Foul Frequency

PR flops. Staff upheaval. Shrill talk-show hosts. The Cardinals' flagship station can't seem to find the strike zone.

Former talk-show host Dave Lenihan's well-publicized gaffe last month was more than a colossal blunder. For those who've lost patience with KTRS ("The Big" 550 AM) and its general manager, Tim Dorsey, it reaffirmed a long-standing conviction that the station and its founder have lost all control.

A brash, cocksure advertising salesman once destined to take control of KMOX (1120 AM), Dorsey struck out on his own in 1996, launching KTRS to rival his former employer. But ratings floundered, and the station failed to attract any real attention until last August. That's when, to great fanfare, the ownership group of the St. Louis Cardinals announced they'd purchased a 50 percent stake in KTRS and planned to make it their flagship broadcast station.

Many in the media trumpeted the move as a grand slam for KTRS and a potentially lethal blow to KMOX, which rode its 51-year run with the Redbirds into becoming the nation's most dominant regional radio station. At the same time, the KTRS-Cardinals merger aligned two of St. Louis' most powerful and well-known investor groups.

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On one side of the aisle sat the privileged Country Day boys of the Cardinals ownership: chairman Bill DeWitt Jr., former United States Ambassador to Belgium Stephen Brauer and banker Andrew Baur. Filling the bride's pews were Dorsey and his investor group, whose names include former big-league stars Dan Dierdorf and Ozzie Smith, actor John Goodman and beer baron Jerry Clinton.

Though the merger was billed as a union of equals, the honeymoon didn't last long. Immediately, the Cardinals ownership set about dismantling everything Dorsey and his group had built during their ten years at the reins. Gone was the earnest talk-radio format modeled after KMOX. In its place came shrill, in-your-face chatter, more akin to that found on rocker KSHE (94.7 FM).

Radio insiders say that the 59-year-old Dorsey, who is accustomed to calling the shots, now plays little more than a bench role. It's KTRS newcomers Bobby Lawrence and program director Al Brady Law who actually control the station, with the Cardinals sending Dorsey to the mound only when they need him to mop up one of the station's many publicity flops.

But on a Tuesday afternoon last month, the gregarious Dorsey carries the swagger of a starting pitcher as he strides about the windowless office of his Westport Plaza radio station. Mistakenly, he thinks most of the bad press is behind him. (It is two weeks before Dave Lenihan will draw national attention to the station for using the word "coon" when talking about Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.)

Dressed in khakis, a starched blue Oxford and a tangerine tie, Dorsey has just wrapped up an interview with KMOV (Channel 4). Like many covering the Cardinals' move from KMOX to KTRS, the television reporter wanted to discuss with Dorsey the station's signal strength. At night, when the majority of Cardinals games are played, KTRS' 5,000-watt signal is considerably weaker than the 50,000-watt "Mighty MOX."

"The Post actually got this one right," Dorsey says, holding a well-worn copy of the August 12 St. Louis Post-Dispatch, in which a team of reporters mapped KTRS' signal and found its daytime reach to be stronger than most critics believed.

"I think, overall, the stories about us are starting to turn somewhat," Dorsey adds. "They're not quite so negative."

Dorsey boasts that KTRS recently increased the Cardinals radio network to 115 affiliates in 9 states, filling in static-plagued pockets in Illinois, Arkansas and other locales where KTRS' signal does not reach.

He maintains that public outcry is at last waning over the controversial firing of nearly the entire on-air staff nine days before Christmas. He adds that listeners have fallen in love with John Rooney, who the Cardinals placed in the KTRS broadcast booth after handing Wayne Hagin his walking papers in November.

What's more, an over-the-top PR stunt in which the Cardinals ownership and KTRS conspired to "vandalize" several local Redbird billboards recently earned the station tons of free publicity. Though some questioned the ethics behind the prank, Dorsey is only too happy to show newspaper accounts of the antic that appeared in publications as far away as Chicago.

As for the station's ratings, which nose-dived from fourteenth in the market to nineteenth following the Cardinals purchase, Dorsey spins the numbers as meaningless. (Last month the station moved up to eighteenth in the market, even though its overall market share dipped slightly, to 2.5 percent of the listening audience.)

"Actually, we're surprised anyone was still listening," says Dorsey. "We basically imploded the station and started from scratch. Our thought is that we have three months to work out the kinks before Opening Day."

Dorsey estimates the Cardinals will bring some bring 750,000 new listeners to the station — up threefold, he says, from the 180,000 to 250,000 people who tune in on any given day. Just thinking about the influx of new listeners has him as excited as a Little Leaguer the night before fantasy camp.

"I wake up each morning and say, 'Damn, we got the Cardinals! It really did happen!'" Dorsey exclaims.

As if on cue, he reaches into his pocket to retrieve a cell phone. On the other end of the line is John Rooney, who wants to know when Dorsey plans to arrive for his first-ever visit to spring training.

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