Fox Faux Pas

Staffing Changes and Low Morale at Fox-7 News

"I've always wanted to work here. But I would have left Fox-7 just to get out of there. Even if I had to leave the marketplace, even if I had to leave the state, even if I had to leave the business."
-- former KTBC reporter Erin Fletcher, now wtih KVUE

"Turmoil" has to be the first word that comes to mind when one observes the changes currently occurring at KTBC-TV (Channel 7), Austin's Fox affiliate, also known as "Fox-7." Readers may remember the firing of controversial reporter Gabe Caggiano last month ("TV Terrorist," The Austin Chronicle, Aug. 8). That turned to be only the beginning -- since then, popular weatherman Troy Kimmel was fired; respected reporter Erin Fletcher jumped ship to top-rated rival KVUE (ABC, Channel 24); 5pm anchor Tony Lopez -- the station's only Hispanic anchor -- was demoted to a reporter's position and, not under contract, has said he is looking to leave; and finally, general manager Craig Millar was fired. And people aren't shy about talking about it.

According to a current KTBC reporter and two former staffers, morale is in the pits at the troubled station, which has plummeted from being KVUE's powerful rival just a few years ago to the bottom of the local news ratings. "We're being beaten by K-EYE [CBS, Channel 42]," says the KTBC reporter, "who everybody laughs at."

The reporter adds that KTBC's "Seven on Your Side" segments are contributing to the morale problems. The segments, where Fox-7 does some sort of good deed for an Austinite, "don't really affect more than one person; we get their gas turned back on for them, or something like that. I don't know any reporter who likes doing them. It takes the `What's in it for the viewer' concept way too far. It takes time away from real news and talks down to viewers."

Stephen Coppin, a photojournalist who, like Fletcher also jumped from Fox-7 to KVUE about a year ago, echoed the reporter's comments. "`Seven on Your Side' started as this consumer thing, but aimed at the lowest common denominator, saying `We'll solve your problems for you.' They wanted to grab the easy viewer real quick."

As for the recent firings of Kimmel and Lopez, which also lowered morale, viewers have called the station to complain, says the KTBC reporter. A recent story in Hispanic Impact, a newsletter of the Texas Association of Mexican-American Chambers of Commerce, made prominent mention of KTBC's lack of an Hispanic anchor.

Fletcher, who left the station six weeks ago, says the station's managers were the root of the morale problem. News director Rob Martin "walked into a staff meeting and we vented on him for hours, and he said, `I didn't realize morale was so bad; I must have been walking around with my head in the clouds.' He was [former general manager] Millar's puppet on a string. He couldn't make a decision without asking Craig."

"The general manager had his hand deep into whatever Martin did," says Coppin.

"It's the worst station a lot of people have worked at," says the KTBC reporter. Millar and other KTBC management were overly concerned with demographic research, says the reporter, to the point of distraction from the actual reporting of the news. This reporter adds, "Craig Millar couldn't wipe his ass without doing a study."

According to Coppin, the troubles began when Argyle Television Holding, Inc. bought KTBC from Times Mirror Co. in January of 1994. The strategy was always to sell the station, Coppin says, so budget cuts took precedence over quality. Argyle did sell the station in April of 1995 to New World Communications Group, Inc., which was bought by Rupert Murdoch's Fox last January. Management was already dismal, Coppin says, and just grew worse after New World made Millar general manager in April of 1995 and installed Martin as news director in January of 1996.

Fletcher agrees. "It's a very unhealthy newsroom," she says. "Management was poisoning the place. When Millar and Martin took over, the walls came down. Craig destroyed the photography department by designating Austin as a `beginner's market.' He said by his actions that experienced photographers were no better than beginners. It's frustrating to work in that atmosphere. It says that we will take the cheapest we can get."

Caggiano had complained of financial skimping on the part of Millar and Martin in the Chronicle story which focused on Caggiano's firing; in an incident that now has become legendary in Austin media circles, Caggiano, reporting on the Republic of Texas standoff in Fort Davis, yelled in anger at his producers through a satellite feed, frustrated in large part because Fox-7 sent him to the standoff with only one photographer while other stations had a full complement of reporters and crew to cover the event.

Martin, who noted that "Erin [Fletcher] hasn't been here for weeks," says, "I don't really know how to respond. Every newsroom has changes, and sometimes people fight change. We have some new people who are very energetic, and I've seen changes just in the last few days. An example is our coverage of the breaking news of the day-care incident [where a mental patient allegedly held a knife to a toddler's neck before being shot by police]; it was a great example of teamwork."

Asked why Fletcher and Coppin would describe him as a puppet, Martin says, "I have no idea. Craig was very involved in the news, but he did not interfere." When questioned about KTBC's lack of an Hispanic anchor, Martin declined comment until after he could confer with corporate executives at Fox Television, Inc., KTBC's owner, citing a company policy that restricts commenting on personnel decisions. Martin did claim, however, that KTBC hires experienced camera operators.

"I've been trying to get on at KVUE since 1992," says Fletcher. "I've always wanted to work here. But I would have left Fox-7 just to get out of there. Even if I had to leave the marketplace, even if I had to leave the state, even if I had to leave the business."

"What Fox is going through now is the advanced stages of decay," says Coppin. "There's no stability there. Eventually, with bad equipment and inexperienced people, it will explode on its own."

