In our ongoing music industry series, we take a turn and check out the world of radio broadcasting… terrestrial radio that is.
There are a few stations in SoCal we all love, but there only a few that we all have a strong connection and allegiance to. The station we’ll concentrate on has been part of lives for as long as most of us can remember: Los Angeles-based KLOS. In addition to being a part of our lives for decades, recently KLOS was named the 2021 Marconi Award winner as Rock Station of the Year.
Truth is, KLOS did not become the best rock station around by chance or overnight. This is a success story that has been percolating for a few years now.
Before we get to know more about KLOS, let’s get acclimated with what a Marconi Award is and what it means. The Marconi Radio Awards are given out once a year by the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB). The awards are named in honor of Guglielmo Marconi, the man generally credited as the “father of wireless telegraphy.” The award is given in a few categories; basically, to the top radio stations and on-air personalities throughout the country. To receive such an honor is paramount to receiving an Academy Award for being the best in your vocation. So yeah, it’s really kind of a big deal.
So, what did KLOS do to receive such a coveted award? It isn’t one thing; it’s a multitude of things. At the top of the list – in my opinion – was when they brought on their Program Director, Keith Cunningham. We caught up with him a few years ago, and he has been gracious enough to have candid conversations with us about the state of the radio biz and the plan he and his staff implemented to bring KLOS the literal masses.
We all know radio was on the downslide for a few years courtesy of that self-inflicted wound corporate radio gave itself by only looking at the bottom line, which then gave online streamers and podcasts an opportunity to be the force they are today. Radio lost its uniqueness and reduced staff so we only heard recorded voices, plus some of our favorite voices were just let go outright. Then, some radio stations stopped paying attention to their listeners and played what they believed listeners wanted and nothing else. You know that old saying of “you don’t like what you hear, change the channel?” For a minute there, people didn’t change the channel, they turned it off.
Luckily for us, there were a few stations that resisted and kept live voices on the air, and they continued to play the music we all wanted, and music with a strong guitar base. One would think this is a very simple concept, right? In the end, that didn’t happen across-the-board.
A few small independent stations resisted, but only a handful of larger stations went against the grain, and – you guessed it – KLOS was one of those stations. Cunningham told me many years ago that he wanted to keep live voices on the air; the voices that connect with their listeners. They will continue to pay attention to all comments from their listeners, and always respond when someone reaches out to them. That in itself was a step in the right direction. He went on to say being part of the community is something KLOS will never turn away from.
Lastly, he said he wanted to continue to play the music you expect from KLOS, but he also wanted to embrace music from a few genres and eras that are reflective of the Southern California rock lifestyle.
That was the plan, but then a few things happened… Mainly, a global pandemic.
As some of their plans started to take root, the basics of the economics of life became a factor and a few people at stations nationwide were lost in the shuffle. KLOS was unable to escape that sad fact of the radio landscape. Luckily, Cunningham and new station management (Meruelo Media), made some very,very good moves.
HEIDI & FRANK
WEEKDAYS on KLOS
The station retained key personnel such as morning show hosts Heidi and Frank. Despite a few personnel changes, they remain a powerhouse in the morning show radio world. They continue to entertain us, while they make us laugh and think about the world we live in.
Mainstay Marci Wiser provides a solid foundation for the station. Her presence provides a soothing voice with great music throughout her “Bootcamp” program.
Then the big move… They brought on veteran broadcaster and Music Director, Doug “The Slug” Roberts. If that wasn’t enough, in an even bolder move, they brought on former KROQ morning show host, Kevin Ryder. The new dynamic duo filled in the afternoon slot very nicely.
To top it all off, they added industry icon, formerly of MTV Matt Pinfield to their Sunday night lineup with his show called “New and Improved.”
Pinfield picks up where he left off at MTV, providing insight and allowing us to be a fly on the wall while he chats with the biggest and newest names in the world of rock.
