Media Watch

Clipping Capitol Reporters' Wings, Fighting for Air America, and Goodbye, Sammy

Air America host Richard Greene
Air America host Richard Greene

In a flashing neon sign of the times, last week Freedom Communications Inc. shut down its one-reporter Capitol bureau for its three South Texas newspapers, The Monitor (McAllen), the Valley Morning Star, and The Brownsville Herald. "It's a cost-cutting measure," said Olaf Frandsen, regional vice president for Freedom, reciting the mantra of modern newspaper executives. "We had to look for areas where we could cut costs without significantly damaging coverage."

Freedom's decision leaves three of the key newspapers in one of the fastest-growing, poorest, and historically underrepresented areas of the state without a full-time reporter covering the Legislature. "It's just silly to say you can send a reporter to parachute in and parachute out and that they will have an idea of the rhythm of the process," said Harvey Kronberg, editor of the Quorum Report, a widely read Capitol newsletter. "If you don't have somebody here, it's hard to evaluate the significance of stories breaking."

There has been a steady chipping away at Capitol coverage over the years, as newspapers shrink into their shells in the face of competition. Two years ago, Scripps Howard shut down its two-person bureau. Soon after, to save costs, the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News, both owned by Hearst Newspapers, merged their bureaus. And while the Capitol once swarmed with surly TV crews, there hasn't been an out-of-town station with full-time Capitol staff since 2004, when Dallas-based WFAA shut its bureau.

There have been some additions, including regular coverage from KUT-FM and News 8 Austin (plus the emergence of local Fox reporter Mike Rosen as a serious Capitol journalist). But there's no mistaking the tide slowly eroding coverage of stuffy old politics, which apparently doesn't fit well with the newspaper owners' strategies.

Considering reporter Elizabeth Pierson Hernandez worked out of her Austin house, it's not quite clear how much money Freedom is actually going to save by shutting down its "bureau." Hernandez, who is widely credited with breaking the story of abuses at the Texas Youth Commission, was offered another job but decided to stay in Austin for family reasons. "It's disappointing," she said. "I liked my job a lot. And, more than that, there won't be anybody to cover the Legislature for a growing region of the state."

Freedom will replace Hernandez by rotating reporters to Austin, as needed, Frandsen said. Any suggestion of diminished coverage is "an unfounded fear," he said. "I think we are smart enough and responsible enough to understand Austin still needs to be covered."

The concept of "doing more with less" is the snake oil newspaper executives are peddling around the country these days, even though there's no evidence that cutting resources actually improves coverage. "We're 'going to do more with less' ... is one of the great lies of the 21st century," longtime Baltimore Sun reporter David Simon, creator of The Wire, recently told Inside TV. "What it means is we're going to be less with less. And that's the nature of what journalism is becoming."

There's a general feeling within the state's newspaper industry that the cutbacks have only just begun. The Belo-owned Dallas Morning News has already purged dozens of jobs, and the Houston Chronicle and the Express-News have both announced plans to shrink their newsrooms. Earlier this year, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the flagship of Austin American-Statesman owner Cox Newspapers, announced it was cutting 80 newsroom positions.

The lingering question in local media circles is when the axe will fall at the Statesman, which has managed to avoid the deep slices imposed at other papers. According to the latest data from the Audit Bureau of Circulation, the local daily's Monday-Friday circulation continues to slide, standing at 162,299 at the end of September, a 4% dip from the same point a year ago.

Progressive Radio Rally

"I hate Rush Limbaugh, and I hate Republicans, and I support anything that puts a little twist in their panties," said Sierra Zambroni from the outdoor stage at Threadgill's last week, hoping to spark some public outrage over the demise of Air America radio in Austin.

Last month KOKE-AM, the network's local affiliate, abruptly replaced the progressive-talk format with Norteño music after the station was sold to a Spanish-language broadcaster. While the ratings suggest not too many Austinites are weeping in their pillows at the format's passing, progressives around the country are rallying to the cause, convinced the movement depends on the ability to have their very own Limbaugh.

The centerpiece of the Threadgill's event, organized by local activist Pixie Sherry and headlined Help Bring Air America Back to Austin, was a live broadcast by Air America host Richard Greene, who assembled the roster of obligatory Austin guests, including Jim Hightower and Kinky Friedman. Greene was supposed to broadcast his show live from the outdoor courtyard at Threadgill's, but there were "technical difficulties" and he ended up broadcasting live from the manager's office. The audience, which ebbed and flowed to the courtyard, was left to make do with a rockin' little set by local band Wide Open Sky and occasional speakers extolling the virtues of Air America.

Cornered outside Threadgill's, Hightower acknowledged that Air America may be an odd cause for the movement to embrace given its string of assorted embarrassments. But he believes the network is still worthy of support under new CEO Mark Green. "You don't want to kick one of your assets in the ass," he said.

The Last of the Tacky DeeJaYS

The chest-pounding and wails of grief over Sammy Allred's sudden departure from country icon KVET may be justified, considering his long career in Austin. But there is little doubt Allred's cantankerous role in modern radio was slowly fading into the light. Whether he muttered "asshole" on the air, as alleged, or made another vaguely racial joke, Allred was an anachronism, a throwback to the days when radio liked to be provocative and interesting, even on a yee-haw country station.

Today, radio executives quake in their penny loafers at the idea of a loose cannon who might say a bad word and invoke the wrath of the Federal Communications Commission. Toss in the fact that Clear Channel stations are slashing budgets around the country, and it's not hard to imagine KVET eager to rid itself of an unpredictable old-timer and his fat contract.

Love or hate him, Allred's passing places Austin one step closer to the end of the era of tactless, politically incorrect, tittie-joke-loving radio personalities, who talk like real people and might say or do anything on air. With Allred put out to pasture, KLBJ's Dudley and Bob are like the last soldiers manning the walls of the fort, surrounded by an army of perky JB and Sandy shows.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Media Watch, Freedom Communications, Capitol coverage, Elizabeth Pierson Hernandez, Austin American-Statesman, Cox Newspapers, Air America, KOKE-AM, Pixie Sherry, Sammy Allred, KVET

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