The Chronicle was unable to reach Millar for comment -- KTBC will not release a forwarding telephone number for him, and his home number is unpublished.

East Coast Cherry Pickers

Changes are afoot at Texas Monthly, as well, albeit not as tumultuous as the ones at Fox-7. Senior editors Robert Draper and Mimi Swartz, both of whom have been an integral part of that magazine for the last several years, have moved on. The reasons, according to all parties involved, were simple -- the pair were offered other deals they couldn't refuse.

Draper has moved on to GQ, where he received what he says was an unsolicited offer "in the six figures, to write five to six articles a year. About double the money at Texas Monthly, and about half the work load.... No sane person would refuse."

Swartz was less specific about her deal to write for The New Yorker, but says it's "a great job. I wanted to write on national topics. I was happy at Texas Monthly, they were great to me and there are no better editors, but I'm 42 and wanted to do bigger things."

Both Draper and Swartz refute what might seem to be two rather obvious reasons for moving on from TM: that the regional magazine is more of a stepping stone to "bigger and better" things rather than a permanent home, and that flamboyant publisher Mike Levy -- known for his extremely outspoken critiques of just about everything in Austin and Texas -- might be difficult to work with.

"No, not at all," Swartz says of the mag's regional bent. "I worked there 13 years and turned down several national jobs [Swartz declined to specify from whom]. My editors were great and I had the freedom to do what I want. Everybody in New York reads it, because they report on stories of national interest: the Bushes, HMOs [Swartz won a National Magazine Award in 1996 for her "Not What the Doctor Ordered" article], etc. I had total freedom."

Draper had similar sentiments -- "I thought I would write novels and for Texas Monthly until I died" -- and as for his former publisher: "Levy, although he can behave monstrously, doesn't touch the stories. The rumors of him quashing stories are untrue. He takes a perverse glee in not bowing to his advertisers. The writers don't have to work with Levy. He would bitch at me for having a messy desk, but not about my stories."

"They were both here a long time," says TM editor Gregory Curtis. "I'm not happy that they're gone, since they were so good. But things change. There are interesting things outside of Texas that they might want to explore."

"The magazine has been staff-written, rather than freelance," says Levy himself, which would goes a long way towards explaining why Swartz and Draper both had nothing bad to say about their former employer -- there is a world of difference between the security of a staff job versus the uncertainties of the freelance life. Like Levy says: "It's a writers' magazine."

Texas Monthly has yet to replace the two writers.

Welcome Home, Hightower

In another media move, Jim Hightower has finally found a spot on the radio in Austin.

Last Monday, the populist-left host of the nationally syndicated Hightower Radio: Live from the Chat & Chew excitedly told his new audience on KNEZ (1530AM), "Hello, Austin!" and celebrated his entrance into his home market. Hightower's show, which began on Labor Day of last year and broadcasts live from the dining room of Threadgill's World Headquarters, had vainly struggled for months to find a local carrier for the program, despite being carried on over 80 stations nationwide.

Finally, KNEZ, or "K-News," made what would have seemed a natural choice and became the first Austin station to broadcast the former Texas Agriculture Commissioner's program. The only catch was, Hightower wasn't in Austin to share his joy with his fans -- "We're in Milwaukee today," Hightower said, sounding a little embarrassed at the unfortunate timing of his travel plans.

No doubt, not being carried in his own hometown also had to be a little embarrassing for Hightower, but he gave a very plausible explanation to his regular listeners: "Well, you see, up until last week, Austin didn't have electricity."

Now that the "problem" is solved, Austin radioheads finally have a high-profile program that offers an alternative to the right-wing bombast of the violence-minded G. Gordon Liddy, flamingly racist Bob Grant (who, ironically, follows Hightower on K-News), and the Big Fat Idiot, Rush Limbaugh.

"I'm absolutely delighted," Hightower told the Chronicle last week, shortly after striking a deal with K-News. "This station is a real good venue for us. It's a very entrepreneurial station, the independent taking on the big guys, which fits the whole tone of our show." K-News began broadcasting just last October, when it acquired the 1530 frequency from the Lower Colorado River Authority, and shortly thereafter went all-news.

Why did Hightower, also a former Texas Observer editor, have to wait so long for an Austin station to think globally and broadcast locally?

"There's a lot of conglomerate stations in Austin now," Hightower says. "They're not inclined to carry an anti-establishment show like mine. But they'll be sorry, and [K-News owner] Buddy McGregor will be happy, because this is an Austin type of show."

McGregor was approached by local business owners Jim Holland (Eco-Works) and Tamara Sbelgio (Amaru Ká) about carrying the show, and McGregor told them that if they could pull together some advertisers, he would consider it. Holland and Sbelgio came through by pulling other businesses on board and, although the show still is not fully sponsored, it was enough to sway McGregor.

"After meeting with Hightower, I was convinced," McGregor says. "He's a lot more relaxed than he was two years ago [during his first radio stint on ABC], and now he's promoting lots of local artists." (Hightower frequently has Austin musicians and other local figures sit in to chat.) K-News also plans to run Hightower's short editorial comments at other parts of the day.

Hightower's show runs 11am-1pm every weekday. For more information on Hightower Radio, go to And if you happen to be lunching at Threadgill's World Headquarters, ask to sit in the southwest corner, request a headset, and watch and hear Hightower in action... assuming he's not in Milwaukee.

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