Scott Savage, until recently the executive vice president and chief operating officer of Renaissance Radio, didn't want to talk about it anymore. He didn't want to rehash how the new talk-radio station he'd overseen, "The Cafe" KCAF-AM (990), went belly-up last week after three days. Didn't want to tick off the many reasons the station should have made it. Didn't want to assign blame for its shockingly quick demise.
Savage was driving a sedan full of expensive radio equipment to Mars Music and Best Buy and CompUSA, hoping he could return them and get the money back on his personal credit cards he'd used to buy much of the office equipment. During the summer, when he first became aware that the station's owner, insurance guy Dave Schum, hadn't secured the financing he'd promised would be in place, and before the station could establish credit, Savage began buying some of the equipment himself in hopes he could expense it to the company once the money actually arrived. "Like an idiot, I kept spending money," he says now. "But I felt I had a commitment to the people I hired."
In the end, that's who really got screwed. Because the promise of a new format had lured some of the area's best talent from good jobs for the chance to do something special--create a brand-new radio format. Conventional wisdom is that only men listen to talk radio. The people behind the talk-radio-for-women idea--and just whose idea it was depends on whom you talk to--suggested that's true only because radio tends to program for men. Cafe 990 was, to Savage, like his previous against-the-grain success: He was the general manager of the upstart Young Country KYNG-FM (105.3) from 1992-'99. The Cafe venture seemed to him, and to all involved, like a sure hit with listeners, staff and advertisers.
If the station's initial sales numbers and audience calls were any indication, say several employees, their intuition was proving correct--despite the frequency's weak signal (only 1,750 watts on a 7,000-watt signal). Thanks in large part to 60 billboards around town, there was an undeniable buzz about the station one radio wag dubbed "The Chicket."
"Just imagine," says Lora Cain, the station's first on-air hire, "what we could have done with a good signal and more than three days on the air."
That's right: three days. Three. Seventy-two hours. Sting's tantric lovemaking sessions last longer. "In 39 years, I've never heard of this happening in a major market," says Michael Spears, the former KRLD-AM (1080) exec who is now a partner in Forward Entertainment, which was to provide content for the station. "Maybe in Chicopee Falls. But never in the majors. It's so sad. So sad."
How did it happen? We can talk all day about the viable format, the promises made and not kept and so on. But you want to know who F-ed this cat? That's easy--the big dog, the man behind the plan, Dave Schum. But, like most such big-money deals, it's complicated, sticky. First, let's review what I know after talking to a half-dozen staffers and Schum.
This station has been on Schum's mind for five-plus years. Schum ran unsuccessfully for Congress in the early '90s on a flat-tax proposal. In one of his columns on the subject for The Dallas Morning News, Schum wrote, "I hate to be lied to, and I hate to be taken for a fool." But I digress.
Initially, Schum wanted another sports station, which is how he met Savage, who was by then working for Fox Sports Radio Network. Schum approached Savage to hire him and get his station off the ground. Savage said a fourth sports station would not work in Dallas. In time, Savage and others came up with the idea of the all-female talk station--kind of an on-air Oxygen. Everyone loved the idea.
Savage began collecting a high-profile staff, longtime radio vets such as Cain, Gail Lightfoot, Katie Pruett, Connie Herrera and others. Most of the employees held good jobs. Schum convinced them that the financing was secure, that the money ($3 million, initially) was there for the launch. They left for the chance to create something new.
Now, it should be said that everyone knew the risk. Having been involved in similar ventures myself, I know something about this. Unfortunately, I also know too well about what came next.
Savage says he was told that the $3 million loan was a done deal, save for some due diligence. Only later did he find out that the loan was never guaranteed, and it eventually fell through. (Schum says only, "That's wrong, but whatever.") Schum acknowledges that he then told Savage there was another "bridge loan" of $1.5 million that would allow them to launch the station on time and would get them into a position with more financing, not to mention sales money rolling in to help offset costs.
The week before Cafe 990 was to launch, Schum told Savage all was well, but suggested to him, "You should buy the station." Savage, stunned, says, "So, you know, I added that to my to-do list." He hurriedly put together an investment group and an offer--they would pay Schum an undisclosed amount, back-pay the entire staff to October 1 (they hadn't yet received checks) and put $1 million into the station to pay debts and get it going. Schum says his investors turned down the "ridiculously low" offer.
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Now here's where it gets dicey, mainly because this is where everyone starts going off the record. But, you know what, this is what happened, and if anyone wants to sue me, great, I'd love all this to come out in discovery: Schum told Savage to go ahead and launch. (I can say that Schum denies this--that's right, the man who owns the company says he didn't OK the launch, even though he showed up with his wife at the launch party after the station had gone on the air.) On Monday, he told Savage to issue paychecks. On Tuesday morning, Savage drove to Schum's house and asked him point-blank if the money was in the bank to cover the checks. He replied, "No. The money's not there."
The fallout was predictable. The paychecks bounced, staffers made attempts to fill the holes in the dam (offering money from their 401(k)s and IRAs, calling to find last-last-minute investors), people cried and wondered, "What if?"
"Were we lied to?" Pruett asks rhetorically. "Yeah, probably. But not directly. I think they wanted to do the right thing, and they weren't able to."
Sorry, I don't buy that. I've been through three start-ups and seen many wheeler-dealers with good intentions screw everything up because they got cocky and lied to themselves and others about how much money it would take, about how damn hard it is to make a media property work. (My fave line came from a real-estate guy who said starting a magazine would be easy: "Real estate, magazines--it's all about filling space.") And I don't cotton to people in charge who blame everything that goes wrong on those under them. So this is my plea to every swaggering businessman in this town who thinks he has a sweet idea for a newspaper or magazine or radio station: Shut your pie hole and shuffle some papers instead. Because it isn't just about filling space or ad pages or airtime. It's about people, and not screwing them.