NOTE: See end of article for update. KLSD will officially flip to sports on Monday, November 12.
In the radio business, there are format flips that are pulled off well, and format flips that are completely botched.
An example of a successful flip occurred in Chicago earlier this week. CBS Radio's WCKG, a longtime FM talker, had in recent years gone into a serious slump. Since Howard Stern bolted to Sirius a few years back, the station was left with very few options. Afternoon personality Steve Dahl, a market legend, was the sole ratings grabber and cash cow for the station. For mornings, CBS tried to fill the Stern gap with Rover, a guy out of Cleveland. His show bombed quickly, and Rover rolled over and went back to Cleveland. The next plug-in was Opie and Anthony, who were lured back to CBS after a couple years in satellite radio exile. That didn't help, and the duo has just recently lost their Philadelphia and West Palm Beach affiliates, in addition to Chicago, and as of late have been irritating their stations in New York and Boston.
So WCKG, which had crashed hard in the ratings, had to do something. They finally came up with a plan to send Dahl to do mornings on sister station Jack FM, fired everyone else, and start anew with a different format. They teased rock, adult contemporary and even Mexican music formats as possible replacements. All last week, there was even more teasing, after CBS allowed their talk show hosts to say goodbye on the air. They aired reruns of Dahl's show around the clock, and even sent more teasers to the media about a possible flip to Christmas music. That didn't sit well with Clear Channel's WLIT, the traditional Christmas station in town. In response, they cranked up the holiday cheer right away, several weeks ahead of schedule. They took the bait.
When WCKG relaunched as Fresh 105.9, the new format was adult contemporary, similar to that which WLIT had temporarily abandoned for the holidays. So, in essence, CBS found a place for the high-billing, big-contract Steve Dahl, the only thing worth salvaging from WCKG, effectively toyed with the media, scared a top competitor temporarily out of the format, and launched a format that is already doing well in New York. All in all, a very effective format flip.
Contrast that with what Clear Channel is doing in San Diego. Rumors have persisted since August that the company was planning to flip progressive talker KLSD to a sports talk format, making it the third one of that sort in the market. Of course, the way that it was handled stirred up quite a firestorm of protest, as the station had until recently done very well in the ratings (given its weak signal) and has always been profitable. The station even encouraged protest rallies in support of the progressive talk format, as there were rumors within the building and regional office of conflicts over the flip. Meanwhile, program director Cliff Albert waffled and played coy about a possible flip, claiming at times that he didn't know or that management was still undecided.
A month went by and it was still the same ol' song and dance. More support rallies took place. And then management sneakily hired a whole roster of sports talk hosts, even raiding other stations. Yes, they decided to flip anyway. Morning host Stacy Taylor found out while reading the newspaper at home on a Saturday morning. This was four weeks ago. Along the way, many rumored flip dates came and went, though the most recent proposed date, November 1, could possibly have been delayed due to the rash of wildfires that swept through the area and disrupted everything.
Now, the word is that this is the last week of progressive talk on KLSD. The station may flip sometime next week.
In essence, this is perhaps the sloppiest format flip in history. First of all, it has taken almost three months to pull off. Second, it involved pissing off displaced listeners, who may realize that they don't really want anything to do with Clear Channel anymore after this. And it's a slap in the face to advertisers who really stood behind the format. All this just to establish yet another sports talk station in a market where they failed at it once before, and will never surpass a competitor running the format on both a high-powered AM signal and an FM one. Gee, smart move guys. Guess they're willing to feed on the scraps.
To add insult to injury, the station's likely compromise is to move KLSD's format (or more specifically, Air America Radio) to an HD Radio subchannel of KIOZ (105.3FM). Of course, if you don't own a receiver capable of picking up HD Radio signals, which few do, forget it. Besides, people at Air America, who have say as to where their programming gets moved to, have reportedly already said that they will not allow their programming to be shuffled off to the HD ghetto in San Diego.
So, Clear Channel and KLSD can get bent. What's next for the format in San Diego? Obviously, progressive talk has been very successful in the market. And I say that because it actually made a thousand watt nearly-forgotten AM signal a formidable talk station. Not to mention, they made it profitable. I'm sure the other owners of struggling AM outlets in the area have been watching this situation. Though whether they are willing to take the plunge is another issue.
