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Last call

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.

After all, no one likes to see good people hanging on to the lifeboat, treading water.

"Kevin coming back is going to help," says a local radio veteran, "because he's the best. But it's too little, too late. I don't think a talk station can be turned around once it has hit bottom -- not as far as they've sunk. You can't just change the music, you know. I think they've got until the first of the year before it's gone for good. And that is really sad. It was a great station."

The good old days weren't good, they were great. In 1990, at a listener appreciation party, 2,000-plus showed up and tried to cram in a hotel ballroom to meet talk-show hosts. Hitzges was a cover boy for D Magazine (back when D's covers didn't always resemble Maybelline ads), and Gold was featured in a separate issue. Every big- and small-name movie star coming through town did McCarthy's show, from Tom Hanks to Tiny Tim.

Bob Ray Sanders was one of a succession of hosts who worked the troublesome noon-to-3 p.m. spot between the McCarthy and David Gold sandwich. During his tenure, the station's lineup was its strongest. Sanders, now vice president/associate editor and a metro columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, remembers the glory days. For him, they began with his first guest, first hour, first show: County Commissioner John Wiley Price, an important interview, considering that Price had rarely talked to the press except to threaten whitey. "When there was breaking news," Sanders says, "everyone knew you could gauge the city's reaction on KLIF. It seemed like we had TV cameras from the news stations in our studio every day."

That was not just true with the politically oriented hosts Sanders and Gold. The morning duo of Hitzges and McCarthy was just as likely to have newsmakers appear there first.

Hitzges and McCarthy were longtime friends. Each had a local radio history before coming to KLIF in the mid-'80s, particularly when WFAA-AM was doing news and talk in the early '80s. When Hitzges came back to join McCarthy at the station, McCarthy told him he could room with him for a few weeks -- which turned into two years. McCarthy was a partyer then, running with the Joe Miller's/Louie's media crowd, an Irishman who made sure he lived up to the fun-loving stereotypes associated with his heritage. Staying up all night drinking or playing backgammon or whatever wasn't uncommon, and McCarthy could still waltz into the studio with that Dr. Smooth voice and knock out a few hours of solid radio. Still, considering McCarthy's lifestyle, Hitzges says, "It's a good thing the house was L-shaped, so I had my own wing, so to speak."

A few years after each left when the station started doing more news and less talk, Hitzges signed on with the new KLIF to do the unheard-of morning sports talk program. He suggested McCarthy for the mid-morning slot following his.

Everyone knew McCarthy. His style is conversational, laid-back but inquisitive, the same way he is with headphones on or drink in hand. "Hanging out with media and politicos was just like what I did in my father's drugstore soda fountain when I was a kid," says the Kentucky-raised McCarthy, "and similar to the type of talk radio I like to do best: corner drugstore, neighborhood bar, office water-cooler kind of stuff."

His style wasn't the problem, though; the concern was his reputation as a bad Irish lad. "I remember having conversations with [then-program director] Dan Bennett about hiring him," says David Gold, to this day a close friend of McCarthy's. "We said, 'Gee, I dunno. He's kinda wild. There was that Channel 4 thing, after all.'"

The legendary story about McCarthy shall be told again, but only for one paragraph: McCarthy was working for Channel 4 news in 1986 as a movie reviewer and sometime anchor when, during a station road trip, he helped throw a very scared, very humorless Clarice Tinsley into a swimming pool. He apologized, she wigged, and McCarthy was fired. This wasn't the only reason he was in trouble. He acknowledges that, during the trip, he copped a station chopper and took a joy ride with a female friend.

The anecdote, though, tells us little about McCarthy -- except perhaps that it would have been damn fun to be single, friends with McCarthy, and in possession of a license to fly. KLIF wisely hired him in early 1987 and had, in the Hitzges-McCarthy-Gold troika, a formidable lineup for years to come. And the bad boy turned out to be merely impish, which made for a good host.

"In the late '70s and '80s, Kevin was a bachelor, and he always carried that spirit of fun and adventure into the studio," says Connie Enriquez Herrera, his producer for more than 20 years at WFAA, then KLIF. "I was the envy of all the other producers and board operators, because they all wanted to work with Kevin."

All that changed after two big mid-'90s events. Rush Limbaugh came to town on WBAP, and Bill Clinton got re-elected.

"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."

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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.

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