Tuning In WIVK's Future

As its corporate owner sheds local talent, will the storied radio station retain its heritage of community involvement?

The firing of multiple-award-winning WIVK disc jockey Jack Ryan, a 10-year company veteran, by station owner Cumulus Media Inc. on March 14 came as little surprise—if only because the corporation had already demonstrated how much one man's career is worth when it axed Ryan's father, operations manager Mike Hammond (an even more decorated, 39-year veteran broadcaster) less than a week before.

"I'm still trying to wrap my head around that one," says Ryan, whose 7 p.m.-to-midnight shift has been replaced with a syndicated program, CMT Live With Cody Allen, which airs in more than 90 markets. "I understand the rationale behind why they let me go. If you're an owner, and you have an opportunity to have one guy syndicated in 90 or 100 markets, you have one salary instead of 90 or 100.

"It makes sense from a business standpoint. But with [his father] I don't get it. I don't understand the logic behind it."

Now the question is: How much is it worth to keep arguably Knoxville's most storied and local-centric commercial radio station doing all of the things—both on-air and off—that have made it the city's favorite for the better part of 60 years?

Mike Hammond was asked to comment, but indicated via e-mail he isn't ready to speak. A Cumulus/WIVK station official did not return a call seeking comment on the recent personnel moves or the future of the local Cumulus radio properties.

The Atlanta-based Cumulus purchased Citadel Broadcasting—locally, the owner of WIVK-FM 107.7, WOKI-FM 98.7, and WNML FM 99.1 and AM 990—in fall of 2011 for around $2.5 billion. All of the stations have been notable as much for their community involvement and local flavor as for their programming (country music, news/talk, and sports, respectively). WIVK has been a community fixture, a part of country-music history, and a ratings giant for decades.

Founded in 1952 by James Dick, the station signed on in '53 with a country and gospel format, and programming such as the Cas Walker Live Country Music Show. Over the years, the station would offer news, weather, community outreach, and eventually University of Tennessee sports as its format wavered from country to Top 40 and back again.

The station moved to 107.7 on the dial in 1966, and received a power boost from 1,000 watts to 50,000, a move that precipitated its early-'70s rise to Arbitron-ratings dominance in the Knoxville market. It remains the city's most listened-to station today, as well as a so-called tastemaker for other country-music stations around the U.S.

But all of that notwithstanding, Cumulus, the second-largest owner of FM and AM radio stations in the country, seems to have a business model and a pattern—cost-cutting, personnel cutbacks, syndication rather than local programming—that doesn't bode well for community-based heritage stations like WIVK. After the buy-out, the exits began early via pink slip or attrition.

Although most of the former employees had to sign agreements that they would not speak ill of Cumulus as part of their severance, a few, like Ryan, agreed to speak objectively about the circumstances of their last days at the company.

"I was told it was a business decision to let us go," says Chris Hensley, a news anchor for all three of the stations. "I was told they have a business model; if it doesn't fit into their spread sheet, it's not personal. Those were the reasons that were given."

Hensley says three in the news department were let go on Dec. 5, and another by the end of December. "Everyone had been there several years," he says. "Each one of us was award-winning in one way or another."

One staffer, a cancer survivor, was let go just as her cancer had returned, he says. Hensley estimates that around 25 of a staff of roughly 70 have left or been fired since the Cumulus acquisition last year.

The story of the former Citadel radio properties is really the story of how radio is trending today; it dates back to the Telecommunications Act of 1996, a deregulatory measure that, among other things, enabled single corporate entities to accumulate vast numbers of radio stations.

The first to do so was Clear Channel Communications, Inc., a 40-year-old, multibillion dollar firm out of San Antonio, Texas. Today, Clear Channel is the largest owner of FM and AM stations in the U.S. with more than 800. It has been criticized for cutting the staff at stations it buys and homogenizing and de-localizing the programming.

The number-two station owner today, Cumulus, with more than 500 stations, works from the same playbook.

"I've been through it before," says local radio veteran Benny Smith, now program director at the UT's WUTK 90.3. "You've been told you're doing well, then one day you come to work, the station is sold and you're done.

"This whole idea of being able to come in and fire an entire radio station in one day seemed alien at the time. But it seems like that's what's happening now. You have people being let go you thought would never be let go. It's stuff that's pretty typical now in corporate conglomerate-owned radio. They have a formula, and they follow it market to market. I feel it takes away from the local element, and ultimately leads people away from radio. It's very generic market to market."

Ed Brantley, the former general manager at Citadel and now a general manager at WNOX, left WIVK before Cumulus took over. And he says it is the local character of WIVK that is most threatened by the changes taking place.

"When I was there, we never thought of ourselves as a country-music station, even though we won plenty of country-music awards," he says. "We were a full-service station. If there was a weather problem, an accident, you could turn to WIVK and hear it. It wasn't just country music.

"We were the only station with a full news staff. I remember years ago, there was a tornado in Cleveland, Tenn., and driving down there at night to cover it."

Yet it still shocks many that Hammond—who had helped build the station over the course of nearly four decades, and won awards including AP Broadcaster of the Year and Program Director of the Year, and was inducted into the Country Radio Hall of Fame—was canned without ceremony; the financial reasons are less clear, since operations managers, unlike DJs, aren't syndicated.

"Why do you cut a guy who had just won Program Director of the Year, County Commission chairman, P.A. announcer for the Lady Vols?" Brantley wonders. "This is a guy you could use as the face of your station. But he's [going] on a missionary trip to Ethiopia, and you cut him. Amazing."

Another local radio insider, speaking on the condition of anonymity, observes, "What they do is stockholder-driven, and they had to make huge cuts to purchase Citadel. But no one can figure out exactly why they do what they do. Because very often the product ends up suffering in the ratings."

For his part, Hensley has landed at Morristown classic country station WMTN, where he's hosting the morning drive show, and "really enjoying getting back to local radio."

As for his former station, he hopes for the best.

"What's going on, it's cost-cutting measures, streamlining," Hensley says. "I guess they hope people won't notice, that quality won't suffer. But daily listeners will notice. Whether they like what they hear, I don't know.

"But there's a lot of heritage there at that station. I remember when Roy Acuff was live on WIVK, or Dolly Parton, on up to Taylor Swift. There was a long history and heritage that hopefully they'll be wise enough to continue. I can't say whether they'll be wise enough to do that or not."