See Me, Hear Me, Read Me

Ethical issues take a back seat to synergy and branding in local sports media

Football season's in full swing, the President's Cup is deadlocked, and the Cardinals are favored to win the World Series, yet all KFNS (590 AM) host Tim McKernan and his cohorts on St. Louis' top-rated morning drive-time sports talk show want to know is whether their listeners would do the deed with Janeane Garofalo.

One caller says he'd hit the sheets ("It's tail," he reasons), while another claims he'd keep his cobra in its basket because the diminutive, politically active comedian "strikes [him] as a chick who'd have hairy tits."

Or was it "pits"?

Tim McKernan (right, with  co-hosts Martin Kilcoyne and Jim Hayes, in FSN ballcap) shed his coat and tie last February to focus on radio.
Jennifer Silverberg
Tim McKernan (right, with co-hosts Martin Kilcoyne and Jim Hayes, in FSN ballcap) shed his coat and tie last February to focus on radio.

Too early to tell during the seven o'clock hour for McKernan and Morning Grind co-host Martin Kilcoyne, the latter of whom moonlights as sports director and first-string anchor on FOX's KTVI-TV (Channel 2). You might think Kilcoyne would be the one to show up to work unshaven and disheveled. Instead it's McKernan who looks like he just rolled out of bed -- and who intends to wake up even more haggard come Saturday.

"I'm looking forward to tonight, when I'm going to get absolutely destroyed," McKernan tells listeners. "It's going to be a Roman orgy in Clayton."

Clearly McKernan, who walked away from a prominent gig as a KMOV-TV (Channel 4) sports reporter last year to focus on radio, enjoys his nights off. But he's in the minority in sports-saturated St. Louis, where media personalities are double- and triple-dipping at the job trough.

Sometimes the arrangements are dubious ethically. Take McKernan's former Channel 4 colleague, Steve Savard, who rakes in dual paychecks: from KMOV, where he works as sports director, and from KLOU (103.3 FM), which pays him to do the play-by-play on Rams radio broadcasts.

Savard's detractors -- chief among them KFNS instigator Kevin Slaten, whom Savard recently challenged to a fistfight after a heated exchange at the Rams' training facility -- argue that he's nothing more than a shill for the Rams whose homerism spills over into his nighttime reports on KMOV.

"I think that perception will be held by a certain amount of people whether it's legitimate or not," Savard counters. "The biggest misconception is they think I'm employed by the Rams, when I've never been paid a dime by the Rams for anything."

True, but as with most such agreements, the Rams' deal with KLOU includes a "right of approval" clause, which gives the team veto power over who mans the broadcast booth.

"The team does have input," Savard concedes. "But the radio station is paying millions of dollars for the rights, so they're going to have final say."

Actually, that depends on your definition of "final."

"They tell us who they're going to hire, and we say, 'OK,'" explains Bob Wallace, the Rams' executive vice president and general counsel. "But we have the right to withdraw that approval anytime we want."

Semantics aside, the deal doesn't smell too clean to University of Missouri-St. Louis journalism professor Tom McPhail.

"It's inherently a conflict of interest, and therefore any coverage given on Channel 4 is suspect," says McPhail.

McKernan, whom Savard once scolded during a live broadcast for discussing a headline entitled "Martz the Moron," agrees.

"I think it's a conflict," McKernan says. "I've experienced it firsthand. To me, if you want to get honest reporting on the Rams, you know you're not going to get it [on KMOV]."

Frank Cusumano, who triple dips with gigs at KFNS, KSDK-TV (Channel 5) and Charter Communications (where he does play-by-play for Saint Louis University's men's basketball team, complete with a "right of approval" arrangement), says there's nothing wrong with a little rah-rah coverage.

"Nobody is objective," Cusumano contends. "We go into every game rooting for the best story, but we'd prefer that the home team win. I do think I give the benefit of the doubt to the Billikens, but I'd like to think it's not because I'm drawing a paycheck."

Cusumano goes so far as to argue that the multiple gigs benefit sports fans. "I get a majority of my ideas for TV from radio," he explains. "You're up on everything late, and then you come in the next morning and know what's going on. I think if you just did one job, you wouldn't be quite as prepared. They help each other so much it's incredible."

George Vecsey inherited his space on the New York Times sports page from the late Red Smith, a man widely considered to be one of the two or three greatest sports columnists of all time. Though a journalist of his stature could probably score his choice of moonlighting jobs -- think Mike Lupica (New York Daily News), Bob Ryan (Boston Globe), Michael Wilbon (Washington Post) and Jason Whitlock (Kansas City Star) of ESPN's The Sports Reporters -- Vecsey restricts his speechifying to the Gray Lady.

"We have a policy against paid outside gigs," he says. "It keeps us working full-time for the paper, which sounds like a fair deal to me. I understand that some other papers may have a good selling point with their larger-than-life celebrity columnists, but that just wouldn't work for me, or the NYT."

St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Bryan Burwell, who moonlights as a FOX 2 game-day commentator and as co-host of Cusumano's daily show on KFNS, sees things differently.

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