Early this year I wrote that a series of pieces about people who had worked in the local sports media business over the last quarter century but have faded from the public eye would appear in this space throughout 2013. The plan was to tie that to the 25th anniversary of the “Media Views’’ column.
But because of an unprecedented year of breaking news in the business of covering St. Louis sports, only one of those columns ran — a look at St. Louis jock-talk radio pioneers Jon Sloane and Mark Eissman.
The year, as usual, had a significant amount of personnel moves — including the ouster of Bob Ramsey and Zach McCrite at WXOS (101.1 FM), the move of Kevin Wheeler from KMOX (1120 AM) into their old slot and the decision of Post-Dispatch sports columnist Bernie Miklasz to stop doing sports radio in order to expand his role with the newspaper and its website, STLtoday.com.
There was the first change of sports directors in the market in nine years, as Maurice Drummond moved from a secondary role at KTVI (Channel 2) into the lead role at KMOV (Channel 4) after Steve Savard became a news anchor. Drummond became the first new TV sports director in town since Rene Knott took over at KSDK (Channel 5) after Mike Bush moved to a news anchoring position.
There was a key positive development, as the main local TV stations finally found an acceptable way to strike a balance in televising live sporting events and providing updates simultaneous on severe weather.
There was the absence of Mike Shannon from the Cardinals’ broadcast booth for about a month and a half because of heart surgery, but he returned in late September and is expected back next year.
Plus the Cards played in the World Series and Mizzou’s football team was in the Southeastern Conference title game, drawing big ratings.
In some years, any of those could have been the top St. Louis sports media story. But this wasn’t a normal year. Blockbuster stories not only broke often, they seemed to keep trying to upstage each another, with the Jack Clark-Albert Pujols controversy trumping all.
We’ll try to get to more of the "whatever happened to ..." stories in 2014. But now it’s time to look back on the wildest year in the quarter century of “Media Views.’’
THE MARSHALL PLAN
The rocket was launched in March. Dan Marshall, whose previous most prominent involvement in sports-talk radio had been advertising his wireless communications business, gained control of KFNS (590 AM) and announced he was moving the station out of the sports format — after 20 years — in favor of ‘‘man talk.’’ In a connected move, he would shift sister station KXFN (1380), which had been in the jock-talk business for several years, to female-oriented shows.
This came shortly after it was reported that there was a mammoth decline, 58 percent, in market share for the three St. Louis stations in the sports format.
So when the changes were implemented, St. Louis had one all-sports outlet, WXOS, after having five as recently as three years ago. But that situation didn’t last long — within a few months, two more sports stations were airing.
And things are about to change again at KFNS, too. Marshall confirmed Thursday that the syndicated “Bubba the Love Sponge’’ show, which was a cornerstone of the switch to guy-talk, is being dumped.
Brian McKenna and Jeff Burton will move from afternoons to the morning-drive time slot effective Jan. 6, and it hasn’t been determined what programming will replace their show.
“I’m not disappointed, I love Bubba, but I’m kind of disappointed the way the market took to him,’’ Marshall said. “But it’s business.’’
THE FOLLOW UP
Marshall didn’t change 590’s format as fast as he wanted because the morning show, which is owned by co-host Tim McKernan’s company, had a contract that required either a 120-day notice to be canceled or a substantial buyout payment. That waiting period ended in early July.
But Marshall wanted McKernan’s program, which also features Jim Hayes and Doug Vaughn, out right away. However McKernan, whose insideSTL Enterprises LLC company owns the show as well as a related website and now controls much of the content at another station, was determined to continue so his employees wouldn’t miss paychecks.
And McKernan’s digging in led to fireworks. A few weeks before the July deadline to leave, Marshall went on the air with “Bubba” (Todd Alan Clem) to rip McKernan for refusing to go quickly.
“It stinks,’’ Marshall told Bubba on a show that aired in other markets. “I want to have you on.’’
Bubba then asked if it was OK to call in to McKernan’s show — essentially seeking permission to disrupt a program on Marshall’s own station.
“Whatever you want to do, I don’t care, ’’ Marshall said.
Bubba tried to get on the air with McKernan, but producer Joe Roderick intervened — although Roderick went on Bubba’s program and was berated.
