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."

Criticism of Carroll's flashy style and obsession with her public image surfaced in rants on www.stlmedia.net. Her panache seemed to irritate folks as much as her work habits. One poster referred to KMOX as a "joke" under her guidance and offered that Carroll "looks and acts like a 21-year-old LA club-hopping chick." The 55-year-old Carroll, a former high-school pompom-squad member and National Honor Society student from Overland, did display a penchant for expensive clothes, abundant jewelry and mentions in Jerry Berger's column.

"No one 'resigns' at 5:15 p.m. on a Monday, particularly with an ego the size of Karen's," read one Web site post. "Every time she breaks wind, Berger tells us what it smells like."

But even that anonymous critic gave Carroll her due while damning her: "While she was once great, and she was as good as anyone, Karen grew into a monster over the past ten years.... There is a pathetic image of her now, asking Mr. DeMille for her close-up, while she lobbies for her grief-stricken 'comrades' to follow in her footsteps."

Carroll did not return calls for this or other recent coverage concerning KMOX, including her firing of Jaco. She also declined comment on her late-2001 decision to suspend John Carney for one week without pay for a joke he made about an advertiser's toupee when Carney emceed a public dinner [Wilson, "News Clipped," December 19, 2001]

Since the Infinity lawyers came in and settled the dispute with Jaco, the veteran newscaster has landed a part-time gig at KIRO-AM in Seattle, which plans to send him to the Mideast so the former CNN correspondent can cover the attack on Iraq. Jaco says he will be leaving in a few weeks to do "my shows from wherever, probably Qatar and then maybe Baghdad -- who knows?"

Tim Dorsey, the boss at KTRS (550 AM ) -- KMOX's main competition in the news-talk field -- avoids direct criticism of Carroll but sees her departure as yet another sign of the top station's slide after decades of dominance.

Dorsey, who worked at KMOX from 1975-90, has tried to fashion KTRS into a competitor to KMOX since he and his investors took over the station in 1997. He has won the broadcast rights to Rams and Blues games, but overtaking KMOX is still a tall order because of the ingrained habits of St. Louis' radio audience.

"Anytime you do anything in news-talk radio, it's slow," says Dorsey. "We're all creatures of habit. There are people who have had their dial set to KMOX for 50 years. It's hard to get people to change habits."

Any way it's sliced, the recent ratings report was a bad one for all news-and-talk stations, including KTRS. Dorsey thinks the numbers also mean KMOX is destined to be just another horse in the stable -- its days as Secretariat are over.

"If you check their latest print ads and look at their outdoor [advertising], everything is geared to a war," says Dorsey. "They call it 'Showdown with Saddam.' I don't know how you build your programming on that. That station used to be built on personality, on Jack Buck and Jack Carney and Rex Davis and Jim White. Hyland built that station on sports and personality."

But Buck, Carney and Davis are dead, Jaco and White are gone and the Rams and Blues have left KMOX's signal -- clear signs that the station's old formula has expired. Maybe Carroll, despite her protestations to the contrary, realized that no matter what she did, the salad days were over.

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