board is Elder.

The addition of the controversial O'Reilly could give KABC the boost it needs to catch up to KFI, which recently tied for fourth place in the ratings. O'Reilly will run on KABC from 9 to 11 a.m. on weekdays, opposite Rush Limbaugh's three-hour slot on KFI.

Limbaugh entrenched

But Limbaugh has faced several competitors over the years and remains on "the top of the radio totem pole," Greg Ashlock, KFI's station manager, said in a statement.

"The 9 a.m.-to-noon time period has been dominated by Rush on KFI for a decade," he wrote. "The stream of failed competitors has been constant only in their failures to change the status of Rush Limbaugh in Los Angeles and the United States: The most listened to talk show host in America."

But some of Limbaugh's spotlight has shifted to O'Reilly, whose program will be followed at noon by "The Sean Hannity Show," which has been gaining in the ratings since coming onto the KABC line-up in September.

"The new management is making a concerted effort to regain the heady stature that the station once had," said one industry source. "What they're attempting to do is take advantage of the roots of what they've established for 30-plus years and going back to basics...just quality talk programming."

Program Director Erik Braverman, who has been with the station since 1996, said KABC had strong personalities but didn't get the direction it needed until Davison came along.

"We were having our own identity crisis of sorts," he said. "It sort of feels like we were missing a couple of pieces to the puzzle and by timing, by strategic planning and by circumstance, we seem to have found the pieces."

Asked if KABC will make it back into the Top 10, Davison is cautiously optimistic. "It would be nice. We're pretty close," he said. "We're knocking on the door."

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