BY SHORTENING its name from New Kids on the Block to just the initials NKOTB, the five-member group from Boston is hoping to shed its teeny-bopper image and get the media and radio programmers to take them seriously.

They are apparently succeeding in getting programmers interested, thanks to the efforts of marketers at Columbia Records.

The marketing mavens shipped white-label copies of the group’s new single, “Dirty Dawg,” to programmers at contemporary urban and top 40 stations and dance clubs. The recipients have been giving the tune a spin or two and letting listeners make the call.

So far the prognosis has been good.

But the effort to win over the media has its own strategy. Copies of the album were shipped to reviewers and writers, but instead of identifying the band as NKOTB, the disc sported the name Bonk-T — almost the reverse of the New Kids anagram. The move was designed to get media cynics and other hard-to-convince types to give the disc a listen without prejudice.

The disguise was the brainchild of Columbia Records veep Larry Jenkins, who copped the idea from his days at Capitol when the label changed its moniker to Lotipac (its reverse) for teasing the new release from Young MC.

NKOTB members Donnie Wahlberg, Jordan Knight, Jonathan Knight, Danny Wood and Joe McIntyre are hoping the new image pays off.

To that end they have divested themselves of creator and resident svengali Maurice Starr, and brought in a who’s who of record producer talent to assist them.

Backed by A-list producers Walter Afansieff (Michael Bolton, Mariah Carey), Teddy Riley (Bobby Brown, Michael Jackson) and Narada Michael Walden (Whitney Houston), with four of the cuts produced by New Kid Wahlberg, the album, “Face the Music,”– which drops Jan. 25 — is getting the push by marketing big guns.

Those who sniff at NKOTB are likely to be unfamiliar with its sales track record and its place among money-making music giants.

With 60 million units of albums, singles and vidtapes moved, the group regularly weighs in with seven-figure-plus earnings, which include concert revenues and extensive merchandising tie-ins such as toys and action figures.

The group often lands near the top of many publications’ most successful entertainers list, with revenues rivaling the entire gross national product of some small countries.

CONCERTS AT NINE: Hard Rock Cafes are set to open the new year, one that the restaurant chain expects to increase its visibility in the music business.

“Our game plan is to do a lot more music industry events, tying into charities whenever possible,” said Jeff Wagner, vice president of marketing for Hard Rock Cafe. Wagner is currently planning a large outdoor concert in March at the Newport Beach Hard Rock and he expects to have three or four “good-sized concerts” at the three Southern California restaurants by early summer.

Among the acts performing on New Year’s Eve are X in Los Angeles, the Posies in Newport Beach, dada in Chicago, Counting Crows in San Francisco and the Gin Blossoms in Honolulu.

In March, the Hard Rock is scheduled to launch its own record label, starting with four compilation albums dedicated to different genres — metal, reggae, alternativeand classic rock. The albums are being done in association with CEMA and EMI Publishing, and proceeds will benefit the National Resource Defense Council, an environmental group.

The Hard Rock is also considering being the host for live radio-concert broadcasts as well as holding industry events. Owner Peter Morton will break ground at the start of 1994 for the first Hard Rock casino and hotel in Las Vegas and a cafe at Universal City’s CityWalk is skedded for the fall.

THE CURTAIN came down Dec. 12 on San Francisco Opera’s 1993 fall season. And even though the company registered record ticket sales (in excess of $ 14 million), general director Lotfi Mansouri knows his company’s future is going to be difficult. Faced with an accumulated operating deficit of $ 6 million, S.F. Opera has canceled plans for its previously announced French Opera Festival, which would have taken place next June. The organization has also laid off 14 staff positions.

Potentially more troubling, however, is the certain knowledge that between January ’96 and July ’97 the company has been ordered by the City of San Francisco to evacuate the 3,252-seat War Memorial Opera House, which suffered structural damage in the 1989 earthquake. The building will undergo structural reinforcement, technical improvements and a general refurbishing of the auditorium, which was built in 1932. In a recent conversation, Mansouri discussed the hard choices his company is being forced to make.

“Like almost every opera company in America, we’ve been hit very hard by the recession — especially in the area of contributor income from corporations and foundations,” he said. “When our deficit reached $ 6 million we knew we had to pull back and reassess our activities,” he continued. “We’re in a rather strange situation. For the last five years, opera attendance in America has increased by 30% (according to a survey conducted in 1991-92 by Opera America). But because of the depth of the recession in California our deficit has gone up.”

If the present economic conditions have Mansouri worried, the impending loss of the War Memorial Opera House is giving him nightmares. The logistics alone are daunting. “We are currently in the process of redesigning the Civic Auditorium as an opera house that can be configured for up to 5,000 seats,” Mansouri said. “But for most productions we will keep it at around 3,800. The idea is to create the environmental effect of an arena-style theater for the ‘Carmens’ and ‘Aidas.’ For the smaller operas, we’ll use the Orpheum Theater.”

In order to accomplish this complex maneuver, San Francisco Opera is expecting substantial financial assistance from the City of San Francisco. “After all,” Mansouri said, “they’re the ones who are throwing us out!”

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