By Mike Kinosian
Meanwhile though, it must never be forgotten that through it all, genuine heroes continue to surface and walk among us.
Precisely as in life itself, cream has a glorious tendency to rise to the top in the radio industry.
This applies to the medium as a whole – which never fails to valiantly pick up the gauntlet in the most pressing challenges – and to specific individuals within these facilities who dig deep within themselves.
Enter: Indefatigable, tenacious tactician Robin Bertolucci.
Soon to celebrate her 19th year as the dynamic programming force behind KFI, she guided the iHeartMedia Los Angeles news/talk juggernaut to #1 in April 2020 (5.5, 6+), marking the first time “AM 640” was the City of Angels’ pacesetter in more than nine years (March 2011, 4.9, 6+).
Textbook example of someone whose name and face might not be readily known to millions of Angelinos, Bertolucci nonetheless rose to the occasion of keeping listeners in the country’s second-largest market up-to-date in grand style by engineering a highly cogent emergency plan.
American lives began turning upside down in mid-March when the essentially Southern California native (a year-old when she and her parents relocated from Illinois) received some insider information about COVID-19. “My dad is a doctor,” Bertolucci points out. “He was emailing me things about what the coronavirus would be like, based on what he was seeing.”
Consequently, she had an early inkling of COVID-19’s pervasive implications. “It happened pretty quickly for all of us in the sense that we went from ‘0%-to-100%-crazy’ really fast.”
Illustrative of the aplomb and rapidity in which Bertolucci responded to the calamity is found in her March 17 staff memo which insists that, “Tone is everything. Our listeners need more news and less opinion. That is not our normal protocol, but this is not a normal news story. This is an unprecedented situation and it demands an unprecedented response. There is no mandate here about the precise ratio of news to opinion. There have been a lot of extremes going over our airwaves this past week – everything from complacency to panic.”
Keep in mind this internal communication was written well over six months ago, making the following line from it especially striking: “I would like you to think of yourselves as ‘information first-responders.’ Our number one job is to get out the information. Please give less speculation; less opinions; and more facts. Our mission right now is hard news coverage. Whether you personally believe the response to COVID-19 is overblown, or if you think this is the beginning of the apocalypse, I’m sure you would agree that life is radically different than it was a week or two ago. People are afraid. They need information and this is your chance to be that touchpoint; that community; that connection; and that voice of reason in this troubling time. The tone you strike and the way you connect with your audience will have an impact on your relationship with them now, and for many years to come. Let’s make sure we get it right. I’m incredibly proud of you and what we are doing, but I wanted to make sure we are constantly mindful of our role and the tremendous responsibility. Thanks for all you do.”
Among KFI’s coronavirus-era programming nuances was its airing of press conferences, an element it had steadfastly shunned. “It’s just not our style because we find that most of them are ‘dog-and-pony shows’,” offers assistant program director Neil Saavedra. “We [had avoided] giving attention to them [because they are] scripted and pre-packaged. It might not be a big [deal] for certain stations, but it was a notification to our audience that Robin and our news department felt it was important enough to change the format on how we [customarily] do things.”
At the end of last year, Saavedra was unknowingly rehearsing quarantining procedures, owing to a kidney transplant that kept him in isolation for approximately three months.
Merely a few days after Saavedra returned to KFI, Bertolucci instructed him to continue working from home until “we had a grip” on the coronavirus situation. “Neil went through a lot to get a brand new kidney – we didn’t want to screw it up,” declares amiable former KGO, San Francisco executive producer Bertolucci. “I told him to go home – this wasn’t a good place to be [under the circumstances]. Keeping him safe was a priority.”
The city-wide lockdown was instituted within another week and Saavedra states that at every single juncture, Bertolucci was practically a week ahead-of-the-curve. “Very early-on, she had a really good handle on how to react and what should be done. I’m thrilled we have the relationship we do at the station.”
Many during the crisis have been led to ponder what Jesus would do in this situation. Such queries are addressed by Saavedra by way of his alter ego on Premiere Networks’ “The Jesus Christ Show,” which KFI broadcasts each Sunday (6:00 am – 9:00 am). “KFI set up a studio at my house; I do shows from here and can monitor the station with Robin,” reports Saavedra whose other hosting duties include a weekend foodie program, “The Fork Report” (Saturday 2:00 pm – 5:00 pm). “At the beginning [of COVID-19], it was [a matter of] ‘working from home,’ but about a month into it, it became ‘living at work.’ Robin and I talk a lot on the phone and we do many video meetings. I do like having a face-to-face with her later in the evening, which we normally hadn’t done.”
