Cumulus killed the radio star?


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 approach—leaving 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.

• • • •

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 do—cut 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 guess—KCBS 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 out—there'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 day—a day—since 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 said—I 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 companies—what 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.

==B Postscript== A few days after our interview, Mickey Luckoff provided the Pacific Sun with a copy of the letter he sent to the talented talk-show team he was trying to reunite. Here's what he told them: ==I As promised, I have made every conceivable effort to accomplish the goal as we originally discussed. I have exhausted every conceivable opportunity to package and relocate our incredible NEWSTALK team in its entirety. Much to my dismay there is not a single facility with a market wide signal available to purchase, lease (LMA), or to be made available by one of the multiple owners to adopt the format at this time! KBLX which will be up for sale in the near future is a fine FM market signal. However, it is currently tied up in a bankruptcy struggle. Other facilities available simply DO NOT have adequate market coverage to justify the team! We have dealt with brokers, owners, consultants, lawyers, local market managers and conglomerate owners in our quest to buy, lease, or if necessary to give the talent lineup and format to a wise owner/operator. Our P&L projection which was developed by a highly skilled industry financial expert was so good we were astounded that not one of the corporate entities elected to jump at the opportunity. What we learned was of the three remaining multiple owners one was interested in doing it "on the cheap" on a limited AM facility; Entercom management literally said, "If we're interested we'll call you," and the best of the remaining groups with the ideal FM facility after 2 weeks said, "Not now, maybe next year." In spite of the fact we had a major leak(er) among us (which at one point I feared would sink our ship), it ultimately is the total lack of courage and imagination among current-day owners and operators which prevents us from returning as a (profitable) format which would also have dominated Bay Area NEWSTALK audiences for the foreseeable future. I have turned over very possible rock I am aware of in my effort to make this happen. While I am flattered and honored with your trust, confidence and loyalty to the group it saddens me to realize this cannot be accomplished at this time. I do hope we are able to stay in touch with each other in the days ahead. Please accept my deepest and sincere good wishes for the future. Mickey==


Like this comment
Posted by Linda
a resident of Danville
on Jan 9, 2012 at 8:46 am

I tried to listen to KGO after the change but it was too repetitive and plain BORING. I miss Len. He made me laugh. Not that it matters to KGO but I'll be tuning in to another station.

Good luck Mickie, you did a good job.

Like this comment
Posted by jayne & john
a resident of Alamo
on Jan 9, 2012 at 9:07 am

We are very pleased with the new format at KGO. Especially the morning position now of Jon Bristow. He grew up in Alamo and is a terrific person. Good choice KGO. And thank you!

Like this comment
Posted by Kyra
a resident of Danville
on Jan 9, 2012 at 9:46 am

Thank you for this. I didn't have time to run around to find out what happened to KGO, and I appreciate your reporting of what happened. In all, very sad.

Like this comment
Posted by Duffy
a resident of Danville
on Jan 9, 2012 at 10:08 am

Speaking of radio personalities. Those of you who miss Rush Limbaugh on KSFO can now find him on the Sacramento outlet, KFBK (1530AM).

Like this comment
Posted by Duffy
a resident of Danville
on Jan 9, 2012 at 10:08 am

Speaking of radio personalities. Those of you who miss Rush Limbaugh on KSFO can now find him on the Sacramento outlet, KFBK (1530AM).

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Posted by George
a resident of Alamo
on Jan 9, 2012 at 10:19 am

Rush is on local station 910 from 9-noon. Good riddance to the old KGO.

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Posted by Beck
a resident of Blackhawk
on Jan 9, 2012 at 11:08 am

Thanks for posting but very few if any in the bay area listen to Rush ... we are NPR/KQED crowd here.

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Posted by collins
a resident of Vista Grande Elementary School
on Jan 9, 2012 at 12:19 pm

Agreed, Beck. I tried listening to the new KGO, but I don't want all news all the time. I enjoyed the format that worked so well for years. I will no longer tune in to KGO. Another fine example of what deregulation has "given" us.

Like this comment
Posted by Pedal Power
a resident of Danville
on Jan 9, 2012 at 4:54 pm

The first KGO broadcast I can personally remember/date was in September 1987 and 810 AM had been a fixture on my radio dial ever since. But now it is no longer my first choice, and, boredom with the repetition has prompted me to get books on CD.

Anyone seeking to make their displeasure known would be advised to contact KGO advertisers since they control the revenue.

Thanks to Mickey Luckoff, and the rest of them, for so many good years.

Like this comment
a resident of Danville
on Jan 9, 2012 at 6:01 pm

My husband and I have had a hard time trying to find a new station that we like. 910 definitely doesn't do the job. Our cars and various home radios were all set on KGO but no more. We dislike the new format intensely. The repetitive nature of all news over and over drives me over the wall. Bye bye, KGO!!

