Last call

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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."

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Eric Celeste
Contact: Eric Celeste