Why Did They Fire John Coleman?

— John Coleman says he can pinpoint the day Rodger Hedgecock turned from being a vocal supporter of the referendum drive to put stadium expansion on the ballot to an ardent critic of those efforts. It was a few days before general manager Mike Glickenhaus of Jacor Communications -which owns KSDO-AM, Hedgecock's radio talk show home -issued his Valentine's Day memorandum to station employees. The memo said completion of the stadium project "is in the best interest of both San Diego County as well as our radio stations" and urged workers to attend a pro-expansion rally at the stadium the following Monday. Jacor also operates XTRA-AM, the sports-talk station that carries Chargers football games.

"They had Roger to lunch, and suddenly Roger is berating Richard Rider [the Libertarian accountant who mounted a legal challenge to expansion] and saying that the stadium deal is in the city's best interests," Coleman recalls. "I remember my chin dropping." At that point, Coleman adds, he knew "my fate was sealed" and that his broadcast double life -as affable TV weather man on KUSI Channel 51 and populist talk show host on radio station KOGO-AM -was about to come to an end. "It was very clear that the station manager did not want to talk to me," Coleman says. "And when the program director talked to me, it was with certain hostility."

On March 1, Jacor took over operations of KOGO. Less than a month later, Coleman was fired from the 9:00 a.m.-to-noon slot he had commanded each weekday since last July. Five days later, Jacor announced it would switch Hedgecock's afternoon talk show, as well as Rush Limbaugh's syndicated morning show, from KSDO to KOGO to capitalize on the latter's stronger signal. The shows would be simulcast on both stations for an unspecified amount of time to give listeners a chance to acclimate to the change. After that, KSDO would probably retain its talk-show format, Jacor executives said, without Coleman.

Jacor now runs ten stations in the San Diego market, nearly one-third of the total. Among them are this town's only two full-time talk stations with signals strong enough to cover most of the county. Critics say this is just the latest chapter in the growing wave of consolidation that has affected San Diego media in recent years -including the 1992 merger of the San Diego Tribune into the San Diego Union, the shutdown later that year of the San Diego County Edition of the Los Angeles Times, a series of mergers that killed nearly a dozen community newspapers in North County, and Cox Cable's recent deal to broadcast repeats of KGTV Channel 10 newscasts on what is being billed as a 24-hour news channel, instead of coming up with original programming.

With this consolidation, critics say, has come a growing reluctance by the media to get involved in controversial issues. Tim Wulfemeyer, a professor of journalism at San Diego State University, bemoans what he calls this loss of voices.

"The more voices there are out there, the more likely they will be alternative," he says. "And as the media becomes consolidated, with ownership falling into fewer and fewer hands, there's much more of a likelihood that you get the company line."

The official reason given for Coleman's dismissal was low ratings, but the 60-year-old announcer notes that according to the quarterly Arbitron ratings that came out in January, he nearly doubled KOGO's morning listenership from the syndicated G. Gordon Liddy talk show that preceded him.

Instead, he attributes his termination to "corporate policy -they want to get Limbaugh on, Hedgecock is their star, and clearly my populist positions were antiestablishment." Coleman says he believes Jacor management was upset over his on-air tirades against stadium expansion, the Republican National Convention, and other civic projects important to San Diego Mayor Susan Golding and San Diego's power brokers.

"Clearly, the stadium issue was my downfall," Coleman says. "I was talking about it when the lawsuit was still pending, and my whole position was simply that the people, the citizens, should have a voice. Then, when Jacor was in the process of buying KOGO, the stadium controversy was swirling, and I had frequent guests and was raising all sorts of issues, and Jacor made it very clear that they supported stadium expansion and wanted their employees to support it as well.

"The first goal of every broadcaster is to make money, and how do you go about doing that? You become part of the community and be supportive of the community power structure. You want the mayor to love you, the chamber of commerce to love you, the tourism people to love you, and you have to be very careful not to step on those toes -which I did."