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Posted by Louise
a resident of Danville
on Jan 9, 2012 at 6:02 pm

Loved the "old" KGO- am wishing Luckoff the best on making a talk radio station happen- Does anyone know how we as listeners can support him?

Stopped listening to the new station- REALLY? this what their surveys said their listeners WANTED? Didn't ask me! just as easy to get news from KCBS or the internet- the talk show approach is what made it interesting!

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Posted by Marie
a resident of Danville
on Jan 9, 2012 at 8:55 pm

Now I only listen to KGO when Ronn Owens or Brian Copeland are on. The others are just annoying. Sad to lose so many talented people, expecially John Rothman.

Like this comment
Posted by The Reverend
a resident of Alamo
on Jan 9, 2012 at 9:21 pm

I hope Mr. Luckoff reads some of these postings. the problem with radio today is being solved every day. more and more internet stations with quality programing. And as cars get more and more tech capabilities, these big box stations will go away. Nothing to worry about, this is just growing pains. Lucky for the public, art and the truth can never really be forced out.

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Posted by Ronn's good
a resident of another community
on Jan 9, 2012 at 11:09 pm

Thanks for the rest of the story. I've been a regular Ronn listener for 2 years, so I'm OK. I've been a faithful Bob Brinker listener for 23 years....he's now on KSFO on Sunday afternoons 1:-4:00. So I'm OK with Ronn and Brinker. I'll miss Wattenburg.

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Posted by Frankly
a resident of San Ramon
on Jan 10, 2012 at 6:27 am

Greed of another form reached the ranks of KGO.

Now the multiyear national award winning radio station has been killed by those who want more money in their pockets and tell the listeners, once again, screw you.

No where in the whole country as we traveled did we hear anything close to what KGO used to be.

Now KGO is just like the rest of the mundane, boring, repetitive, thoughtless radio programing stations and there are countless of them and all to serve not the community but the coffers of the owners, a corporation wouldnt you know!!!

Those you sought thought filled radio programing are now a thing of the past.

No doubt the new owners want new listeners who will just accept the bilge they will be provided but this is the San Francisco Bay Area where thought, concepts, and intelligent listeners abound!!!

What to do?

Boycott KGO's sponsors, perhaps, if you are able to in order to send the appropriate message.

Or just roll over and take it like a mushroom, stay in the dark, and be fed crap.

Have a another mindless day over repetitive boring KGO radio programing.

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Posted by Member
a resident of Danville
on Jan 10, 2012 at 9:09 am

I was an avid KGO fan. I don't get it. They say they went to all news, with the exception of Ronn Owens, but I hear a lot of lame call in talk shows still on, without the strong talent that they let go. I don't get letting Len Tillem, Gene Burns (especially Dining Around), Bob Brinker, Leo Laporte, On the Go, and others go as they added diversity and interest to the station. Now all political talk and news is not making it for me. I also noticed that in an effort to fill time, they do some rather long-winded trivial interviews. Sorry to lose KGO, but I was glad to hear that Mickey gave it a good fight to save Bay Area talk radio. Moving on to other stations.

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Posted by Steve
a resident of San Ramon
on Jan 10, 2012 at 2:12 pm

I think Luckoff was right.... it's about money
I also think KGO made a foolish move

The "truth seekers" I think are going away in our society
the investigative journalists like Bill Moyer

Being replaced by superficial news
Burns and all those guys made you think and the discussions helped you to get a rounded out view of a situation

In a way the "news" today puts people to "sleep" because they don't really know what's happening in the world and in there own country or city

The Bible said this would happen in the last days "They took no note" meaning they were not aware of the times they were living in
I think the "news" today contributes to that

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Posted by Linda
a resident of Danville
on Jan 12, 2012 at 12:32 pm

I was a KGO listener for many many years, since back in the days of Owen Spann and Jim Eason. No longer is it a pre set on my car radio. I'm glad most of my favorites have moved to 910.
Seems I'm not the only one thinking this was a bad move on KGO's part.
Guess they don't believe in the 'if it's not broke, don't fix it

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Posted by Joseph
a resident of Danville
on Jan 13, 2012 at 8:50 am

Beck, I thoroughly disagree, I listen to Rush every day. You are not speaking for me. By the way, how do you know most of us don't listen to Rush, have you taken a survey?, I doubt it.

Like this comment
Posted by Beck
a resident of Blackhawk
on Jan 13, 2012 at 9:48 am

Joseph, I said very few (that includes folks like yourself) listen.

Com'on, that guy is from mid-west, did not graduate college, married 4 times ... totally does not fit the background of the majority here who are from all over the world, educated, high potential individuals.

