With Fisher Communication’s recent announcement that its KIDK Idaho Falls would be turning over operations to competitor News-Press & Gazette’s KIFI under a shared services and sales agreement, 27 people will be out of work and there will be one less news voice in DMA 162. The official line is the move was made to take advantage of “operating synergies and expense savings,” but executives of both companies wouldn’t say any more or take questions.
If you’re in it mostly for the lifestyle, Idaho Falls-Pocatello is a pretty nice place to spend a career in TV broadcasting.
Albeit small (DMA 162), the market is poised near some of the most spectacular wilderness in the country and sophisticated enough to periodically make those “Best Places to Live” lists.
But, for more than two dozen individuals, staying in TV and the market no longer appears to be an option.
A few weeks before Christmas, Fisher Communications informed the 43 employees of KIDK Idaho Falls that it would be turning over operation of the CBS affiliate (and a companion low-power MNT affiliate) to cross-town ABC affiliate, KIFI, and that 27 would be losing their jobs, according to a story by Clark Corbin in the Idaho Falls Post Register.
The cuts include KIDK General Manager Jim Wareham and News Director Chris Huston.
Currently the market leader in news, News-Press & Gazette’s KIFI ends up with a CBS-ABC duopoly. It’s only competition in news will be Sunbelt’s KPVI, an NBC affiliate based in Pocatello.
According to the companies’ official joint announcement, there will not be much left of KIDK as an independent broadcaster. Under a shared services and joint sales agreement, KIFI will provide sales, promotional, administrative and “other operational support services” for KIDK.
And it is clear from Corbin’s and my own reporting that KIFI is also taking over the news.
Among the 14 that will be transferring to KIFI are two anchors, a weathercaster, two reporters and a producer. (Fisher is retaining two employees, an engineer and master control operator, presumably to keep KIDK on the air.)
Although KIFI will produce KIDK-branded newscasts for KIDK, there are going to be fewer of them and they will air at times that don’t compete with KIFI newscasts, according to a KIDK employee who made the cut.
Instead of having a traditional 5 p.m. newscast, for example, KIDK will air its news at 5:30 and KIDK may also air a 9:30 p.m. newscast on the low-power MNT affiliate, KXPI, the employee said.
The KIDK morning show, Channel 3 Eyewitness News This Morning anchored by Tommy Noel and Michelle Ludka, will be nixed, the employee said, although Noel and Ludka will be keeping their jobs.
Reporters will likely appear on both stations, the employee added.
I had plenty of questions on why Fisher decided to strike its flag and how NPG plans to integrate the second station into its operation, but executives of the companies declined to speak with me.
After repeated attempts to talk to Fisher, the best I could get was a statement e-mailed from an outside PR firm. “We believe that entering into the shared-services agreement with the News-Press & Gazette will enable KIDK to become a stronger and more competitive station,” it says.
“In making this decision, we recognize that the changes will impact some of our employees and we are committed to providing those affected with career transition services.”
Those affected by the consolidation were advised not to speak to me. Both the KIDK and KIFI general managers said they would have to turn over inquiries to Fisher. Several KIDK staffers I contacted also begged off.
Even John Kueneke, president of News-Press & Gazette broadcasting, wasn’t willing to talk, saying via e-mail, “As this agreement is newly announced and all the details have yet to be determined, I’m sure Fisher gave you all the details available at this time.”
So with Fisher mute, the best explanation for the merger is a single sentence in the joint announcement: “The agreements are expected to provide operating synergies and expense savings to both stations.”
The reduced head count is no doubt a major component of the “expense savings.”
The Idaho arrangement is not unusual. The combination of network affiliates within markets and the resultant loss of independent local news operations are becoming increasingly common as weaker stations give up their independence in the face of dwindling revenue and rising costs.
Although FCC rules prohibit common ownership of network affiliates in a market, it has been allowing broadcasters to circumvent the ban via contracts — shared services, joint sales and the like — so long as the subordinate station retains ultimate control of the programming.
KIDK is replete with history — it started in 1953 as an offshoot of KID radio, and enjoyed a heyday through the 80s — but for several years it has been trailing behind its competitors, ranking No. 3 in the local news ratings behind KIFI and KPVI, says Bob Ziel, a retired KIDK newsman who has watched the market for 30-plus years.
“It’s very unfortunate,” Ziel said. “I just think they’ve fallen on tough economic times.”
Brenda Baumgartner, news director of rival KPVI and a broadcast journalism teacher at Idaho State University, was also sympathetic.
“I don’t think anyone I’ve talked to thinks this is positive,” she said. “It shows how the business is fracturing and we’re finding ways just to survive.”
Ziel says he believes KIDK’s 10-acre station and tower site may also be in play. Located on one of Idaho Falls’ busiest, and therefore most expensive, streets, the building has elicited interest from developers in the past, says Ziel.
Needless to say, the news that KIDK was being folded in KIFI did not go down well will any of the employees.
“It’s pretty much a slap in the face,” said the employee who will be making the cross-town move.
Job prospects in the market aren’t promising and, given the tough time facing TV stations nationwide, they aren’t particularly promising outside the market, either.
“They are probably going to have to find something not in news,” the employee said. “It’s a very bittersweet kind of thing,” the employee continued, adding that there is no time to pine for a newsroom that’s about to become history. “I’m looking toward the future because I have a family to raise and I just have to do [the job] whether I like it or not.”
I’m not sure what Fisher has to gain by keeping so quiet, particularly when what seems to be the worst of the news stemming from the new agreement, the layoffs, is already out of the bag.
As Ziel put it: “Silence breeds suspicion.”
Diana Marszalek writes about local TV news every other week in her Air Check column. You can reach her for comment on this column or with ideas for upcoming ones at [email protected]. For other Air Check stories, click here.