Top 40 music powerhouse KIIS-FM (102.7) was firmly implanted at the No. 1 spot on L.A.’s radio charts for the past year, playing the latest hits by Rhianna, Taylor Swift and other pop stars.

Suddenly, the tempo shifted. News-talk station KFI-AM (680) seized the top spot in August ratings. It was an unusual development for the local broadcast scene, because music stations dominate the top 20.

KFI had a 4.9 percent listener share in August, according to ratings released by tracking firm Arbitron Inc. two weeks ago; KIIS claimed 4.7 percent.

“It’s always been right there near the top, around No. 2 or No. 3, and we always figured it would just be a matter of time before it broke through,” said Greg Ashlock, president and L.A. market manager for Clear Channel Communications Inc., which owns both KFI and KIIS.

In the previous month of July, KFI had a listener share of 4.4 percent; KIIS had 4.8 percent.

KFI’s run to the top stands out because, depending on the month, 17 or 18 of the top 20 radio stations in Los Angeles are devoted to music. In August, news station KNX-AM (1070) was the only other talk station in the top 20: It was tied for 18th place with Spanish music station KRCD-FM (103.9).

Several factors could have propelled KFI to its first jump to the No. 1 spot since 2006.

Increased debate over national issues such as health care reform undoubtedly helped. Perhaps most important: In an era when stations are increasingly flipping formats to garner higher ratings, KFI has stuck with its tried-but-true lineup of hosts and their programs.

An external factor may also have contributed to the shift. KIIS is facing new competition from KAMP-FM (97.1), which switched formats from talk to pop music in February, and may have chipped off some listeners from KIIS.

However, industry observers and station executives said it’s impossible to pinpoint a specific catalyst. And no one’s willing to predict that KFI will stay at the top.

Strong ratings for KIIS and KFI have meant big bucks for San Antonio-based Clear Channel. KFI already commands some of the highest advertising rates in the country, and its reputation gets added value with the No. 1 label. At its peak in 2007, the station brought in $60 million in revenue, Ashlock said. Because of the recession, he predicts this year’s total will be more than $40 million. KIIS expects revenue of about $55 million.

Outside observers point to numerous things KFI has done to cement its position as one of the top money-making stations in Los Angeles. It has a strong broadcast signal that can extend into Japan under optimal conditions, and an eclectic lineup of local personalities such as Bill Handel and the duo of John Kobylt and Kenneth Chiampou, who host “The John and Ken Show.”

Humble origins

KFI started in the 1920s as a low-wattage station dedicated to agricultural news. In the winters, the station broadcast a frost report, warning local citrus farmers that the cold was coming so they could light their heating pots to protect their crops.

Over the years, the station evolved, including stints with sports and Top 40 formats, before settling on news talk in 1989. It hasn’t changed much since.

But if we drop back to No. 2, we’re going back to music,” joked Robin Bertolucci, KFI’s programming director.

One of the ways KFI has gotten on the local radar is the impact of on-air personalities John and Ken. The colorful duo, for instance, was a force in the 2003 recall of then-Gov. Gray Davis. More recently, they ridiculed former Orange County Sheriff Mike Carona so savagely during his corruption trial that Carona’s lawyers wanted a change of venue. John and Ken’s 3 to 7 p.m. program has made KFI the second most listened to station in Los Angeles for that time slot.

KFI’s success hasn’t gone unnoticed. In fact, it spawned an imitator.

Last month, executives at New York-based CBS Radio Inc. flipped L.A. news station KFWB-AM (980) to news-talk. CBS executives didn’t explicitly cite KFI as an inspiration. But CBS brought in Dr. Laura Schlessinger, a longtime KFI talker, to do KFWB’s noon to 3 p.m. slot. (That flip took place earlier this month and was not reflected in August ratings.)

KFI executives said they aren’t concerned about KFWB’s recent moves. KFI filled Schlessinger’s afternoon slot with Handel, a local news commentator who has a devoted following; his weekday morning program is the highest-rated one in his time slot.

KFI’s rise could also signal that KIIS, long the ruler of L.A. ratings, may be fading.

The music station saw a new competitor rise when CBS-owned KLSX-FM (97.1) turned into KAMP, changing from a talk station to Top 40 music. KAMP has made a concerted effort to steal listeners from KIIS, and last month it passed KIIS to become the second most popular station among listeners 18-34, a coveted demographic for advertisers. Hip-hop station KPWR-FM (105.9) was the No. 1 station.

While he acknowledged that KAMP was having an impact on KIIS, Ashlock of Clear Channel said he wasn’t concerned. He said that both KIIS and KFI would be a potent one-two punch in the L.A. radio market for years.

“It’s very nice to have both KFI and KIIS. These ratings are a luxury that I don’t take for granted,” he said.

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