Beheadings and Dead Microphones

KNBR's new owners try to adjust to big-market radio

Heads had rolled by the time Bruce Macgowan showed up for work at KNBR's studios one morning in early May. The station's new owners, two days before assuming full control of its operations, already were flush with media-baron zeal, sending word to management to fire eight business office employees.

Like most at the station, Macgowan expected the switch in ownership to yield layoffs — albeit not for a few weeks or months. A sports reporter and weekend talk-show host, he worked without a contract, leaving him vulnerable to budget cuts. While offering solace to some of his suddenly jobless cohorts, he found himself wondering whether the station might force him to join their ranks.

The answer arrived within the hour. General Manager Tony Salvadore called the 17-year KNBR veteran into his office “and essentially said, 'Your job is no longer needed,'” Macgowan recalls. “I didn't say much. I was pretty stunned.”

So began a cloudy first month for KNBR under Cumulus Media Inc., the Atlanta-based company that officially acquired the station May 5. Three weeks later, when Barry Bonds hit his 715th career home run to pass Babe Ruth, a technical glitch killed the station's play-by-play feed; as announcer Dave Flemming yelled into a dead microphone, anyone listening to 680 AM heard only crowd noise. The gaffe deprived the station of a chance to milk a historic moment for decades to come, akin to Russ Hodges' famous call of Bobby Thomson's pennant-winning blast in 1951.

The station absorbed another blow May 31 when John Shrader, a KNBR sports anchor and reporter since 1991, chose to resign rather than accept proposed changes in his on-air duties. “I wasn't comfortable with all they were asking me to do,” says Shrader, who declined to provide details.

Media takeovers beget staff departures as surely as war brings death, and in a narcissistic industry, there's a tendency to equate the outcome of one with the other. Still, for KNBR, self-touted as “America's No. 1 sports station,” the early reign of its new owners suggests a parent company struggling to adapt to big-market radio.

Cumulus and three equity firms paid a tidy $1.2 billion to buy KNBR and 32 other stations last year from Susquehanna Pflatzgraff Co., a private, family-run enterprise out of Pennsylvania. Completed a month ago, the sale gives Cumulus control of local stations KFOG (104.5 FM), KSAN (107.7 FM, better known as “The Bone”), and KTCT, KNBR's sister station at 1050 AM.

The publicly traded company, with 345 stations, stands as the nation's second-largest radio broadcaster behind 1,200-station behemoth Clear Channel. But unlike its bigger rival, Cumulus remained invisible in major cities before this year, save for a couple of Houston stations. Most of its outlets are bunched in 60 small and midsize markets, stretching from Beaumont, Texas, to Bangor, Maine.

Besides the Bay Area, the Susquehanna deal thrust Cumulus into Atlanta and Dallas, and added a pair of stations to its Houston cluster. The company picked up other stations in Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Kansas City, Missouri, and York, Pennsylvania. Layoffs soon followed, in a coordinated purge Chairman Mao would have admired.

More than a dozen sales and promotions employees at two Atlanta stations were dumped, along with at least one veteran announcer, Billboard reported. At four Dallas stations, some 20 workers lost their jobs, including the entire on-air crew of a country station, according to Radio and Records, a Los Angeles trade publication.

But the company's cuts to business staff, though perhaps a strategy that previously worked in smaller markets, has left some of its big-city stations scrambling, including KNBR. Several sources familiar with the station's inner workings describe a “Whoops!” scenario that parallels what has played out in other markets: Cumulus officials, belatedly realizing they may have been too quick to lay people off, have consulted fired employees to discuss how to stabilize the office.

As one source says of Cumulus, “They've been given a Maserati and they don't know how to drive a stick.”

Cumulus officials have refused to confirm the number of people sacked at their new stations, and they did not respond to SF Weekly's interview requests. Yet CEO Lew Dickey, who in 2003 banned his country stations from playing Dixie Chicks songs in retaliation for band members disparaging President Bush, has called the cuts an attempt to make “upgrades.”

