KNX Jazzes It Up in Bid to Become 'Broader Than Just a News Station'

By DARRELL SATZMAN
Staff Reporter

KNX-AM (1070) has decided to loosen its tie.

The Infinity Broadcasting Corp. news station, which last fall dumped longtime general manager George Nicholaw, has snatched weekend cooking and computer shows from rival KFI-AM (640) and made other moves as part of an ongoing bid to tweak its staid reputation and attract new listeners and sponsors.

Ratings-wise, KNX could use the boost.

Results from the fall 2003 Arbitron Inc. survey released last Thursday show that KNX dipped to a 2.0, compared to a 2.1 in the summer period. KFI, meanwhile led all AM stations with a 4.7 rating, compared to 4.2 in the summer period. (Ratings are a combination of total listeners and time spent listening.)

"The idea is to make KNX a station that explains things. Not just the who, what, when, where and why news and information," said David G. Hall, vice president of AM programming for Infinity in Los Angeles. "The name of the station is KNX News Radio: That's not changing. But we want to be broader than just a news station."

Besides adding new weekend programs, KNX replaced the veteran morning drive team Tom Haule and Linda Nunez in favor of Dave Williams and Vicky Moore. Williams moved from sister Infinity news station KFWB-AM (980) and Moore from Clear Channel Communication Inc.'s KFI, where she previously handled morning news duties.

Haule and Nunez will remain at KNX in afternoon time slots. One of the station's business anchors, Bill Polish, is leaving KNX to be a daytime anchor at KFWB.

Meanwhile, "Food News With Melinda Lee" (8 a.m.-noon) and "Computer News With Jeff Levy" (noon-3 p.m.) will occupy a combined 14 hours of KNX's Saturday and Sunday schedule that up until now was devoted strictly to news. There are news and traffic updates during those programs.

"(KNX) is not just a headline news service," Hall said. "We want to be a little more like Fox News or CNN and a little less like Headline News."

KFI Programming Director Robin Bertolucci said she was not sweating the defections. "Neither of the programs that left were highly rated," she said.

KFI replaced "Computer Talk" with Leo Laporte's "The New Tech Guy" and is in the market for a new cooking show. Laporte also has a program on cable station TechTV.

"I think there is room for incremental growth on the weekends and we look at this as a big opportunity for us," Bertolucci said. "They had relationships (at KNX) with people and started talking. It's the nature of the business."

News moves

The changes represent a reunion of sorts for Hall, who has been credited with helping turn KFI into a powerhouse when he was at the station between 1989 and 2001.

Hall was hired by Infinity, a unit of Viacom Inc., in the fall after a stint at Premiere Radio Networks. Also in the fall, former KRTH-FM (101.1) general manager Pat Duffy was promoted to the new position of vice president and market manager for Infinity in Los Angeles.

For Lee, who began her broadcasting career at KNX and worked at the station between 1985 and 1994, it's been a lucrative homecoming. KNX agreed to a three-year contract that several sources in the radio community have heard is worth an estimated $1.5 million. If so, it would represent a huge salary for a weekend radio host in Los Angeles.

"I'm sure that $1.5 million is raising some eyebrows at that station with their other hosts," Bertolucci said.

Hall declined to comment about compensation for Lee and Levy.

Changes at the station have been pronounced ever since Hall and Duffy came on board. Within two weeks, Nicholaw, who had been general manager at KNX for 36 years, was axed along with his KFWB counterpart Roger Nadel.

Soon after that KNX dropped its long-running evening "Drama Hour" a move that drew an outcry from loyal fans. Similar drama programming was subsequently picked up by classical station KSUR-AM (1260).

"The changes mean there will be some differentiation between (KNX and KFWB)," said Sue Johenning, executive vice president and director of local broadcast for Initiative, one of the nation's largest media buying firms. "You've had two stations that were basically the same in people's minds."

There has been relatively little change at KFWB, although that station had been cutting back on news coverage in favor of sports programming. The upcoming season will be KFWB's second in a five-year pact to carry the Dodgers and the station recently signed on to carry NFL football games.

While Hall discounts further wholesale changes, there continues to be speculation of more programming adjustments at KNX and KFWB and perhaps other local Infinity stations as the company aims to bolster ratings and revenues in its seven-station Los Angeles cluster.

Among the speculation: bringing former KLAC-AM (570) and KABC-AM (790) host Michael Jackson to KNX. His longtime producer was recently hired by Infinity, and Jackson, who has been off the air for more than a year after being let go by KLAC, has worked with both Hall and Duffy in the past.

Jackson said he has had no direct talks with Infinity officials but that he believed the changes at KNX were for the better. "Of course there are going to be people disappointed because they liked the KNX that was," Jackson said. "I have a feeling that David Hall is acting decisively and deliberately and that he will have success."

Ratings vs. revenues

Although neither KNX nor KFWB have been ratings leaders, both have been moneymakers. In 2002, KNX and KFWB had revenues of $36.9 million and $28 million respectively, making them No. 2 and No. 3 in the market among AM stations, according to industry tracker BIA Financial Networks Inc.

Figures for 2003 were not yet available, but the Los Angeles radio market was poised for a record year, possibly surpassing $1 billion in total sales.

"People who listen to news stations generally tune in and tune out, so their ratings aren't that high," said Corissa Embro, president of Industry Media Specialists, the media buying arm of ad agency Colby and Partners. "But they have massive audiences and advertisers know it."

Lee may be worth the price because advertising on her show commands two or three times the going rate for the weekend, said Embro, who buys ad time for the California Avocado Commission.

"We're going to continue to support her wherever she goes because she's been terrific," said Embro. "I assume the grocery stores will follow."

Mary Beth Garber, president of the Southern California Broadcasting Association, said KNX could be trying to emulate KGO-AM, a San Francisco Bay Area station that mixes talk and news and which has been tops in that market for more than two decades.

'If you look at the market and see where the cracks are, then Infinity is stepping up that way," Garber said. "They're saying 35 years of this didn't work, let's try something else."

Hall said his intentions are to build a better station.

"My goal is to put on a radio product that is extremely useful to people who want news and information," he said. "If you listen to KNX for a little while you should get an understanding of what's going on in the world and what it all means. The ratings and revenue growth will stem from our ability to do that."

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