Dave Ross, the 35-year-veteran at KIRO Radio, on Monday took over the morning drive-time reins on the FM side after a two-month experiment with long-form conversationalist John Curley as host flopped big-time with listeners.

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On Monday morning, after a 3:55 a.m. alarm, Dave Ross drove from his Mercer Island home to KIRO Radio in Seattle’s Eastlake neighborhood. He doesn’t like getting up that early, although driving across Lake Washington, “I have the center lanes all to myself.”

At age 60, he has just marked 35 years at KIRO, hosting shows in every time slot, he says, except overnight. In those years, he’s won his share of journalism prizes and reported from the world’s hot spots, whether Ground Zero after Sept. 11 or the fall of communism in the Soviet Union.

Now, after management asked him, Ross is switching from the midmorning show he co-hosted with Luke Burbank to begin work at 6 a.m.

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Ross says that in his three-plus decades at KIRO, he’s been through plenty of format changes.

“They always happen. That’s part of the job,” he says.

These days, with new technology to measure listenership, it’s a tumultuous industry.

“Instead of ratings going every three months, now they come weekly, so we can track — at least we think we can track — what’s working and what’s not working,” says Ross. “Change comes more suddenly than it did 20 years ago.”

But, he says, the essence of radio still is the same: “Trying to make a connection with listeners.”

Ross’s shift to early a.m. is KIRO’s attempt to fix what it acknowledges was a programming mistake.

In late October, the station put John Curley, the quirky talk-show host, in morning drive time. He had done well in an evening slot at the station, but listeners didn’t care for his style in the mornings.

The station got 500 emails complaining about the format change, and ratings in KIRO-FM’s morning drive time tanked from No. 10 to 19 in the advertiser-sought 25-54 age group.

Drastic action was required.

Management came to Ross.

“They laid out their case, and I said, ‘Well, if that’s the only alternative, I’m happy to cooperate,’ ” he says. “I have a certain loyalty to the medium and to this place in which I’ve worked.”

Last Friday, Curley finished his show and was called into a meeting with Carl Gardner, the station’s general manager.

Curley says Gardner kept it simple, “He told me, ‘It isn’t working. I thought that it would, but it’s not. On Monday, we’re gonna have Dave Ross take over the shows.’ I said, ‘OK.’ That was basically it.”

Gardner says, “It’s a dynamic business.”

He says it wasn’t so much that listeners disliked Curley, who “is a great conversationalist who likes to work in a longer form, but that while driving to work, listeners simply wanted to get up to speed with the news.”

In a news release, Gardner said, “OK, message heard and point taken.”

Dynamic duo

Ross is co-hosting the morning drive-time show with veteran Linda Thomas, because, Gardner says, “We wanted to make a clear statement to our listeners that we understand that they want news, and we went looking for the strongest news voices and personalities that we have in our arsenal. Who do listeners know and trust? That’d be Dave Ross and Linda Thomas.”

Ross had been doing a 9-to-noon weekday show with Burbank, who had teamed up with Ross in October 2010. Ross will continue to co-host with Burbank from 9-10 a.m., with Burbank going solo from 10 to noon.

He says it was his idea to team up with Burbank, after focus groups showed that listeners were tuning out when the station had more call-ins. Listeners, he says, found too many of the callers boring.

Ross says he wanted to team up with Burbank because, “I didn’t want to play Rush Limbaugh and rant about something for three hours. I get tired of hearing my own opinion after a while.”

In his new early-morning slot, Ross still will get to do commentary and analysis, says Gardner. It will just be quicker.

“Ross can do lot more in 90 seconds than a lot of broadcasters do in 90 minutes,” he says. These days, radio is a fragmented business. There are 57 radio stations in the Seattle-Tacoma-Everett market vying for more than $200 million in annual advertising money.

Kathy Neukirchen, president of Media Plus+, a Seattle media-buying agency, says, “We have buyers right now buying for the first quarter, and the morning drive is a big cash cow. They can’t afford to be No. 19. A lot of national buyers only buy in the Top 10 stations.”

It’s also a tough market for news or hybrid news-talk stations.

For the December morning drive time, KRWM (“Today’s Soft Favorites”) came in at No. 1 in the Arbitron ratings for adults 25-54.

So this area either has a lot of Lionel Richie fans, or maybe it’s all those people waiting in dentist offices.

The reality is that for the Top 10-ranked stations here, in morning drive time, ages 25-54, only a third of listeners are tuning in to news.

The dominant news and talk station in the morning is KUOW-FM, the Seattle NPR affiliate, which in December came in at No. 2.

As for those two-thirds of other listeners, they want music or, if it’s talk, “The Danny Bonaduce Show” or “The Bob Rivers Show.”

On Wednesday’s Bonaduce show, one topic discussed was “coming up with the term for what appears when guys wear their pants too tight.”

Meanwhile, Ross says that since the switch, his email box has been full, mostly from listeners expressing their appreciation to him.

“I guess you go through exercises like this once in a while to know you have loyal fans,” he says.

Curley is still on the KIRO payroll.

He says he’s not hurting financially, with his thriving business as an auctioneer, traveling around the country, doing some 100 auctions a year.

Larry Gifford, KIRO Radio’s program director, says he wants to find space for Curley.

Before he went to mornings, Curley was successful in a 7-to-10-p.m. slot at KIRO, a time better suited to his longer stories about his life’s events, stories that ran five or 10 minutes, an eternity in radio. In the evenings, Curley’s listeners had the time to hang around.

“We’re considering all sorts of options right now,” says Gifford.

Gifford is also going to be busy for a while.

He says he’s answering every one of those 500 emails.

“We miscast him,” Gifford says about Curley. “We were wrong.”

As for the latest changes at the station, Burbank says, “Everything old is new again.”

Erik Lacitis: 206-464-2237 or elacitis@seattletimes.com

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