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Mandatory Mariachi

Changes afoot at KSJO—is Spanish language around the corner?

By Nate Seltenrich

IN A Clear Channel-orchestrated move involving two local broadcast frequencies and three separate radio corporations, San Jose hard rock station KSJO (92.3 FM) lost its 92.1 booster in Walnut Creek. On Friday, Sept. 24, news of the change was quietly announced, and on the following Tuesday it became official—tune in for Metallica and get Frank Sinatra instead, courtesy of San Francisco-based standards station KABL. KSJO has been restricted to its San Jose signal alone, shut out of the rest of the bay like a headbanging leper.

"KSJO's predominant focus is in the South Bay," says Joe Cunningham, vice president and market manager for Clear Channel in San Francisco and San Jose. He also serves as day-to-day general manager for Clear Channel's 10 stations in the Bay Area, including KSJO, KUFX (98.5) and KCNL (104.9) in the South Bay.

The whole switcharoo began at 960 AM, owned by Clear Channel. Up until a couple weeks ago, it carried the award-winning KABL, which bills its format as "America's Best Music" and plays solid doses of Tony Bennett, Dean Martin and Nat King Cole. Next in the story's cast of characters is Air America, a liberal talk radio provider that broadcasts through 32—make that 33—stations across the country. Driven to prominence by hosts Al Franken and Janeane Garofalo, Air America recently caught the ear and wallet of Clear Channel, who decided to pick it up and slap it on the dial at 960 AM. "Air America has the potential to be even more successful in this market," says Cunningham. "We see this as more of an opportunity to serve our community."

Instead of getting bumped from the airwaves, KABL found a new home at 92.1 FM. Clear Channel made a deal with Chase Radio Partners, who owns the frequency, to send KSJO's East Bay presence packing and welcome KABL back to FM. "I don't think [KSJO] got the foothold they wanted in Walnut Creek," says KABL program director Clark Reid. Thus KSJO is downsized and KABL revamped: an ominous update on his station's website even states, "We are currently working on reaching the entire Bay Area again very soon."

At the conclusion of a three-year extension into the East Bay, the 36-year-old KSJO is still alive, albeit barely. Last week, program director Brian Thomas was reassigned within Clear Channel and the prevailing rumor is that KSJO will switch to Spanish language programming. Since last summer, the station's ratings have slowly declined. A recent press release from Clear Channel stresses a commitment to developing Spanish language radio and it doesn't take a genius to identify San Jose as a potential market. Cunningham says Thomas' replacement by David Walman is not indicative of any far-reaching changes at the station, while the Spanish language rumors are just that.

But if all the buzz is true, what will happen to South Bay rock radio? Will KUFX combine classic and hard rock formats? Will Channel 104.9 play Scorpions and Rush? Is the city ready for Mandatory Mariachi? As they say in the radio biz, stay tuned.


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From the October 6-12, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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