In early December, the new owners of KGO-AM dismantled the legendary San Francisco talk radio station, host by host.
After Cumulus Media fired seven talk-show personalities and several producers, KGO-AM changed to a mostly news format, leaving news/talk junkies shocked by the abrupt change. While listener protests and outrage fell on deaf ears, one man was working behind the scenes to save Bay Area talk radio as we know it.
Some may think Mickey Luckoff is prescient, while others say he's an excellent businessman and broadcaster. Until October 2010, Luckoff had served as the president and general manager of KGO-AM for more than 35 years. Under his leadership, the news/talk radio station dominated the Arbitron ratings, staying in the top spot for three decades. The honors kept coming, not just for the station, but for Luckoff, including his induction into the National Radio Hall of Fame, 12 Marconi Awards and two Edward R. Murrow Awards.
Ironically, at the end of November, just a week before the format change, Luckoff began trying to put a deal together for a new talk station in the Bay Area. Great timing, considering he knew nothing about KGO's plans to desecrate the news/talk giant and fire such well-known on-air personalities as Gene Burns, John Rothmann, Ray Taliaferro, Gil Gross, Len Tillem, Joanie Greggains and Bill Wattenburg.
About a year before Luckoff retired, KGO began slipping in the ratings. Several factors contributed to the fall, including a new ratings methodology that purportedly favors all-news formats; the aging of KGO listeners; younger audiences avoiding the AM dial; and KCBS's new simulcast of its AM news on an FM station. Rather than fighting back, Cumulus took an if-you-can't-beat-'em-join-'em approachleaving a major market without a moderate/liberal talk station. Many fans and industry professionals disagreed with the decision, but only Luckoff took action.
Luckoff is certainly the man best qualified to pull KGO-style talk radio from the ashes, though he claims he isn't looking for a new job. Fortunately, his passion for radio, an insatiable desire to succeed and the heart to help his talented former colleagues won out. Could Luckoff succeed in once again putting the now-former KGO talkers back on the air?
Spending his winters in Kentfield and his summers in Lake Tahoe with his beautiful new wife, Luckoff, now 75, voluntarily complicated his life by trying to rebirth local talk radio. Yet, he seems to have energy to burn, even riding his bike to our interview. He says living in Tahoe is like summer camp for adults, where his biggest daily decision is whether to golf, boat, kayak or bike.
A lover of animals, Luckoff has three cocker spaniels and is the outgoing vice president of WildCare's board of directors. He enjoys giving back to the community and is searching for a new gig with a nonprofit.
Though he has never been optimistic about the odds of the KGO-AM talk talent reuniting under one roof, Luckoff sat down with us to talk about retirement, the deal he's been trying to broker and his outlook for the future of radio.
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Rustling up radio station deals doesn't sound like much of a retirement. Were you getting bored?
No, I'm actually very busy. I want to write my memoirs. I delayed for a while to catch up on some other things in life that I neglected for a long time. I put the book in chapters over the summer and now I'm starting to write the stories. I have some great stories.
Tell your story about creating a new talk-radio station in the Bay Area.
Sure, let me tell you the story. First of all, what Cumulus did was a complete surprise. I had no idea they were going to fire the personalities and change to a news format. I think it was an extremely foolish move on their part. If they wanted to cut expenses, they could have done what ABC, Cap Cities and Disney always encouraged me to docut out the news department. By cutting out talk shows, number one, they cut out their revenue stream. Number two, they're (creating) an AM news station and they're not spending any money on the product. And, there's a great competitor. KCBS, a well-established news organization, has an AM and an FM. Cumulus is cutting their own throat.
Couldn't the San Francisco market sustain two all-news radio stations?
There's only one market in the country where there are two successful all-news stations and that's New York. Cumulus's move is incredibly foolish. I predict they'll sink like a rock. But, ironically enough, just a week before this happened, I started canvassing the other broadcast groups in town to see if they'd be interested in taking on an all-talk station. Don't ask me why. I just did it. And, the responses were spectacularly underwhelming.
Still, you forged ahead with the plan?
Well, I've spoken to all four of the large groups. Clear Channel I knew was going to do something, but it wasn't terribly exciting, and they were going to do it on a weaker AM station. It's 910. They're taking Rush Limbaugh. KSFO lost Rush. Then, I called the guy who runs Entercom, because they have a sports station (KBWF 95.7 FM launched in August 2011 as an A's-supporting alternative to the Giants-heavy KNBR, which is owned by Cumulus). They literally told me, one of the few times in my life, don't call us we'll call you. The one that's really still standing, I'd just as soon not name them, is intrigued with the idea. But, as I told everyone from the outset, this has to be done quickly.
OK, we'll take a wild guessKCBS is interested. What exactly are they interested in?
There's an entire group of talk-show hosts from KGO wanting to stay together.
Does that include Ronn Owens?
Ronn has a contract (with KGO), thanks to yours truly. Gives him one more year at KGO. The other talent contracts had all expired. The union contracts had expired. Citadel (KGO's previous owner) and Cumulus weren't renewing them, but it didn't matter anyway, because the company had "out" clauses.
Could Cumulus have gotten rid of Ronn when they fired the other talk personalities?
Only if they wanted to buy out his contract. Ronn's contract gives him a lot of control over his programs.
Who comprises the stable of talent that you're representing?
