Monday, November 10, 2008

Media: The End of KGO as We Knew It?

TORONTO, ONTARIO - When KGO radio talk show host and longtime KGO-TV anchor Pete Wilson tragically died of a heart attack during hip replacement surgery in July 2007, it may have been a portend that a golden age at that San Francisco institution would come to an end.

At the time, all seemed as well as could be when a beloved media figure loses his life unexpectedly. As tributes to Wilson poured in, veteran host Gene Burns--no stranger to filling in after the death of a host, as he had done on KGO following the suicide of evening host Duane Garrett in July 1995--held fort on the 2-4 pm afternoon shift until a permanent replacement, long-time broadcaster Gil Gross, was named the following September.

The signing of Gross continued a long-standing tradition of quality talk radio at KGO-AM. The station was one of the pioneers of the concept of talk radio. New program director Jim Dunbar started moving the station that direction in 1962. By 1978, the format was not only established, but KGO Newstalk 810 became the #1 radio station in the San Francisco market, and it amazingly has held on to that status ever since. It is a feat almost unparalleled in North American broadcasting.

It's not hard to understand why. The weekday daily lineup of talkers at the station when I first became aware of it in 1992 was basically a list of radio legends--Ronn Owens, Dr. Dean Edell, Jim Eason, Lee Rodgers, Michael Krasny, and Ray Taliaferro. Owens, Edell, and Taliaferro remain in the same time slots to this day. Eason has retired, Rodgers now does the morning show on sister station KSFO, and Krasny moved to KQED-FM public radio in 1993. As each slot opened, KGO would recruit a broadcast heavyweight from another market--someone like Gene Burns--or insert a local talent into the format--someone like Pete Wilson, previously known for television work. Because of the station's reputation, the big names would come.

Through a series of owners (most notably Disney when it acquired ABC) and new management names, the tradition rolled on. Gross, who had on his resume such positions as ABC news anchor, a national night-time talk show syndicated by CBS, and regular fill-ins for Charles Osgood AND Paul Harvey in a 30-year career before being signed by KGO, was actually just a typical hire for the station.

Yet, since the hiring of Gross, KGO has been in decay. Evening host Bernie Ward, who had spent most of the time since 1993 in the weekday 10 pm-1 am time slot, was indicted on child pornography charges on 6-December-2007. The station initially took him off the air yet stood behind him, but as evidence mounted that the charges were founded, he was fired at the end of the year. Ward, who ironically had been a Catholic priest, done a "Godtalk" show on KGO Sunday mornings since 1985, and led the station's Thanksgiving Charity drive that had raised over $4 million over the years, ultimately admitted to passing pornographic pictures of children and is currently serving a prison sentence that will last until at least 2014.

However, instead of replacing Ward within a few months (as Ward had followed after the exit of Krasny in 1992), KGO has been using various hosts in the time slot for nearly a year. Most often, Christine Craft and Charles "Karel" Bouley have alternated two-week stints in the time slot. The station had been known to try out hosts in the past--most notably when Garrett and now-ABC network newsman George Weber split time following Rodgers' exit in 1994--but never for this long. (By contrast, Ward's other shift on the "Godtalk" program has been ably held down by San Jose State professor Brent Walters since April.)

Karel may no longer be an option for permanently filling the slot, or even continued fill-ins. On his own weekend show on 1-November-2008, while he thought a microphone was off, he uttered a series of harsh, unrepeatable obscenities against Joe the Plumber, the better-known name of Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher, the John McCain supporter who received much attention toward the end of the presidential campaign. Facing fines from the Federal Communications Commission for airing the obscenities, KGO suspended Karel, and based on his removal from the station's web site, may soon officially fire him. San Francisco Examiner columnist and blogger Brad Kava has probably best summarized Karel's situation on his blog.

With three hours open every day on its schedule (Ward's 10-1 weeknight shift and Karel's 7-10 weekend shift), KGO now appears to be fraying. Even the normal hosts don't seem to be as good as they used to be. When I traveled in California some weeks ago, I was appalled to hear Ronn Owens unable to get the facts straight about the Masked Avengers' prank call with Sarah Palin, and Gene Burns was incredibly ignorant about some of the basic facts surrounding California's Proposition 1A on high-speed rail despite choosing to talk about it for an hour. It displayed a stunning lack of show preparation that had so long been the hallmark of at least the daytime KGO hosts. I had actually been in listening range to hear Karel's incident, but he had so failed to impress me on previous shows over the years that I hadn't bothered to tune in long enough to find out what topics he would be talking about, much less listen to the whole show.

Just adding to station's predicament, other AM leaders (including KGO rival KCBS All-News 740) are moving to the FM band, and the new Arbitron Portable People Meter that is replacing log books as the basis for ratings may have a negative impact on well-known stations like KGO. Has the end of KGO as San Francisco's #1 radio station finally arrived?

The present situation at the station may not quite represent a crisis, but the next few weeks will be telling. Either management will act and KGO will re-establish itself as the English-speaking world's premier talk radio station, or the slow decline will continue, and more and more listeners will turn to podcasts and competitors. For now, the heady days before the death of Pete Wilson seem terribly far away.

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