KIIS, the longtime market leader in L.A. radio, may finally face a real contender for its title.

AMP Radio formerly known as talk radio station KLSX-FM (97.1), before it rebranded and flipped formats in February to Top 40 music has shot up in the ratings, moving closer to challenging KIIS-FM (102.7). AMP is now in a three-way tie for fourth place, but places No. 2 in some key demographics.

It's been a dramatic change for AMP, which barely scraped into the top 20 when it was a talk station that featured well-known but low-rated personalities such as Adam Carolla and Tom Leykis. Now it plays music by top sellers such as Kanye West and Kelly Clarkson, and the pop star playlist has have given the station the broad popularity that Carolla and Leykis never did.

Since the switch from talk, in fact, AMP has climbed in the ratings every month, which executives said has been a pleasant surprise. And now, they have their eyes on KIIS' crown.

"When you smell success, you don't want to let up," said Kevin Weatherly, the station's program director, in an interview at AMP's Venice Boulevard studios, where the walls are plastered with logos of bands from classics such as AC/DC to contemporary groups such as Nickelback. "I would love to one day have the No. 1 station in Los Angeles."

AMP is now tied with KLVE-FM (107.5) and KOST-FM (103.5) for fourth. It's behind third-place KRTH-FM (101.1), second place KFI-AM (640) and KIIS.

In the most recent ratings, released June 17, the CBS Corp.-owned station claimed 3.9 percent of listeners. KIIS, another Top 40 music station, was first with a 5.3 percent listener share. (AMP's call letters are still technically KLSX, but CBS is in the process of changing them to KAMP.)

Perhaps more tellingly, AMP has moved up in demographics coveted by advertisers. Among listeners 18-34, AMP was the No. 2 station in May, with a 6.5 percent share, up from 6.1 percent in April.

AMP was also second among young women, taking 7.6 percent of women listeners 18-34, up from 7.1 percent in April.

KIIS was No. 1 in both those categories.

Greg Ashlock, L.A. market president of KIIS owner Clear Channel Communications Inc., said he's keeping an eye on AMP. But Ashlock said for now at least AMP seems not to have pulled a significant number of listeners from KIIS. Instead, executives say, AMP appears to be attracting other listeners.

"If you have a direct competitor jump into the market, you'd think it would be at the expense of your own station," he said. "But it hasn't happened that way."

Flipping formats

While AMP has enjoyed success in the ratings, it isn't yet as profitable as KLSX was. Ed Krampf, CBS Radio's L.A. market manager, said he expects AMP will surpass KLSX's profitability by the end of the year. He also noted AMP is deliberately running a relatively light commercial load including commercial-free Mondays to lure listeners.

"We're willing to wait," Krampf said.

AMP's challenge in the coming months is to sustain its momentum. Right now, some listeners may be drawn to the station because it's novel. If it doesn't make moves to keep those listeners, such as rolling out new contests or playlists, they might turn their dials to KIIS or elsewhere.

"The success it's had so far is almost like a new restaurant opening up," said Bob Michaels, president of Bob Michaels Media Sense Inc., a radio consulting firm in Dallas. "It's something new, something different and people will try it out. The question is: What will be its staying power?"

The rise of AMP has been a vindication of sorts for CBS executives who pulled the plug on a venerable talk radio station that once syndicated Howard Stern and featured other well-known voices.

KLSX had a loyal niche of listeners. But the station typically hovered at a 2 percent share, while big money contracts for Carolla and Leykis weighed down the station's finances.

In February, CBS executives decided they needed more female listeners in New York and Los Angeles. So they flipped a station to Top 40 in New York, and switched formats at KLSX.

"The station was underperforming," said Dan Mason, chief executive of CBS Radio. "We just didn't see the opportunity there long term."

Weatherly, who also programs CBS-owned KROQ-FM (106.7) and KCBS-FM (93.1), launched AMP in mid-February by playing 10,000 straight songs with no advertising. It was a marketing ploy that drew in listeners while keeping the station from having to pay on-air disc jockeys or start selling and broadcasting ads immediately.

Since then, the station has brought in three on-air personalities for the midday, afternoon and nighttime slots; there are still no disc jockeys on mornings and weekends. AMP currently has a dedicated staff of 15 to 20 people, including ad sales, and shares offices with KROQ and KCBS.

Weatherly acknowledged he would probably have to look for more on-air talent soon, but said he was hesitant to toy too much with what so far has been a winning formula.

AMP will have no easy task as it takes aim at KIIS. The Clear Channel station has a rich history that stretches back decades and a stable of on-air talent headlined by Ryan Seacrest, who shot to fame as emcee of "American Idol."

But even if AMP doesn't overtake KIIS, CBS executives said they would still consider the station a success. And they pointed out that AMP has managed to draw 2.8 million unique listeners a month in an era when some pundits have written off radio as a dying medium.

"It's a great story for radio in general," Mason said.

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