After more than a year of angst, turmoil and even fisticuffs, the end apparently has arrived for once-mighty St. Louis sports radio station KFNS (590 AM).
Its signal has been off the air since Friday, and operations manager Mike Calvin said Sunday that he doesn’t expect it to return until after the station is sold, and that almost certainly would be in a different format from the jock-talk approach it has had for all but one of the last 21 years. KFNS parent company Grand Slam Sports is in the process of selling it to a religious group that would have church-related programming.
“It is off the air due to nonpayment of operational bills,’’ Calvin said. “I do not see it coming back on the air until the pending sale to the religious organization is finalized.”
He said the company’s debt is about $580,000 and the knockout blow came Friday when Ameren shut off power to KFNS’ transmitter because it is owed about $1,200.
Calvin said there is an outside chance that a decision could be made to pay Ameren to restore the signal temporarily, but that merely would be postponing the inevitable. And he said KFNS being on the air would not benefit the sale negotiations.
Grand Slam’s other outlet — KXFN (1380 AM) — operates out of the same building as KFNS but has a separate tower and has remained on the air, with Calvin saying that side of the business paid its bills this month. The company is focusing on 1380, which has an “extreme” format.
“The fact we’ve built up this other radio station in the meantime as our new entity has been a good thing,” he said.
KFNS, which at many times over the years was home to the market’s biggest names in sports talk, was down to two local shows — Charlie “Tuna” Edwards in the morning, Kevin Slaten in afternoons.
“Of course no one told us anything,’’ said Slaten, whose show also is carried online at talkstl.com and remains there. “It is keeping with the low-class operation since (boss) Dan Marshall left. The investors, I don’t know how they look themselves in the mirror.”
KFNS has suffered since WXOS entered the format in 2009 and benefited from a strong FM signal, at 101.1. And 590 gained stiff competition on AM from WGNU (920). It moved into sports on weekdays after Tim McKernan was ousted at KFNS last year and his company bought control of 920’s weekday programming. WQQX (1490 AM) also has sports, mostly national. So Calvin is philosophical about the plug being pulled.
“There are other great sports outlets in the city for people to go to, and they’ve been exiting 590 for quite some time,” he said and added that when KFNS is sold, “Grand Slam plans on paying off a large amount of their debut, which is fantastic.”
The station began broadcasting in the format in April 1993, when it was known as KEZK, changed its call letters to KFNS two months later and thrived under the ownership group of Greg Marecek. For many years it had little — or no — competition in the round-the-clock jock-talk business. There have been several owners since, with Grand Slam being in control for the last four years.
Big League had a rocky tenure, which included a couple high-profile battles.
It started with the dismantling of the “Morning Grind,” which featured Martin Kilcoyne, Tim McKernan and Jim Hayes. It had been KFNS’s top-rated program.
Kilcoyne left after a rift in 2006 with program director Jason Barrett, Hayes eventually was fired and replaced by Bob Fescoe, McKenran was unhappy and ratings plummeted before McKernan eventually left and reunited with Hayes at 1380 — which was under different ownership than it has now.
Then there was the firing of Slaten in 2008 following his verbal skirmish with Cardinals pitching coach Dave Duncan, who said he didn’t know he was on the air when he was talking with Slaten. Putting someone on without their knowledge is against Federal Communications regulations and station general manager Evan Crocker said the company had to fire Slaten and his producer, Evan Makovsky.
“This is an unfortunate situation, but we have to make decisions to protect our licenses,” Crocker said then.
Balderdash, Slaten said, claiming the reason he was dumped was because management was pressured to do so by the Cardinals because he often bashed them.
“The Cardinals are at the very root of this, and 590 has thrown me under the bus to curry favor with the Cardinals. From now on when people listen to 590 they can understand what they are getting,” Slaten said. “This is a First Amendment under-attack situation. … In other words, if you say what the Cardinals don’t like, this is what’s going to happen to you.”
Crocker said that was not so.
“There was no pressure from the Cardinals,” he said. “It didn’t matter who was on the other end of the call’’ when the interview in question occurred.