Pre-pandemic, Bertolucci was admittedly skeptical about having her staffers perform their duties off-site. “The thought would be someone was trying to have a day off without actually taking a day off,” she comments. “I’m doing it and my eyes have been opened – it’s been a learning experience for me. [While] it has presented its own set of challenges, it has also been very freeing in many ways.”
Much of what KFI does can be accomplished from anywhere although Bertolucci opines, “Speaking for myself, the biggest things that I really miss are having hallway conversations; [exchanging] ideas; and letting things happen spontaneously. That has really been lost. Other than that, the work is getting done and my dogs like having me around the house.”
Actually continuing to commute once or twice every seven days to KFI’s Burbank-based studios/offices, Bertolucci this week is scheduling her first off-day since March. “I never unplug from work, which is probably messed up. Everything is connected at home, so it’s very easy to always be engaged with the station. There is a lot about working from home that I like – such as putting in a load of laundry during a meeting – but I really do miss hugging my friends and hanging out with them. As a program director, I am a lot more tolerant of people working [remotely] than I had been. Many people are enjoying working from home and will want to continue doing it. The onus will be on them and me to make sure they are still connected to the station in a meaningful way. We are still figuring that out as we go.”
Media staffers are hardly the only ones homebound nowadays as part of the pandemic-caused uneven paradigm. Given that a significant percentage of residents are telecommuting, or have unfortunately become pink-slip casualties, Los Angeles’ typically-clogged freeways and highly-driven surface streets are notably less congested.
Those factors contribute to decidedly lowered in-car time spent listening, but as Bertolucci explains, “One thing that has really helped us is our ability to stream and get ratings credit; it has made a big difference.”
To that point, KFI’s internet stream has spiked as high as a .8 (May 2019, #34, 6+). “We recognize that people are listening in different ways as their patterns are completely disrupted,” Bertolucci remarks. “Some people might be listening more to KFI as a podcast, and [time-shift] what we do, which is fine. We want to be a source of content in the conversation [regardless] how we get there.”
Average quarter-hour listening for every Los Angeles station is “a little bouncy right now because of all the patterns being broken,” confirms the University of California-Berkeley alum, who did an internship at San Francisco public radio news/talk KQED. “Ultimately, the number we are always going to come to is AQH share. The company would like us to primarily focus on 25 – 54; we like to look 35 – 54. One reason our numbers have stayed so strong is KFI’s unique content. If this is what a listener likes, they can’t get it anywhere else.”
Center of attention
Included among Los Angeles’ competitive spoken-word landscape are Entercom’s all-news KNX “1070 News Radio”; Cumulus Media-owned KABC; Salem Media Group’s KRLA “AM 870 The Answer”; and KFI news/talk cluster-mate KEIB. “I try not to pay a lot of attention to what other folks are doing,” maintains Bertolucci, who landed her first programming opportunity 25 years ago at Denver news/talk KOA. “I really have no idea [how KRLA, KABC, KNX, or Los Angeles’ public radio news/talk stations] reacted to the pandemic. It isn’t because I don’t appreciate or respect what they are doing, it just won’t change what I do. I listen to our station[s]; to my team; and [focus on] what the audience needs. My fundamental belief is that we are [competing against] everything in the whole world. It [runs the gamut from] playing scrabble on your phone to calling your mother. My concern is holding your attention much more than what [any other station] is doing.”
Vis-à-vis KFI and KEIB “1150 The Patriot,” which also falls under Bertolucci’s programming purview, she accentuates that KFI’s principal assignment is to be Los Angeles’ “live/local talk station, with the foundation being news. KEIB’s mission is to be the syndicated station with a conservative bend. It has the biggest personalities in that space: Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, and Dave Ramsey. We share some – but very little – audience.”
