Personality still rules the radio airwaves.
After experimenting with different formats, including one that eliminates DJs altogether, radio programmers are discovering that strong on-air personalities are their best defense against satellite radio and the now-ubiquitous digital music players.
In Los Angeles, which is the nation's largest radio market and home to such high-profile names as Ryan Seacrest, Charlie Tuna and El Cucuy, stations have rediscovered the power of personalities as they tweak their sound.
KBIG-FM (104.3) faced a barrage of listener protest in late July when it took its DJs off the air for a week in conjunction with a minor format change. Spanish-language KXOL-FM (96.3) sacked its DJs when it switched from an adult-contemporary format to a youthful blend of Caribbean dance music and American hip-hop, but the station has since hired three DJs and plans to add more.
"L.A. is a great example of how personality drives radio," said Marty Schwartz, a radio consultant and executive at L.A.-based Fuel 2000 Records Inc. "The demand for entertainment value is as great as the demand for music value. Anyone who ignores that will feel it in the ratings."
Close attention is always paid to the alchemy of personalities and music, particularly in the morning battleground of commuter radio. Rating numbers, which are critical to setting ad rates, could become even more important next year when Arbitron Inc. rolls out its new Portable People Meter system in several markets, including Los Angeles. The people meter gauges radio audiences in real time, allowing station executives to quickly determine whether a host or duo is drawing the desired audience.
Attention on KCBS
Meantime, much of the attention has been focused on KCBS-FM (93.1), which has defied DJ defenders by leaping ahead in ratings after switching from a classic rock "Arrow 93" approach to the DJ-less "Jack FM" format. It is one of more than 20 U.S. stations that replaced DJs with a generic on-air personality, most commonly known as "Jack" but also "Hank," "Dave" and "Bob."
The Infinity Broadcasting station posted a 3.0 rating in the spring quarter of 2005, its first under "Jack," up from 1.7 the previous quarter, the last under "Arrow."
Audience research shows that "minimal talk" is the second-most-appealing feature of the Jack format nationwide (behind programming various musical genres). But the lack of announcers was less favorably scored. The survey of 1,500 Jack listeners in five U.S. markets including L.A. was conducted by Bridge Ratings LLC, a Glendale company that tracks radio listenership.
Dave Van Dyke, president of Bridge Ratings and a former general manager of KCBS under the former Arrow format, said the short-term success of Jack in several markets is causing station executives to take a closer look at their mix of music and personalities. Still, Van Dyke said the DJ-less format may not work for everyone.
"The Jack format is an animal of a different color," Van Dyke said. "It has assets that may or may not apply to other types of radio."
Some radio watchers dismiss Jack's success as a gimmick and say that the jump has less to do with the format's long-term appeal than with the weakness of Arrow. And KCBS General Manager Jeff Federman, who also ran Arrow in its later days, said the station is evaluating whether to add DJs.
"There's a portion of the audience that really enjoys not having on-air personalities, but there's also a huge audience that enjoys on-air personalities," Federman said. "We don't know at Jack whether we're going to have jocks or not. We're trying to let the audience dictate."
Currently, only one Jack station has a full lineup of live DJs: CKLG-FM (96.9) in Vancouver, British Columbia.
Value of DJs
Considering how much talk is too much or not enough is a critical consideration for station managers struggling to maintain advertising growth in the wake of competition from satellite radio and digital music players such as iPods.
In June, KYSR-FM (STAR 98.7) dismissed morning host Danny Bonaduce a former child actor of "Partridge Family" fame after the duo of Bonaduce and Jamie White slid in ratings and Bonaduce struggled with substance abuse. White now hosts the station's morning drive with two sidekicks.
Earlier this summer, KKBT-FM (100.3 The Beat) brought in former basketball star John Salley as host of the hip-hop station's morning show to replace Steve Harvey, the comedian whose ratings had been dropping. Salley's co-host is Ananda Lewis, herself a former MTV host.
Harvey's decision to move to Dallas in 2002 and broadcast the show from Texas hurt KKBT's ratings because he wasn't able to bond with listeners across several hundred miles, according to KKBT General Manager Sue Freund.
The tweaking of formats and on-air lineups guarantees a pool of unemployed DJs in L.A. at any given time, but the turnover has been higher in the past few months with the pink slips at KCBS and KXOL.
Still, the most popular personalities have a way of resurfacing. Charlie Tuna, the KBIG morning host who has worked for 16 stations in his 38 years as an L.A. broadcaster, survived the recent format tweak at KBIG, getting a new co-host in Irma Blanco when former sidekick Kari Steele moved to the midday slot.
"Radio in L.A. is evolving," Tuna said. "But there is always a time and a place for the right people on the air. One thing I've noticed about listeners is, if you can get them as a personality, they're yours. People are creatures of habit."
In taking DJs off the air for a week, KBIG executives said they only wanted to emphasize a few format changes, which included speeding up the pace of spoken programming and de-emphasizing slower ballads. But the thousands of angry phone calls and e-mails convinced General Manager Craig Rossi that the station should keep its DJs.
While KBIG's tweaking did not cost Tuna his job, Pepe Barreto was not as lucky at KXOL.
A Spanish-language DJ in Los Angeles since 1972, Barreto did not fit KXOL's switch to more youthful music under its new moniker of Latino 96.3. He learned that his job would be eliminated only a half-hour before KXOL switched formats.
But Barreto, one of the most popular Spanish-language broadcasters in L.A. when KXOL was known as "El Sol," said DJs are accustomed to losing their jobs. "It shouldn't be a surprise to anyone in the broadcast business," Barreto said. "There's always changes in the broadcast industry and you just get used to it."
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