THE WGNU SITUATION
McKernan not only moved his show to WGNU (920 AM) in August, but his insideSTL operation bought control of the station’s weekday air time and converted it to the sports format with a big-name lineup.
Longtime St. Louis sportscaster Frank Cusumano, not exactly a rabble-rouser, came along from 590 as he exited man talk. Others were added, including Bryan Burwell, Joe Strauss, Charlie Marlow and later Rene Knott. But it was the afternoon drive-time paring of Kevin Slaten and Clark that soon made national headlines — although not the kind McKernan wanted.
They hadn’t even completed their first full week when Clark twice accused former Cardinals slugger Pujols of using steroids. The allegations came on separate shows.
After Slaten said he long has believed Pujols to be “a juicer,” Clark said, “I know for a fact he was. The trainer that worked with him, threw him batting practice from Kansas City, that worked him out every day, basically told me that’s what he did.”
Clark and the trainer, Chris Mihlfeld, once worked for the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Despite denials from Mihlfeld, Clark stood by his comments.
“He had told me he had done that with Pujols, with steroids,’’ Clark later said.
The story, first reported in the Post-Dispatch on a Friday in early August, soon made national news. About 10 that night, Pujols issued a lengthy statement denying the allegations and indicated he’d sue Clark and the station to set an example for others whose names have been brought up in a “reckless” manner.
That led insideSTL to announce after midnight that Clark and Slaten were out, and it issued a series of apologizes to Pujols as it tried to distance itself from the comments by emphasizing that the broadcasters were independent contractors who did not work directly for the company or station.
The apparently appeased Pujols’ camp. In October, Pujols filed suit in St. Louis County against Clark, saying his comments were “malicious, reckless and outrageous falsehoods.” The case is pending. No action was taken against McKernan’s company or WGNU.
Slaten said at the time he would sue over his termination. “I don’t know what Albert Pujols’ damages are, but there are a lot of damages for me, ” Slaten said then. “Albert Pujols didn’t even mention my name. Why does this fall on me?”
Slaten said he was shocked when the ax fell on him via a midnight phone call.
“I couldn’t be more stunned, ” he said then. “You could have knocked me over with a feather. They teamed Jack Clark up with me so sparks would fly, then when Jack says something they run and hide under their blanket. McKernan acts like he’s some tough guy, some freedom-of-speech guy. He’s nothing of the kind.”
But now he says he won’t file suit because his new job, doing afternoon drive sports talk at on-line outlet talkstl.com, pays more than being on WGNU. He said he wouldn’t have a case because he has bettered himself financially.
Clark, meanwhile, has landed at WQQX (1490 AM), which quietly become a Fox Sports Radio affiliate in late summer. He mans the afternoon drive-time slot.
And McKernan now says his company has recovered from the wild start at 920.
“It was an unfortunate situation, and for it to occur within the first week of our brand new station made it all the more unfortunate,’’ he said Thursday.
“It cost the company legal fees, and if I weren’t already bald, it would’ve cost me my hair,’’ he said. “But it’s in the past, and as we enter 2014, we have a rock-solid local lineup made up of recognizable and respected names throughout the day. insideSTL.com’s traffic has increased substantially since the launch of the station, and ... because of the growth, we’re expanding and hiring new staff members for off-air positions.’’
McKernan took some hits by not publicly addressing many aspects of the controversy — and things being said about him — when the story was developing.
“I had to and will continue to bite my tongue even though I have read things that both me and the people who work with me know were false’’ he said Thursday. “My responsibility is to act in the best interests of this company and the people who have built it, and if that means that I take shots, then so be it.
“Each decision not only impacts the individual employee, but also his or her family. Because of the legal nature of the situation, getting into a public war of words only to defend myself would have been selfish and could have put the company at risk. So, regarding getting into details publicly both then and now, there’s no upside to it. The people close to me both personally and professionally know the truth.”
Slaten, never shy, has had an eventful year — even by his standards as the incident at 920 was just one of several unusual situations in which he was involved.
He had been ousted at KFNS in late 2012 following his on-air comments saying statics showed that many African-Americans voted for President Obama because he is black. Then he joined Entertainment Media Trust — better know as Insane Broadcasting Co. — in March to man his familiar afternoon drive-time slot.