Luckily, the San Diego radio market is packed with radio signals, thanks in part to Mexican-licensed stations in border cities such as Tijuana, Ensenada and Rosarito. There are also several AM stations licensed on the U.S. side.
Obviously, the big conservotalkers such as KOGO (owned by Clear Channel) and KFMB are not possibilities. They are already doing well. Forget KECR (910AM), a religious station piping in programming from Family Radio. KCBQ (1170AM) and KPRZ (1210AM) are both owned by Salem Communications. Fuhgettaboutit.
But there are possibilities. One unknown entity seems to be KSON (1240AM), which reportedly is or was leased by a group programming an urban gospel music format. They may have renewed the lease recently, after being temporarily deposed from the signal. The station is owned by Lincoln Financial Media, and whatever is currently airing on the signal or will in the future is unknown (can anyone there fill me in?). If there is already a current lease on the station, rule this one out. Rumor has it that Lincoln Financial seeking out a buyer for the whole radio and TV group, if not the 1240 AM signal alone. Signal coverage on 1240AM is similar to that of KLSD.
Astor Broadcasting Group operates KCEO (1000AM) and KFSD (1450AM). Neither station is a ratings force. KCEO carries a business-oriented news/talk format with lots of brokered programming, so they're obviously making money already. KFSD simulcasts with an adult standards station in suburban Los Angeles. Both have crappy signals. I can't imagine either station picking up progressive talk, as it just doesn't seem to be a proper fit with what they are currently doing. And these small mom-and-pop outlets seem to have some sort of reason for airing oddball formats.
KURS (1040AM) has an incredibly weak 340 watt signal, and currently airs a satellite-fed oldies format. The station's owner, Quetzal Bilingual Communications, has leased this station out in the past. Oldies seems to be a filler format. But on a pipsqueak signal such as this, anything could be considered a filler format.
The San Diego area is also home to quite a few stations broadcasting from across the border in Baja California, Mexico, the so-called 'X' stations (the letter that all call signs start with). Mexican law prohibits foreign entities from owning licensed stations in that country, but many Mexican owners near the U.S. border lease out programming rights to United States-based broadcasters. Quite a few of these stations do quite well in San Diego and other border markets with American-oriented programming.
Would U.S.-oriented political talk work on a Mexican radio station? There's really no reason why not. Keep in mind, Rush Limbaugh was once on XETRA (690 AM), so anything goes. Well, almost. XTRA-FM (91X) once carried Stern, but the Mexican government took issue with the racy content of the show, forcing Jacor Broadcasting to move it to a co-owned San Diego-based signal in the market. And they forced 'border blaster' pioneer John R. Brinkley
off the air for using 300,000 watt Mexican signals to sell his various quackery methods (implanting goat glands in male patients to increase virility), publicize his unsuccessful run for governor of Kansas, and the final straw - airing pro-Nazi propaganda in 1941.
Basically, the government of Mexico requires the hourly legal ID to be read in Spanish, and also mandates playing the country's national anthem at midnight daily. But there's something that seems cool about progressive talk on a border blaster. Keep in mind, guys like Wolfman Jack became legends in the 1950s and 1960s blasting rock and roll music from Mexican transmitters, on signals so powerful (back then) that birds would drop dead around the towers.
So, could progressive talk land on a Mexican stick? Let's take a look:
XESURF (540 AM) has a pretty nice signal, but a loser classic country format. The station's programming rights are owned by veteran Los Angeles broadcaster Saul Levine and his Mount Wilson Broadcasters group, which also owns country-formatted FM KKGO and classical AM outlet KMZT. The AM station recently dropped classical music and went with a hybrid talk/adult standards format as KGIL, going so far as to drag venerable liberal talker Michael Jackson (no, not the "Thriller" guy) out of mothballs for a 9-11AM shift (with 5-7PM replay). He's joined by Dr. Joy Brown, Larry King and Neal Boortz. Levine's philosophy behind the station was to create a spot on the dial where people of all stripes and ideologies could play in the same sandbox. While a flip of XESURF, which has a strong signal but no ratings to speak of, to progressive talk makes a lot of sense, Levine has gone on record as expressing his disdain for any kind of overly-partisan talk radio formats. And Levine's history of broadcasting in Southern California shows that he's the type of person who is more keen on putting on programming that he likes, ratings be damned. He seems to march to his own drumbeat. Heck, at one time, his AM station in L.A. had an all-Beatles format!
