By Jim Schutze
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"When Clinton was re-elected, that took the wind out of the sails of a lot of right-wing hosts," Hitzges says. McCarthy, although not as conservative as Gold, certainly was no liberal. "So stations started tinkering with suggestions from consultants," Hitzges says. "In general, consultant money is some of the poorest spent by a radio station." KLIF went through phases in which they tried to react to the new competition at WBAP and a suddenly disinterested audience with new Poochie the Rockin' Dog-style buzzwords -- topics and hosts needed to be "hot, big-topic, edgier, goofier." Then "clock" changes were made, and McCarthy went to afternoons. There were also format changes: Gold was let go in late 1997. The station's ratings began to slip, and KLIF went through three program directors in three years.
This mirrored problems talk radio was having nationally, and still is. Michael Harrison, publisher of Talkers Magazine, a national talk-media trade publication, notes that talk radio is growing as a genre, but it has fundamentally changed, becoming more corporate, less local. (Especially with the success of syndicated shows like Rush Limbaugh's.) "Which is why people in the business are in pain," Harrison says. "There is great frustration and anxiety.
"However," he adds, "one of the great services of talk radio is still its local content."
Dan Bennett agrees. Bennett, VP/market manager of the four local Susquehanna-owned stations, including Big 570, is for the most part widely respected -- although some former KLIF folks blame him for the station's woes. (McCarthy, incidentally, points out how supportive Bennett has been, even attending a counseling session with him to better understand the cause of the panic attacks.) He was KLIF's first talk-only program director when the station went on the air in January 1986, one of only about 125 talk stations in the country. (Now there are more than 10 times as many talk stations.) He believes that he needs good local hosts to talk issues. But he also believes it ain't like it used to be.
"People's tastes change," Bennett says. "We wouldn't have changed it if the ratings hadn't slipped. People still come up to me and say, 'Why did you change? It was perfect.' Well, if it was perfect, the ratings wouldn't have gone down."
Bennett says now it's important to create a recognizable "brand" identity, because unlike in 1986, the fact you have interesting hosts, each with his or her own unique style, isn't enough. People need to know what type of stations they're listening to.
An argument that, while prevalent, misses the point, because it was exactly that mix that made the station great. In retrospect, the broadness of the lineup, the disparity in style and voices and tone and politics, gave the station its charm.
But even though radio (and newspapers and TV news and on and on) now distrusts its collective gut and puts total faith in focus groups, there is a bonus with that in the case of McCarthy. For the "research projects," as Bennett calls them -- these are the things where you put hausfraus behind one-way mirrors and ask them, "What do you want more of in a radio station?" and then spend millions of dollars to enact their answers -- are ironically what saved McCarthy's job. "In our research, Kevin still has it," Bennett says. "He still has a lot of clout with listeners...We just completed another research project with Kevin off the air, and he still shows up as someone our listeners want to hear."
The bottom line, Bennett says, is that "we need Kevin back on the radio."
Kevin McCarthy, who still is recovering -- he preferred being interviewed by e-mail, for example -- wants to make sure he doesn't sound bitter about the way things are turning out. He knows there are few graceful exits from radio, and he says he's glad it looks as though he will be able to stave off his departure a while longer. "Do me a favor," he says. "If the tone of your piece is 'How did they screw up a great station?' please don't make it sound like I'm throwing stones. I'm not. I'm grateful they're holding a spot for me."
As are his fans, as am I. It would be untruthful for me to say that I always loved McCarthy's show. At times, his increasing separation from pop culture was almost comical. (I almost drove off the road when he said he had practically no idea who U2 lead singer Bono is.) But I still miss him, miss KLIF. McCarthy embodied the best of the station. He was a pro; he wasn't overbearing or grating as most hosts are now. "He was the best interviewer I've ever heard, period," says Alan Balthrop, who covers D-FW radio for RadioDigest.com. He was versatile and could laugh. In a time when "attitude" has become a cartoon, he was blissfully understated.
And although I like what might be considered "younger" or "hipper" -- such as the very successful Susquehanna station The Ticket -- that has nothing to do with my disillusionment at KLIF's passing. In the landscape of big-city radio, there should be a place to turn if you don't want to discuss Esteban Loaiza with your Elián González. The great thing about KLIF was that you could do that with any host, because they were all versatile, solid, engaging. Yes, they were old-school, old-fartish even, breaking down political arguments in ways that mean little in an increasingly media-savvy world, where most young people see themselves as an amalgam of liberal and conservative. They were like the teachers I made fun of in school, the smart ones who I respect and miss. The ones who took their jobs seriously but who could also charm you with a story about sleepwalking naked through your hotel lobby, a story McCarthy has told on the air and hopefully will again soon.