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By Jessica Lussenhop
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.
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 Postactually 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.
"Johnny boy!" Dorsey yells. "How ya doing? Yeah, I'll be down tomorrow. Do you have dinner plans that night? No? Well, you do now. Terrific!"
Friends say Dorsey has aged noticeably in recent years. He's lost weight; his hair has grown gray and thin. Although he insists he has the last say in the station's transformation, those whom he canned in December say the tears in his eyes told another story.
"I'm pretty sure if he had his druthers, I'd still be there," notes sports anchor Randy Karraker, one of the many on-air hosts ousted in December. "We had a great relationship. We played golf together. We were friends. But it's Al Brady Law who's calling the shots."
"I remember seeing a tape of the press conference announcing the merger. [Cardinals president] Mark Lamping said for the record that the flagship radio station doesn't mean as much anymore," Absher says. "There's Dorsey standing there in all his glory, and his new partners are saying the station doesn't mean much?!"
Others offer an even harsher assessment of the Cardinals-KTRS partnership and Dorsey's tenuous position within it.
"Dorsey put together a deal he's not intellectually equipped to run," opines Steve Mosier, station manager at soul station WESL (1490 AM) and a former sales manager at KTRS. "Some people, instead of asking for help, they scratch and claw. Dorsey would rather say he's captain of a sinking ship than fix the ship."
To make sense of the criticism directed at Dorsey and KTRS these days, it's important to review a little history of the radio station and its ties to KMOX.
It was under the tutelage of legendary KMOX general manager Bob Hyland that Dorsey entered radio. An autocratic ruler who ran KMOX from 1955 until his death in 1992, Hyland hired Dorsey as a salesman and quickly went about teaching his understudy the industry. For the next fifteen years, Dorsey would work his way through the ranks, eventually becoming station manager of KMOX and the rumored heir-apparent to Hyland.
That transition never happened. In 1991 Dorsey left the station after the Cable Advertising Network of Greater St. Louis presented him a "godfather offer" he says was too good to pass up.
In 1995, three years after Hyland died, CBS sold KMOX to Westinghouse Inc. The new owners demanded the station turn a 40 percent profit margin. Unlike Hyland who kept CBS largely out of the station's affairs new general manager Rod Zimmerman seemed only too pleased to assist ownership in its cost-cutting. On Valentine's Day 1996, the station laid off nine full-time staffers, and morale sank to its lowest in memory.
Sensing opportunity in the upheaval, Dorsey brokered a deal with Charter Communications to join him in launching a station to rival KMOX. In April 1996 Dorsey persuaded popular KMOX hosts Wendy Wiese, Kevin Horrigan and Bill Wilkerson to join him in the venture, originally broadcast on Belleville-based WIBV (1260 AM).
It was a decision the former KMOX hosts soon came to regret.
"We were upset about Zimmerman and suckers for the sales pitch," laments Horrigan, one of many casualties from KTRS' recent format change. "What we failed to recognize was that the signal in Belleville was so terrible that even if people wanted to listen they couldn't, and particularly at night west of Highway 270, which is a huge market for KMOX."
Realizing WIBV was fading fast, Dorsey compiled a new group of investors. Taking their name from the Charcoal House, a smoky Rock Hill eatery where the group first met, CH Holdings emerged in January 1997 with a reported $10 million in financing enough to purchase KSD (550 AM).
Dorsey changed the call letters to KTRS, short for "Talk Radio St. Louis." But even with the stronger frequency and new Westport digs, the station failed to make a splash. Why? Former staffers and radio insiders blame Dorsey, whose meddling in station affairs, they say, prompted the running joke that the call letters stood for "Tim's Radio Station."
"The place was like the Bermuda Triangle for broadcasters," comments Horrigan, who adds that Dorsey let go and later rehired all three of the original KMOX staffers who joined him.
"Tim's a pure salesman. Best I've ever seen," Horrigan adds. "But he never had a strong radio guy running the place. Your dime-store psychologist would say Dorsey was trying to emulate Hyland, but Hyland had a gift for the business."
Dorsey's mercurial hirings and firings are something of legend. The station's morning-drive slot alone featured thirteen different hosts during a six-year span from 1998 to 2004.
Former employees say Dorsey was also exceedingly parsimonious, failing to provide shows with producers and not even handing out the standard trinkets key chains, coffee mugs to promote the station.
"In my five years at KTRS, the station did only two months' worth of advertising," recalls Karraker. "We didn't even have T-shirts to give away. Management's philosophy was word-of-mouth would provide ratings. Sometimes you can do that. When you're going up against a station like KMOX, with 75 years of history, that's not the case."
But for most staffers especially those who Dorsey lured away from KMOX adding the Cardinals to KTRS made all the troubles worth enduring. Finally, they reasoned, the station would possess the clout Dorsey had long promised.
