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Tuesday, Jan. 13, 2009 | San Diego-based radio talk-show hosts have suddenly become an endangered species, leaving listeners with few places to hear chatter dedicated to both local politics and national issues.

In recent weeks, the station known as San Diego 1700 has severed ties with Stacy Taylor and Mark Larson, both longtime staples of local talk radio, apparently in favor of less expensive alternatives. The top-rated afternoon show of former San Diego Mayor Roger Hedgecock, meanwhile, has abandoned its local focus to appeal to a new, national audience.

In the political talk arena, KOGO’s Chip Franklin and KFMB-AM’s Rick Roberts are now the only local hosts on commercial stations during weekday mornings and afternoons.

That’s a far cry from the 1980s and 1990s, when some San Diego stations had three or more local hosts on the air each day. Now, almost every talk show on the local dial is nationally syndicated.

“Cheap, syndicated talk radio has been an alluring temptation for radio management for some time, but now that revenue streams have dried up apparently they can’t resist,” said Taylor, a local radio veteran.

In a city dominated by conservative talk, Taylor — who formerly worked at defunct liberal talk station KLSD — offered a left-leaning perspective. Larson is a conservative Christian who once worked at religious station KPRZ and briefly considered a run for Congress in last year’s election.

As for Hedgecock, his new gig as a nationally syndicated host requires him to discuss issues that are of interest to listeners across the country. In his 23 years on the local airwaves, he has been a major conservative voice in San Diego, advocating against gay marriage and illegal immigrants, among other things.

He was especially known for hosting debates in local election season. While KOGO plans to continue holding debates hosted by someone else, they may have a smaller audience absent Hedgecock’s drawing power.

Richard Rider, San Diego Tax Fighters chairman, said radio debates are crucial, especially when some issues otherwise get little public attention. “Radio reaches a far broader audience and really does give an airing to issues that people otherwise don’t hear,” said Rider, a former guest host for Hedgecock. “(Voters) don’t attend the debates, and they’re actually few and far between beyond radio.”

Despite the sudden demise of locally-based shows, however, talk radio itself remains a force on the San Diego dial.

Locally based financial and sports shows continue to air. On the political front, talk station KOGO perennially ranks among the highest-rated stations in county and topped the list in the Arbitron ratings for the fall of 2008. KOGO was also the top-rated station in the afternoon, when Hedgecock’s show airs.

In the morning, when KOGO’s Franklin competes against KFMB-AM’s Roberts, KOGO was the third-highest rated station in the county and KFMB-AM was sixth. (KLNV, a Spanish-language music station, and KGB were in first and second places, respectively.)

Roberts, a conservative with a longstanding rivalry against Hedgecock, has been on the air in San Diego since the 1990s and recently criticized Barack Obama over his supposed powers of “hope-nosis.” Franklin, a recent transplant from Baltimore, tackles politics and topics like television and movies. A stand-up comic, he also approaches strangers to ask questions like, “How many years in a 30-year mortgage?”

So why not air more local talk radio devoted to politics? There are two reasons: It’s expensive and there are cheaper alternatives.

In a market like San Diego, talk-show hosts make up to hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. They also need staff members to help screen calls and produce their shows.

By contrast, a nationally syndicated host — like, say, Sean Hannity or Michael Savage — can attract listeners to a radio station without the extra expense of actually producing a local show. Distributors of syndicated talk shows typically allow stations to air their shows at no cost, making their money through commercials aired nationally. Local stations then add their own commercials to pad their coffers.

So stations choose to stick with national hosts and sack their local ones. “A good definition of bad management is: if you can’t figure out creative ways to make your product more competitive, shore up the bottom line by cutting payroll,” talk-show host Taylor said. “The bean counters have finally taken over the business as was predicted years ago.”

The radio industry is suffering through the recession like other forms of media. Across the country, syndicated hosts are replacing local disc jockeys, and radio news departments are shrinking.

The decline of local talk radio won’t mean the end of programming geared toward political-minded San Diegans. But the pickings are slim.

A number of morning hosts on music stations do talk about local politics on occasion. But they’re often less than serious: Last year, for example, the hosts at 91X distributed a T-shirt emblazoned with the infamous epithet directed by Mayor Jerry Sanders at rival Steve Francis.

Elsewhere on the dial, KPBS-FM’s “These Days” will continue airing, although it covers a wide range of topics besides local politics. KCBQ, a conservative talk station, airs a local show hosted by Rick Amato at night.

Meanwhile, KOGO airs local programming on the weekend and now airs an hour-long weekday show at 6 p.m. devoted to local issues and hosted by Jack Rice, a former CIA officer.

Rice is based in Minneapolis, where he also hosts a show, and is planning to move to San Diego, said KOGO program director Cliff Albert. “He grew up here, knows what’s going on here, and with the Internet, web sites. … satellite TV, you don’t have to be here every day to know what’s going on and to be relevant.”

As for political coverage, KOGO “will still provide local forums and debates on local races and issues in one-hour specials at 6 p.m. or at other times during the day as well as special news vignettes that include all points of view,” Albert said. The station will also offer debates as podcasts.

Such broadcasts aren’t likely to assuage people like Gayle Lynn Falkenthal, a public relations consultant and former producer for Hedgecock’s show. She called for more local programming.

“I would hope that some program directors think of this as an investment in the community that will pay off in many ways,” said Falkenthal, who substitutes for Amato on his KCBQ show once a week.

“With the economy being squeezed and pressure on all sides, it’s very tempting to take the route of saving money,” she said. “As far as the radio business is concerned, you really can’t fail by saving money. You can’t go wrong. But you’re certainly not going to invest in something that will grow and benefit you in the future.”

Randy Dotinga is a San Diego-based freelance writer. Please contact him directly at rdotinga@aol.com with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

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