There is a tear in the beer of country music fans here.
After more than 20 years on the air, the city’s only country music station, KZLA-FM, abruptly left the air Thursday and was seamlessly replaced with the rhythmic pop of “Movin’ 93.9,” which plays artists such as Beyonce, Janet Jackson and Jennifer Lopez.
KZLA’s sudden and unannounced demise leaves America’s two most populous cities, Los Angeles and New York, without country music stations.
In Los Angeles, longtime country fans and station employees wondered at the logic of ending country radio in their city, which ranks in the top two for country album sales and where concerts for big-name country artists repeatedly sell out. The station’s last day coincided with opening night of Tim McGraw and Faith Hill’s “Soul II Soul” concert. All three nights of their tour stop in LA were sold out.
“Country is certainly well represented in product sales there and it gets good concert stops,” said Victor Sansone, chairman of the board of the Nashville-based Country Music Association. “That station’s been country for a barrel of years. When you have that kind of equity, you don’t think they’re going to flip it. I don’t get it.”
The transition by Emmis Communications was swift and shocking for listeners, who heard George Strait and Keith Urban in the morning and Pink and the Black Eyed Peas by lunchtime. Even the station’s veteran morning crew, including Peter Tilden, didn’t know of the format change until just minutes before it happened.
The host of the midmorning show, Shawn Parr, said he was told just after he started his shift that the station would be changing styles. He queued up Keith Urban’s “Tonight I Wanna Cry” at 10:18 a.m., which segued into the Black Eyed Peas’ “Let’s Get It Started” seven minutes later. Then he left the air.
“It’s a bitter pill to swallow. The thing I have a hard time with is the listeners. They deserve more than that,” said Parr, who has long been the voice of television’s Academy of Country Music Awards. “I went to my e-mail 3½ hours later and I had 2,100 e-mails. My phone has not stopped ringing for 24 hours.”
Val Maki, vice president of Emmis Communications’ radio division, said the format change was a “better business decision despite what a wonderful station KZLA was.”
Maki said KZLA, located close to the ACM offices, ranked 20th among the 80 radio stations in Los Angeles and attracted about 550,000 listeners a week. The new station will target women between 25 and 54, a demographic where KZLA ranked 19th in the market, she said. Emmis has hired legendary Los Angeles disc jockey Rick Dees to run the morning show and he will begin after Labor Day, Maki said.
“This could very well be a market leader,” she said of Movin’ 93.9. “It looks really good, and based on our early feedback, it sounds good.”
For most country fans, however, the switch didn’t sit well.
Erik Olson, a 22-year-old barn manager at Circle K Horse Rentals in Glendale, got out of his truck for a few minutes Thursday morning to drop off a horse. When he hopped back in, the radio was blaring Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean.”
“I got back in my truck and they weren’t there anymore. I called my wife and said, ‘What the hell’s going on? They’ve changed their format,” said Olson, who has listened to KZLA since he was a child. “It looks like I’m going to have to go to satellite radio to get my country, although I don’t want to.”
LA residents can still listen to country on KZLA’s streaming Internet or on HD Radio. Some fans who live on the fringes of Los Angeles County may be able to pick up two other country stations, KFRG-FM or KHAY-FM, from their bases in neighboring counties at least 60 miles away. At least two-thirds of the cars in LA can receive a signal from KFRG, said operations manager Lee Douglas.
Those stations have received hundreds of calls and e-mails from orphaned KZLA listeners, station managers said.