News Clipped

KMOX radio finds talk is cheap and news isn't

Dec 19, 2001 at 4:00 am
Bob Hyland is as dead as Julius Caesar, and the radio empire he left behind isn't doing so hot, either. The rate of KMOX radio's decline and fall appears to be picking up speed, with its sports voice weakening and its news crew threatened by cutbacks. The threat to KMOX (1120 AM) comes not from Visigoths and Vandals at the gate but from its New York City owners, who are sacking the station for what they think is their just reward for, well, owning the station.

By the time Hyland died in 1992, after 37 years as general manager of the station, the beginning of the end of the CBS affiliate's virtual monopoly had already begun. In the early '80s, KMOX routinely had a 25 percent share of radio listeners; that's dropped to about 13 percent, which still puts it as the most dominant radio station in the nation's top 50 markets. Though KMOX is still the No. 1 station, in ratings and in profits, its stranglehold on what attracted those listeners and produced those earnings is slipping. In the sports world, Cards games are the only professional-sports broadcasts KMOX has retained, having lost the Blues to KTRS (550 AM) and, just this month, failing in a bidding war with KLOU (103.3 FM) and KTRS for the Rams, though the NFL team's games never were aired on KMOX.

The other degree of difference KMOX has in local radio is that it's the only remaining station that employs enough personnel to field a serious effort to report news. KTRS and KWMU (90.7 FM) each have an employee or two who actually leave the building to find news, but KMOX has three street reporters, news readers, a news director and a semblance of around-the-clock coverage. That status appears to be in jeopardy as contract negotiations have stalled between station's owner, Infinity Broadcasting, and the St. Louis local of the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists.

After three negotiating sessions, AFTRA's goal of getting the station's three reporters sizable pay increases has fallen on deaf ears. "Since they say they're 'Mid-America's Most Trusted News Source,' we thought the station would pay its full time reporters more," says AFTRA local executive director Jackie Dietrich. "They offered them zero."

That's a salary freeze, and it will keep the three at a base level of $35,000 per year. The other pay category at the station is set for "staff artist," which applies to on-air personalities such as Charles Brennan, John Carney, Bill Reker, Carol Daniel, Charles Jaco and the mellifluously voiced Bob Hamilton. Those folks receive a base pay of $63,000, with each able to tack on a "personal-services contract" with the station on top of that salary.

Dietrich says the celebrity hosts at the station told the union that the main proposal during negotiations should be a pay raise for the grunts, the news reporters who actually venture into the world. "This is unique," says Dietrich. "The hosts feel that the reporters out in the field get the stories they build on and are most valuable to the station."

That apparent altruism sounds noble, but the real ominous trend in the negotiations isn't frozen wages for reporters but that management is looking to eliminate news staffing during Cardinal baseball games and cutback in news personnel on some nights and weekends. During the Cardinals' 162 games a year, Dietrich says, management doesn't want a reporter on duty. For other long stretches of time, management wants to subcontract the news gathering to Metro Networks, a subsidiary of Viacom, which owns Infinity. For a fee, the local version of Metro Networks provides sound bites from news conferences and obvious news events but no real reporting.

KMOX management counters that the contract negotiations are not being driven by profit-margin demands by Infinity, and it contends that the proposed newsroom changes would supplement and enhance news coverage, not curtail it. A management spokesman says the use of Metro Networks for more conventional coverage will enable full-time staffers to do other investigative or self-generated news reports. Under management's plan, an AFTRA person would have to be in the newsroom during Cardinal games, but it might not be a staff announcer. As for the pay freeze for street reporters, aside from hosts who have raises built into their personal-services contracts, management says pay raises aren't being given to other employees.

From New York City, that makes sound fiscal sense. But in St. Louis, the Voice of St. Louis for decades has meant a station that fielded its own news troops. Subcontracting even part of its news reporting reduces KMOX to just another radio station. Even if it is only for defined periods of time, that it's done at all is a sign of things to come, a sign that the priority on news at "News Talk 1120" is more talk than commitment to news.

The motivation for this push is no mystery. Infinity Broadcasting's voracious corporate appetite has a serious tapeworm for the local station's profits. In 1995, when Westinghouse bought out CBS -- and KMOX, because it was a CBS-owned-and-operated station -- it was reported that to pay off the Westinghouse debt, the new owners required a 40 percent profit margin at KMOX. When Viacom, which owns Infinity, bought out CBS, the profit-margin requirement reportedly increased to 50 percent.

The absentee-landlord status of Infinity is, on the surface, not that different than CBS' during Hyland's tenure, but its attitude and actions are. KMOX is a cash cow to be milked, and decisions made about its future aren't local. (Yes, yes, we know. Ray Hartmann sold the RFT three years ago, and some people don't like that, either. Short Cuts advises the grumpy to write a letter to the editor.)

The contract negotiations may have broken down, but they have not been abandoned. A strike is possible, according to AFTRA members at the station, but because the three street reporters are not protected from dismissal by the union contract, a strike could be, to be euphemistic, counterproductive.

Times have changed in media. So maybe the days of listeners' being fixated on 1120 for news and sports are dwindling to a precious few. The least KMOX can do is scale back its promo about "winner of the Edward R. Murrow Award" for spot-news reporting that it uses numerous times each day. That national award was won for reportage in the wake of the plane crash that killed Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan, an unscheduled news event that took place during a Cardinal baseball game.