San Diego San Diego's political progressives think Clear Channel Communications is flipping them the finger. It is. Clear Channel, owner of the liberal talk station KLSD-AM (1360), is ready to "flip" the station, in radio jargon, to a sports talk format in late October or early November. The jock gabfest will be named XTRA Sports 1360. What the crestfallen liberals don't fully comprehend is that KLSD is getting lousy ratings and bringing in few bucks, and there is oodles of money in sports broadcasting. The big question, however, is whether the new XTRA Sports 1360 can snatch significant market share from the near-monopoly jockjabber station XX Sports Radio, formerly the Mighty 1090. If the new station can't encroach (to use a sports term) on the Big Boy, heads will roll.
There is another flip involved. Clear Channel, a publicly held company, plans to be bought out by two takeover firms, although there are regulatory hurdles lurking. Still, the buyout will probably go through. These takeover sharks will keep the company a privately held entity for a couple of years, make some changes (probably superficial), then, in all probability, flip it public again. This practice, called a leveraged buyout, has no economic purpose other than to make some insiders very rich. Because the Wall Street lads will be piling debt on Clear Channel while they milk it for their own gain, they will do anything to boost earnings, whether through accounting ploys (the usual trick) or actual improvements in the business. The flipping of KLSD to all-sports, they hope, will belong in the latter category.
The rumors of an impending format flip have been around for a long time. "In my years in the business, I have never seen something so badly handled," says Ron Bain, San Diego radio veteran who was once president of CBS Television Sports. "For months this has been rumored; they have denied it, said they were thinking about it. If you are going to flip a format, flip it."
Some wonder if Clear Channel is flipping its wig. A marketing vice president named Brad Samuel sent out an internal e-mail October 15 jubilantly declaring, "XTRA Sports -- Welcome Home!" It gave the details of the flip and even listed the talent. The next day, he tried to retrieve the e-mails, claiming he had sent them by accident. He profusely begged forgiveness but announced who the general manager and program director would be. Insiders say the XTRA Sports deal is Samuel's baby, and if it doesn't bring in the loot, his diapers may get soiled.
San Diego liberals note that in Madison, Wisconsin, progressives took to the streets and successfully thwarted a format flip. Inspired by Madison, local liberals organized three marches to show support for the station. In September, 300 to 400 came out for the rally at the station's Murphy Canyon headquarters, and on October 12, another 300 showed up. The station's program director, Cliff Albert, fed them bland porridge. They seemed to eat up Albert's pabulum -- not realizing, perhaps, that Madison has been a leftist lair for more than a century and can be compared with Berkeley but not San Diego. The rally organizers did not respond to requests for comment. Neither did four officials of Clear Channel, including Albert and Samuel.
Clear Channel is the largest U.S. radio broadcaster, with about 17 percent of the market. In San Diego, it's the Big Enchilada, with about 23 percent. Before making any public announcement of the flip, Clear Channel was allegedly raiding XX Sports Radio, officially known as XEPRS-AM. On October 12, John Lynch, chief executive of XEPRS-AM's parent, Broadcast Company of the Americas, tendered his resignation from the San Diego Radio Broadcasters Association. He complained that the "dominant member" of the association (Clear Channel) "continues to engage in what I believe is anticompetitive behavior.... Clear Channel informed us that it intends to contact 19 of our current employees to discuss employment on one of their new formats." Lynch's company has only 45 employees. Lynch did not respond to a request for comment.
When KLSD-AM started in San Diego three years ago, a New York Times headline exulted, "Left Is Gaining in San Diego, A Rightist Bastion." The station hired Stacy Taylor, a popular talk show host in San Diego. It used material from Air America, a liberal network that last year went into bankruptcy reorganization.
Clear Channel launched other liberal stations beginning in 2004; radio experts were surprised because the company had been a pioneer in redneck radio, syndicating Rush Limbaugh and featuring local babblers skillful at whipping up right-wing resentment. Recently, Clear Channel has been jettisoning those leftist stations.
The bottom line is that KLSD-AM, according to the rating service Arbitron, has been getting only 1 to 2 percent of the San Diego market -- 25,000 to 50,000 listeners in the county's primary marketing area -- on an average quarter hour between 6:00 a.m. and midnight, although sometimes it has done better than 2 percent. Its sister station, KOGO-AM, generally garners around 4.5 percent. XX Sports Radio gets between 2.2 and 2.8 percent, but it has a special advantage: it attracts men 18 to 49 years of age, "a demographic very hard to reach," says Bain.
Sports gab "is a money thing," says Jerry Gross, San Diego's first sports talk show host and formerly Padres and Chargers announcer. "You make more revenue -- getting beer advertising, casinos. A political audience is a smaller group."
Although a number of stations have higher ratings, XX Sports Radio rakes in the bucks. Through August of this year, it brought in $9.6 million, according to an accounting firm that keeps track of such statistics. That was in third place among 30 reporting local stations. KLSD-AM had revenue of only $1.6 million over the same period.
XTRA Sports 1360 is expected to feature Lee "Hacksaw" Hamilton and other sports enthusiasts. The station will hope to get 30 to 40 percent of the local jock talk market in a year or two, say industry insiders. "Adding another station won't create more audience; it will only split the existing audience," says Bain. Gross disagrees. "It will stimulate more interest in sports and expand the market," he says.
But radio itself is in trouble. According to the Arbitron rating service, time spent listening to traditional (called terrestrial, or mainly FM and AM) radio has dropped 1.5 percent a year for five years. The decline seems to be escalating. Radio, TV, daily newspapers, magazines, and other media are losing out to Google because an advertiser using the Internet can get an immediate reading on the audience through those instantly measured clicks of the mouse.
As a sop, KLSD-AM listeners will probably be offered a show via HD, or hybrid digital, radio, which has a limited reach. Air America is battling against a switch to HD, called "high definition" in the trade. It may be the wave of the future, but it has been slow to catch on. Progressives always complain that's their lot in life.