KDKA Radio's 'combative' editorial strategy has employees and listeners worried about the historic station's legacy

KDKA Radio's 'combative' editorial strategy has employees and listeners worried about the historic station's legacy
click to enlarge KDKA Radio talk show hosts Marty Griffin and Wendy Bell - CP PHOTO ILLUSTRATION: ABBIE ADAMS // ORIGINAL PHOTOS: KDKA RADIO AND WENDY BELL RADIO

CP photo illustration: Abbie Adams // Original photos: KDKA RADIO and Wendy Bell Radio

KDKA Radio talk show hosts Marty Griffin and Wendy Bell

Pittsburgh's KDKA Radio is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, making it the oldest commercial radio station in the U.S. Its first broadcast on Nov. 2, 1920 announced the election results between presidential candidates Warren G. Harding and James M. Cox. KDKA Radio quite literally set the standard for radio media in America.

But recent editorial decisions by the station have caused some to question that pedigree. KDKA Radio, broadcasted locally on 1020 AM, has boosted controversial radio personalities to the detriment of public sentiment. Local officials have canceled interviews with the station and advertisers have condemned content and asked to be moved off of certain hosts’ shows.

The station has altered strategies often, but those efforts have accelerated since KDKA was purchased by radio conglomerate Entercom in 2017. Former and current employees say it's created chaos. And most recently, KDKA Radio lost one of its longtime co-hosts in John Shumway, who was forced out because he refused requests by producers to be more combative and was “too nice” for the new direction of the station, according to sources who spoke to Pittsburgh City Paper.

All of this has come during periods of lower ratings and the realities of a shrinking audience on AM radio. It makes KDKA Radio’s future difficult to predict. And it doesn’t seem to be sitting well with many Pittsburghers. A current KDKA Radio employee, who agreed to speak to CP on the condition of anonymity, says the station has been inundated with emails and letters criticizing the station’s content and controversial hosts like Wendy Bell and Marty Griffin.

The employee has noticed the station shifting to the right, and embracing more fringe conservative rhetoric. But beyond that, the employee and others in the Pittsburgh media world are worried about the station losing any sense of the community news reporting it has traditionally championed. The current employee worries the legacy of the storied radio station may already be tarnished beyond repair.

“KDKA radio has a legacy and it has a history. And all of the sudden the station that built the media in this town, doesn't hold the standard,” said the current employee. “KDKA Radio set the standard and now it doesn’t.”

KDKA Radio's conservative angle is not new. Before it was purchased by Entercom, the fourth largest radio conglomerate in the country, it was owned by CBS, and Westinghouse before that. In the early 1990s, it made the switch to a pure news/talk format. KDKA Radio and KDKA TV were once part of the same company, but in 2017, KDKA Radio, including its AM talk station (1020 AM) and its FM sports station (93.7 FM), split from the television station.

When it moved to a pure news format, KDKA Radio broadcasted nationally syndicated conservative radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh, and eventually, Bill O'Reilly. Longtime local talk show host Mike Pintec’s views also leaned to the right.

But even hosts like Pintec recognized going full-bore into one political viewpoint isn’t a recipe for success in Pittsburgh. "If you're not entertaining, and if all you're doing is pushing that conservative Republican line, and you're trying to act as a propagandist for that political viewpoint, you're going to be doomed,” Pintec told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2009. “People can see through that.”

Eventually, KDKA adapted to a local talk-show host model and did away with the national conservative syndicates, and that continued while under CBS ownership. Then Entercom took over in 2017.

A former KDKA Radio host who spoke to CP on the condition of anonymity says that’s when Entercom started changing the news format, including bringing on new hosts and trying out anything that might garner some attention.

“They have been throwing a lot of shit to the wall,” says the former host. “Some things have stuck, and some things haven’t.”

The former host acknowledges the station had a right-leaning tilt, but said the reporting and hosts were always grounded in the community, which gave them respect among listeners. The city of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County vote reliably Democratic, but it’s hardly a liberal enclave overall compared to bigger cities on the West Coast or in the Northeast. Conservatives, like former Sen. Rick Santorum and former Gov. Tom Corbett, amassed power in Pittsburgh, too.

As such, the former host says Entercom’s reformatting “failed miserably.” The host says that KDKA Radio started to drop in the ratings. Historically, it was usually among the most listened to radio stations in the region. But as of earlier this year, KDKA Radio fell to the 9th or 10th spot in the Pittsburgh market, on par with WESA-FM, Pittsburgh's public broadcasting station.