Those thoughts vanished with the addition of Bobby Lawrence.
A handsome playboy and bird hunter who travels the globe in pursuit of quail and other feathered game, Lawrence wowed the staff the first time he breezed into KTRS' studios. Dressed in Italian slip-ons, a tailor-made suit and flashing a gold signet ring on his pinky finger, the station's new chairman spun visions of a glorious future.
"KTRS has ranked in thirteenth place in the market for much of its life," Lawrence says. "If we can do the things we've done in the past, we're going to have a winner for sure."
A part-owner of the Cincinnati Reds, Lawrence owes a good deal of his fortune to his Ohio neighbor, Cardinals general partner Bill DeWitt Jr. In the early 1980s, DeWitt invested in Lawrence's Cincinnati-based radio venture, Republic Broadcasting Inc., which later sold to Jacor Communications for $34 million.
As for DeWitt's return on investment: "He did great by us, and we did great by him," says Lawrence.
Lawrence went on to work for Jacor, serving as president and chief operating officer until its sale to Clear Channel in 1999 for a whopping $6 billion. During Lawrence's time at Jacor, the company gobbled up stations but earned a less-than-stellar reputation for its use of "shock jocks" and voice-tracking technology the practice of producing radio programs that are designed to sound local but can be run in multiple markets.
"Did we dare to be different at Jacor? Absolutely," says Lawrence. "But I don't want to be maligned for something we're not doing in St. Louis. For the most part, our shows are all locally produced. And about us using shock jocks at KTRS, that couldn't be further from the truth. We're not going to do dirty radio, but that doesn't mean we can't be controversial."
Lawrence claims it was his idea that the Cardinals buy into KTRS, back some seven years ago, when the team was negotiating an extension with KMOX.
"I called Bill and said, 'Listen, I don't know if this would make sense, but would you have any interest in pursuing a station that could broadcast the Cardinals?'" Lawrence recalls. "He said he was interested, but by then it was too late. They'd already struck a deal."
Lawrence made a similar call last year during a protracted rights-fees negotiation, in which KMOX wanted to reduce the reported $6.7 million it paid the Cardinals for broadcast rights in 2005.
While terms of the deal remain hush-hush, the word in radio circles is that their half in the station cost the Redbirds a paltry $2 million or one-seventh of what they're paying Albert Pujols this season.
As recently as 2001, Dorsey told the Post-Dispatch he'd received offers for the station approaching $20 million. Why, then, would he sell half of KTRS to the Cardinals for such a bargain? Because, say media insiders, Dorsey needs the Cardinals much more than they need KTRS.
"It doesn't matter if it was $2 million or $20 million," Dorsey says of the sale price. "We looked at this as affecting the long-term value of the property, and we think we'll really see the dividends three to five years down the line."
For the Cardinals, the acquisition of KTRS provides the club a powerful new revenue generator, allowing for even greater marketing incentives and corporate tie-ins.
Take, for instance, the new Saturday-morning show The Law in Your Life.Hosted by attorneys Michael Angelides and Jeffrey Simmons, the show is supposedly set up to offer listeners insight into the legal ins and outs of the major issues of the day.
On a pre-Valentine's Day show this year, Angelides and Simmons excoriated a U.S. Senate bill that would restrict the amount of claims asbestos victims bring before the courts. Not mentioned in their argument was that their Alton-based law firm, SimmonsCooper LLC, has won hundreds of millions of dollars representing asbestos victims and ranks as one of the biggest asbestos litigators in the country.
Also unmentioned is the fact that SimmonsCooper pays for the hour-long block on the station, and that the law firm happens to be a major advertiser with both the Cardinals and KTRS.
"It's a brilliant move to control the influences that help brand your product," says Lawrence. "That's why the Cardinals owners bought the minor-league team in Springfield. They want to be able to control all the aspects of Cardinals baseball."
Media's ownership of baseball clubs is nothing new. The Tribune Company owns the Chicago Cubs, and the Atlanta Braves answer to the shareholders of Time Warner. But a baseball team buying a media company represents something of a first though it probably won't be the last.
In February the New York Daily News reported that New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner was looking at the Cardinals' investment in KTRS as a possible blueprint for the Yankees' acquisition of a radio station. Lawrence says he's also had two other owners approach him to seek help in obtaining a station.
Not everyone welcomes a wave of team-owned radio stations. Post-Dispatch columnist Bernie Miklasz turned down an offer to work for KTRS following news the Cardinals bought into the station.
"At first I was flattered they wanted me," says Miklasz. "But then I started thinking about it. Ethically I didn't know how I could work for a station owned 50 percent by the Cardinals. Of course, the Post-Dispatch also owns a small percentage of the Cardinals, and many people said KMOX was a 'house organ' for the team, but in working for both I was never told to pull punches.
