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News talk troubles: KARN quiet about estimated annual losses and cost cutting employee turnover.

News Talk Troubles

KARN Quiet About Estimated Annual Losses And Cost Cutting Employee Turnover

"Is this going to be another Channel 11?" asks Neal Gladner, vice president and general manager at KARN, AM 920.

It's the first thing Gladner says when told an article about KARN is scheduled.

Gladner got hot this October when Arkansas Business did what he called a hatchet job on television station KHTV's news team and its dismal third-place rankings. The article apparently struck a nerve with Gladner who has troubles of his own.

Unlike Channel 11, which makes plenty of money, Gladner's KARN talk radio station is reportedly reeling from annual operating losses, a rash of recent firings, workers quitting and a morale situation that ex-employees describe as grim.

Gladner's response to the above? Mostly no comment.

Specific reasons behind personnel changes can't be publically discussed without getting him into potential legal trouble, Gladner says. Later, he adds, "We have had a bit of a turnover problem, but with part-timers that's not all that unusual."

Last week, news director Dennis Kelly called individual members of the newsroom staff into his office to warn them about the article in an attempt to seal loose lips.

But outside observers are talking about what's happening at KARN. While Gladner says AM has great potential, others say the format is on its way to the graveyard, and no amount of reshuffling can save it.

And although Gladner has his defenders, his strong personality and KARN's current troubles are generating plenty of confusion.

"There have been so many changes so fast," says talk show host Pat Lynch. "I'd be lying if I said that it isn't stressful for me."

Numbers Don't Look Good

"I'm not going to disclose our financial condition at all," says Gladner in response to KARN loss estimates he calls "way off."

But a report put out by Miller, Kaplan, Arase and Co., certified public accountants, on the annual billing for the AM market in Little Rock points the way to discovering KARN's apparent steady decline in revenue.

According to the Miller, Kaplan report, the total cash billing for all AM stations in the market has dropped since 1988

It fell from $1.58 million in 1988 to $1.16 million in 1989.

In 1990, that total fell even further to an estimated $1.1 million.

Because KARN is the only major AM station contributing to the report, by working backwards a rough estimate of KARN's total billing can be computed.

Using the Miller report, estimated gross billings for KARN in 1990 appear to range between $850,000 and $900,000. This is far short of the once estimated monthly overhead cost which former employees say ran around $90,000, or $1.08 million annually.

At that rate, Gladner's station would be running in the red annually as much as $100,000 to $200,000. But that may be changing with recent cutbacks and cost cutting.

One insider says that Gladner has always done everything he can to keep overhead down without sacrificing the quality of the station. Now, however, observers note that Gladner is doing whatever it takes to get expenses down and has reduced the monthly overhead to about $80,000.

Kelly became news director in March and has been working hard to stem the losses. He says he's never worked in a completely harmonious environment and, although he was faced with replacing the popular and well-respected Don Griffin, Kelly says things have fallen into place for him. But it's not easy on the established employees.

One result is that KARN's current employee roster resembles a merry-go-round where people are either being kicked off or can't decide if they want to ride. At least seven employees have left since Kelly came.

Kathleen Kortenber loved the work she was doing at KARN but says morale at the station is very low.

"It was pretty well known that I wasn't happy - no one is," says Kortenber, a part-time producer recently fired, she was told, due to budget cuts. "Everybody is actively seeking employment."

But Kelly says Kortenber's comments have another side.

"In this business, people are always keeping their eyes open," says Kelly. He admits there's an underlying tension but says that's what's needed to create news.

But ex-employee Valarie Meade Fish sides with Kortenber.

"No one could call in sick because there was no one to cover it," says Fish, who recently resigned. Fish says co-workers worried when Griffin lost his job as news director because they realized no one's job was secure. "All of a sudden it was boom! -- he's gone. No one knew anything."