He was at KQQZ (1190 AM) and when the McKernan-Marshall-Bubba merry-go-round was spinning rapidly in June, Slaten came to the defense of his then-buddy McKernan. He ripped Bubba for mispronouncing McKernan’s name (‘‘Kernan’’) and Slaten called Bubba “Spongebob’’ — a kids’ cartoon character. Slaten challenged Bubba to call his show, which he did, and fireworks quickly erupted.
“I heard you said you were going to whip my (butt),’’ Bubba told Slaten, adding, “I’m going be in St. Louis Aug. 7, so if you want me to swing on by and see how tough you really are ...’’
Slaten countered: “... Come by any time you want to. You are nothing but a fat (butt) and a big-mouth arrogant pompous (butt). ... When you get (on the air) here you will prove you are nothing.’’
Bubba said, “I will kick your (butt)’’ and Slaten counters, “If you think I’m afraid of you, I’ll give you my home address.’’
The battle then became personal, with Slaten taking shots at Marshall and also at Bubba, who has made news regarding his troubles with wrestling icon Terry “Hulk Hogan” Bollea. They were friends before a video surfaced of Hogan having sex with Bubba’s then-wife, which led to an invasion of privacy lawsuit by Hogan that at one time included Bubba.
Bubba also got personal with Slaten, saying on Twitter that Slaten is “some jobber (who) is trying to start (crap) ... He has no idea who he’s messing with.’’
Another Bubba tweet said Slaten “was suicidal when his last wife left him’’ for another “dude 5 months’’ into ”the marriage’’ and that Slaten “was crying on air’’ about it, something Slaten called poppycock.
The next twist came in late June, when Slaten decided he would join McKernan’s operation at 920. He had planned to stay at 1190 for at few more shows but Bob Romanik, who oversees that station, would have none of that. The sparks rapidly ignited between two colorful guys.
The day Slaten’s planned move became public, Romanik and took to KQQZ’s air when Slaten’s show would have started and went into a epic diatribe while saying that Slaten — tabbed as the ‘‘king’’ of local sports radio — was gone. The tirade lasted nearly 15 minutes and began while the song “Queen Of The House’’ playing.
Romanik referred to Slaten on the air as a “rotten (illegitimate child) and an obnoxious SOB” (he used the words, not initials). Romanik called him a hypocrite for portraying himself as a Christian but acting otherwise.
“His moral compass is all screwed up,’’ said Romanik, who indicated that he himself isn’t perfect (he has served time in federal prison) but isn’t a phony. Romanik also said Slaten acts on the air as if he appreciates his callers, but really doesn’t, and said Slaten has a “disgraceful and stupid attitude.’’
He also blasted Slaten for his heavy criticism of the Cardinals, pointing out that they were in first place.
“Everyone is always wrong, Kevin Slaten is always right,’’ Romanik sarcastically said and added that Slaten’s approach is, “I never made it, so I’m going to talk about people who have.’’
He also took Slaten to task for having worked at many stations.
“If he’s such a big shot, why has he been all over the dial?’’ Romanik asked.
He also ridiculed Slaten’s “carpe diem’’’ catchphrase: “You can carpe-diem your (butt).
“Adios muchachos — Kevin Slaten, the queen of radio.’’
Slaten said he heard the barrage from Romanik, who challenged him to dial in for a debate.
“I called and he refused to let me on,’’ Slaten said at the time. “That’s what a coward he is. It’s unbelievable, I don’t know why anybody would lower themselves to that level.’’
His battles of the last 14 months or so — his ousters at KFNS and WGNU as well as the verbal shots with Romanik — led Slaten then to vow last summer that he was done with conventional St. Louis radio, a thought he reiterated Thursday.
“With the current management in place, that would never happen,’’ he said of returning to regular radio. “I’m sure they would not have me, and I would not have them. I want no part of people who aren’t going to do radio the way it’s supposed to be. I want no part of having to kiss up.’’
THE BOTTOM LINE
In the big picture Slaten, the patriarch of outspoken St. Louis sport talk, succinctly summed up 2013 in the local sports media.
“It’s been the craziest year I’ve ever seen in my life, and that’s saying something,’’ he said.