WESA is less than 10 years old and broadcasts at 25,000 watts; KDKA radio is almost 100 years old and broadcasts at 50,000 watts.

The former host says that in response, the station started turning up the heat in the realm of reactionary politics. In January 2019, Wendy Bell started with KDKA Radio, her first gig after being fired from WTAE TV for writing racist posts on Facebook. Bell started out co-hosting with Marty Griffin, another reactionary figurehead in Pittsburgh media.

KDKA Radio then split them up and gave each their own show. This year, Bell questioned on-air if it was worth shutting down many parts of the American economy to avoid millions of Americans dying from coronavirus. She also recently compared those who disagree with Gov. Tom Wolf’s coronavirus business closures to the victims of the Benghazi attacks.

On May 22, Bell said on-air that schools should never have closed during the coronavirus pandemic and that playgrounds should be open. On May 20, an AP-NORC poll showed that 83% of Americans are concerned that lifting restrictions in their area will lead to additional COVID-19 infections.

Bell regularly hosts as guests some of Pennsylvania’s most conservative and right-wing politicians, like Rep. Guy Reschenthaler (R-Peters), who has his own controversial history as a conservative talk radio co-host.

Additionally, KDKA Radio lost one of its longtime hosts when John Shumway recently left the station. Shumway had been co-hosting a radio show with Larry Richert for decades. A media professional who has interacted with KDKA producers for several years says the reason behind Shumway’s departures is that he didn’t fit the direction producers wanted to take the show anymore, and they wanted someone “more combative.”

“[A KDKA Radio producer] told me that John just didn't fit what they wanted for the show because he was too nice, and that Shumway is more of a liberal guy,” said the media professional who spoke to CP on the condition of anonymity, since they still interact with media organizations in the Pittsburgh region.

Shumway didn’t respond to a request for comment for this article. KDKA Radio also didn’t respond to a request for comment for this article.

Kevin Battle has replaced Shumway as co-host with Richert. Battle has an impressive resume as a radio host, but it clearly tilts to the right. He was a radio anchor on Fox News Headlines 24/7, a show started in 2015 with Shepard Smith as one of its anchors.

The media professional says that Battle oversees a more “right-wing operation,” which includes his on-air persona and Battle’s contributions to KDKA Radio’s website. In a March 20 blog post, Battle praised the governor’s efforts in starting to close things down to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Then, three days later, he complained that methods of the state coronavirus count would lead to overly long stay-at-home orders.

On May 7, Battle penned a blog post criticizing Gov. Wolf’s proposal to have unemployed Pennsylvanians find work through a Commonwealth Civilian Coronavirus Corps, suggesting this program would create long-term careers in state government with a “chance to take over all aspects of private healthcare.”

“They want their brand to be talk radio, and not news,” says the media professional.

In addition to Shumway leaving, John McIntire, one of KDKA Radio’s more liberal stalwarts, lost his regular show on Wednesday and Thursday nights when Robert Mangino was moved to that time slot in January 2019. (McIntire still fills in from time to time.) But just last week, it was announced that Mangino was the new weekday co-host of Lynne Hayes-Freeland, who had been given her own midday, weekday talk show in December 2018. Their first co-hosted show aired on May 18.

Right now, the prime slots on KDKA Radio belong to Richert and Battle during morning rush hour and to Bell during evening rush hour. Griffin holds the 9 a.m.-to-noon slot, and then Hayes-Freeland and Mangino have the afternoon slot.

The current KDKA Radio employee also sees the station shifting to the right, and is getting frustrated with the chaotic nature of editorial changes.

“What is going on?” says the current employee. “Why are you becoming this other station? Why are you moving so far to the right?”

This shift could have consequences moving forward, in an already bleak future for AM radio. A 2017 study from New York University notes how members of Generation Z (ages 7-22) have next to no interest in consuming over-the-air radio content. And AM stations have an even steeper climb, as the stations only represent between 10-20% of the current national radio audience.

This might explain KDKA Radio’s push for online content that stirs controversy, and the shares on social media that come with it. It also might explain why hosts like Bell, who has a massive following on Facebook, are given free reign.

KDKA Radio also publishes its content as podcasts online and they are easily accessible, but its politics could also turn off future listeners. According to Pew Research, 70% of Gen Z believe the government should do more to solve problems, while only 29% say those problems should be solved by businesses and individuals.

And even Republicans within Gen Z are much less likely to believe climate-change denialism and other far-right opinions that have infected an increasingly old, white, and rural Republican Party.

The former host believes that KDKA Radio knows it faces a daunting future in terms of growing its listeners. “Your audience is dying,” says the former host. “To shock and be provocative, it is an old, familiar playbook.”