I have a complete talk-show lineup of seven personalities that would be dynamite. All willing and desirous of doing this. I told all of them that I know some of you need to make a living without interruption. Just let me know if you have to leave the group, so that I'm not trying to sell something that's not there. Up until last week, they were unified. Then finally, Clear Channel started picking them off.
I'm guessing that Gene Burns, Len Tillem, Gil Gross, Ray Taliaferro, John Rothmann, Joanie Greggains and Bill Wattenburg are your magnificent seven? Who did Clear Channel hire?
As of right now, Gene has accepted an arrangement there [KKSF 910 AM. I understand he can get out of if he wants. Now, they're after (talk-radio lawyer) Len Tillem. The problem with Len is he'll take anything to get back on the air. (Tillem signed on with KKSF shortly after this interview was conducted.)
You willingly took on this role of representing the former KGO talk show personalities. Is this a role you relish?
I like to win. I know I'm against insurmountable odds here. There are three reasons I'm doing this. One is for the public, two is for the talk-show personalities themselves, who deserve the opportunity to stay together and do good radio. And, three, it will give me great satisfaction to make it happen. That's all. I have no financial interest. I don't financially represent any of them. Every company I've spoken to, I've told them right outthere's nothing in this for me. I'm not looking for a job. I'd just like to see this happen. And, it would benefit the company, if they would do it.
What's the biggest obstacle you face?
The business plan that I developed was so good, that when I looked at it, I said why are you giving this away? Why are you bringing this to someone else? The problem is that all the facilities are owned, basically, by four operations. Two are not broadcasters. They're venture capital types that are buying, stripping and trying to maximize a nationally syndicated product, which is the ruination of local radio.
Did the KGO on-air staff expect this 'ruination of local radio'?
I don't think they did. There was ongoing (low morale) under Diedra Lieberman, the general manager that came in after me, under Citadel. (Lieberman, a Corte Madera resident, worked as Luckoff's sales manager and was promoted after he resigned.) It was bleak. But, the stories about Cumulus preceded their takeover of KGO (Cumulus purchased Citadel in March 2011). Everyone was scared. Everyone. From engineers to accounting to on-air talent to salespeople to promotions people. They were all very, very concerned. Didn't take long. You know the way these guys were fired? They were called in the office at 4:15... the new VP under Cumulus, walked in and said something like, "Gentlemen, you've done your last show." Then an HR woman handed them envelopes. They were done.
What's it like to watch what you've built crumble?
It's very sad. I have to detach myself from it on a regular basis. There hasn't been a daya daysince I left, where I haven't heard horror stories from disgruntled employees. From the remains of Citadel, when I left, and definitely since Cumulus took over.
Is it all about money? Don't broadcasters consider what the public wants? After all, the public owns the airwaves and allows the corporations to use it.
It's about money. I don't think the public realizes how badly they're being fleeced by the radio industry. I think a story like KGO talk going away awakens people. It's in all the blogs. I don't read blogs, but my wife read them to me on the way home from Tahoe. Then there was the rally (listeners protested the format change outside the station's San Francisco studios on Dec. 15). But, it's over quickly. People realize there's nothing they can do about it.
When did the 'public fleecing' begin?
It started with the government deregulation of broadcast ownership about 20 years ago. There used to be limits on the number of stations companies could own. When the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) removed the limits of the number of stations that these companies could own, that was the beginning of the end. Then Wall Street people started investing. They came in and pillaged the product. Run it cheap. Throw syndicated programming on the stations. To hell with the listeners.
Isn't the FCC watching out for the public interest?
The FCC and the government have abandoned it.
While this was going on, why wasn't there an uproar? Did the public understand?
I'll tell you an interesting story. When KGO was owned by ABC, Cap Cities and even Disney, all of the managers would go to Washington at least once a year to meet with our congresspeople. We knew them all, because they were guests on KGO. On one trip, the company told us that we were pitching deregulation to our congresspeople. I saidI don't want deregulation. I think it's the worst thing that can happen. They told me that's what the company wants.
Did you toe the company line or speak your mind?
Do you remember Jim Topping? He was the manager of KGO-TV. Very well spoken fellow. We were visiting Anna Eshoo (Democratic congresswoman representing California's 14th District, including parts of San Mateo, Santa Clara and Santa Cruz counties). I'm sitting in the back of the room. Jim is spieling deregulation. Anna looks back at me and I'm shaking my head. She said, "Gentlemen, the day will never come when I'm going to vote for deregulating broadcasting."
It doesn't seem fair. A few people are making a lot of money on public airways. And the public gets...
Crap. It's getting worse now. There's creative financing happening again. Broadcasters figure out a way to go into court with a planned bankruptcy. Ultimately what happens is they fleece the shareholders; they come out of it with no debt and they own the stations free and clear. They trade debt for equity.
What are the greatest factors today impacting radio, especially here in the Bay Area?
Our stations were taken over by a handful of companies, most not broadcasters, and most not running the stations in the public interest. If you were to ask most of these major companieswhat does convenience, interest and necessity stand for, they wouldn't be able to tell you. Granted, there's more competition than ever before, but the companies are killing radio as fast as they can kill it. And, the public still isn't totally aware of what's happened. The younger generation has deserted radio. We've lost a whole generation.
How do we remedy it?
The only way it can be remedied is if regulations are put back in place, allowing smaller groups and mom and pops to buy back in again.
Isn't there usually a backlash when something gets so twisted?
Hopefully. Not in my lifetime. Maybe in yours.