I mentioned XETRA (609AM) before. At 77,000 watts, this is one of the most powerful AM signals in North America. For many years, this station was leased by U.S. interests and blanketed most of Southern California. This is where Clear Channel first failed with sports (begging the question why they think it will work on piddly 1360). It is currently managed by a global company, Union Radio, which operates radio stations all over the world through subsidiaries. They currently hold a lease deal on 690, which runs a Spanish-language news and talk format called "W Radio," mostly targeting Los Angeles (believe it or not). While ratings in San Diego and Los Angeles are nil, I highly doubt this frequency would be a candidate to replace KLSD. Besides, they recently expanded W Radio to a Bakersfield station.
XESPN (800 AM) is one of several sports stations in the market. They basically offer a straight feed of ESPN (naturally). Not a likely candidate, especially with those call letters. Basically a nonentity in the ratings, but I'm sure they are doing reasonably well, even with stiff competition. Airing the ESPN feed costs them little money. They also carry USC football.
XEPRS (1090AM) is the wildly successful sports talker in the market. The two powerful signals carrying "XX Sports Radio" - 1090 AM and 105.7FM - are leased by the Broadcast Company of the Americas, operated by John Lynch. Ratings are excellent, and Lynch and company have busted ass in succeeding where Clear Channel couldn't (he helped run XETRA's former sports format). And Lynch is quite pissed now that Clear Channel, in building KLSD's new format, helped to build it by raiding his stable. Lynch also operates another Mexican signal, XEPE (1700AM), which a few months ago flipped from business news to a mostly conservative talk format featuring Dennis Miller, Michael Reagan, Neal Boortz and others, including a couple local voices. While Lynch is described as being rather conservative in his ideology, as is often the case with businessmen, this could mean that he likes making money. And with a built-in advertiser portfolio and dedicated listener base, this could be a good opportunity for Lynch to stick it to Clear Channel (he seems to be supportive of the plight of KLSD's disenfranchised listeners) and put progressive talk on one of his stations. Obviously, he won't mess with his cash cow sports format (that would be a really dumb idea), but 1700 sounds like a no-brainer. Since it signed on in 2005, XEPE has been far from a force in the ratings. Granted, the current talk format just started, but will it really scare the three other conservative talk stations in town (plus L.A.'s KFI, which shows up in the local ratings books)? In that format, "San Diego's 1700" is basically the low hanging fruit. Left leaning talk on the far right of the dial sounds like a pretty interesting marketing ploy (and I will even forgo royalty rights to it if Lynch takes up this idea).
The other 'X' stations are either programmed by Mexican interests, or are targeted toward Mexican audiences. Not likely candidates for Air America and the rest, but if someone came up with the money, I'm sure they could score a lease deal with one of these outlets. Station leasing seems to be the name of the game in San Diego.
So, as it looks like progressive talk in San Diego will be a goner next week, will there be a successor waiting in the wings? We'll just have to wait and find out. Hopefully, someone will see an opportunity to do something to bolster their obscure and struggling radio outlets.
UPDATE: Clear Channel has made it official (finally!). KLSD will become "XTRA Sports 1360" on Monday at 3P PT, with market mainstay Lee "Hacksaw" Hamilton at the mic for the switch, according to AllAccess.
Chris Carmichael of sdradio.net is claiming that Clear Channel wants to put Air America on the HD3 side channel of KHTS (93.3FM). Again, not sure if Air America will sign off on that.
For the morbidly curious, the new XTRA 1360 website can be found here.
Thursday, November 08, 2007
NOTE: See end of article for update. KLSD will officially flip to sports on Monday, November 12.