Last call

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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.'"

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Eric Celeste
Contact: Eric Celeste