Like this comment
Posted by Bev
a resident of Danville
on Jan 13, 2012 at 1:44 pm

I worked the Thanksgiving Charities for 21 years. Listened to KGO longer. Can't believe what the new owners did. They say their ratings have been going down. They will really be going down now.
Miss Gil Gross, Gene Burns, John Rothman. what a mistake. Bring them back!

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Posted by Julia
a resident of Alamo
on Jan 14, 2012 at 11:24 am

It was a sad day when I heard how the new owners killed KGO Radio 810 on your dial...NO More on my dial.

The new format is the boring thing ever. I enjoy the news, but over and over again. Oh I know they say the news is repeated for the folks that do not listen 24/7...well if that's the case, I guess you filled a need, but I doubt it.

I can only see a great opportunity for starting a NEW TALK Show station. The new station must hire the greatest weather man ever, Mr. Lloyd Lindsey Young, Helloooooo Alamo. Then hire everyone KGO dumped and watch the sponsors move to the new station.

Well that's about it for now...Thank for listening

Julia Pardini, from Alamo California

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Posted by Julia
a resident of Alamo
on Jan 14, 2012 at 11:46 am

Sorry I forgot to mention.

Have you heard the weather report now being done on KGO Boring Radio.

If the new company wanted to get rid of they talk show host...WYH on earth fire Lloyd Lindsey Young...he's not a talk show host.

This man does the weather...KGO still talks about the weather, so why fire Mr. Young?????????????

Corporate people...just can't figure them sometimes.

Again, thanks for listening, Julia Pardini, from beautiful Alamo in the East Bay.

Like this comment
Posted by Dennis the Menace
a resident of Danville
on Jan 16, 2012 at 7:38 am

I,for one, will not miss Ray Taliaferro. I am glad KGO will NOT be a wannabe NPR/KQED lookalike. We need as much news as possible to find out what exactly is going on in our world.

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Posted by C. R. Mudgeon
a resident of Danville
on Jan 16, 2012 at 2:20 pm

Presumably, not all self-styled "high potential individuals" are as narrow-minded as Beck, in looking down on those dreaded "midwesterners"....

Actually, whether or not Limbaugh listeners mesh with Beck's "NPR/KQED" demographic, there were probably more people listening to Limbaugh's show than most or even all of the programming on KGO. Even in the Bay Area.

That said, I would agree that with the format change at KGO, there isn't really that much in the way of other stations with a format similar to the old KGO.

Like this comment
Posted by Phil
a resident of Danville
on Jan 17, 2012 at 10:55 am

Found Len Tillem yesterday on KKSF (AM910) between 3-4PM. Not the time I've grown accustomed to hearing him. Reception in west Danville is not as good for KKSF as it was for mighty 50,000W KGO.

Like this comment
Posted by Derek
a resident of Danville
on Jan 17, 2012 at 1:35 pm

I would like to try 910, as many have recommended, but if it comes in poorly in west Danville, it's even worse in the Greenbrook area. My lame Japanese car radio barely gets it at all, as if it's being broadcast from Neptune.
I have often said there is no dumber human than a network executive, but I was really speaking of television. Guess that extends to radio as well.

Like this comment
Posted by Anne
a resident of Danville
on Jan 17, 2012 at 2:26 pm

I miss KGO, rarely listen except for Ronn...
Thanks Mickey for trying to find a station for all the good people that were let go. I hope KGO's ratings drop to nothing. I know I don't listen much anymore. Who needs MORE news?

Like this comment
Posted by Frankly
a resident of San Ramon
on Jan 18, 2012 at 6:27 am

"News" on KGO? A mammoth joke. It's a station which just repeats what's on your iPad, laptop, TV, and highlights on Yahoo.
In short, KGO is just a pile of bilge offered as innovative , and interactive junk.

How to kill your ratings; how to kill the national award winning station overnight is the study of KGO ownership!!!!

What a dumb, stupid, moronic joke on the public!!!!
And they even have the gall to advertise on their own station seeking wannabes at the station!!

The best award they will earn will be the FOOLS OF THE YEAR award!!!!
They will make every effort to win some kind of award no matter what it is and proclaim it as the award but it wont take the place of the FOOLS AWARD OF THE YEAR.

Like this comment
Posted by Former Listener
a resident of Danville
on Jan 18, 2012 at 7:30 am

I am sorely disappointed in the change. My listening time on KGO is now limited to Ronn. Thank you for pointing me to Len's new location on 910. I'll be checking that out. I'm still looking for a radio station o tune into the rest of the tiMe. Sadly it won't be KGO.

Like this comment
Posted by Old Dude
a resident of Danville
on Jan 18, 2012 at 3:03 pm

Took me 75 years to realize that it's Cumulus Media's pocketbook that you have to damage,i.e.,boycott the products they advertise,be public about the fact that you are doing so by contacting the product maker and Cumulus.It may take time but it's far more fruitful than commenting on this site.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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