MATT PINFIELD NEW & IMPROVED
SUNDAYS 8-10 PM
With the voices and plan in place, the results were inevitable. In 2022 they are recognized as the Marconi Award Winner for Best Rock Station. With the award in their rearview mirror, we chatted with Cunningham to reflect on the last few years. Here is a glimpse into what made KLOS the top radio juggernaut in the land.
95.5-FM | KLOS
Jimmy: When you first landed at KLOS, you had a vision and that vision has been realized. What were the challenges in putting the plan together and executing it (encompassing a SoCal rock sound from multiple genres)?
Keith: KLOS has been a rock-solid brand for 50 years. When I got here, it’s not like the house was on fire or anything, but we knew it was time for some natural evolution, but we weren’t thinking we needed to change out all the furniture and appliances. This station has great bones, history, and a legacy with historically great music and talent. And when brands go through some natural or strategic evolution, the biggest challenge is not moving too fast. The last thing we wanted to do was give the audience whiplash. So, while we had a vision that was very SoCal centric and included making the station a bit more diverse stylistically and with eras, we didn’t know for sure if the audience would share the same vision and like it, so we went about it more as a step-by-step process so we could really gauge audience reaction.
(One of the success stories over the last few years has been the emergence of new bands that KLOS and their listeners have embraced, bands like Dirty Honey).
Jimmy: How critical to your plan was the addition of certain staff members?
Keith: We have made some nice additions to the staff, but the KLOS staff, from the on-air team, to promotions, digital, sales, engineering, traffic, production, all the way up to our owners – we’re all a team. We’re not focused on who holds what title; everyone plays an important role. You’ve spoken to me a lot over the past few years, because we’ve been on a good run, but you wouldn’t be too interested in KLOS or interviewing me if it weren’t for the collective staff that works together to make it all happen and work. We are not a lazy bunch, the team has very high standards; we work hard to ensure that the listeners feel heard and get a good experience every day.
Jimmy: While there have been some changes, somehow the station didn’t lose a beat; in fact, it prospered. What do you attribute that to?
Keith: We’ve taken smart risks and haven’t played it too safe. The listeners know the difference between paint by numbers and when there is something that is being curated. Not everything we’ve tried has worked, but most has. Our on-air staff is the best out there and they genuinely care about this station, the listeners and music. Again, I have to give credit to the staff for doing such a good job, but we are also nowhere without our clients, listeners, and artists who have really supported us and recognized that KLOS has a loud heartbeat and has been doing things a bit differently the past few years.
Jimmy: Part of the plan we discussed way back was to continue to be engaged with your listeners and the community, and to listen to them. Tell us about some of the interactions that have made a difference to everyone over the years, and what can everyone expect from KLOS in 2022 and beyond?
Keith: It’s really pretty simple. We talk to the listeners every day and we listen to them – listen to any of our shows on any day of the week and you will hear listeners on the air. Whether we’re playing a request or their “Top 5” playlist, talking about music, topics or current events – we are always talking to listeners and we feel that is a real difference maker for us.
One of the things I personally feel compelled to tell you is that over the years, I have been lucky to interview a lot of industry leaders. Cunningham has always taken my call, responded to my e-mails, and has always made me feel as if what I have to say matters. That is the difference between being good at your job and being great at it. Cunningham and staff talk the talk and walk the walk. I believe every single word when he says he and the staff care about their listeners and the music they play. That’s what made them the Rock Station of the Year, in my opinion.
The fact is, no matter how many Wikipedia pages or press releases you read, there is no way to know the feeling of being part of something as great as an industry award like this one. For many, we have been part of KLOS and KLOS is a part of us. This award is affirmation that Southern California really is a great place for music.
Success comes to those who have the courage to pursue their dreams – I think Walt Disney said that, or something like that, and he was right. Thanks to Cunningham and his staff, Meruelo Media and all the bands, we are very lucky to be able to tune in to KLOS each and every day.