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Bad news for news in KNX topper’s departure

THE TERM “INSTITUTION” is thrown around too liberally in connection with people and programs, but nothing less does justice to George Nicholaw, whose 36-year tenure running news-radio station KNX (1070) officially concludes today.

Owning a higher profile than most general managers because of his raspy delivery of the AM outlet’s daily editorials, Nicholaw’s departure –ending the longest tenure of any G.M. in the U.S. — also marks another sign of how conglomeration can reduce competition in a given market.

KNX and onetime archrival KFWB (980) now find themselves under the joint stewardship of David G. Hall, the newly appointed vice president of AM programming for Viacom’s Infinity Radio/Los Angeles.

That Hall comes from Premiere Radio Networks, where the stable of talk talent includes Dr. Laura and Rush Limbaugh, might point the way toward where at least one of our local news-radio stations is heading.

An Infinity spokeswoman said there was nothing to say as yet regarding format changes at the stations, where staffers are understandably nervous. Certainly, Hall’s hiring announcement — in which his new boss hailed him as “the best programmer for the spoken word formats in the country,” making no reference to news or journalism — doesn’t appear to bode well for them.

SPECULATION IS THAT INFINITY will differentiate the two stations’ product, with one offering some variation of news/talk or sports/talk (KFWB now carries the Dodgers) as opposed to vying for the news audience. That approach mirrors the way recently forged TV “duopolies” operate in concert, such as Fox shifting KCOP’s newscast — which features less substance than “Blind Date” — to 11 p.m. so it wouldn’t contend with sister flagship KTTV in the previous hour.

KNX and KFWB had already dropped the snarky ads that they once fired to and fro and begun offering synergistic “news reports” plugging upcoming programs on CBS, part of their parent company. In addition, station talent now regularly segue from the role of newsmen to pitchmen, shilling for laser eye surgery, cut-rate home mortgages or copper repiping.

Nicholaw’s presence has nevertheless sustained an imprimatur of respectability at KNX, where he introduced the station’s all-news format in 1968. The station has maintained a stable management team, continues to honor a “citizen of the week” and endeavors to fulfill the by-now-quaint ideal of community service obligations, rooted in Nicholaw’s early days overseeing community relations. In addition to his blissfully sedate editorials, KNX has even clung to its old fogey “Drama Hour” showcasing classic radio shows, despite broadcasting’s mandate to attract younger viewers and listeners.

While reluctant to discuss KNX’s future, Nicholaw — who over the years resisted promotion opportunities that would have elevated him out of a hands-on managerial role — feels secure about its past. “I’ve been very proud of a number of things that we accomplished here,” he said, citing, among others, the decision to carry the Watergate hearings live in the 1970s. “The station has served its community in a big way.”

ALTHOUGH INFINITY’S PLANS for its news stations haven’t been mapped out, other than regular traffic reports it’s hard to imagine much of Nicholaw’s spirit surviving for long — especially with Viacom president Mel Karmazin pressing execs to boost sluggish profits from the radio division.

Some, no doubt, will be eager to dismiss this salute as a case of clinging to a long-gone past; still, just because it’s gone doesn’t mean it need be forgotten, by George, or for that matter by the rest of us.

And as Nicholaw himself has said more times than I can remember, “If you have a different viewpoint, we’d like to hear from you.”

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