by gabrielle cosgriff
Before Nikki Van Hightower went on
the air March 20 to host her daily
call-in talk show on KTRH Radio,
station manager Hal Kemp congratulated
her on the dramatic improvement in her
audience ratings. (The new figures had
just been released.) After the show, he
fired her, telling her the station had
decided to go to another format in that
"I felt wounded," said Van High-
tower, "even though I was anticipating
it. Rejection isn't pleasant and it doesn't
do much for your ego."
Van Hightower was hired by the
station in March 1978, just after Mayor
Jim McConn had fired her from her job as
women's advocate for the City of
Houston. She shared a two-hour talk
show with Ed Brandon, Channel 13
TV meteorologist, until he left the
station in the summer of 1978, and did
a daily commentary for several months.
Pressure from advertisers and city
officials contributed to her firing, believes Van Hightower, "I was told by a
station employee that Blue Cross would
not advertise in my segment because of a
commentary I did on the rights of homosexuals." Other advertisers, including a
hotel and a grocery chain, had refused to
advertise in that time slot, said a source
at the station.
When a Breakthrough reporter
called the sales department at KTRH, the
information was volunteered that advertisers had refused to advertise on her
show, and had put pressure on management. Van Hightower's was not the only
show on which clients refused to
advertise. Sears withdrew their advertising
from Jim Bell's call-in show. Bell left the
Van Hightower told Breakthrough
that after she did a particular commentary, critical of city council, station
manager Kemp called her into his office.
Kemp told her that "upper management"
at the station had received a call from a
city council member. "He didn't tell me
to cool it, or anything like that," said
Van Hightower. "He merely said they had
received a call. After that he started reviewing my commentaries before they
went on the air."
Van Hightower had been doing a
daily commentary for about three
months at that time. Three months later
she found a memo in her box telling her
that her commentaries had been cancelled. No reason was given. Kemp later
announced that more advertising time per
hour was needed. The cancellation came a
few days after Van Hightower broadcast
what she considers one of her strongest
commentaries—a criticism of city officials
and police chief Harry Caldwell for their
handling of Iranian student demonstrations.
Kemp denied there had been any
pressure from city officials or advertisers.
In a story by Erna Smith in the Houston
Post (Mar. 23) Kemp said that Van Hightower did not develop as a "broad-based"
program commentator. Although the call-
in show had high ratings during the last
rating period, he believed they should
have been higher, said Kemp.
Van Hightower joined Brandon on
the air in March 1978. The Arbitron
ratings for Brandon's show in October-
November 1977 (before Van Hightower
joined him) showed a total of 30,800
listeners from 2-3 p.m., and a 6.7 percent
share of all metropolitan listeners.
Brandon left the show in the summer of
1978, and by the October-November
ratings of that year, Van Hightower's
total audience was down to 17,700, with
a 3.4 percent share.
It was then that management decided to make a change, according to a
station employee, and Van Hightower
would have been fired at that time if a
replacement could have been found.
Van Hightower was given no specific
information on those ratings, and was
told by Kemp only that she "did very
poorly" and "we'll have to talk."
When the talk did not materialize,
Van Hightower requested a meeting with
Kemp to discuss any problems. Kemp
made an appointment, later cancelled it,
and never mentioned it again. "I knew
then," said Van Hightower, "that he
didn't want to talk."
Ironically, on the same day that
But this case was somewhat different
from the firing of just another talk-
show host. Van Hightower was, and is, a
highly visible public figure and had been
fired before because of her outspokenness.
The Houston Post story of March
23 was the first public acknowledgment
that Van Hightower had been fired (a
rare instance of the media covering the
media). It gave rise to a question at the
mayor's press conference that morning,
which in turn led to a report on KTRH's
midday news show.
Referring to that story, Post reporter Tom Kennedy asked Mayor
McConn at his press conference, "Will
she (Van Hightower) be your p.r. man?"
"Well, it would be p.r. person," smiled
McConn, to laughter from reporters.
McConn then went on to say that he had
not put any pressure on KTRH to fire
Van Hightower and that he never listened
to her show.
The KTRH report carried only the
mayor's "no pressure" remarks, and
"I think it's very difficult for management
in media to take any risks. They run scared
about ratings all the time."
Van Hightower was fired, the Arbitron
ratings for January-February 1979 were
released. They were the best the station
had had in that time slot for the last two
years. She had a total of 32,900 listeners
and a 7.5 share of all metropolitan listeners. In three months, her audience had
more than doubled. The January-February figures were higher than Ed Brandon's
most favorable ratings.