Among the casualties at a Dallas sports station was reporter and talk-show host Jimmy Christopher, who during his decade there earned the nickname The Saint for his affable demeanor. His firing would appear to mirror Macgowan's from KNBR.

Macgowan handled a variety of roles after joining the station in 1989, hosting a weekend talk show, conducting post-game interviews, filling in as a game announcer. Yet the trait that set him apart — a genial, low-key manner — probably worked against him in the end. “It seems like the trend with the [talk] shows is to have people making noise back and forth,” he says.

Macgowan and Shrader saw their on-air roles shrink earlier this year when the station began airing sports updates from ESPN Radio during peak morning and afternoon drive time. The spots, while still emphasizing Bay Area sports news, originate from ESPN's studios, lending “a more syndicated feel” that dilutes the station's local cachet, Shrader argues.

He and Macgowan belonged to the middle class of KNBR's on-air talent, receiving less money and mic time than Gary Radnich, Rick Barry, and other regular weekday hosts. But the exit of two announcers with a combined 32 years' experience covering Bay Area sports, while likely unnoticed by listeners who might openly weep if Tom Tolbert left, still hurts the station.

Or so contends Bob Agnew, a former KNBR program director who holds the same position with KNEW (910 AM) and KQKE (960 AM), and who worked with both Macgowan and Shrader. “You're taking away the people who have been reporting on the Giants, the Niners, the Warriors for years,” he says. “That can have an impact.”

Cumulus inherited a station in KNBR that dominates the Bay Area's sports-talk niche. It routinely ranks at or near the top of the Arbitron ratings in its prized demographic of men ages 25 to 54. Yet recent figures hint at possible cracks in its supremacy.

Arbitron releases only the broadest of its ratings numbers to the public, a category that tracks listeners 12 and older. While stations target listeners in much narrower demographics, KNBR's rating steadily dropped from an average of 2.9 to 2.0 between spring 2005 and last winter. (A ratings point equals a percentage of the total population within a station's market.) Over the same period, the Mercury News recently reported, the station's rating among men slipped from 4.3 to 3.1, dropping the station from third to ninth in the market in that category.

“Arbitron numbers aren't always reliable,” says David Van Dyke, president of Bridge Ratings, a Los Angeles consulting firm that tracks radio audiences. “But when numbers are going down, no matter how broad the listener category, that probably means you're also losing people in your target demographic.”

For his part, Salvadore betrays no concerns about KNBR's fortunes. The station's general manager contends that quarter-to-quarter ratings matter little compared to the long-term numbers that show KNBR's strength among male listeners over the last decade. He further points out that Damon Bruce, hired last year, has picked up most of Macgowan's old duties, and that the station intends to replace Shrader. Fortified by serving as the flagship station of the Giants, Niners, and Warriors, Salvadore says, “We're as strong as ever.”

Radnich echoes that confidence. “When you start seeing cuts in the regular weekday [lineup],” he says, “that's when you start to worry.”

At the same time, terrestrial radio faces multiplying threats from high-tech forces. Cable TV and Web sites carry broadcasts of almost every pro game. Cell phones, text-messaging devices, iPods, the Internet, satellite radio — the list of diversions that tempt potential listeners runs on.

Bridge Ratings has studied how much time people spend listening to radio and using various kinds of technology. Earlier this year, the company reported that commuters who talk on cell phones while driving listen to the radio 26 minutes a day, down from 33 minutes in 2003. “For a traditional radio station, it's like you're being nibbled at by piranhas as you're standing in a lake,” Van Dyke says. “You're surrounded.”

For Macgowan, meanwhile, the decision of KNBR's new owners to dismiss him felt more like being gutted, even with the four months' severance pay he received. He insists he would have been willing to accept a part-time job if management had offered him the chance. Instead, he's spending much of his days on the phone — not talking with KNBR listeners, but potential employers.

“I'm a little bitter about what happened,” he says. “You give 'em everything for 17 years and they throw you out.”

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