KSTP-AM pulled the plug on its thirty-year, once-wildly-successful experiment with talk radio this week.
General Manager Ginny Morris, from the station’s website:
Radio is an ever-changing landscape and throughout its 87-year history, KSTP-AM has been known for many things. In the very earliest days, when my grandfather was programming the station, we covered a lot of news and carried the NBC radio network, we aired soap operas and played many different types of music. Later, when my dad ran the station, he played Jazz and classical music, and then evolved into playing rock music, which at times dismayed his dad.
On Monday, February 15, we evolve again, and you will know us as AM1500 The SportsTalk Station.
Joe Soucheray and Patrick Reusse invented SportsTalk in this town – arguably in the country – and we look forward to featuring them together every afternoon. They are wonderfully talented entertainers and storytellers, as individuals and as a team, and they will anchor our new line-up that we think you will enjoy.
Well, we could hardly enjoy it any less than the one the station’s had for the past year or two.
I more or less predicted this a little over a year ago. KSTP’s been drifting toward…something for a long time, now.
A little background: After almost sixty years as one of the leading radio stations in the country (in the ’30s and ’40s), and then one of the top music stations in the metro (60s and early 70s), KSTP-AM switched to talk radio in about 1980; music radio had pretty well died on AM radio by that point. And in the days of the “Fairness Doctrine”, it nearly died again; Hubbard Broadcasting was actively seeking a buyer for its once-flagship station, amid rumors that the FCC would soon decommission the entire AM band. It even stuck the AM operation in the old transmitter shack, on Highway 61, to make it easier to move. It’s asking price in 1986? A ludicrous $5 million (or so said the rumor among the staff at the time, of which I was one).
And then, in 1987, Ronald Reagan killed the “Fairness” Doctrine, opening up the radio market to untrammelled political talk of all kinds.
A consultant pitched this new host – Rush Limbaugh – to KSTP’s management, saying that sure, Limbaugh was political, but his schtick was much more about his irreverence and humor. So Hubbard took a chance.
And it paid off handsomely; in 1986, the AM station was the poor cousin of the Hubbard family. By 2003, with Limbaugh, Jason Lewis, Bob Davis and the newly-“conservative” Joe Soucheray dominating their time slots, the AM station was rolling in money, and financially carrying the rest of the Hubbard slate (“Chick-Talk 107”, KS95, and Channels 5 and 45), making so much money they were able to experiment way outside the format with hosts like Tom Mischke.
But the rumors were always there; Hubbard didn’t like being “conservative”. Ginny Morris pined for the days when her grandfather’s KSTP, like its hereditary nemesis WCCO, was all things to all people, offended nobody, and was the broadcast pillar of the community (back when the community had three newspapers, three TV stations, a couple dozen radio stations – and that was it).
And so when Jason Lewis, and then Rush Limbaugh, left KSTP – buoyed by a 2005 meme among consultants that “conservative talk is dead” – the station replaced them with middle-of-the-road milquetoast, and sports. The station landed the Minnesota Twins in 2007.
The mixture performed terribly. KSTP’s ratings are a shade over half of what they were seven years ago. More importantly, the station’s revenues are doing about the same; scuttlebutt around the market says that KSTP’s revenues are off 40%. Some of that is the economy, of course – but it’s worth noting that revenues at “AM1280 The Patriot”, where I do a show, dropped by a tiny fraction of the losses at KSTP (expressed as percentage of overall revenues). By way of discussion, KTLK-FM, which started with the same “dog’s breakfast of ideas” format to which KSTP has aspired, saw its revenues drop by 30% – and decided to switch to more or less all conservative talk to get back in the saddle. Because conservative talk is the only mass format in radio that’s paying its freight these days.
Except, perhaps, sports.
Amy Carlson Gustafson at the PiPress covers the carnage:
As of Thursday, the station had gotten rid of weekday on-air folks including Bob Berglund, Jay Kolls, mid-morning show hosts Shawn Prebil and Chris Murphy, late-night host Al Malmberg and midday host Kelly Webb.
Most of whom – Berglund excepted – should never have been on the air in the majors anyway.
KSTP’s management rationalizes:
“In a talk radio marketplace that’s gotten pretty [crowded], we’ve found that it’s tough to succeed if you don’t own a position,” [Hubbard exec Dan] Seeman said. “KSTP-AM was the original talk station and for a long time that meant something — you could do some talk, some opinion, some sports. Well, then, all of a sudden you have specialized formats in conservative talk, liberal talk, sports talk, pop culture talk. We really decided we needed to settle on a position.
This is tush-covering. KSTP-AM had a position. It was in fact a very dominant one, ten years ago; Limbaugh, Lewis and Soucheray were as potent a ratings punch as this market has seen. KSTP squandered that position.
And our strengths are Joe, Pat and Twins baseball. Sports, sports, sports.”
Well, no. Those are the only strong hosts the station left itself with.
The station is eventually going to switch to ESPN’s morning show, which would normally be considered a bit of a black eye for a station with KSTP’s history and size; most big stations in major metro areas have their own local morning show. But KSTP’s morning lineup has been utterly hapless since 1980, and the gabbling bobbleheads on ESPN will likely be an improvement. Or at least cost less.
As a way of making a rayon purse out of a sow’s ear, it’s not a bad move; it’ll support the Twins broadcasts better, it’ll draw a defined audience for the first time since the station ditched political talk, and it’ll give the station the first chance it’s had at an actual identity – “position” – in a long, long time. Maybe, if they’re lucky, it’ll be a “position” that management actually gets behind as well.
Which would have helped the station a lot over the past 5-10 years or so.