KEYE on the Blink?

Shakeout takes toll on station staff

KEYE on the Blink?
Illustration by Doug Potter

Insiders at KEYE-TV say layoffs and the recent personnel changes only hint at the problems percolating in the newsroom. Tensions were on the rise long before 14 station staffers were dumped last month, they say. And it's only gotten worse since management jettisoned weatherman Byron Webre, political reporter Keith Elkins, and morning co-host Elizabeth Dannheim – surprising many staffers, who first learned about the moves from news reports.

Morale is "nonexistent," said one former staffer, echoing the comments of others.

No one is sure where or when the axe will fall next. In a hastily called meeting the day after word leaked about Webre, Elkins, and Dannheim, newsroom personnel asked News Director Suzanne Black questions about management's future plans. "People walked away thinking there was no plan," one insider said. (Current and former staffers contacted for this column would only talk anonymously. Two weeks ago, an e-mail was sent to the KEYE staff warning them not to talk to the press.)

The timing of the current upheaval is particularly unnerving to staffers, who thought the ratings were improving. Although KEYE still trails its rival stations in most time periods, the 10pm newscast has been increasingly competitive. In station meetings over the last year, representatives of Cerberus Capital Management, the private equity firm that bought the station last year, assured employees that the local CBS affiliate was seen as a success.

But Cerberus, quaintly named after the three-headed dog that guards the gates of hell, has its own problems. High on the list is trying to salvage its $7.4 billion investment in automaker Chrysler, as well as its ill-timed decision to acquire a 51% stake in GMAC, the finance arm of General Motors. Last week, retailer Mervyns filed a lawsuit accusing Cerberus and two other equity firms of looting the company of $400 million and driving it into bankruptcy. Against this backdrop, ad revenue for local broadcasters continues to slide, down 4% in the first half of 2008 alone, according to the Television Bureau of Advertising.

"The whole industry is taking a downturn," said KEYE General Manager Amy Villarreal. "Unfortunately [KEYE] was the first station in town to [make cuts]. But I don't believe it will be the last."

Anyone walking in the KEYE front door can see the impacts of those tough calls – the lobby is empty. Longtime receptionist Rose Davis was among the layoffs last month. Calls to the station are now answered by an automated phone system. (Employees say the empty lobby is particularly disconcerting, considering an incident two years ago when an armed, half-naked man was arrested trying to get into the station.) In an interview with the Statesman, Villarreal denied that the lights were off in the hallways to save money, but the next day the lights were back on.

But Villarreal says the cuts and the latest personnel moves go beyond the economy, representing a "restructuring" of the newsroom. Staffers say there has been a steady "restructuring" of the newsroom for the past 18 months, since Black assumed control, moving up from assistant news director. A half-dozen experienced reporters, producers, and photographers have left or been forced out, many grumbling about Black's management style. Meanwhile, the bulk of Black's on-air hires has been the type of generic reporter bunnies commonly found in TV newsrooms these days, fresh off the mean streets of markets like Tyler, Beaumont, and Evansville, Ind. (Black did not return a call seeking comment.)

To many in the industry, dumping Elkins, a veteran political reporter, was particularly dumbfounding, suggesting that news coverage wasn't uppermost in management's decision-making process. "I cannot believe in a year when we're having a huge election followed by a legislative session, they let Keith Elkins go," said former KEYE assignment manager Jim McNabb, who left the station last May. "That blew my mind."

McNabb, who spent 16 years as managing editor of KXAN before his KEYE stint, calls Black "one of the best news directors I've ever worked for." But others say Black can be a testy, micromanaging boss with a knack for alienating staff. She often threatens to "write up" staffers – to insert a negative letter into their personnel file – if they cross her. (Villarreal says "no one has ever come to my office" to specifically address complaints about Black. "I hear the opposite," she said. "People who have come here from other stations say it's the best newsroom they've ever worked in.")

As any viewer can attest, KEYE's newscasts under Black are usually little more than the typical local TV news rundown of house fires, traffic accidents, and crime reports of the day, with an emphasis on the light, family-friendly stories known in the newsroom as "mommy news." The station's self-proclaimed "in depth" features – which usually only show up during ratings sweeps periods – tend toward such hard-hitting topics as the Cedar Park quintuplets, erectile dysfunction, and, most famously, anchor Ron Oliveira's detailed, first-person account of his colono­scopy.

Now the rest of the newsroom feels like it's their turn for the exam. There are constant reminders about budget constraints, they say. Overtime rules are strictly enforced; staffers are admonished if they don't take a lunch break. In the wake of the recent cuts, the station fields only eight reporters, according to its website (compared to 11 for KVUE), making it a challenge to do anything more than cover the news of the day. The photography staff is also depleted; chief photographer Doug Lowry was among the recent cuts.

Staffers are wondering, who will be next? Court reporter Rebecca Taylor, who actually has a degree in law, is already scheduled to disappear from the air in the next few weeks. She is leaving at the end of her contract (and refuses to offer an explanation for her departure). Some believe "award winning" investigative reporter Nanci Wilson, who doesn't fit the reporter bunny profile, is already walking around with a bull's-eye on her back.

From there, who knows? "I don't think anybody feels like they're safe," said one insider. Jolly morning guy Fred Cantú probably makes a decent wage, which makes him a likely target. But the station may be genuinely afraid to dump one of the few high-profile Hispanics on the air. With Webre gone, second-string weather gal Susan Vessell is moving into the lead weather slot, just in time for hurricane season and the key Novem­ber sweeps period. But no one is sure if she'll be able to keep the job (and, so far, she has not been given the "chief meteorologist" title). If the ratings don't perk up in November and the advertising department can't boost sales, staffers fear more changes could be on the way.

"You never know what's going to happen tomorrow," Villarreal said. "But I do care tremendously for every one of the employees, and I consider us a family."

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

KEYE, Byron Webre, Keith Elkins, Elizabeth Dannheim, Suzanne Black, Cerberus Capital Management

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