Strapped Owner Fires WMAL Host Chris Core
Saturday, March 1, 2008
After more than three decades on Washington radio station WMAL, Chris Core's career there came to an abrupt end yesterday.
Core, a genial talk-show host, had just completed his morning program when station managers told him that the shift would be his last. He was let go without a chance to say farewell to listeners, who have heard him on WMAL (630 AM) since 1974. Core, 59, was the longest-running personality on Washington radio, beating WPGC-FM morning man Donnie Simpson by three years.
Core's dismissal was part of a massive cost-cutting campaign ordered yesterday by WMAL's troubled parent company, Citadel Broadcasting.
Citadel yesterday also dropped its declining "smooth jazz" programming on WMAL's sister station WJZW (105.9 FM) and replaced the format with oldies from the 1960s and '70s (the first song to announce the switch: Aretha Franklin's "Respect"). The station will now call itself "True Oldies 105.9." All of WJZW's on-air personalities were let go as a result of the change.
The company laid off about a dozen employees at Citadel's three local stations, including WJZW, WMAL and WRQX (107.3 FM), which will continue to play contemporary pop music.
"I'm very surprised, but it isn't about me and it isn't personal," Core said yesterday in an interview. "It's not based on ratings. It's not based on something I said or didn't say. This is something that came from outside Washington, and it's affecting all of [Citadel's] stations."
Core said his career at WMAL has spanned "six different owners, four different general managers and seven different program directors." Core is perhaps best known for a 20-year pairing at WMAL with Bill Trumbull on the "Trumbull and Core" afternoon program.
"I've been really lucky," he said. "It's been an honor. If it was up to me, I would have finished my career at WMAL. But radio jobs don't last forever, and I know that. Citadel had to do what they had to do."
Citadel, based in Las Vegas and New York, until recently operated stations in smaller cities. It vaulted into radio's top ranks last June by buying 22 big-city stations, including WMAL, from the Walt Disney Co. in a $2.7 billion deal.
But with the ailing economy and relentless competition for listeners from digital devices of all kinds, Citadel, and the industry generally, has been in steady decline. The company yesterday surprised analysts by reporting a fourth-quarter loss of $848 million ($3.24 per share), compared with a net loss of $1.1 million (one penny per share) during the same quarter in 2006. Its annual loss was $1.29 billion ($6.61), compared with a loss of $48 million (43 cents) the year before.
As evidence of how much its fortunes -- and perhaps the radio business -- have shrunk, Citadel's entire stock-market value yesterday dipped under $300 million, a fraction of the value of its giant station purchase completed just eight months ago.
Core, who was among the last Washington personalities to host an all-local call-in program, recalled being on the air for many of the major local news events of the past few decades: the 1981 attempt on President Ronald Reagan's life, the crash of an Air Florida jet in 1982 and the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, among others.
"I don't say 'McClean' and I don't say 'New Carlton,' " he joked yesterday. "I'm a Washingtonian. I moved here the day the Kennedy Center opened."
Core added: "I tried to run an open-minded, fair talk show. I never hung up on people and I tried not to talk over them. I enjoyed the banter and intellectual stimulation. I tried to engage with people I disagreed with. I guess that makes me a rarity in talk radio."
Core was calm as he broke the news of his dismissal to his wife and 13-year-old daughter yesterday ("We're going to be fine," he said), but he broke down in tears when remembering the various charities his listeners had contributed to over the years.
Core said he has no immediate plans. "I guess my dream job would be to work for the Washington Nationals," he said. "If the [team's owners] call, I'd say I was available."