Dead Air

New management at KTKT-AM dumps local talk radio.

The big three local radio talkers will be silenced by KTKT-AM 990 early next year when the station switches to Associated Press news on a nearly 24/7 broadcast.

Gone will be Tucson's hierarchs of local talk radio, John Scott Ulm, Emil Franzi and Bert Lee.

The decision, reached and initially closeted by Steve Groesbeck, general manager for KTKT parent Lotus Broadcasting, also will halt most, if not all, of the vanity programs that ranged from a weekday show on household cleaning to Sunday's Too Jewish, an entertaining, educational hour hosted by Rabbi Samuel Cohon.

"The station has just not been performing," said Groesbeck, imported two years ago from Lotus's Reno operations to oversee KTKT and three other stations in Tucson. "It's a combination, myriad reasons and just time to make a change."

Groesbeck said the decision was his and did not come from Lotus headquarters in Los Angeles. Some programs and some of the talent may be retained, particularly for weekends, he said.

Recent ratings showed poor numbers, but it is unlikely that it rests purely on money.

Ulm, the host of the three-hour John C. Scott Show, Franzi and Lee purchase their time from KTKT and sell their own advertising.

"Among us, we put $200,000 in there," said Franzi, a regular Tucson Weekly contributor whose hour-long Inside Track has aired four days a week since May 2000. "How many businesses do you know where the gross is the net?"

Scott and his wife, Amy, mined Tucson small business and the occasional heavy hitter for sales that topped $200,000 a year--and hit a high of nearly $250,000. But he had to scale back an hour to cut costs to the station that were $110,000 a year, then $80,000, and then $70,000.

John C. Scott spots start at $25. And while Groesbeck would not talk numbers, sources at KTKT said he has boasted that he could make more money even by selling half the ad time at $15 per spot.

To that, Franzi asked: "More important than who is going to buy it, is who is going to sell that?"

Franzi's Inside Track, which featured Weekly columnist Tom Danehy as sidekick and guest host, billed around $43,000 a year. But at $600 a week, Franzi paid KTKT $31,200 a year for studio space with shaky, undependable phones, temperamental computers, a recently flooded building and an occasional indoor rattlesnake.

Lee was the Tucson pioneer for purchasing time after he left KTUC-AM 1400 seven years ago. Figures for his show were not available. Lee, who has a long career in radio, has not been on the air since Sept. 26. He is convalescing after a major heart attack. KTKT's number could not have been helped by the Bert Lee reruns filling that time slot, from 3:30 p.m. to 6 p.m., with repeats at midnight.

The vanity concept worked in some cases, Franzi said. He pointed to astronomer David Levy's acclaimed Let's Talk Stars that once followed Inside Track one day a week as top radio from the pay-as-you talk plan.

Levy is the science editor of Parade magazine.

"When you are going to sell time by taking a check from anybody, you going to end up with somebody playing Sousa marches with the armpits," Franzi said. "That may be OK, but it's going to hurt you in the long run."

Ulm began his career as a 15-year-old in Independence, Kan. He also went from the Colorado State Reformatory (they were tough on a bad check back then) to Tucson radio and television and to the Arizona Senate, where he served a single term as a Democrat.

For Ulm, the late, legendary Speaker of the House of Representatives Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill's famous line that all politics is local, is entirely fitting.

"I think it's unique," said Ulm, a Republican convert. "A common citizen could be listening, maybe driving in their car, and could pick up the phone ask Sen. John McCain a question. We don't screen callers. Never have. They could call and talk to the mayor or a council member. We talked to (Republican U.S. Rep.) Jim Kolbe from Kabul. Councilman Steve Leal called in when Corporation Commissioner Marc Spitzer (a Republican) was on about the break in the Kinder Morgan gas line."

Through the show's 14 years, Ulm has raised more than $100,000 for charities, including for the Latin American Social Club's Christmas bicycles for children.

Franzi gets guests, such as County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry, who may shun Ulm. Lee entertains those, such as City Manager James Keene, who are not likely to appear on the other two shows.

Radio and media consolidation is a threat, Ulm said.

"These companies are warehousing signals to keep them away from others. How is that (adhering) to convenience and necessity?" he asked in reference to a provision of Federal Communications Act.

Ulm warns that he'll talk to local, state and national officials--or talk about them. And while he has generally followed a talk show tradition of softer gloves for his frequent guests, Ulm has increasingly blistered Republican Councilman Fred Ronstadt and former Councilman Michael Crawford, a Democrat, for their near-blind support of every move City Hall has taken for the troubled Rio Nuevo downtown revitalization project. Ulm smacked the two around Monday, for example, after they tried to fault two days of critical coverage in the Arizona Daily Star.

Groesbeck said he is considering retaining some of the "talent" at KTKT, including on the weekend. He insisted that KTKT will hire news people who will provide several news, weather and traffic bulletins every hour.

As for the top three talkers, there is hope that they will alight at another station.

"I think there is a station in town interested in netting a couple hundred grand," Ulm said. "I'm willing to present 'the talkers.' Emil does a great job, and that Danehy is so clever."

Thinking he was secure at KTKT, Ulm turned down KJLL-AM 1330 as recently as six weeks ago.

"After saying 'no' three times, they start believing you," Ulm said.

He and the other threatened talk show hosts have support from Leal, the Democrat who is the longest serving member of City Council--despite Ulm's previous portrayal of Leal as the "arsonist/fireman" of local politics, an official who whipped up a community flare only to come in as a hero to douse it.

Leal did not let it go unnoticed, once telling Ulm that his job was to "inform, not inflame" and to be the "watchdog, not the mad dog."

This week, Leal said he is prepared to propose a City Council resolution supporting local talk radio that can be sent to Lotus as well as the Federal Communications Commission.

"The loss would be enormous," Leal said. "The shows are among the few ways for the community to have an unfiltered, uncensored conversation with itself."