"I think they brought on a very
controversial person when they hired
me," said Van Hightower. "They were
hoping that with my past exposure it
would skyrocket them to the top of the
ratings (for that time period). When that
didn't work out and it was a slow building process, they got very uneasy about
me and about controversy and shifted
back. I think it's very difficult for
management in media, who run scared
about ratings all the time, to take any
risks. I sensed that they did (take a risk)
but when it didn't have instantaneous results, they couldn't hold up."
KTRH airs no local commentary,
which of its nature is more controversial
than the national, syndicated type. Their
only political commentator is Ronald
Reagan, who is aired daily. Investigative
reporter Jack Anderson has a daily syndicated commentary.
Whether the station is moving away
from controversy in its programming or
not, the management certainly took a
dim view of any controversy over their
action in firing Van Hightower.
"As a standard, when somebody
leaves they go without mention," said
KTRH talk-show producer Shane Fox.
ended with a comment from KTRH news
director Ben Baldwin to the effect that
Van Hightower's firing was a "programming decision."
Interestingly enough, Baldwin was
in Corpus Christi that day, attending a
conference on hurricanes. The station
apparently reached him there to record
That Friday was also the first day
since the firing that listeners were able to
participate in an "open forum" call-in
show. Host Bill Hazen invited listeners to
talk about "anything that's on your
mind." Well, almost anything, as it turned
out. Callers who said that they wanted to
talk about Van Hightower were informed
that they would not be allowed to do so.
It is a valid argument that there is
little to be gained by an "after-the-fact
popularity contest on the air," as producer Fox put it. But Fox refused to discuss the ethics of an "open forum" that
is restricted without the listeners' knowledge. "You're asking me to second-
guess management," he said. "The proper
channel (for comments on the firing) is
to write a letter."
On the Thursday morning, Janice
Blue had followed that channel by
delivering a letter to Hal Kemp, with
copies to other station personnel, expressing her views on the firing. (She also
sent a copy of the letter to the F. C. C,
to Arthur L. Ginsburg, Chief of Complaints and Compliance, Broadcast
Bureau Room 332, 1919 M Street, N.W.
Washington D. C. 20554.)
Telephone receptionists at KTRH
had told callers that Kemp would accept
opinions on the firing only in the form of
letters—he would not discuss it on the
phone. They said that in the few days
after the firing they had received "a lot of
calls. A lot."
When I called Kemp for a pre-arranged interview, he said he had changed
his mind and would not grant me an interview.
Citing Blue's letter, he said he felt
that since we worked for "the same organization" no useful purpose would be
served. He objected to the fact that she
had written the letter "castigating" him,
without checking with him first, in spite
of the fact that he had asked people to
use this form of communication.
"I resent her letter being issued
without asking me first," said Kemp. "I
have no objection to a personal view.
What I object to is . . . not even getting
the original, just getting a copy of it like
everybody else. I think that was in extremely poor taste." Blue says he received
the original—the copies were Xeroxed.
When I asked Kemp what he felt
about the station's accountability to its
listeners in the matter of forbidding discussion of Van Hightower on an "open
forum," he replied "That's neither here
nor there and I have no comment for you."
"How do you suggest then that we
communicate on this issue?" I asked. "If
the Houston Post doesn't mind," said
Kemp, "you're free to quote from the interview I gave the girl on Friday." "The
girl?" I asked. "Ah-hmm," he affirmed.
The "girl" was Erna Smith, who
wrote the Post story in which Kemp denied that any pressure had been applied
to the station by advertisers or city officials.
Since Van Hightower and other
sources at the station claim otherwise, it
is unfortunate that the management
chose not to clarify the matter.
It is also open to conjecture whether
Van Hightower failed to develop as a
"broad-based" commentator, as Kemp
claimed. "I knew that there was a turnover," said Van Hightower. "You can just
tell. You hear different voices. You hear
Obviously, she had lost many of
Brandon's listeners in the first few months,
and was quickly building a following of
her own. In three months her audience
had increased dramatically, to the point
where she had the best ratings in that time
slot in two years.
It looks as though the station lost a
winner after all, since the ratings are the
bottom line of commercial broadcasting.
But the real losers were the listening public, who had finally been able to hear
something of substance and integrity on a
talk-show. "I don't agree with you much
of the time," said one caller, "but I admire
you for having the courage to say what
you believe." That was a sentiment repeated often over the last year.
"At first, Nikki did abysmally," said
producer Shane Fox, "but she improved
and gained experience. Her strength was
her intellect and her wit and the power of
Van Hightower said that she plans
to stay in Houston, and would like to go
into lecturing, public education and writing. "I'm getting it into perspective now,"
she said of the firing, "but it's a shock for