"I hope it's the same way with KTRS," Miklasz continues. "But I have my doubts. From the times I've listened to the station, the people hosting shows are very defensive of Cardinals management and very harsh to criticism."
Forget the Cardinals. Forget popular KTRS host Frank O. Pinion.
Forget even for a moment the guy who referred to Condoleezza Rice as a "coon."
The new voice of KTRS is Keith Kramer.
He's white. He's from Alabama. He identifies with the Confederate flag. He's been fired or let go from a half-dozen stations. And from noon until three every weekday afternoon, he'll talk to you about whatever's on his mind including such scatological topics as how he likes to hang his toiler paper. (As any "P1" listener code for his most devoted fans will tell you, Kramer insists his toilet tissue spill off the top of the roll, and he'll habitually place his left hand on the paper as he rips it with his right hand, thus ensuring a clean tear.)
On a recent Friday, however, the hot-button issue has moved from the bathroom to the bedroom. Sporting a goatee and a black bowling shirt with the words "Psych Ward" stitched across the back, Kramer wants to talk about grown men who live with their parents. As caller after caller rings the studio to rat out a friend or defend the filial bond that keeps him tied to his parents' domicile, Kramer responds in abject horror.
In front of him sits a keyboard full of canned wisecracks and sound effects. But Kramer's also quick with his own comebacks, the words "gay" and "retarded" being two of his favorite barbs. In the case of men living with their parents, Kramer has just one thing to say: "That's retarded!" he shrieks into the mic.
As well as lambasting his callers, Kramer really enjoys making up a good story sometimes, too good a story. In 2001 he lost his job at a Dallas station for concocting a tale that Britney Spears died in a car crash.
"Just Google the words 'Kramer and Twitch' [his former on-air partner in Texas]," Kramer notes proudly. "The story got picked up around the world. It was crazy!"
Minutes after exhausting the subject of men and their parents, the 35-year-old host switches gears entirely, launching into a skit in which he pretends to be an effeminate caller named Bill. For reasons unexplained, "Bill" has taken offense to the show's producer, Laurie Beakley, and launches into a lispy tirade, berating her work on the program.
"She's just a whore!" bellows Bill. "Nothing but a whore!"
National Public Radio it is not. But then, that's the last thing program director Al Brady Law wants KTRS to be.
It was with Law's arrival last October that KTRS staffers say they first felt Lawrence's true impact on the station. A radio vagabond who's worked with such broadcast raconteurs as Don Imus and Howard Stern, Law wears his moustache just as he does his hair long, slick and jet-black.
Some say he's a dead-ringer for the saloon keeper on HBO's Deadwood, a guy who feeds his adversaries to the pigs. Others draw comparisons to the Grim Reaper and say it's no coincidence that his first day on the job was Halloween.
"Am I a hatchet man?" replies Law. "Perhaps. No one hires me for a great station. My lot in life, for whatever reason, has become somewhat of a hired gun to clean up the town and hope to God no one has a faster gun than me."
With Lawrence and Dorsey's blessing, Law began to tinker with the station's programming. Cardinal Nation may span generations, but for Law the only segment worth catering to is males aged 35 to 44.
"This station was modeled after KMOX, but the problem is there already is a KMOX, and unless you can do better, why fight it?" Law muses.
On December 16, Dorsey, Law and station manager Craig Unger summoned the majority of the station's on-air hosts and fired them one by one, including such popular personalities as Wendy Wiese, McGraw Milhaven, Bill Wilkerson, Randy Karraker, Jim Holder, Scott St. James and Kevin Horrigan.
Surviving the purge was John Hadley, a sports reporter whose acerbic rants fit Law's new model for the station, and Frank O. Pinion, whose late-afternoon show a combination of homespun tales and puerile jokes has long been the station's most popular program. In place of the disbanded staff, the station would hire edgy, out-of-town talent, more interested in Hollywood gossip than local politics.
"It's called marketing to the lowest-common denominator," says Joe Sonderman, a radio critic for the St. Louis Journalism Review. "They're appealing to the people who made American Idol the most popular show in the nation."
Media insiders say Dorsey told several of the fired staff that he'd been outvoted in the station change, leaving many to question the perceived 50-50 partnership between the Cardinals and Dorsey's group.
"The cruel irony is had Dorsey not been an equity party, he'd have been out a long time ago," comments a media source who asked not to be named in this story. "He mismanaged the station from the get-go. But the talent who took the risk to join the station, they were expendable."
Dorsey maintains he never had complete control.
"Yeah, I've been a managing partner and the president of the station, but I've never been in control. I answered to 32 board members," he says. "Now, with the addition of the Cardinals, there are probably 50 owners."
