Conservative talk radio isn't what it used to be.


The format that has routinely pumped up ratings for stations that include L.A.'s KFI-AM (640), and made a broadcasting legend of Rush Limbaugh, fell a couple of notches locally in recently released ratings for the spring quarter.


KFI, which carries Limbaugh and fellow GOP talker Bill Handel, as well as the local conservative duo of John & Ken, slid to sixth place in the Arbitron Inc. ratings for the spring 2005 quarter, from third place in the winter quarter.


In fact, only one L.A. talk station KTLK-AM (1150), which switched to a liberal "Air America" format gained market share.


In the last 15 years, conservative talk radio, which reenergized AM radio while galvanizing conservatives nationwide, gained significant audiences in Los Angeles. KFI rocketed to the top tier of local stations in ratings and is one of the highest revenue-generating stations in the country.


But its recent ratings drop parallels a slowdown of the talk radio format nationwide that may not be reversed by coming political battles over the future of the Supreme Court.


"I'm seeing a definite leveling off, that's for sure," said radio consultant Holland Cooke, who is based in Rhode Island. "We're just leaving too much money on the table to only broadcast (political talk). People care more about getting a parking space than what happened in Congress yesterday."


For the quarter that ran from March 31 to June 22, talk stations KLSX-FM (97.1) and KRLA-AM (870) lost audience share, as did news-talk station KABC-AM (790), according to Arbitron ratings. News station KNX-AM (1070) also lost audience share, but KFWB-AM (980) held steady from the prior quarter.


The falloff has prompted more concern than panic among local radio executives, who noted that ratings for talk stations often depend on news events and that a single quarter isn't necessarily a harbinger of a larger trend.


"It was kind of a slow news cycle across the country, not exclusive to Los Angeles," said Greg Ashlock, the Clear Channel Communications Inc. regional vice president who oversees the company's Los Angeles stations, including KFI.


Ashlock said that KFI may have been a victim of the slump in high-profile news during the quarter, especially after the station's long ratings success. "At some point, it had to plateau," he said. "It's been on a steady rise for the past 2 & #733; or three years."


'The audience is shifting'
KFI's audience growth has come in tandem with a rise in revenues. The station rose to fourth place nationally in revenue in 2004, up from seventh place the prior year, according to the media consulting firm BIA Financial Network. However, a slip in ratings one quarter isn't necessarily going to depress revenues, since advertisers consider longer-term performance and other factors, according to Ashlock and other radio consultants.


David G. Hall, programming director for Infinity Radio's KNX and KFWB, said conservative talk radio's audience may have ebbed. "In general, the audience is shifting," Hall said. "There's been an erosion in the number of people who want conservative political talk. Rush (Limbaugh)'s ratings are at an all-time low."


Cooke said Limbaugh's ratings have fallen, but remain among the highest in talk radio.


The drop in talk radio ratings may owe partly to the decline of ideological political battles that characterized the Clinton administration. Even the expected battles over President Bush's Supreme Court nominees are unlikely to galvanize talk-radio audiences the way Clinton did, Cooke said.


Allen Klein, president of Media Research Graphics Inc., an Encino-based broadcast consultancy, said the drop parallels the decline in ratings for many news stations that appeal to many of the same audiences. "There's no question there's been a downward trend a definite drop in the audience," Klein said.


The ratings decline of stations broadcasting news, talk or a combination of the two may have been an aberration, argued Mary Beth Garber, president of the Southern California Broadcasters Association.


She said Arbitron sometimes oversamples certain demographics with its diary-based reporting system, and this quarter's audience sample could have been weighted away from the older, mostly white audience that is the core of news and talk listenership.


Even if the audience for news and talk is diminishing over the long term, stations broadcasting in those formats are enjoying record revenues.


Klein said news and talk stations can thrive financially even while dropping in ratings, since their audiences are coveted by many advertisers. "You don't have to find the largest audience, you just have to find the right audience for your advertisers," he said.

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