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Is Los Angeles too small a town for Don Imus and Howard Stern?

Both Gotham-based talk radio hosts have been expanding their reach through syndication, but Imus has yet to crack the L.A. market, or, for that matter, Chicago, Cleveland or Dallas, where Stern has gained a foothold.

It’s no secret that Imus and Stern, who once toiled together at WNBC, are not exactly best pals. Both routinely attack each other on air, although each aims for a different audience. But they still share a common corporate boss, Infinity Broadcasting, which early this month agreed to pay $1.7 million to settle indecency charges brought by the FCC over Stern’s show.

Stern’s frequent vulgarisms have attracted mainly 18-to 34-year-old men, in contrast to Imus’ more restrained approach, which often features national political and entertainment figures, and hits a more mature 25-to-54 crowd.

“It’s the difference between someone who wants to hear me talk to Dan Rather about current events, and someone who wants to have Howard talk to someone about something more personal, maybe about his penis,” Imus told Variety, unusually restrained about his rival.

Imus won’t talk about plans for Westwood One Entertainment (controlled by Infinity) to expand syndication of his show – now distributed to about 50 markets, but just four of the top 10 – or to upgrade to more desirable FM outlets.

But a Westwood One exec says they’re talking to KIIS-AM, which now simulcasts with its sister FM station, and says another station in the market also expressed interest this month. KIIS, which runs Rick Dees’ show on both stations, denied it was discussing such a plan. But KIIS parent Gannett Radio is the subject of a rumored takeover by Infinity; if that happens, KIIS could quickly change its tune.

As in other markets, where Westwood One has moved aggressively to expand Imus’ reach, the stumbling block is money. Unlike most syndicated radio programs, provided free to stations in exchange for barter ad time, the Stern and Imus shows charge hefty fees that escalate over time, based on performance and market size. Stern’s show gets $1 million or more a year from stations in the 21 major markets where it airs, and Imus is asking in the high six figures, plus a minute per hour in barter, for an L.A. home.

It’s also tough to persuade stations to give up their local identities, especially in the morning drivetime period, to a national show. “It’s a Joseph Heller situation in that the station has to be doing poorly enough in the ratings to be willing to go to a syndicated program, but financially stable enough to pay for it,” Imus said.

In New York, Stern attracts an audience twice as large as Imus’, with a 7.7 share of 12-and-older listeners last spring on Infinity’s WXRK-FM compared to Imus’s 4 share on WFAN.

But ad buyers view Imus, with an older, more affluent and better-educated audience, as a better buy: “He’s a better personality, he’s not as controversial and he’s better produced,” said Sam Michaelson, senior VP-national radio at Zenith Media.

For local programmers weighing the two, “it comes down to personal taste,” Imus said, offering a publishing analogy. “It doesn’t make National Review or the New Republic any better than Teen magazine. We go toward different folks.”

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