By Ray Downs
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Do we reduce our overhead now or is his salary plus risk worth more than those savings?
KFNS fired Slaten via a couriered letter the next day.
Slaten sued for wrongful termination. KFNS countersued and sought an injunction preventing Slaten from working in sports broadcasting in St. Louis for six months. To do otherwise would have been a violation of the non-compete clause in his contract, the station's lawyers argued.
Slaten and KFNS had inked the contract (their second) in 2007. It called for a base salary of $130,000, with extra wages for publicity and appearances and potential bonuses that could bring it up to $195,000 annually. The contract would not have expired until December 31, 2009. Radio stations do not typically reveal salary information, but Slaten's fellow broadcasters say his compensation was among the highest — if not the highest — in his peer group, KSLG ("Team 1380" AM)'s Tim McKernan and Bernie Miklasz included.
According to court testimony, Slaten was KFNS' highest-paid employee and biggest moneymaker.
"Kevin was our biggest revenue generator," station comptroller Harris testified. "We really didn't want to have to fire Kevin."
Axing Slaten was like a shot in the heart to the station. Court testimony would subsequently reveal that advertisers immediately canceled deals totaling more than $80,000. Afternoon ratings plunged. According to the Arbitron book, the industry-ratings standard, KFNS' afternoon drive-time lineup sank from the eighth-most-popular show among men ages 25 to 54 to nineteenth after Slaten was dumped. (Arbitron declined to reveal the actual number of listeners.)
"Their egos told them they would win without me," Slaten gloated to Riverfront Times the day the ratings were published. "They didn't realize what a butt-whupping they'd get!"
One of the first things anyone who knows Slaten will mention is his love for a good fight. "He often chooses the hardest route to go, on purpose," explains friend and fellow broadcaster Bob Ramsey, one of three sports talkers who've taken over Slaten's 590 slot.
"I always likened him to Don Quixote," Ramsey goes on, referencing the famous literary hero whose black-vs.-white, right-vs.-wrong world-view prevented him from understanding life's nuances. "Most of us, I think, try to choose the battles that we fight in life and, quite frankly, we choose the ones we think we can win. I think Kevin prefers the battles he can't win — or the ones that if he were to overcome the odds and win, would be an unbelievably tremendous victory."
During proceedings in Slaten v. Archway Assets LLC, there was no question that the plaintiff was savoring the taste of war. He took fast and furious notes throughout several days of witness testimony and often could be seen sporting a wide grin. "This is an old-fashioned barbecuing," the exiled radio host remarked with a smile after Harris stepped down from the stand.
On August 7, Slaten awoke at 1:30 a.m. to take more notes — points he wanted his attorneys, led by prominent local defense counsel Chet Pleban, to raise during closing arguments. After testimony concluded that day, Slaten, bursting with confidence, joked, "I told Chet last night: 'If they rule against me, you might as well never come to a courtroom again!'"
A moment later Slaten sounded more humble: "If the Lord is with us, and I believe He is, He recognizes there's a wrong here. But, He also challenges us, and if that's the case, then it's meant to be another way."
Slaten lowered his head and rested his forehead in his palms. "I hope not, because I don't need any more challenges."
Dr. Rick Lehman, a personal friend who made frequent guest appearances on The Bottom Line, swears Slaten cares more about "putting out a good product" than about attaining celebrity status. As the sports orthopedist puts it: "He has virtually no aspirations to be famous."
Lehman thus chuckles when describing his patients' reactions to the photos that bedeck his Kirkwood clinic: "We've got pictures of all the athletes we've taken care of, people like Wayne Gretzky, Jerome Bettis. Kevin's picture is hanging up there, too. You can't believe how many people look at him and say: 'That's the guy I wanna meet.' I'm always like, 'Really? You don't want to meet Mia Hamm or Michael Jordan or Albert Pujols?' Nope. They want to meet 'The King.'"
From an early age, the boy who would be "King" seemed destined to spend his life sitting behind a microphone talking sports. "In grade school he already knew he wanted to be a play-by-play announcer," recalls Mark LeGrand, a pal since fourth grade. "He wanted to be Harry Caray. Kevin and I used to take the Redbird Express to Cardinals games when we were like fourteen years old, and he would have a tape recorder, with real tape. We'd sit in center field, and he'd do play-by-play of the game, as an eighth grader! He was so serious about it, it was unbelievable."
Slaten grew up in Bellefontaine Neighbors, the fourth son in an Irish-Catholic family with five kids. His was a typical 1950s middle-class childhood. Mom stayed at home; Dad worked for Western Electric and helped coach his kids' sports teams. Kevin, who played football, basketball and baseball (he was a pitcher), was the family's most talented and passionate athlete.