Crocker added that even if the incident had happened with someone from another organization, “the outcome would have been the same” — termination.
Slaten eventually sued and contended that KFNS used the incident with Duncan as an excuse to dump his $130,000 annual salary. The wrongful termination lawsuit finally was settled, 2½ years later.
Terms were not announced, but Slaten said then, “I’m very happy, I feel vindicated.’’
By that time, Big League’s involvement with KFNS had ended as Dave Greene had taken over running the station — and brought back Slaten.
Green and associates formed Grand Slam Sports, which bought KFNS in 2010. But Greene was ousted in 2012.
“We’re ready to take a new direction, we’re trying to grow, we’re trying to expand, we’re trying to take it to the next level, and sometimes you need to make some changes,”Grand Slam lead investor Todd Robbins said then. “We’re very excited where we are. We have a solid investment group … that is behind the product 100 percent. Sometimes you have to shake things up to go to the next level.’’
But things went downhill, and Marshall was put in charge of the operation in March 2013 and had no radio experience other than buying advertising for his wireless communications business. Hebankrolled much of the operation with his own money and switched KFNS from the sports format — in which it had been for two decades — to “guy talk” and converted 1380 to female-oriented programming.
“I felt the content of the shows was not drawing the audience, ” Marshall said then. “I thought if we could change the formats, we could make better content. I’m very good at sales, I think we can do better on the content and create more stable radio stations.”
Even though KFNS still had some sports-talk, it had mostly a low-brow approach that often had a frathouse mentality. The syndicated “Bubba the Love Sponge” show replaced the popular local morning drive-time program with McKernan, Jim Hayes and Doug Vaughn and predictably was amajor flop.
The station already was on the decline before Marshall took over, but moves such as that accelerated the fall and tension among staffers intensified. Missed payroll, complaints about Marshall having a brash, cavalier attitude toward employees and other points of contention led to a long letter being sent to his wife detailing many of the complaints. Then a column about the “mess at KFNS” appeared June 6 in the Post-Dispatch that detailed distinct pro- and anti-Marshall camps. That led to 1380 host Nick Trupiano bad-mouthing some of 590’s on-air personnel who were critical of Marshall in that story. Trupiano also got personal.
KFNS morning show host Brian McKenna, one of those who spoke about the station’s troubles, came to the studios to confront Trupiano — who among other things suggested that McKenna had exaggerated his recent skin cancer diagnosis in order to gain sympathy. McKenna was intercepted and eventually got into a fight with Marshall. McKenna ended up spending that night in jail and Marshall went to a hospital, then soon thereafter stopped running 590. Calvin took over and returned it to sports-talk.
And the wild developments have continued, with two prominent former St. Louis athletes who have been Grand Slam investors— the Rams’ Orlando Pace and the Blues’ Keith Tkachuk — being accused in court by Triad Bank of being deadbeats to the combined tune of approximately $320,000.
Triad said Grand Slam defaulted on loans totaling a little over $1.1 million and asked that nine investors each assume a percentage of the amount owed, demanding Pace repay 18.55 percent of the debt (about $204,000). Tkachuk’s share was 10.6 percent (about $116,000) and the bank sought about $583,000 from lead investor Todd Robbins.
The investors have wanted out for quite a while, as Robbins underscored in the June 6 story.
“(We) have a very influential investment group that is prepared to go do other things because we just don’t need the headaches, we don’t need the bad press, we don’t need any of the things going on from an investor (standpoint), ’’ Robbins said then.
He was asked if the melodrama is taxing on the investors.
“I think that is very accurate reflection, ’’ he said. “You don’t want that in any of your life.”
Slaten on Sunday had a different take.
“Some of these people have names in the community and they don’t care if their name is run through the mud,’’ Slaten said.
He added that he has more than two years left on a contract and also plans to sue if it isn’t honored. He knows there have been multiple court judgments against the company.
“It’s get-in-line time, but I’ll be in line,’’ he said.
Credit to the STL Post-Dispatch where this story was originally published