News » News Stories

See Me, Hear Me, Read Me

Ethical issues take a back seat to synergy and branding in local sports media


Football season's in full swing, the President's Cup is deadlocked, and the Cardinals are favored to win the World Series, yet all KFNS (590 AM) host Tim McKernan and his cohorts on St. Louis' top-rated morning drive-time sports talk show want to know is whether their listeners would do the deed with Janeane Garofalo.

One caller says he'd hit the sheets ("It's tail," he reasons), while another claims he'd keep his cobra in its basket because the diminutive, politically active comedian "strikes [him] as a chick who'd have hairy tits."

Or was it "pits"?

Too early to tell during the seven o'clock hour for McKernan and Morning Grind co-host Martin Kilcoyne, the latter of whom moonlights as sports director and first-string anchor on FOX's KTVI-TV (Channel 2). You might think Kilcoyne would be the one to show up to work unshaven and disheveled. Instead it's McKernan who looks like he just rolled out of bed -- and who intends to wake up even more haggard come Saturday.

"I'm looking forward to tonight, when I'm going to get absolutely destroyed," McKernan tells listeners. "It's going to be a Roman orgy in Clayton."

Clearly McKernan, who walked away from a prominent gig as a KMOV-TV (Channel 4) sports reporter last year to focus on radio, enjoys his nights off. But he's in the minority in sports-saturated St. Louis, where media personalities are double- and triple-dipping at the job trough.

Sometimes the arrangements are dubious ethically. Take McKernan's former Channel 4 colleague, Steve Savard, who rakes in dual paychecks: from KMOV, where he works as sports director, and from KLOU (103.3 FM), which pays him to do the play-by-play on Rams radio broadcasts.

Savard's detractors -- chief among them KFNS instigator Kevin Slaten, whom Savard recently challenged to a fistfight after a heated exchange at the Rams' training facility -- argue that he's nothing more than a shill for the Rams whose homerism spills over into his nighttime reports on KMOV.

"I think that perception will be held by a certain amount of people whether it's legitimate or not," Savard counters. "The biggest misconception is they think I'm employed by the Rams, when I've never been paid a dime by the Rams for anything."

True, but as with most such agreements, the Rams' deal with KLOU includes a "right of approval" clause, which gives the team veto power over who mans the broadcast booth.

"The team does have input," Savard concedes. "But the radio station is paying millions of dollars for the rights, so they're going to have final say."

Actually, that depends on your definition of "final."

"They tell us who they're going to hire, and we say, 'OK,'" explains Bob Wallace, the Rams' executive vice president and general counsel. "But we have the right to withdraw that approval anytime we want."

Semantics aside, the deal doesn't smell too clean to University of Missouri-St. Louis journalism professor Tom McPhail.

"It's inherently a conflict of interest, and therefore any coverage given on Channel 4 is suspect," says McPhail.

McKernan, whom Savard once scolded during a live broadcast for discussing a headline entitled "Martz the Moron," agrees.

"I think it's a conflict," McKernan says. "I've experienced it firsthand. To me, if you want to get honest reporting on the Rams, you know you're not going to get it [on KMOV]."

Frank Cusumano, who triple dips with gigs at KFNS, KSDK-TV (Channel 5) and Charter Communications (where he does play-by-play for Saint Louis University's men's basketball team, complete with a "right of approval" arrangement), says there's nothing wrong with a little rah-rah coverage.

"Nobody is objective," Cusumano contends. "We go into every game rooting for the best story, but we'd prefer that the home team win. I do think I give the benefit of the doubt to the Billikens, but I'd like to think it's not because I'm drawing a paycheck."

Cusumano goes so far as to argue that the multiple gigs benefit sports fans. "I get a majority of my ideas for TV from radio," he explains. "You're up on everything late, and then you come in the next morning and know what's going on. I think if you just did one job, you wouldn't be quite as prepared. They help each other so much it's incredible."

