Little Guy Won't Fold In Format Scrap With Clear Channel Station

Staff Reporter

For independent radio station owner Saul Levine, the time has come to counterattack the company he calls the "800-pound gorilla."

After switching his 1260 AM frequency from jazz to pop standards last April and changing the call letters from KJAZ to KSUR Levine watched with irritation as industry giant Clear Channel Communications Inc. ditched its two-year foray into talk and returned KLAC-AM (570) to a standards format barely six months later.

"It was dirty pool. It was just nasty. They left the town without this format and they kind of suckered us into it, and then they switched back," said Levine, whose Mount Wilson FM Broadcasters Inc. also owns classical station KMZT-FM (105.1). "We have survived the onslaught and we are going to come back with a marketing campaign of our own."

Clear Channel's return to standards has been accompanied by a high-profile billboard and marketing blitz that aims to appeal to younger fans eager to connect with Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack oeuvre, as well as contemporary artists like multiple Grammy winner Norah Jones.

The competition with the new "Fabulous 570" appears to be taking a toll on KSUR, which will unveil its new marketing campaign in the next few weeks with ads on 200 Metropolitan Transportation Authority buses.

In the most recent Arbitron ratings for the winter 2003 period, KSUR's share of the listening audience slid to a 0.3 from a 0.6, leaving it last among the 46 stations in the market. (Audience share is the percentage of radio listeners tuning into a particular station.)

Yet Levine is optimistic about the battle ahead, pointing out that KLAC, which also carries the Lakers, didn't do much better during the winter period (its share declined to a 0.8 from 0.9 in the fall).

Levine said initial bitterness at Clear Channel for "stealing our format" has evolved into determination to beat KLAC among the core group of standards listeners. "They've developed an erroneous business model. Their younger audience isn't there. It's basically a 40- to 50-plus audience," he said.

Staying with standards

While Levine is quick to emphasize the David vs. Goliath angle with his company and Clear Channel, which owns more than 1,200 stations nationwide, Clear Channel Los Angeles Market President Roy Laughlin isn't inclined to play along.

"He does what he wants and he's successful," Laughlin said.

Laughlin said the decision to switch KLAC back to standards was made because Clear Channel officials felt there was a growing audience for the genre, especially among people in their 20s through 40s. In addition to longtime aficionados, trendy lounge clubs and movies like the popular remake of "Ocean's Eleven" have reintroduced singers like Nat King Cole and songwriters like Cole Porter to a younger crowd.

As for KLAC's ratings dip in the winter, he said it was too early to make sweeping judgments.

"Radio people are impatient, but the audience is not going to change in one book," Laughlin said, referring to the three-month Arbitron ratings period. "We'll take our medicine one way or another after the spring book. I can say that advertisers have been very excited about it."

At 20,000 watts, KSUR is four times as powerful as the 5,000-watt KLAC. However, KLAC's dial position allows for better reception in southern portions of the market area, particularly Orange County.

Levine said that excluding Orange County, KSUR has held its own, with especially strong showings on the Westside and in the San Fernando Valley.

Amy Nizich Goldstein, executive vice president and director of local broadcast negotiations for Initiative Media, agreed that a single ratings period was insufficient to gauge the long-term prospects of either station.

"(KSUR) lost some audience but I don't think we'll ever know exactly where they went," Nizich Goldstein said. "They didn't all go to KLAC or their rating would have gone up."

The overall Arbitron ratings reflect listeners 12 and older in a market that includes Los Angeles and Orange counties. Nizich Goldstein pointed out that among listeners 35-plus, who make up the majority of both stations' audiences, listening levels declined slightly at KLAC and were flat at KSUR.

"They hurt us a little, but we are locked into this format," said Levine, who still bristles at a call he received before the KLAC switch in which he says Laughlin advised him to abandon standards because of competition from the bigger company. "I really feel I can wait them out."

Laughlin confirmed calling Levine, but said it was to discuss the option of picking up former KLAC host Michael Jackson, who has been off the air since December when the station switched formats.

What is clear, at least in the short run, is that both Laughlin and Levine say they are committed to standards despite what both acknowledge is a limited audience.

But while Laughlin is convinced that younger listeners are out there, Levine plans to focus on those who grew up with the music.

To Nizich Goldstein, that approach has merit.

"There may be some young people who think it's hip to listen to Frank Sinatra, but mostly it's people 50-plus," she said.

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