It has become an easy assumption these days that local media outlets are simply fated to go corporate. Publishing magnates buy up small newspapers, broadcasting giants swallow little stations, and then the companies themselves set about buying each other, in a process that resembles a digitized, billion-dollar feeding frenzy.
Thankfully, the aftereffects of this fury are rarely seen around here, since our media community is so cozy and remote. But stinging effects were felt all the same last week, when KTMF-TV, our local ABC affiliate, announced that it was being bought by a group of Virginia investors.
Employees wept at the news, according to station manager Linda Baumann. But the concerns that staffers voiced were not about the future of their jobs; the only personnel change will be a new general manager in Great Falls, who will oversee KTMF and its sister stations in Kalispell, Bozeman, Great Falls and Butte. Nor were their fears about the fate of the station itself; the investors, called Max Media, have promised to inject lots of cash into the low-budget affiliate. Instead, the one regret that was expressed with the sale, Baumann says, was that the “family”—the 50-odd employees at Montana’s biggest locally owned broadcast group—was breaking up. It had all the markings of a sitcom series finale.
“We’ve been very, very lucky to work for a small company; we’re like a family,” Baumann says. “So it was very sad, actually, when they told me.”
Certainly, the $18 million out-of-state deal did have a corporate feel. But Baumann was relieved, she says, when she received a call from Virginia, assuring her that the friendly, community tenor of the station will remain the same, as will most everything else.
The staples of KTMF’s programming will remain, like its ramshackle horror show “Fright Night Theater” (“I don’t think you can make ‘Fright Night Theater’ better than it is,” Baumann says) and its wildly popular reruns of “The Simpsons” (“All we have to do is run ‘The Simpsons’ in Spanish and we know how many viewers we have; they all call in”). Baumann predicts that the changes we’ll see will be those that reflect an infusion of funds, such as improved reception, fewer glitches, and beefed-up local programs like “Good Morning Montana.” “We might have the money to have a real set,” she says. “Wouldn’t that be nice?”
Still and all, the fact that KTMF was part of Montana’s last homegrown broadcast group makes the sale bittersweet. “There’s a give-and-take for being locally owned,” Baumann says. “Being locally owned means I just deal with one person—[outgoing general manager] Cheryl [Cordeiro]—I just pick up the phone, I could even call her at home at night. I’m sure that will change. But on the other hand, I know that the new owners will be instituting a health and benefits plan for the employees, which is wonderful for them. So maybe with the new owners we’ll have the best of both worlds.”