Coleman gave hours of air time to Bruce Henderson, the former city councilman who led the referendum drive to put stadium expansion up to a public vote. He spoke freely and often of his belief that "government at all levels is wildly out of control and that we the citizens through our inattention to our business over five decades have let the special interests buy our political institutions.

"I questioned [City Attorney] Casey Gwinn about beginning construction at a time when the city had no definitive contract with the Chargers," Coleman says. "And I was making remarks like Susan Golding's political career had reached its pinnacle because a rhino like her who gets ill-tempered when anyone questions her decisions instead of debating in a good-spirited way, and who avoids controversial issues like Propositions 187 and 209, is clearly not a person who can be a significant candidate for the U.S. Senate. I said her history of going from man to man to create her political base was shameful. I said she pulled a scam on the citizens of San Diego in bringing the Republican National Convention here, pretending it was going to create a big financial windfall when in truth she used it to further her own political career. And I said that clearly her dealings with the Chargers were highly questionable and suspect, and her relationship with [Chargers owner] Alex Spanos was shameful.

"Well, Golding supporters just raised Holy Cain, and the owners of the station -you just know there are cocktail parties and skybox gatherings and phone calls. These people talk, they've got to, and while they would never say this is why they terminated me, that's the only conclusion I can draw."

Cliff Albert, program director of KSDO and KOGO, bristles at suggestions that Jacor wants to stifle alternative opinions. "Roger Hedgecock, for weeks and weeks, was talking about the stadium issue and was very up-front about his concerns with the stadium contract and the Chargers deal," Albert says. "He took a very controversial position."

What of the Glickenhaus memo and the lunch with station management? Albert insists "there was no pressure placed on [Hedgecock]." The former mayor may have softened his stance and taken shots against expansion proponents Rider and Henderson, "but he had continued concerns, and I don't think he ever said it was a good deal," Albert asserts. As for Coleman's firing, "it all just came down to ratings," Albert says. Coleman may have boosted weekday morning listenership with his KOGO talk show, but it wasn't enough to allow the show to continue. "Everything's relative," Albert says. "A television show, for example, can have a million viewers and still not succeed, and it's the same in the radio business. To support a show in terms of its cost, talent, and everything else, a show has to deliver a certain response in terms of ratings and public support, and John's show just didn't have as much of that as we would have liked. Had the show been doing better, he would still be here."

Coleman also has harsh words for the change in federal broadcast laws that have allowed Jacor and companies like it to build virtual monopolies in radio markets throughout the country -and then, "because they're in business, first and foremost, to make money, to not step on any toes." In February of 1996, the passage of the Federal Telecommunications Act upped to eight the number of radio stations a broadcaster can own in a single market.

By October of last year, Jacor had spent more than $1 billion acquiring 100 stations in 21 markets, 10 of them in San Diego (2 broadcast from Mexico and thus are not covered by the 8-station limit). And since broadcasters don't want to compete against themselves, if they buy stations with similar formats -as Jacor has done here in San Diego -they invariably change one and beef up the other.

"They [the Federal Communications Commission] counted the number of stations and said they would not be silencing diverse opinions if they allow one company to own up to eight stations in a single market," Coleman says. "But they apparently didn't realize that talk is only on AM and that there is a limited number of AM stations in most markets."

Albert dismisses these charges. "There are other stations in town that carry talk, KFMB-AM and KCEO-AM, that are not owned by Jacor," he says. "And if anything, I think you are going to hear more diverse opinions, now that Jacor controls these stations [KSDO and KOGO], than you would otherwise. Before, when you were competing against one another, people tended to copy whatever was successful -so that if a conservative talk show was working on one station, the other station would copy it. As a result, listeners were restricted in variety and diversity. Now, with Jacor here in San Diego, you're going to have more diverse opinions, more diverse views."

Coleman says that while he's quite content at KUSI and plans on signing on for another three-year stint as evening news weather man when his current contract expires in July, he's searching for another radio talk gig -although he's not holding out hope of finding a new job in town anytime soon.

"The talk show is for passion," he says. "I am one of those people Ross Perot really awakened in 1991. My country's going to hell, and I want to be heard."

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