Static Freefall

Carroll's departure from KMOX paced by station's ratings decline

The lead-in to Karen Carroll's announcement last week that she was resigning as general manager of KMOX-AM had the usual promos about how the station had won the Edgar R. Murrow Award for best newscast and how listeners were tuned in to "Total Information AM."

No mention was made of declining ratings, personnel problems and surprise financial audits of the station and its nonprofit charity or that maybe KMOX had been drifting in the wrong direction since Carroll took over the station five years ago.

It's hard to argue that in those five years, what gave KMOX [1120 AM] dominance over the market -- news reporting, sports broadcasting and high-profile personalities -- has improved. One of Carroll's most talked-about decisions was to fire the station's best-known newsman, Charles Jaco [Wilson, "Back Fire," November 27]. Now she's leaving, her replacement has yet to be named, the Rams and the Blues are being broadcast elsewhere and ratings are fading.

In a brief interview with KMOX news director John Butler, aired just before 8 a.m. January 25, Carroll said she was proud of the "great legacies I've left behind" and didn't volunteer any examples when Butler asked her whether she had any regrets.

"No, I don't live in that world," Carroll said. "I'm only about possibilities and opportunities."

Maybe Carroll just realized that her possibilities and opportunities lay elsewhere. Maybe KMOX, long identified with the late Robert Hyland, the broadcasting icon who built the station into a powerhouse, is a victim of listeners' having more choices. Whatever the reasons, things have changed.

For decades, KMOX didn't come close to single-digit ratings, which are about as common in radio as weight-loss and home-refinancing commercials. During the mid-1970s, the high science of Arbitron concluded that more than a quarter of the radios turned on in the St. Louis metro area were set to 1120 AM.

Such double-digit ratings used to be a given at KMOX, but for the second time in twelve months, the station has dipped under 10, this time squeaking in at 9.9 for the months of October, November and December.

Ratings in the winter book for this year, covering January, February and March, are expected to dip even lower.

Last winter, KMOX scored its first single-digit rating in memory, a 9.0.

Despite the ratings declines, KMOX is still the top-ranked station in St. Louis -- but the lead over its competitors has narrowed significantly.

Within a week of the ratings' release, Carroll resigned. No one with much sense is saying that Carroll left simply because ratings were down.

Carroll appears to have called her own shots on the timing of her departure, but it also looks as if she was getting some static from her bosses at Infinity Broadcasting, or so those close to the station believe.

The most publicized tempest was the firing of Jaco, the former CNN correspondent who ran afoul of Carroll back in November. Infinity, which owns KMOX, KEZK (102.5 FM) and KYKY (98.1 FM) among a total of 180 radio stations nationwide, wouldn't force out a general manager at a profitable station over the firing of a single employee, no matter how sterling his résumé. But insiders say Infinity didn't like all the fuss over Jaco' firing.

Infinity also conducted a surprise financial audit of KMOX in January. Although the audit didn't turn up any gross misconduct, it probably wound up on Carroll's list of reasons to leave, along with the pressure to keep up at least a 40 percent profit margin and reverse the tide of falling ratings. In addition, Infinity is drifting toward using a management team to run all the stations it owns in each market, according to industry observers.

Another item on Carroll's list:

Last summer, the Missouri attorney general's office conducted a weeks-long investigation into Outreach St. Louis, the nonprofit organization administered by KMOX. Scott Holste, spokesman for the attorney general's office, said no improprieties were uncovered in the investigation, which centered on "some questions about how radio staff resources were being used in conjunction with Outreach St. Louis."

Carroll's resignation had her detractors falling all over themselves at a local Web site, anxious to cast aspersions on the sales maven who took over the "Voice of St. Louis" after running KYKY and KSD (93.7 FM). Her detractors point to her lack of experience running anything but FM music stations and say she was ill-equipped to run a news-and-talk AM station, particularly one with the tradition and market dominance of KMOX.

Even though Carroll says she doesn't plan to remain in radio, most of her critics have voiced their judgments anonymously -- her 30 years in the industry has gained her a reputation as someone who doesn't forget easily. One detractor who didn't hesitate to go public with his opinion was Jaco, the former KMOX talk jockey who saw Carroll's resignation as a plus for St. Louis radio.

"It could only be an improvement, because Karen Carroll seemed to specialize in management by Ouija board," says Jaco "She drove her staff, certainly the programming staff, absolutely nuts with conflicting directions. What do you say about a woman who has her manicurist come in and take up the entire conference room giving Karen and other people manicures? The place smelled like an Earl Scheib paint shop."

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