As villains go, Maureen Lesourd — prexy and G.M. of ABC-owned Los Angeles radio stations KABC, KTZN and KLOS-FM — is a somewhat unlikely one. She’s dabbled in advertising and in affiliate relations. She ran an ABC music station in Washington, D.C., for a while. And as far as anyone knows, she is kind to animals.

But earlier this month, Lesourd became one of the most disliked figures in L.A. broadcasting. Her sin: removing KABC personality Michael Jackson from the midday timeslot he had held down for nearly 31 years and shipping him to weekends, creating a firestorm of listener protest in the process.

Perhaps the problem wasn’t so much the fact that Jackson was given the weekday boot, since his ratings paled in comparison to KFI’s Rush Limbaugh in the time period. It was the way it was handled: allowing Jackson to take to the air and inform the audience before KABC’s management had a chance to put it into the spin cycle, with Lesourd coldly pronouncing, in essence, “Business is business.”

Jackson, a talk radio pioneer, had been voted Talk Radio Personality of the Year less than two weeks before. And the clunky manner in which a local icon was shoved off to weekend oblivion was typical of the lack of sensitivity that has defined the Lesourd era since her appointment nearly 15 months ago.

It has stood in stark contrast to the “We are family” style of Lesourd’s predecessor, 38-year ABC man George Green, who would mark birthdays by singing “Happy Birthday” and bestowing presents on each employee.

“Those days are gone, and it’s sad,” says Green, now a consultant.

Gone also are a majority of the talkradio personalities at both KABC and the former KMPC (now the female-skewed KTZN, a.k.a. “The Zone”).

On KABC alone, Lesourd has presided over a massive staff overhaul that has seen the departure of Jackson (from weekdays), morning personality Roger Barkley, restaurant critic Elmer Dills and weekend host Susan Estrich (who reportedly discovered she was being bumped when told by a Los Angeles Times reporter).

In the past few months, KABC has likewise lost its general sales manager, its national sales manager, its retail sales manager and five other ad sales execs.

“The poor morale at the station created by Lesourd makes working there a depressing thing,” says one current KABC employee.

Lesourd also allowed a competitor to swoop in and grab away from KABC the rights to Dodgers baseball broadcasts beginning in 1998, although the Dodgers, despite solid ratings, have been a financial loser for years.

Aud slide continues

Despite all of the changes — including the switch in format, call-letter change and billboard marketing campaign for KTZN — Lesourd has thus far failed to stem the continuing audience slide at both stations. KABC is regularly pummeled by KFI in total audience and is down tens of thousands of weekly listeners since Lesourd arrived. KTZN, which recently imported such names as Stephanie Miller and Dr. Toni Grant, continues to struggle to turn things around. A KABC/KTZN publicist failed to return phone calls seeking an interview with Lesourd. But others spoke in her defense, stressing that she is in a no-win situation and working to salvage the future of stations long on the wane with a “get younger” strategy.

Bob Callahan, prez of Capital Cities/ABC Radio, says, “Maureen Lesourd has had to make some tough calls. She’s doing a great job, and we believe the overall direction we’re headed in is the right one.

“The decisions we’re making in Los Angeles are for the long term, and we fully expect some short-term fallout from it.”

Question of experience

Indeed, many in radio are questioning Disney’s decision to promote Lesourd — a woman with practically no experience working in talk and none in the complex L.A. radio market.

Several of Lesourd’s moves certainly appear curious.

To replace Jackson, Lesourd tapped Ronn Owens, a political moderate who regularly cleans Limbaugh’s ratings clock. However, Owens happens to work for KGO in San Francisco, the nation’s most liberal major city, prompting one station wag to comment, “Mike Tyson could beat Rush Limbaugh in San Francisco.”

Lesourd has likewise sacrificed locality in the hirings of both Owens and longtime radio therapist Grant. Owens will work half the time out of San Francisco. Grant hosts her syndicated program out of Dallas.

But Ron Rodrigues, managing editor of the industry trade Radio & Records, believes the moves Lesourd has made have been dictated by low Arbitron ratings.

“Lesourd had to make some calls that, no matter what she did, would have been unpopular,” Rodrigues says. “Moving Michael Jackson was tremendously unpopular. But he’s been getting crushed by Limbaugh for a long time. What are you supposed to do?”

Defying the boycott

One thing Lesourd has done that has proven surprising is to stick behind afternoon drivetime personality Larry Elder, whose targeting for advertiser boycott by an African-American pressure group has cost the station in excess of $1 million in lost revenue over the past year alone.

If Jackson’s dropping from weekdays was just a business decision, what would Lesourd call keeping Elder on the air?

Disney may not need to come up with an answer. It would reportedly like to unload much of the ABC Radio division and concentrate more of its energies on redeeming its slumping primetime TV fortunes.

Until then, Lesourd controls the chessboard in L.A., a board that has yet to work in her favor.

“I don’t see things turning around for Maureen anytime soon,” says one radio industry source. “But for the most part, it’s out of her control.”

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