With flip to all-talk format, KGO Radio guts news division

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A sign at KGO Radio in San Francisco. (Photo: KGO via Instagram)

A sign at KGO Radio in San Francisco. (Photo: KGO via Instagram)

KGO Radio, one of the oldest broadcast operations on the west coast, laid off dozens of employees on Thursday as part of a massive local industry shakeup.

The layoffs at KGO (810 AM), which is owned by Cumulus Media, comes on the heels of a format flip that eliminates all local news programming in favor of mostly-syndicated talk programming, according to company officials with knowledge of the changes.

Newsroom reporters, writers and producers were informed Thursday morning that their jobs had been cut, according to two former employees. More than three dozen newsroom employees were let go as part of the station’s programming shuffle, the employees said.

Ronn Owens, a morning talk personality with four decades at KGO, announced he would be departing the station for Cumulus-owned KSFO (560 AM). Owens’ program aired on KGO from 9 a.m. to noon and was one of the station’s highest-rated shows. His program will be moved to the afternoon when it begins airing on KSFO next week.

News of KGO’s staff layoffs and impending program change was first reported Thursday morning by local media pundit Rich Lieberman, who also reported that the station had “hired” Sacramento radio hosts Jack Armstrong and Joe Getty. Station employees with knowledge of the arraignment said it was more of a syndication deal that would bring the popular “Armstrong & Getty” morning show to KGO in April.

Armstrong and Getty are expected to remain in Sacramento, those employees said, where they currently broadcast from the studios of iHeart Radio-owned KSTE (650 AM). In San Francisco, Armstrong & Getty was previously heard on KKSF (910 AM), which is owned by iHeart Radio. It was not immediately clear if the syndication deal extends to other Cumulus-owned radio stations in California or elsewhere.

Another Cumulus-owned station, KFOG (104.5 FM, 97.7 FM), is also expected to overhaul its staff and programming in the coming weeks. The adult album-format radio station began airing without its usual lineup of radio DJs Thursday morning; promotions running on the station is teasing an “evolution” that will be publicly revealed on April 20.

In a memo distributed to remaining employees on Thursday, company executives acknowledged that staffers at both KGO and KFOG had been laid off, though it wasn’t immediately clear how many positions had been eliminated at KFOG. Justin Wittmayer, a marketing manager for Cumulus, wrote in a memo that the firings were necessary “to allow us to meet the new needs of these two stations as we invest in new programming that is redefined, refocused and of the highest quality.” The memo, a copy of which has been obtained and published by The Desk, was first reported by the website AllAccess.com.

A Cumulus spokesperson said additional details about programming changes on both KGO and KFOG would be made available in the coming weeks.

For many at KGO, the loss of local news was shocking but not surprising. The station has struggled to find a significant audience in San Francisco since it began experimenting with different formats after being acquired by Cumulus in 2011.

Before the acquisition, KGO had for decades aired a mixture of news and talk programming, nearly all of which was locally produced. After the acquisition, Cumulus announced a significant overhaul of KGO’s programming, promising to make a heavy investment in local news content and rebranding KGO as an “all-news” station.

In reality, KGO’s newscasts were limited to several hours in the morning and afternoon. Locally-produced content was scaled back in favor of syndicated talk programming, barter shows and paid advertisements. The company failed to keep its promise of investing in news production; instead, reporters in the field were expected to record and file stories from their iPhones. The station failed to gain any ground on all-news station KCBS (740 AM, 106.9 FM) and public broadcaster KQED (88.5 FM).

Much of the damage had already been done by the time KGO reverted back to a news-talk format. Earlier this year the station announced further reductions in its news operation that saw nearly all of its weekend journalists and news writers laid off or moved to other positions.

For employees laid off on Thursday, the timing could not be worse. Jobs in the radio field — particularly on-air positions — are hard to come by in large media markets like San Francisco due in large part to shake-ups happening at two other major radio conglomerates.

Earlier this month, CBS executive Leslie Moonves announced his company was seeking to divest itself of more than 100 radio stations. CBS owns stations in two dozen media markets, including the highly-rated KCBS in San Francisco. Cumulus has been speculated to be a potential buyer of some or all of CBS’s radio stations.

Any sale or swap would likely result in a restructuring of resources and elimination of redundant jobs, especially if CBS sells its radio group to a company with a significant broadcast footprint in markets where both companies currently operate stations.

CBS, which took a more than $400 million write down on the value of its stations last year, has been slowly divesting itself of underperforming radio stations in recent years. In a recent note to shareholders, the company said it was not optimistic about the future radio advertisement market, which has declined significantly due to the rising popularity of on-demand streaming music and podcast services.

The country’s largest radio operator, iHeart, has also faced significant struggles in recent years. Earlier this month, the company won a restraining order against a group of angry creditors who claimed the company triggered a default on $6 billion in loans when it moved 100 million shares of Class B stock from one subsidiary to another. But the restraining order, which limits creditors from being able to issue additional notices of default, is temporary; if the group is ultimately successful, iHeart admits it would likely have to file for bankruptcy protection.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified the frequency on which radio station KKSF broadcasts. The station broadcasts on 910 AM, not 560 AM.