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Feature Stories

Rush's New Frequency

From Issue: Volume XXII - Number 2

By Steve Propes

Okay, so you were on the freeway/toll road/back road or horse trail commuting to rehab/work release/jury duty or a real life job and you had just gotten your Starbucks triple mocha double espresso and tuned in on AM 640 for your morning shot of Rush … and what the frig happened? ... blubber you as your espresso goes flying and you pounded your dash to fine tune the radio.

I can answer that.

Let me take you down to radio reality. It began in 1922. KFI, one of L.A.’s most elderly radio stations signed on in April when radio was so young that early stations also served as ship to shore and many a farmer’s link to the big city, KFI reputedly based on K Farmer’s Information.

From 1922 to the early 1970s, KFI was the 50,000 watt AM flamethrower, at the federal maximum power of 50,000 watts, scorching most competition with NBC radio network shows and local fare like Lohman and Barkley, arguably the funniest radio morning team since Bob & Ray.

In the late 1970s, KFI became a slumbering giant and FM radio, which had been a little noticed afterthought since the 1940s went into overdrive as underground music, album rock and oldies attracted pretty much all radio listeners. KMET, KLOS, KROQ, KCRW and even KLON (now KKJZ) got listeners attracted to rock, alternative and jazz in that order. KFI played top 40 hits, but why listen to Prince, Whitney Houston or U2 in mono AM when stereo FM ruled? Reagan was president, liberal was in and AM became a talkers paradise. With liberal hosts like Michael Jackson, the Brit, not the Jackson 5 lead singer, KABC’s “Talk Radio” seized and controlled the L.A. AM dial.

In 1988, KFI woke up. It was a nice nap. Time to destroy KABC. Super 64, KFI brought in “shock jock” Tom Leykis, but it was a bad fit with fellow host, the avuncular Geoff Edwards, who refused to run promos for Leykis. At the time, Limbaugh’s only SoCal outlet was border radio XTRA out of Rosarita Beach. Edwards was dumped in favor, Rush came on KFI, which became “Talk Radio.”

KABC claimed ownership of the slogan and sued. KFI deferred to “More Stimulating Talk Radio,” which they have used to this day and KABC began a quick fade, finally turning to uber right hosts like Sean Hannity and Larry Elder.

KFI changed hands several times along the way while the price of radio stations was red hot and suddenly, like much of radio in general, saddled itself with enormous debt by wildly overpaying.

Remember Mitt Romney and his leveraged buyouts? His Bain Capitol – he co-founded it, but no longer CEOs it – owns KFI and can kicking aside, a note will come due. After all, $20 billion owed is a lot of green. Picture a cash cow and that many bills being peeled away like American Pickers. In all over-leveraged radio, costs (salaries) are low; expensive hosts (Michael Jackson on KABC, Jim Ladd on KLOS and Tom Leykis on KFI and KLSX) are fired, while expensive voices, Ryan Seacrest, Howard Stern and Limbaugh are either syndicated or on Sirius. Seriously.

Rush Limbaugh has been KFI’s since 1989, but on January 20 at 9 a.m., it all changed. Co-owned with KFI, KTLK (1150), K-Talk, with liberal hosts and infinitesimal ratings was causing a drain on the investment firm’s bottom line. So the move of Limbaugh to what was KTLK, changed to the unpronounceable KEIB (Excellence In Broadcasting, a Rush catch phrase), the Patriot, as it’s redubbed, will be by far the most conservative voice in town, picking up Hannity from KABC and Glenn Beck from his pay TV playpen.

Unlike KFI with the most powerful AM signal allowed by law, literally, the new KEIB will be tough to find and harder to receive in Long Beach. Never fear, Rush’ll be on other stations out of San Diego and surrounding communities, so if you can’t get KEIB, you can get KOGO or other AM outlets that still believe in Rush’s power to entertain, if not politicize. And KFI will have better looking ratings in the all-important morning drive, which won’t be fractured between Bill Handel and the big man himself, who starts at 9 a.m., while rating books consider 5 to 10 a.m. a ratings period. Now Handel will have that time block all to himself on KFI to rise or fall, with Rush competing with him on the co-owned KEIB. Who will rise, who will fall? For sure, it’s the most shocking radio thing since KKJZ started playing Kenny G.