Notwithstanding that nearly 205,000 Americans have already succumbed to the coronavirus, it might come as a surprise that the KFI & KEIB program director doesn’t currently place COVID-19 as the clear-cut primary news story. “The news cycle is so grueling that, at any given moment, one story might be bigger than another – they are all competing. One thing we have tried to do is set the table at the beginning of every segment and explain the big stories. That gives us a little bit of freedom to sometimes get away from those things and give our audience a break with other stories.”
Compelled versus repelled
If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that the information flow is incessant, thus leading Saavedra to underscore that it has been imperative to “understand the ebb and flow” of the needs of the audience. “Robin has a standard of ‘important’ versus ‘urgent.’ [While] all news is ‘important,’ not all of it is ‘urgent.’ Robin works with the news department, the producers, and me to make sure we are funneling information in a way that it’s not always a firehose. At one point, the number of people who had the virus was important – and it still is – but it shouldn’t always ‘lead’ the news. We want to make sure we are giving information that directly relates to a listener. None of the information was lost and none of it was buried. It was just disseminated differently. We talk with the audience and do studies. We could tell that listeners were getting fatigued by the way they were consuming all that information. If someone wants to know [a certain piece of] information, they can go to the website. [The coronavirus story] is still news, but it’s not ‘breaking news’ anymore.”
Compact news headlines extend the KFI brand across iHeartMedia’s entire Los Angeles cluster, “We are really proud to do this and try to make it on-point; we get in and get out,” notes Bertolucci, whose husband – Don Martin – is senior vice president of sports for iHeartMedia Los Angeles and Premiere Networks. “[These quick news briefs are] obviously not for those who really want to know a lot of news at that moment. We want to remind people that we will let them know if anything crazy happens. There’s a real dynamic within our audience of wanting to know and not wanting to know. Many people are compelled to listen to more news; others are repelled by it and find it overwhelming, exhausting, and tiring. People need the escapism of [a sports talk station like iHeartMedia Los Angeles’] KLAC, or music stations such as [co-owned hot AC KBIG] ‘My-FM’ and [adult contemporary KOST] ‘Coast 103.’ Those stations make you feel good, but there are times you need a touchstone with reality – that’s why we are here.”
In addition to KFI; KEIB; KLAC; KBIG; and KOST, iHeartMedia’s other Los Angeles properties include CHR KIIS “102.7 Kiss-FM”; alternative KYSR “Alt 98.7”; and urban contemporary KRRL “Real 92.3.”
Heretofore, listener feedback was traditionally delivered through phone calls; however, it has given way to social media. “Our audience understands we aren’t in the office, so online comments have become a massive wealth of information and impromptu focus groups,” asserts Saavedra. “The homework assignment Robin gave us the other day was to look for solutions in things like telling listeners how to protect their homes from fires. Solution-based stories are rooted in the ‘big story,’ but [provide] a little more ‘hope’ than just giving the numbers.”
Broadcasters nationwide are faced with simultaneously covering (among other things) multi-ramifications of this once-in-a-lifetime pandemic; a fiercely-contested presidential election; the suddenly looming battle over a Supreme Court nominee; and markets/business.
All these issues are on the agenda for Los Angeles outlets, but they’ve become even further nimble as wildfires, earthquakes, and record-breaking heat are in the mix as well. “Improvise, adapt, overcome, and be flexible has to be your motto,” Saavedra strongly suggests. “[With COVID-19], we aren’t covering something happening to someone else – it is happening to all of us. We had to manage to cover and live through it. The only way that could have been done is through the good structured relationships that Robin has built and the way we pivoted to find new systems to communicate with our listeners.”
Several iHeartMedia Los Angeles employees have contracted varying degrees of the coronavirus; a board op was forced to call in sick his very first week on duty. “This has been a really good lesson in empathy and understanding [my team] and what they are going through,” acknowledges Bertolucci. “Whether you are struggling in the business you own; afraid about [losing] your job; or feel isolated because you are living alone, people are hurting and struggling.”
Further honing her already exemplary personal and professional skills, TALKERS’ 2012 recipient of the Judy Jarvis Memorial Award for Outstanding Contributions to the Talk Radio Industry by a Woman reveals, “As a program director, I’ve learned to understand the motivators underneath feelings of frustration and depression. It has helped me to be [better] connected with the audience and the staff. I’ve learned that, if I wear a mask and ‘socially-distance,’ I can live my life – perhaps not ‘normally’ – but fairly normally. We are giving people information that can help them feel some sense of empowerment [rather than] the world is happening to them. They have some role to play in how they work through that information. A big part of our job is putting a listener in a place where they are empowered with information.”
