Tim McKernan is best known for his role as the ringmaster of “The Morning After,” the not-for-everybody sometimes ribald radio show that also mixes sports, pop culture, music and pretty much whatever is on the hosts’ minds. But McKernan also has had a long run on the off-air side of the business.
He owns insideSTL Enterprises, the parent company of “The Morning After,” as well as the podcast McKernan does and the insideSTL.com website. He additionally has run multiple radio operations, including a previous stint at the outlet that currently airs “The Morning After” — KFNS (590 AM).
Now he has been heavily involved in an effort to buy the station, leading a group of potential investors that has drawn interest from Blues playoff hero Pat Maroon. Proceedings have reached the point that sources say McKernan and owner Randy Markel have entered into a letter of intent for the transaction.
That would be contrary to a deal that Markel announced in January, when he said he had reached an agreement in principal to sell 50% of the mostly-sports station to two Metro East businessmen. He said he took that over a bid from McKernan to purchase the entire operation. But Markel recently said the potential deal with the businessmen was put on hold because of the economic downturn caused by the coronavirus crisis. McKernan, with whom Markel has had previous business arrangements that included being on track to buy the station, then re-emerged as an ownership candidate.
Markel said Thursday he is “in the process of selling the station for seven figures — I can’t say to who — and I don’t foresee anything stopping us.” He added that the decision will be finalized, one way or the other, by July 1. He declined to further elaborate, and McKernan would not comment. But multiple sources said McKernan is the one who has the agreement with Markel.
“That’s what I’ve heard, too,” said Frank Cusumano, the KSDK (Channel 5) sports director whose radio show follows McKernan’s.
How would Cusumano assess such an ownership change?
“Randy has really been passionate about the product,” Cusumano said. “He’s really done everything he can. If Randy leaves, we’re going to miss him. (Regarding) Tim, he’s a career radio guy. He knows the business extremely well. And his dad is the greatest radio sales manager.”
‘Foundation . . . is strong’
Although McKernan is not discussing the matter publicly now, he did address it on the air a few weeks ago.
“It would be a risk to buy a radio station at this particular moment considering what is going on around the world,” he said of the virus-caused economic slowdown. “But the foundation at KFNS is strong, from on-air to behind the scenes, and if we can come to an agreement our ownership group would do our best to build on that already strong foundation.”
Sources have said McKernan, 43, has been putting together a strong roster of behind-the-scenes personnel to help run the station, a side of the business that doesn’t get much public attention but is critical to the success in the radio business.
He also has been assembling a group of potential investors, including Maroon — whose double-overtime goal in Game 7 of last year’s Western Conference semifinals hoisted the Blues toward their first Stanley Cup title. He is a native St. Louisan who now is with the Tampa Bay Lightning and the plan would be for Maroon, if he does become involved, to also have an on-air role after he retires as a player.
“I always wanted to do something in this industry,” Maroon said in an on-air conversation with McKernan last month. “Obviously I want to play as long as I can. A lot of people retire and have nothing to fall back on. . . . This is something to fall back on and start a new career.”
McKernan then amplified about his plans should his group get the station.
“I want to build this around St. Louis,” he said then. “I want to build this around St. Louisans. Run by St. Louisans, . . . built around this community.”
Indications are that McKernan is pleased with the current lineup and wouldn’t blow it up.
“Look at the talent we have on this radio station,” he said on the air the day he discussed his interest in buying KFNS.
But it is possible he could augment his roster, either on or off air, if he takes control of KFNS.
There are a couple well-known local jock-talkers who are off the air after being dismissed by St. Louis’ only full-time sports-talk station, WXOS (101.1 FM), which is in the cutback mode. Bernie Miklasz was ousted four weeks ago and Kevin Wheeler was dropped late last summer.
Miklasz is not expected to be available until after Halloween because it is believed he had a “non-compete” clause in his WXOS contract, which prevents him from working for a local competitor for a specified period. That’s a common practice in the business, as part of severance agreements, and usually last six months.
“I’m not privy to Tim’s future plans,” Miklasz said Thursday. “But whatever Tim is striving to do, I’ll root for him because I admire him. He’s bold. He thinks big. He’s built a strong brand. He has smart instincts for marketing and promotion. He’s a forward-thinking guy. All of that is important.
“But what does this mean for me? I just don’t know. I’m taking a break from the action and using the time off to regenerate. Obviously at some point I’ll have to start thinking about making mortgage payments and keeping up with the bills, which means I’ll be going back to work. And when that time comes, I’ll be fired up about exploring potential options. I just don’t know what the free-agent market will look like.”
Wheeler can work anywhere now, as his “non-compete” clause has expired. He had been doing some fill-in shifts at KMOX (1120 AM) — for which he worked before moving to 101.1 — before the coronavirus led to cutbacks. He occasionally is on SiriusXM satellite radio to talk about baseball and also is considering an out-of-town job offer. And he sounds as if he would like to work for McKernan if that opportunity materializes.
“I’ve always been impressed with how Tim has handled his business,” Wheeler said. “He’s a smart guy who has built his own company and run a great morning show that has had sustained success over a lot of years. That’s not easy to do in this business and Tim deserves a lot of respect for that, along with (co-hosts) Doug (Vaughn) and Jim (Hayes). If he puts together a deal to buy KFNS I have no doubt that he’ll be great at running things. He gets it. A lot of people in the radio business would enjoy working for or with Tim.”
The eventual return of KTVI (Channel 2) sports director Martin Kilcoyne, who moved on a part-time basis to KTRS (550 AM) after his contract expired at the end of last year, also could be possible.
But at this point any talk of personnel additions is purely speculative. Markel, who never had been in the radio business before bringing KFNS back to life in 2015, has made noise multiple times about wanting to sell. But that never has materialized.