TORONTO, ONTARIO - I've raised alarm bells about this before, but I think this time it's a genuine possibility. One week ago, KGO radio general manager Michael "Mickey" Luckoff resigned from his post after 35 years of running the San Francisco radio station. The era of greatness in talk radio on KGO, already slowly decaying, may have finally come to an end.
Under Luckoff's management, KGO has been the premier talk radio station in San Francisco, but also in the opinion of many, the top talk radio station in the entire country. With a focus on live and local hosts and a fair helping of news (and having the San Francisco 49er football broadcasts for many years didn't hurt), KGO led in the ratings for 30 of Luckoff's 35 years. The loss of the 49ers, combined with KCBS' move to an FM simulcast, have dropped KGO in the ratings in recent books, but many industry analysts and this blogger still consider its talk product the finest on commercial radio.
The station has long been able to attract incredible talent in talk radio. In my listening years, it has brought in Gene Burns from Boston and Gil Gross from New York, and recruited professor Brent Walters to its Sunday morning show on religion. Walters and KGO's Brian Copeland are the only commercial talk show hosts I now listen to regularly, downloaded from KGO's daily archives. A large part of why the station has been able to attract talent is that Luckoff stood behind the product and the station's hosts.
Luckoff didn't just resign for an early retirement. As reported widely in the local media, Luckoff had nothing good to say about the present owners of the 50,000-watt, clear channel station. Since Las Vegas-based Citadel took over the former ABC owned and operated radio station across the country three years ago, other heritage stations like WABC in New York and WLS in Chicago have seen their local on-air staffs decimated and ratings erode. Luckoff had said he would stay on--just as he did when Disney purchased ABC--as long as he could continue to put the same quality product on the air.
He has made it clear that he no longer believes that to be true. Luckoff has felt that Citadel was trying to undermine his management for some time, and he had his resignation ready for nine months before giving two weeks' notice last week. It has not leaked out what finally caused him to leave, but the fact that a man long regarded as one of the most professional in the business has so openly criticized his employer implies that it had to be a severe transgression. The tension was further heightened when Luckoff was invited to speak on the station's Ronn Owens program, but was banned from appearing by Citadel.
Speculation on discussion groups is that Luckoff's departure means that KGO will do what other Citadel stations have done--allow local hosts to run out their contracts and then replace them with syndicated programming. From virtually all live and local, KGO may end up looking like sister station, conservative KSFO, which has exactly one local show on weekdays, during morning drive.
Still, there is some reason to believe that won't happen. Program Director Jack Swanson remains in place, and he has presumably had a lot to do with KGO's successful recruiting and retention of hosts. (This blogger has respected Swanson since meeting him when he was still with Seattle's KING Newstalk 1090 in 1992.) Citadel has already appointed a new General Manager from within KGO, former sales director Diedra Lieberman, rather than bringing in someone from the outside. While there is speculation that Lieberman might be a weak manager, if she can put Swanson in a position to keep going his job while dealing with Citadel better than Luckoff was able to do, the on-air quality might be maintained.
Just the same, there was panic earlier today when KGO left the air for nearly an hour. Alas, it was not an internal revolt in support of Mickey Luckoff, but an internal equipment failure. We can only hope that without Luckoff, the mighty KGO will not be, as predicted by one Internet wag, "reduced to stick value in a year."