Recently, according to the host, that provocative nature included Griffin repeatedly misgendering Pennsylvania Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine, who is trans, during a call with dozens of reporters. Griffin apologized, but the former host thinks the incident was all part of a reactionary playbook where Griffin’s audience can believe that his critics were overreacting to a mistake. And reaction to the coverage of Griffin might confirm that theory, as dozens of commenters on social media defended Griffin and also misgendered Levine on purpose.

Because of Griffin's comments, Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto canceled an interview he had scheduled with Hayes-Freeland on KDKA Radio. Peduto tweeted, “Growing up, KDKA had good people who made us proud to be from Pittsburgh. Now, it shock-jocks, sensationalism, and worse.”

Peduto’s spokesperson Tim McNulty told CP that the cancellation was also due to several problems the office has had with Griffin’s coverage, including Griffin stirring up controversy over Peduto ordering sand to be placed in a Polish Hill skatepark, which was closed due to the stay-at-home orders.

Griffin has long taken to the airwaves to criticize Peduto, as he did when the mayor announced opposition to future cracker plans in the region. Griffin called Peduto’s comments “crap” and said that “it is a lie” that living downwind of petrochemical plants have a direct effect on the quality of life for Pittsburghers.

The current KDKA Radio employee thinks that if KDKA Radio is in fact pursuing an editorial strategy of shifting to the right and encouraging more combative hosts, management should at least explain that to employees and to listeners.

“When are we gonna talk about the elephant in the room?” asks the current staffer. “I think they owe it to people to respond.”

The current employee says there has been a lot of rumbling among Pittsburgh media consumers about KDKA Radio. “I know they get a lot of letters,” says the employee.

Over the last several months, social media in Pittsburgh has often been abuzz with questions and concerns about KDKA Radio.

“It’s a damn shame KDKA Radio has become such a tool for right-wing propaganda,” Pittsburgh artist and activist Phat Man Dee tweeted in April. “Pittsburgh and its legacy of actual journalists deserve better. [Wendy Bell] is trash and everyone with a damn conscience knows it.”

For now, the backlash doesn’t appear to be hurting KDKA Radio’s bottom line. The former host says there are still plenty of advertisers that have always purchased spots on the station and are comfortable continuing to do so, thanks to KDKA's history and name recognition. The host says that, in Pittsburgh, if people are comfortable doing something, they are slow to change, even in an evolving market that is likely facing a future downturn.

In April, the Original Mattress Factory, a regular advertiser, condemned Bell’s comments in which she said the possibility of millions of deaths were worth reopening the economy. The mattress chain requested its ads be pulled from Bell’s show, but not off the station entirely. The Original Mattress Factory did not respond to questions about whether it was still advertising on KDKA Radio. Additionally, after Bell compared those who opposed Wolf’s business closures to Benghazi attack victims during a segment sponsored by local car dealer Shults Ford, the dealership also gave no indication that it would be pulling ads from the station.

And while KDKA Radio’s numbers in the last few years have been slipping, there might be signs that some of the reactionary radio is working to boost the station's ratings. KDKA Radio has seen its ratings double in April, compared to February and January. According to Nielsen Ratings, KDKA Radio was the second-most listened-to station in Pittsburgh in April, just behind WDVE 102.5 FM, the perennial ratings winner and home of the Pittsburgh Steelers broadcasts.

(It’s also possible that KDKA is receiving a coronavirus bump, as some of the more popular Pittsburgh music stations have taken ratings dips during the pandemic, and news stations, like KDKA and WESA, have seen ratings increases.)

Longtime Pittsburgh TV news anchor and radio talk show host Lynn Cullen doesn’t think the strategy will pay off in the end. She says that for generations, people assumed KDKA Radio was “the only radio station that mattered” thanks to its history and high wattage.

But, Cullen, a CP contributor who currently hosts a left-leaning podcast that is published Monday-Thursday on CP's website, believes KDKA Radio might be relying too much on those that remember KDKA Radio’s golden years.

“Their audience has to be old. Their audience has been dying on them,” says Cullen.

And even though she disagrees with just about everything Bell says, she recognizes that hosts like Bell spewing “garbage and crap” is entertaining to a certain audience. However, Cullen says that KDKA Radio embracing that strategy is just more evidence that the station doesn’t care about its Pittsburgh audience, one that is used to the 100-year-old station putting community news first, even if championing conservative voices.

“It shows they are lazy, and they are just following a format,” says Cullen. “Do all Pittsburghers want to hear this? No. That place doesn’t give a damn about its audience.”