Back Fire

Given the boot, Charles Jaco dumps on KMOX for dumbing down

Nov 27, 2002 at 4:00 am
As listeners sort through the reasons KMOX-AM general manager Karen Carroll whacked radio news-talk host Charles Jaco last week, the main question that lingers is not so much why it happened but why it took so long.

Not that über-newshound Jaco deserved to be sent packing from the area's most listened-to station, but it's clear that management viewed Jaco as more nuisance than newsman, a clubhouse lawyer who too often was always pitching a fit. Even more troublesome than his habit of sticking up for fellow staffers was this:

The former CNN correspondent and prolific author had what KMOX (1120 AM) has pretended to have for years -- a sense of news.

When Carroll bumped him from his afternoon shift to evenings earlier this year, it was a distant early warning.

"They felt the programming was too intellectual for the audience, that's it was too hip for the house, too intellectual -- 'People don't get it, the ratings stink,'" says Jaco. According to Jaco, Carroll wanted "warmer and fuzzier" topics and told people, "Nobody cares about hard-news programming."

Jaco didn't see the end coming, though as he looks back at his on-air performance and his off-air skirmishes with management, he sees that the clues were there.

"I never cared about ratings, and I guess I should have. And I've never made a point of suffering fools gladly," Jaco says. "I produce quality work. I do what I do, and I do it very well. This came out of nowhere; it literally came out of nowhere."

Yes, Jaco is a talented man -- just ask him. Jaco's bravado may have rubbed some listeners, and management, the wrong way, but it is a trait Jaco shared with other KMOX hosts ranging from Rush Limbaugh to Jim White, who retired in 1999.

Even when Jaco apologizes for one of the stated reasons he was canned, he can't help hurling one more insult as he confesses to sending an "intemperate" response to a listener's critical e-mail.

"I should have walked away from it," Jaco says of the e-mail he received. "It was immature; it was bad judgment on my part. It was uncalled-for. Never get into a battle of wits with someone who is unarmed."

In addition to the e-mails, there was apparently a newsroom face-off between Jaco and news director John Butler on October 24, during a spate of technical difficulties in the transmission of the Jean Carnahan-Jim Talent debate from Columbia, Missouri. Butler had crossed swords with Jaco on other occasions over the guests and topics Jaco pursued.

Having covered the world for CNN, Jaco tended to come off as a policy wonk big on hard news and analysis. He saw criticism of him as a symptom of what ailed the station.

"The dumbing-down of KMOX has been evident," says Jaco. "Let's face it. Listen to the station. How does it sound to you? There has been a deliberate dumbing-down of the product simply because you have people like John Butler making comments like 'We've got a racist right-wing conservative suburban audience, and they won't tolerate fill-in-the-blank,' whether it's stories about the St. Louis public schools or anything else like that. And 'We've got to pitch to these demographics and the ZIP codes where our listenership is the greatest, in St. Charles and Affton and a couple of other places. So screw what's going on in the city.' To me, that's wrong."

Even in its gilded age, KMOX was never as good, or broad-minded, as it was dominant. When its morning drivetime attracted a 33 percent share of the audience and the average quarter-hour share was a whopping 22 percent, no one with any sense would have described hosts Bob Hardy, Jim White and Rex Davis as freethinkers. They all fell somewhere to the right of the middle, as did KMOX icon and head honcho Bob Hyland.

Now that the audience is dwindling, it's not surprising that the station appears to be tightening its grip on its conservative roots. Last year, the average quarter-hour share was 13.1 percent. This summer, it's 12.1 percent. That's still at the top of the heap, but it's clear that the self-described "Voice of St. Louis" is losing its stranglehold on local radio ratings. Whatever news quality it possessed is also slipping.

Calls to Butler and Carroll to respond to Jaco were not returned. KMOX management refuses to comment on the particulars of Jaco's firing, other than to state that it was done in response to "gross misconduct."

Jaco made $122,000 per year and was under contract until next September. He's studying for a doctorate in international studies at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland and has published two novels, Dead Air and Live Shot. His most recent book is The Complete Idiot's Guide to the Gulf War, and he is writing the soon-to-be-published The Complete Idiot's Guide to Oil. None of that seemed to mean much to KMOX's Carroll.

"Out the gate, Karen Carroll and Jaco didn't get along," says one former KMOX employee. "Jaco was always bucking the system but bucking the system for a cause when he saw things he didn't think were right or when he saw they were trying to get around the rules of our AFTRA [American Federation of Television and Radio Artists] union contract."

Jaco fought management's plan to jack up parking fees and advised news staffers not to respond to certain management requests without seeking the advice of the union. Several spats Jaco had with management had to be mediated.

"Tom Langmyer, the program manager, has always been able to go to bat for Jaco and deflect Karen's ire," says one insider. "Tom knows radio. Karen Carroll knows how to sell radio, but she doesn't know squat about programming."

Jaco believes that the e-mail he sent to a listener and the face-to-face argument he had with Butler were merely triggers for a firing that would have happened anyway. He sees it as a "transparent anti-union move that is purely vindictive."

"It's a vendetta," says Jaco. "It's a very, very personal vendetta. I would have thought better of them, that no matter what disagreements with me or my style of doing things, they would not have resorted to something this transparent."

Jaco says he's grateful for the hundreds of e-mails, letters and calls he's received in support, including one from newly elected U.S. Senator Jim Talent. There's even a petition circulating to get him back on the air. Jaco is adamant that he wants KMOX to drop the charge of "gross misconduct" because, he says, it sounds as if he was "smoking crack in the bathroom." But the station's insistence on enforcing a six-month noncompete clause is the real problem.

"It's so fucking medieval," says Jaco. "We tried to get rid of that thing for three years in the state Legislature. How can people fire you, give you no severance and then say, 'P.S., you're not allowed to earn a living to support your family'?"

Tim Dorsey, general manager of KTRS (550 AM), is looking for a replacement for George Noory, who leaves the station December 31 to take Art Bell's place on the national Coast to Coast AM syndicated show. Dorsey, a former KMOX executive, has spent the last six years trying to create a semblance of KMOX's self-styled image of "Mid-America's Most Trusted News Source" at his station. Dorsey wants to hire Jaco and is baffled as to why KMOX signed Jaco to an eighteen-month contract so recently if they weren't happy with him.

"I just don't get it," says Dorsey. "It's not that they didn't know what they had. They know him personally. They know what he does professionally. What's the mystery? It seems like they were looking for a reason to get rid of him. I don't get it."

Once Jaco's noncompete clause expires, or the minute it's shortened, Dorsey will be waiting with a contract for Jaco.

"He makes us smarter," says Dorsey. "That's what I like about people like Jaco. He's a very bright guy. Wherever he goes, he makes the whole place look smarter."

Sometimes Jaco came off as pompous, but his fellow news staffers appreciated him. Staffers loved it when Jaco went to bat for them, arguing against higher parking fees, excessive management directives and a decrease in 401(k) matching funds supplied by CBS.

"We all liked Jaco, but you always found the time to hate him and the time to love him," says a former KMOX co-worker.

If Jaco gets a waiver from KMOX, he could show up at KTRS just in time for the next Gulf War.