When Griffin was fired, he says Gladner made it clear his decision was subjective but wouldn't cite specifics when he said "the station sounds sloppy." Griffin says, "I wasn't as Hitlerish when it came to managing people" as Gladner would have liked.

No one has called Kelly a Hitler, but numerous past and current employees are quick to acknowledge his lack of tact in making operations changes.

"I was not happy when I was moved to the weekends because I felt like it was a professional demotion," says 17-year TV and radio veteran Paula Cooper. After losing her weekday anchor position, Cooper says Kelly "assured me that he wanted someone good on the weekends -- someone he had confidence in -- but he didn't give me a choice in the matter."

What appeared to be a closed case re-opened when Kelly, in the midst of informing other employees about the Arkansas Business article, told Cooper she'd have a morning spot back -- temporarily.

Despite the grumblings, some employees such as talk show host Sharon Lee, have not been affected by changes and say the transition period between Griffin and Kelly has not been a problem.

Lee says she gets along well with everyone, likes Kelly and hasn't been troubled by the changes. I'm happy, Leigh says.

Uncertain Future

While there are conflicting opinions as to the degree of unrest at the station, KARN's declining ratings are attracting attention.

According to a national ranking of news talk stations, KARN has fallen from 11th in the country to 31st. While Gladner says the survey has no bearing locally, employees remember when he used to send memos and boast about the station's ranking.

While the national ranking may not be important in Little Rock, the station's ratings are.

When he brought Kelly in, Gladner said he wanted to take ratings to a new level -- he didn't know that would mean a drop. Demographics in certain time slots show some ratings to be up, but one employee says, "They'll single out albino men aged 27" to show a ratings increase. "You can always find something you're number one at."

Speculation is growing as to what station owner Ted Snider's next move will be.

"It would have been the most brilliant strategic move," says KOLL, Cool 95, general manager Steve McNamara, if Snider had purchased KZOU when it sold for the bargain price of $1.6 million. McNamara says AM is "totally and completely dead" and thinks it will be a handicap to KARN's future. Snider, however, says FM has peaked and there's unrealized potential for growth on AM.

Whose growth, though, is what Snider has been asked lately.

Up For Sale?

Insiders speculate that Snider may sell the station to Gladner.

Asked about a possible sale, Gladner decides to forgo his usual "no comment," and says, "It would be difficult to answer that without divulging privileged information."

Don't print that, he adds, because it would give people the idea that something is up when that isn't the case.

Snider has sold his other businesses, including Muzak, a travel agency and a public bench franchise. His son Dub will keep Snider Telecom. It was a surprise to many when Snider sold KKYK -- which he purchased along with KARN and the Arkansas Radio Network in 1971 -- but didn't sell KARN.

Snider purchased the three networks for $1 million and sold KKYK for close to $7 million. An even nicer package could have been made with KARN included, but now it's a stand-alone AM. Although he'd let go of KARN for the right price, Snider says, "I don't think it's a prudent time to sell."

Setting The Scene

KARN has survived as the only AM news talk station in Little Rock for almost two decades, but its lone status may actually hurt the station.

"I wish there was some competition for radio news in the market," says news anchor Ron Breeding. He thinks a healthy, competitive environment would help KARN because "they'd have to get their act together and make some improvements."

While opinions of past employees and currently disgruntled workers are subjective, strained employee relations are increasingly noticeable outside the station.

While most employees admit to the increased tension, morning host Bob Harrison says, "radio is an emotional and ego intensive business -- it's like show business."

If radio is show business, then KARN could be a soap opera with Gladner possibly auditioning for the leading role. This is one time, however, it would appear Gladner may not want to be in the limelight.

PHOTO : NO PROBLEM: KARN vice president and general manager Neal Gladner says that estimates of the station's financial condition are "way off."
COPYRIGHT 1990 Journal Publishing, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1990 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
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Author:Rengers, Carrie
Publication:Arkansas Business
Date:Dec 31, 1990
Previous Article:Paying up.
Next Article:Reach out, but keep one hand on wallet.

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