Last call

Even the return of Kevin McCarthy probably won't save the once-proud KLIF-AM -- er, Big 570

It couldn't get worse. No way. Even if it did, so what, he could take it. Kevin McCarthy -- longtime Dallas talk-radio host, winner of five Katie awards from the Press Club of Dallas, known for his wit and humor and interviewing style not to mention his smooth-voiced wooing of listeners ages 25-54 -- had been through hell already. He'd puked in a wastebasket while on-air, day after day.

He'd battled dizziness, nausea, misdiagnoses, inner-ear problems, two surgeries, all that mid-'90s crap he went through when he was the 9 a.m.-to-noon host at KLIF-AM 570. He'd missed 50-plus days of work one year, and he worried that he'd never be healthy again. At his lowest, when his body begged not to hurt anymore, he wondered if he should drive into a concrete wall at 150 mph to end the pain. After two years, he finally got through it, fought through it.

Then came 2000 and with it his own personal Y2K disaster, a mental and physical short-circuiting that -- almost literally -- shook the life out of him. In a two-week span during late January and early February, McCarthy lost his 20-year public-announcing gig with the Dallas Mavericks, a job he'd described three months earlier as "heaven"; was told he would have to significantly alter the way he runs his show, putting an end to the favorite segments he'd developed during his 13 years at the station; lost his producer of 20-plus years; and met with the Southwest regional director of the domestic anti-terrorism unit of the FBI about a stalker they said posed a credible threat to his life. "It was," he says now, "too much on my plate."

It was these things, McCarthy now knows, that led to the debilitating panic attack he suffered on February 3. He was standing outside his boss' office in the hallway of Big 570's Reverchon Plaza offices when he was overcome. "I was sure I was dying," he says. "I thought at first that I was having a heart attack. I alternated between not being able to breathe and hyperventilating. It lasted about 20 minutes but felt like a year." By the time his wife got him home, McCarthy says, "I felt like I'd been whipped with a 2-by-4."

The attacks came again in sudden waves, once or twice a day for the next two weeks. Unable to work, he signed off the air in early February, telling listeners that he would only return when he'd recovered. Now, after three months of two-pronged therapy -- analytic counseling to uncover "hidden stresses from formative years," and psychiatric supervision for the drug therapy that normally helps block the attacks and the usual accompanying agoraphobia and depression -- McCarthy sees an end to exile approaching. He, his doctors, and the station have tentatively set June as a target month for McCarthy's return. "The stronger I get," he says, "the more I want to get on the air."

The question, then, is no longer "Will Kevin be back?" but more directly, "What the hell is he coming back to?" Big 570, formerly KLIF-AM, is a shell of the station McCarthy helped build. No longer do politicos and local bigwigs listen to hear what the hosts and their fans are buzzing about.

The days when McCarthy gets a call from Texas A&M coach R.C. Slocum just because he was criticizing the Aggie field general are over, it would seem. In last week's spring Arbitron ratings, Big 570 was anything but; Flaccid 570 would be more apt. In the category known as "12-plus" (i.e., everyone listening who is 12 or older), it ranked 29th in the market with a .9 rating -- a lower rating than it had when it first switched to all-talk in 1986. As one wag noted, a taxicab's car-radio frequency gets better ratings.

The sad irony is that both of McCarthy's illnesses, first the inner-ear problem and now his panic attacks, have coincided with the station's slow, painful slide into irrelevancy. For a 10-year period, from 1986-'96, KLIF-AM was, in McCarthy's words, "hot, hip, and happening." Best known was David Gold, the 3 p.m.-to-6 p.m. local Limbaugh before Limbaugh was cool, a huge talent who infuriated and captivated, such as in his first week when he suggested putting all death row inmates in the Texas Stadium end zone, wiring them, then frying them.

But it also boasted the country's first morning sports host in Norm Hitzges, now at KTCK-AM 1310 ("The Ticket"). And in McCarthy, it had a 9 a.m.-to-noon host who was a polished interviewer and dry-wit raconteur, equal parts Steve Allen and Dan Patrick. He was warm-fuzzy conservative, a guy who approached his job seriously but didn't take himself too seriously. He was your on-air beer-drinking buddy. "Then, as now, he perfectly fits that time of day," Hitzges says. "He's easygoing. He has a lot of emotional gears in him. He's capable of sadness or anger, flightiness, being funny. All of it genuine. He could handle sports, big news, interviews, entertainment, whatever you threw at him."

Now, despite some new and some repackaged talent within the Big 570 lineup, the bloom is gone from that spot on the dial. Listening to Big 570 seems pointless, an act of charity. It's the same feeling you get watching an MTV veejay: You know he'll be fired as soon as you get attached. (Sorry, Carson, it's true.) Station management is quick to point out that the radio business has changed dramatically -- a national trend toward radio station consolidation, increased competition from national hosts, and the success of other stations. Nevertheless, these obstacles led to one ill-conceived strategy after another and ultimately failed to maintain what made KLIF talk radio an important part of the Dallas media landscape. And despite some honest enthusiasm by a few staffers who see themselves as ready-to-bite underdogs, the station's low standing now makes the prospect of McCarthy's return bittersweet.

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