Free-wheeling, almost-anything-goes Tim McKernan at stodgy, old KMOX? Replacing Rush Limbaugh?
Multiple sources said that could have happened, as KMOX is shifting gears to become significantly less political while trying to appeal to a younger audience. McKernan certainly has a lengthy track record of reaching that demographic in St. Louis, all while based on AM radio — the first media choice of very few in that group.
Sources say he has been the subject of recent interest from multiple local stations, with KMOX (1120 AM) having gone as far as making him an offer to replace the national program hosted by the recently deceased Limbaugh — the all-time king of conservative political-talk radio. The station currently is airing 'best of" Limbaugh shows.
It is believed McKernan, who declined comment, turned down the bid this week and will fulfill the remainder of his contract at KFNS (590 AM). It runs through December.
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"He's definitely here for the rest of the year, that I can promise," KFNS general manager John Hadley said Thursday. "It is not in question. And my intention is to extend him."
Hadley acknowledged that KFNS gave McKernan permission to explore outside opportunities. Sources said McKernan also talked to officials of several local radio outlets including Hubbard Radio, a national company that owns all-sports WXOS (101.1 FM) as well as four additional St. Louis stations. It is believed the discussions with Hubbard did not involve 101.
Officials at KMOX and Hubbard could not be reached for comment.
On the surface, a marquee slot on KMOX — which for decades has had the reputation as being the market's most white shirt-and-tie, tradition-laden radio station — would seem like an oil-and-water fit for McKernan, ringmaster of the often risqué “The Morning After” show. That program routinely includes cast members' conversations with porn actresses. But a source said McKernan, 44, would have been on KMOX by himself, thus breaking up "The Morning After."
The idea of him being there might not have been that far-fetched as it seems on the surface. After all, this isn't Robert Hyland's KMOX anymore. The station that lost Cardinals broadcasts for five years before getting them back in 2011 no longer dominates the ratings, and has been taking an increasingly bolder approach as it tries to attract younger listeners.
KMOX now talks about sports betting, especially during football season, and lead "Sports Open Line" host Kevin Wheeler and predecessor Chris Hrabe have modernized the signature show that has run for more than half a century. The station even airs commercials that claim a trip to the bathroom “becomes a pleasure" if the product is used. While that ad certainly is not targeted to a youthful audience, it does illustrate a looser attitude.
Then last month parent company Entercom Communications (which since has been renamed Audacy) switched afternoon talk-show host Mark Reardon from KMOX to sister station KFTK (97.1 FM). Reardon has a politically conservative show and essentially was traded for Dave Glover, who has a lighter style, in an effort to shake things up as the station evidently wants to become less political. And a move from Limbaugh to McKernan certainly would have been that.
Give and take
McKernan likely would have lost some of his independence by going from a locally owned company to a corporate operation. He is a highly skilled orator who has the talent to adapt to different conditions, and certainly would be expected to succeed with a program that concentrates on more mainstream content — as he has proven he can do with his in-depth podcasts. So he does not have to prove to himself or others that he can operate outside the comfort zone of "TMA."
McKernan has had a chance to leave before, being offered a sportscasting job in New York in 2007 that he turned down to remain in St. Louis.
He still thoroughly enjoys doing that program, which thrives on widely varied banter that ranges from lurid discussions to high-quality interviews with sports figures and newsmakers. It is a strange, but successful, mix of tomfoolery and serious discussion. He often has said he enjoys the freedom to not be tied to a strict format — a dwindling perk in the talk-radio business that local ownership still provides.
But leaving would have ended the show he has built and run for 17 years, with a devoted audience in the morning drive-time slot. How many of those listeners would have followed him to middays at KMOX, especially without the rest of the cast that he has credited as being integral to the show's success?
Hadley said he set a deadline for McKernan to make a decision. That recently arrived, and he said McKernan then told him: "I'm an employee at 590 and I hope to be for a long time."
Why let McKernan look elsewhere?
"I want him to make sure this is where he wants to be," Hadley said. "I want people who want to be here."
McKernan, who owns "The Morning After" and associated insideSTL.com Enterprises company, uses radio as the foundation of his operations. And he has been fiercely loyal to the cast of the show over the years, and it could have weighed on him that leaving would have caused some of them to be out of work.
His lead associates have included Martin Kilcoyne, Jim Hayes and now Doug Vaughn — the latter of whom a source said met with Hubbard executives this week.
"You have to keep your options open," Vaughn acknowledged Thursday. "It's such a volatile business."
Hadley, meanwhile, said KFNS' goal now is to get McKernan and Vaughn under contract for multiple years by Labor Day.
"I have come to have a tremendous amount of respect for Tim and that show," Hadley said. "The constant has been Tim and Doug and it would be absurd for us to not do everything humanly possible to keep them together well into the future. That's a unique tandem that deserves our respect."
McKernan tries to keep the cast as stable as possible, although personnel decisions sometimes are made by station management.
“The goal has always been to keep the six of us together,” McKernan said on the air last summer when discussing the show’s future after Hayes was placed on furlough — and later dropped after a brief return.
Whatever happens long term, the bottom line is that McKernan can be a free agent by year's end if he so chooses and is in the enviable position of having created a very marketable situation for himself in what for many broadcasters now is a difficult business environment. It should be an interesting rest of the year for him as he ponders his next deal.