Radio Waves: July 16, 2021

KOLA Keeps it Local

With all the bad news coming out of the radio industry due primarily to the problems created by the huge corporations that control so many stations, it is often easy to lose sight of the stations that are run by smaller, better companies or independent owners who still understand the reason radio broadcasting exists.

Yes, such owners do exist, and you may indeed be listening to one of their stations right now. Today I want to focus on KOLA (99.9 FM), broadcasting an oldies format from the Inland Empire.

KOLA has been on my radar for decades. Back in the mid-1970s, the station was an early adopter of top-40, playing the hits via an automated system that once got stuck. Home sick from school, I heard The Night Chicago Died by Paper Lace, if I recall correctly, 16 times in a row. But even back then, KOLA was an interesting station to hear.

It signed on in 1959 as KFMW playing Beautiful Music as many FM stations did. Top-40 with the new KOLA call letters came in 1968. I have a memory of an album-rock format in the 1980s, but I don’t have details of the format. They’ve been playing oldies since the early 1990s, at times acting as an IE clone of neighboring — but not co-owned — KRTH (101.1 FM).

They broadcast from Riverside, but the signal hits parts of Los Angeles and surrounding areas like a local, depending on the geography. It is among the strongest FM signals in San Pedro.

They’ve been using live, local personalities since they’ve been playing the oldies, and they do an absolutely great job of staying current with their audience. As with KRTH, they have evolved with the times moving top the years to stay within a particular age-range, which keeps the audience from aging too much … something which drives oldies purists crazy,  but which helps to make the station stay fresh.  While they once went back into the 1950s for music, KOLA these days focusses on the 1990s, dipping into the ‘80s and new including songs from the early 2000s.

Those aren’t oldies, you say? A song from 2004 is now 17 years old … as old as the oldest song played on KRTH when they debuted in 1972. It’s all perspective.

I caught up with morning man Jesse Duran, heard weekdays 5 to 9 a.m. to ask him what makes KOLA so special. As you might have guessed, it’s not just the music.

“We are owned by a small Mom and Pop type of company,” Duran explained. “People who love broadcasting for the art form that it should be.” Indeed, Anaheim Broadcasters only owns two stations total — KOLA and sister KCAL (96.7 FM). But being small doesn’t mean a thing if you don’t do it right, right?

So KOLA does it right. “We have local DJs in every shift except overnights,” Duran told me. “No voices from other cities – we all live locally, so we can talk about what is important to our listeners in addition to playing the music they like to hear.”

Duran told me of a time they were talking about one event happening in town when people called in to ask why they weren’t talking about another. “We form a bond with our listeners, and we are a part of their family just as they are part of us. Part of that keeps us on our toes when it comes to local coverage,” he said.

Radio with a passion, he calls it. Something that successful radio stations know well.

Duran has been doing mornings for eight years on KOLA, helped out by Donna D and Loren. Cindy Davis comes in at 9 a.m.; Vic Slick at 2 p.m., and Kevin Machado from 7 to midnight. Saturdays at 5 a.m. and Sundays at 7 p.m., you can hear the late-great Kasey Kasem count down hits from the ‘80s on replays of American Top-40.

The station stays active with local concert sponsorships, on-air contests that local residents actually win, and publicizing and promoting local businesses and events. Kind of what local radio used to do as a matter of course. The result? A station that has been tremendously successful for many years, and dominating recent ratings.

In the most recent Nielsen Ratings results available as I write this, KOLA earned an 8.4 share of the local audience, more than 3 full points above second-place KFRG’s (95.1 FM) 5.2. That’s impressive. And it shows what happens when you focus on serving your local audience.

“I am fortunate to work for a company, an owner, and a Program Director who all embrace local radio,” said Duran. “Having fun, playing the hits.” 

And keeping local radio alive and thriving.