If the on-air hosts were startled by the swift and sudden change, the station's listenership was even more surprised, and responded by firing off more than 2,000 e-mails in protest.
Still, Law remains resolute that a change away from the news-talk format was desperately needed, and he dismisses the notion that he's dumbed-down the station.
"This is the entertainment business," offers Law. "If information is a byproduct of that, then fine. But information without entertainment doesn't work."
And if there's a bullpen closer in the new KTRS lineup it appears to be Keith Kramer, a guy Law predicts to be his star.
"I think Kramer is going to be huge a real force in this town," predicts Law. "He has the talent and the brains. I find him immensely likeable."
Others do not.
Mike Anderson, moderator of the online message board stl.media.net, has established himself over the past six years as the region's most prolific if not boundless broadcast-media watchdog. During a late-night thunderstorm last month, Anderson critiqued the local television network's weather coverage live on his Web site as if calling a horse race.
"2:45 a.m. and 2's back on with the thunderstorm info, 4 drops out and 5 is still in regular programming. 2:50 a.m. and here's the rain. thunder's louder, lightning's brighter. no hail yet. 4 & 5 back with brief reports; 4 continues along with 2."
But few topics have captured Anderson's attention as much as KTRS' format change, and his message board reflects his dissatisfaction particularly with host Keith Kramer.
In the past two months Anderson has posted on the message board such tidbits as comments Kramer's wife, Christy, made on her MySpace blog, joking of her desire to smoke crack and perform a ménage à trois before turning 30. Other entries skewer Kramer for using a Confederate flag on his Web site, www.godofradio.com, and one post even confronts the talk-show host to a fistfight.
"If you had any stones, you'd confront me in person," writes Anderson. "But you never will. I'm 57 years old, old enough to be your father (presuming you know who your father is) and handicapped, and you're still afraid to take me on man-to-man."
Kramer labels Anderson a "harassing little turd" and has threatened to release potentially damaging information on him should the attacks continue. Even some of Anderson's supporters say his attacks on Kramer have gone too far, but Anderson remains unapologetic. The reason?
"A major-league radio station should have a major-league team working for it," says Anderson. "But what did KTRS do? They went out and hired guys who may or may not be qualified, who weren't working or who were barely working."
Kramer was out of a job for several months before landing at KTRS. Tim "Monty" Montemayor, who replaced Randy Karraker in the sports department, was such a greenhorn at his previous radio gig in Sacramento that he was forced to supplement his income waiting tables at a local Chili's. Jay Anderson, who lasted less than two months before being fired for Dave Lenihan, reportedly was on air just one day a week before arriving at KTRS.
Whereas many of the old hosts commanded salaries ranging from $100,000 to $150,000, radio insiders estimate the salaries for the new staff at between $75,000 and $100,000.
"A salary dump was certainly one of the factors in the change-up," says Joe Sonderman of the St. Louis Journalism Review. "The fact of the matter is Dorsey poured a shitload of money down the drain. He paid his hosts big money to move from KMOX, and they weren't pulling the figures. Now I'm told they don't even care about programming. They figure people will tune into the Cardinals and then never change the dials."
But there's mounting evidence the format change isn't going as planned. Last month KTRS rehired McGraw Milhaven after firing him just four months earlier.
"We listened to what our listeners had to say," says Dorsey, who shrugs off the notion that Milhaven's rehiring suggests an about-face. "The number-one complaint they had was that McGraw was no longer on the station."
Dorsey further maintains that landing the Cardinals will turn KTRS into the station he first imagined a decade ago. Besides, it's a move right out of his old mentor's playbook.
"I idolized Bob Hyland," Dorsey says. "He understood radio and St. Louis like no one, and he started to make that station great by building on its sport talent. First we got the Blues. Then we got the Rams. Now we have the Cardinals. If you'd given me a blank canvas ten years ago and I painted KTRS alongside the logos for all three teams, you'd have thought I was on an LSD trip!"
Dorsey also dismisses the notion that he mortgaged his dreams for the station in order to get the Cardinals.
"So we changed our lineup. Yeah, it's a shame. But then Stan Musial is no longer in the Cardinals lineup, either. We changed with the times."
Others say it's too bad another voice of the Cardinals is no longer with the team.
"I can't help but think of when Jack Buck was inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame," Karraker says. "He gave a speech blasting this new in-your-face, vulgar radio, saying: 'We don't need to do this. We shouldn't do this. We're guests in people's homes, and we should behave accordingly.' And I think if Jack Buck were around today, he would not approve at all. And he'd tell the Cardinals that."
Says another media insider: "The question becomes: Now that they have the Cardinals, will people finally stop listening to KMOX and can we spoon-feed them shit?"