George Vecsey inherited his space on the New York Times sports page from the late Red Smith, a man widely considered to be one of the two or three greatest sports columnists of all time. Though a journalist of his stature could probably score his choice of moonlighting jobs -- think Mike Lupica (New York Daily News), Bob Ryan (Boston Globe), Michael Wilbon (Washington Post) and Jason Whitlock (Kansas City Star) of ESPN's The Sports Reporters -- Vecsey restricts his speechifying to the Gray Lady.

"We have a policy against paid outside gigs," he says. "It keeps us working full-time for the paper, which sounds like a fair deal to me. I understand that some other papers may have a good selling point with their larger-than-life celebrity columnists, but that just wouldn't work for me, or the NYT."

St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Bryan Burwell, who moonlights as a FOX 2 game-day commentator and as co-host of Cusumano's daily show on KFNS, sees things differently.

"I've never understood the New York Times' policy," says Burwell, who cut his teeth in the multimedia game under Lupica's wing with dual gigs at the Daily News and SportsChannel New York's football desk, which led to subsequent (and often simultaneous) stints with USA Today, HBO's Real Sports and Inside the NFL, and TNT's National Basketball Association broadcasts.

"In a short period of time, I've been able to establish a brand name [in St. Louis] because you see me, hear me and read me," Burwell argues. "It clearly helps the newspaper. If anything I think it's very selfish on the newspaper's part to not let Bernie [Miklasz, Burwell's fellow P-D sports columnist] and I put our radio airtimes in italics at the bottom of our columns. They're reaping all the benefits without participating in the synergy."

Miklasz, who regularly provides commentary for FOX Sports Midwest and recently moved his daily sports talk show from KMOX (1120 AM) to ESPN Radio's KSLG (1380 AM), offers a more nuanced take.

"Newspapers are in a quandary right now," says Miklasz. "We're all trying to figure out where we fit in this berserk, multimedia age where you have instant, 24-hour news. And if you want to be true communicators and deliver news in the timeliest fashion, you'd better jump in on all of this stuff, because it's not going to go away.

"I really believe that the days are gone where a newspaper can stand alone and say, 'We're the final word,'" Miklasz adds. "As much as I admire those standards, it's an outdated concept."

Post-Dispatch sports-page editor Larry Starks sums up the benefits of the pair's ubiquity in one word: "Branding." And he dismisses the notion that outside commitments might cut into time spent reporting for the Post.

"It brings more readers to their columns," says Starks. "It allows them to sort of be seen as the authority on sports in the area, and that in turn helps the newspaper. They know that their column comes first, and I think that's pretty much the way it goes throughout the country with people who have columns and radio shows. Really, it's one of those things where the genie is out of the bottle now. Everyone's doing it."

And everyone's making money at it, though no one will say how much. (None of the sports pundits contacted for this story would discuss remuneration. The side work pays "enough to buy all the finest meats and cheeses," says the Post's Burwell.)

Regardless, Starks doesn't mind if the content he publishes repeats what has already been aired in another medium.

"That's OK, because they're expanding on what they've said on the radio," the editor reasons.

Au contraire, says Webster University media literacy professor Art Silverblatt.

"If Bernie's doing his column on the air, that's a problem," argues Silverblatt. "It would seem to me that people want different information, rather than stuff that's repackaged."

Which opens up another can of worms.

"If they get a scoop or an exclusive, whom do they give it to?" wonders UMSL's McPhail. "I think they're trying to serve too many masters."

"If there's a conflict, it's that sometimes I have information and I can't scoop myself on the radio," Miklasz allows. "I might tease that I have some information that'll be in my column, without letting the cat out of the bag. It creates some intrigue."

Support Local Journalism.
Join the Riverfront Times Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state. Our readers helped us continue this coverage in 2020, and we are so grateful for the support.

Help us keep this coverage going in 2021. Whether it's a one-time acknowledgement of this article or an ongoing membership pledge, your support goes to local-based reporting from our small but mighty team.

Join the Riverfront Times Club for as little as $5 a month.