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.

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