“Wake Up Call” with Jennifer Jones Lee kicks off KFI, Los Angeles’ weekday on-air lineup.
That one-hour broadcast (5:00 am – 6:00 am) is followed by Bill Handel (6:00 am – 10:00 am); Gary Hoffmann & Shannon Farren (10:00 am – 2:00 pm); John Kobylt & Ken Chiampou (2:00 pm – 6:00 pm); Tim Conway Jr. (6:00 pm – 10:00 pm); and “Coast to Coast AM” with George Noory (10:00 pm – 5:00 am).
KFI By The Numbers
Based on data over the last 14 sweeps (August 2019 – August 2020), it is typical for KFI to post an AQH share of 3.85 and finish #5.92 (6+).
Its high point in that timeframe (5.5, April 2020, 6+) is more than twice that of its weakest showing (2.6, “Holiday” 2019, 6+).
Logging the aforementioned 5.5 (6+), the iHeartMedia Los Angeles news/talk property was #1 in April 2020; KFI ranked tenth in December 2019.
Sweep 6+ Share Market Rank
August 2020 3.9 #5
July 2020 4.7 #2
June 2020 4.4 #4
May 2020 4.6 #2
April 2020 5.5 #1
March 2020 4.2 #5
February 2020 3.8 #7
January 2020 3.3 #9
“Holiday” 2019 2.6 #9
December 2019 2.9 #10
November 2019 3.3 #8
October 2019 3.3 #8
September 2019 3.5 #7
August 2019 3.9 #6
Spoken-Word At A Glance (Los Angeles, August 2020, 6+)
Major League Baseball’s truncated season officially began on July 23rd, exactly one week after the start of Nielsen Audio’s August 2020 sweep (July 16 – August 12).
Fittingly, Los Angeles stations enjoying sizeable month-to-month cume upticks include iHeartMedia sports talk/Dodgers flagship KLAC “AM 570 LA Sports” (+170,600, #31, 6+) and Disney-owned/similarly-formatted/Angels key station KSPN “710 ESPN” (+51,500, #36, 6+).
For context, twelve (12) Los Angeles outlets have a cume of at least one million, including that category’s leader, classic hits-oldies KRTH “K-Earth 101” (2,232,100, August 2020, 6+).
AQH Share Cume
Calls Format Aug Shift Aug Rank August Shift Aug Rank
KFI News/Talk 3.9 -.8 #5 732,500 -28,300 #19
KNX News 3.1 -.1 #10 840,600 -4,600 #16
KPCC Public Radio N/T 1.6 -.1 #25 539,100 -37,000 #26
KLAC Sports Talk 1.2 +.6 #28 320,000 +170,600 #31
KABC News/Talk 1.2 +.2 #28 215,900 -12,500 #35
KRLA News/Talk 1.2 -.2 #28 187,600 -12,500 #38
KEIB News/Talk 0.9 Flat #36 169,100 -10,200 #39
KSPN Sports Talk 0.4 Flat #41 210,300 +51,500 #36
Top Five News/Talk Stations By 6+ Cume (All PPM-Markets, August 2020)
Despite a month-to-month erosion of over 28,000 and finishing 19th in its own market (Los Angeles), KFI is the country’s top-cuming news/talk station (732,500, August 2020, 6+). Trailing KFI by 10,800 cume persons is Cox Media Group Atlanta’s WSB-AM & WSBB (721,700, August 2020, 6+).
AQH Share (6+) Cume (6+)
Calls, City Aug Shift Aug Rank August Shift Aug Rank
KFI, Los Angeles 3.9 -.8 #5 732,500 -28,300 #19
WSB-AM & WSBB, Atlanta 10.1 -.5 #1 721,700 +13,900 #4
WGN, Chicago 3.6 +.3 #9 471,600 +157,800 #22
KTRH, Houston 5.3 -.3 #5 438,100 -10,300 #18
WOR, New York 1.9 +.1 #20 408,400 +24,600 #20
Contact TALKERS managing editor Mike Kinosian at Kinosian@TALKERS.com.