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Radio chaos: San Diego stations hit by wave of firings and potential job cuts

Cantore
Longtime San Diego radio personality Chris Cantore may soon be off the air at 100.7 FM.
(K.C. Alfred / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The moves are indicative of tough times for local radio

Job security has never been a staple of the radio business.

But even by the precarious standards of the industry, the San Diego dial has gone through a stunning shakeup in the past week. Some of the top voices on the local airwaves have lost their jobs.

For the record:
1:28 PM, Feb. 24, 2020 A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that on-air personality Mark Larson had been given two weeks’ notice by KFMB AM 760. Larson, who is not a KFMB employee, has an ongoing program agreement with the station and he is still on the air.

“Unprecedented and unpredictable but at the same time, not surprising” because of the changes the industry is going through, said Jon Sinton, a veteran radio owner, operator and consultant, of the shakeups initiated by three different radio ownership groups:

  • Tegna Inc., owner of KFMB AM 760 and 100.7 FM, has given two weeks’ notice to on-air personalities Chris Cantore, Cha Cha Harlow, Meryl Klemow, Robin Roth, Rick Lawrence, Brent Winterble and Mike Slater.
  • iHeartRadio, the national company that owns seven local stations, let go of long-time disc jockey Coe Lewis, Nina “Ruth 66" Reeba and Jim McInnes of KGB Radio, Chris Merrill of talk radio station KOGO, Chris “Qui West” of Jam’n 95.7 and Steve Kramer of Channel 93.3.
  • And Pennsylvania-based Entercom, which owns four San Diego-area stations, fired A.J. Machado and Sara Perry, co-hosts of the popular A.J. and Sara Morning Show on adult contemporary station Sunny 98.1 on Jan. 22. Dana DiDonato and Jayson Prim of the morning show on Alt 94.9 also lost their gigs.

Messages and voice mails by the Union-Tribune to the management or communications officers at the respective companies went unreturned, as of the close of business Wednesday.

According to the San Diego Reader, about 45 employees at KFMB were called to a meeting last Friday at the station’s Kearny Mesa headquarters and told the moves were due to Tegna’s sale of its San Diego stations to Local Media San Diego, also known as LMSD. About five employees will be retained by LMSD. A staffer confirmed the account to the Union-Tribune, saying the employees at the meeting included sales and promotional staffers as well as on-air workers.

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Tegna, based in the Washington D.C. area, has a broadcast division primarily known for its ownership of television rather than radio stations. The company last fall bought 11 TV outlets for $740 milion in cash, upping its fleet to 62 stations across the country. In December 2018, Tegna bought KFMB-TV CBS 8 and CW Channel 6 for $325 million in cash.

The decision to retain or let go of the KFMB Radio employees beyond their two weeks’ notice is reportedly up to the new owner, LMSD. The Union-Tribune left a voice message Wednesday morning with LMSD general manager Gregg Wolfson but did not hear back by the close of the business day. LMSD also manages 91-X, Magic 92.5 and Z-90, which are licensed in Tijuana.

An official with Tegna told the San Diego Reader the company will provide a severance package for those affected.

A number of on-air personalities were reluctant to talk on the record to the Union-Tribune, citing concerns about future job prospects, but some have taken to social media.

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Machado, who spent two years at Sunny 98.1, said on Facebook, “Well, radio is a savage business and today it was my turn.”

A 19-year San Diego radio fixture, Machado collected toys for Rady’s Children’s Hospital each year by living in a crane above a parking lot.

“I’m not sure what the future holds,” Machado said in his post. “I may end up back on San Diego’s airwaves, I may end up in another city or I may just move onto something else and finally start getting some sleep.”

Lewis has had an even longer run in San Diego radio — 35 years.

In a video to her listeners posted on her Facebook page, Lewis said she will concentrate on a wildlife foundation she co-founded that protects animals and fights poachers in Zambia.

“Being in radio for 35 years in San Diego and over 30 at KGB, to be suddenly taken away from me was really shocking,” Lewis said. “It was painful because all of a sudden I realized that I wasn’t going to get to talk to you and be in your life every day and you be in my life every day.”

sd-1487372140-y2po0qvtpg-snap-photo
Radio personality Coe Lewis, in a 2017 Union-Tribune file photo.
(Eduardo Contreras / San Diego Union-Tribune)

Like so many other media industries in recent years, the radio business is going through fundamental economic shifts, especially on the local level.

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“Radio is in chaos,” said Dean Nelson, journalism program director at Point Loma Nazarene University. “There are so many other ways to connect with personalities and voices.”

Satellite radio such as Sirius XM, podcasts, streaming services like Pandora and Internet options like Amazon Music and Apple Music have eaten into traditional radio’s core audience. All that came on the heels of an increasing number of mergers and acquisitions of local stations by larger radio groups starting in the 1990s.

“Consolidation has been going on for decades now,” Nelson said. The spate of cuts in San Diego “is not a new thing, it just happens to be the same thing only at a really big scale.”

Sinton said cutbacks are largely the function of “reduced available commercial revenue” in radio, with money siphoned off by digital outlets including Facebook at Google.

“Radio for its first 70 years had zero competition,” Sinton said. “It was a free medium” in which the federal government limited the number of stations one group could own. “But now you have a really cluttered landscape and broadcast radio has kind of been relegated to the lower-income echelons because it’s free and supported by many, many commercials versus these other services, some of which are subscription and some are free, but all of which are available on your smartphone.”

DJ Jim McInnes
Disc jockey Jim McInnes has been a fixture in San Diego radio since the 1970s.
( Photo by Jim McInnes)

The cuts by iHeart stations in San Diego came at the same time the company laid off hundreds of employees at more than 800 AM and FM stations, mostly in markets smaller than San Diego. The company said it will rely increasingly on technology and artificial intelligence in its operations. Formerly known as Clear Channel, iHeart is the largest owner of radio stations in the country, with 5.5 percent of the radio market and an employee base of 12,500.

“What’s lost is the local voices — the way the community talks to itself and hears from its own residents about what’s going on,” said Nelson, who has followed San Diego media since 1984. “There’s a lot lost when local voices, local news, local personalities, are not the ones we’re listening to. Then it becomes kind of corporatized and homogenized.”

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Lewis echoed those comments.

“I love radio, but I don’t know if there’s a place for me in radio anymore,” she said in her Facebook video. “Radio has changed so much.”

Updates:
7:38 PM, Jan. 31, 2020: This story was updated with a change in the list of radio personalities.

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