Surrounded by Clusters, Radio One Station Keeps the Beat
By DARRELL SATZMAN
When you’re badly outnumbered, there’s little margin for error.
So it goes at KKBT-FM (100.3), the successful hip hop station owned by Radio One, where the production director, music programmer and afternoon drivetime disc jockey were axed earlier this month following a dip in ratings.
KKBT officials say the cuts were motivated mainly by improving efficiency, with only the on-air position to be filled. But the changes demonstrate the precarious position for single-station owners in a radio market dominated by heavy hitters like Clear Channel Communications Inc. (eight stations serving Los Angeles), Infinity Broadcasting Corp. (seven), ABC Radio and Entravision Communications Corp. (four each).
“We struggled in the winter (Arbitron ratings), that’s why we made the changes in the afternoon drive,” said KKBT Station Manager Sue Freund, who took over in April when Nancy Leichter resigned. “We have a limited number of (ad spots) and we have to maximize our rates.”
Earlier this month, the Federal Communications Commission balked at further loosening radio ownership rules as they did with television but the Los Angeles broadcasting market has already been transformed by a wave of consolidation that followed the 1996 Telecommunication Act.
The new rules do allow the owners of television duopolies to own more radio stations in a market. Locally, that means Viacom, which owns CBS (KCBS-TV Channel 2 and KCAL-TV Channel 9) and Infinity, may not have to divest one of its radio stations as it was required to do under the old rules.
Owning multiple radio stations in a single market allows the flexibility to offer ad packages covering a variety of media, formats and markets, while at the same time saving money by combining sales operations.
“If you are going to be doing a big deal, you look at a cluster,” said Kathy Begley, vice president and broadcast director for Initiative Media, a media-buying firm. “The clusters can offer outdoor advertising or TV, and when you combine these elements it has massive impact.”
Still, KKBT has for the past few years consistently ranked among the Top 10 L.A. stations in ratings. With ad sales of $44 million in 2002, it was among the Top 10 billing stations in the nation, according to industry tracker BIA Financial Network Inc.
Despite the drop-off in ratings, from a cumulative 3.6 last fall to a 3.1 in the winter period, Freund said ad sales at KKBT were pacing nearly 10 percent ahead of last year. “We’re fortunate because we have a niche. We deliver the urban audience better than any station in this market,” she said.
Don Bartolo, sales manager for Emmis Communication Corp.’s KPWR-FM (105.9), the market’s top-ranked station for the past 18 months, said bigger is not always better. Emmis has only two Los Angeles operations, KPWR and country station KZLA-FM (93.9)
“When they do these cross-marketing campaigns they often fall short and it works to our advantage,” Bartolo said. “We sell on the strength of the station. Advertisers are savvy enough to know what they want to buy.”
A key part of KKBT’s success has been the popularity of comedian Steve Harvey, who hosts the morning shift and consistently draws high ratings.
Freund said KKBT sticks to what it does best, reaching a mixed race, mostly female audience, as opposed to the more male-oriented KPWR. Another competitor, KJLH-FM (102.3) has a limited signal that doesn’t reach segments of the enormous Los Angeles market, which includes Orange County.
Neither Infinity nor Clear Channel have an urban format that directly challenges KKBT, although Clear Channel’s KIIS-FM (102.7) is a competitor for women and Clear Channel’s KHHT-FM (92.3) draws some of the dance-tune crowd.
“Clear Channel and Infinity are so focused on competing against each other, we kind of slip under the radar,” Freund said.
That may be, but Radio One is not exactly a mom-and-pop shop. The Lanham, Md.-based company owns 66 radio stations in 22 markets as well as five channels on the XM Satellite system.
The company’s programming is largely targeted to African Americans, although Freund said KKBT’s audience is evenly divided among white, black and Hispanics listeners.
And Radio One, which owns five stations in several markets and six in Louisville, Ky., would like to expand in Los Angeles, Freund said.
It is not alone in that regard.
Walt Disney Co.-owned ABC Radio Network owns four stations in the Los Angeles market, including KLOS-FM (95.5) and KABC-AM (790), and John Davison, president and general manager for the local ABC stations, said the company is eager to grow in Los Angeles.
He cited the appeal to advertisers and the ability to run cross promotions, but cautioned that growth is not an end in itself.
“It is possible to have very successful properties without owning several stations, witness what’s happened here,” Davison said. “Clusters help if the demographics match what an advertiser is after. Otherwise it’s like mixing apples and oranges.”
Emmis’ Bartolo went further, saying, “I don’t think there’s any disadvantage at all” to owning fewer stations than competitors.
It’s not an assertion Freund was ready to make.
“The clusters have much more inventory to play with,” she said. “We don’t have the flexibility of the clusters.”
With the local radio advertising market enjoying an excellent year thus far, that hasn’t been a problem at KKBT. Still, the recent changes are evidence that Radio One officials aren’t taking anything for granted.
“Radio One is doing better than it ever has in L.A.,” said Mary Beth Garber, president of the Southern California Broadcasters Assn. “Each station is pretty savvy about what makes them unique, and they go out and sell their strengths.”