Lesley Lotto is pissed, and she blames the Mormons. That was the word, anyway, when the host of 105.9’s “Focal Point” morning interview show called local media types Monday to spread the word that KNS—Missoula’s “News and Progressive Talk” station, and home to Air America programming including Al Franken—was getting yanked off the air Tuesday. Sure enough, by the following evening the frequency had converted, and the station whose promos once bragged of keeping three people with journalism degrees out of the unemployment line was fully automated, DJ-less, and playing a so-called “Jack” format that more than one disgruntled air personality has described as a 10,000-song iPod set on shuffle.
The change—and the Mormon dig—come courtesy of the new and increasing influence of Salt Lake City-based Simmons Media Group. Simmons, which owns stations in Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, New Mexico, Texas and Missouri, stepped in six weeks ago to take over the operating lease on three Missoula stations—The Trail 103.3 FM, adult contemporary KKVU 104.5, and KNS—that had previously been operated by Marathon Media under an arrangement with Mount Sentinel Broadcasting, whose Salt Lake City-based owner, Kevin Terry, launched the stations last summer, having acquired the frequencies at FCC auction in 2004.
It was the Monday after Air America’s Al Franken came to town to broadcast live from the Missoula Children’s Theater and brag about whooping Rush Limbaugh in the ratings—Franken pulled a respectable 3.6 in a fall Eastlan ratings survey—that the Utah “suits” came to town, fired Lotto’s staff, cut her salary, and told her she could make up the difference in ad sales.
So Lotto retooled and hit the pavement selling KNS, which was more, she suggests, than the stations’ joint sales team seemed inclined to do, but when Simmons ownership arrived at the studio Thursday, Lotto says she knew her gig was up. Station manager Dave Cowan, who continues to oversee the three stations, gave Lotto the news after her Monday-morning broadcast. While not his, it’s a decision Cowan says he regrets, even as he understands it. KNS was bleeding money, he says, not least because local advertisers were reticent to affiliate themselves with the station’s openly alternative viewpoint.
It’s not a problem Missoula is likely to have with “Jack.”