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Max Roby Leaves KMOX-TV

KMOX-TV Without Max Roby When veteran television news anchorman Max Roby left KMOX to join the “Eyewitness News team” at KSD, he was quoted as saying, “I feel like a 25-game winner who is joining a championship team.” The remark seemed somewhat out of character for Roby, who is best known for the earnest Walter Cronkite-way he reads the news and not for his way with words or ego-tripping. Yet, the baseball comparison is apt.

Television news – particularly local television news – is a good deal like Big League ball. It has a star system of Big Money entertainers who like to think of themselves as professionals. Yet when the chips are down it is the box office that determines who won of lost – regardless of how the game was played.

Or, as KMOX Director of Broadcast Chris Duffy puts it: “It’s a ratings game, and nobody is kidding anybody.”

In the ratings game, Roby did go to the “championship team.” American Rating Bureau surveys for February and March give Channel 5 the edge in the 10 o’clock news competition, with 398,000 viewers (on a seven-day average) compared to 325,000 for Channel 4.

KMOX-TV ad 1970
KMOX-TV ad 1970

KTVI (Channel 2) is not even in the same ratings league. It does not have a six o’clock news or even a locally produced 10 o’clock news on Saturdays and Sundays. Its five-day average at 10 o’clock is only 76,000.

The competition between KSD and KMOX at 6 o’clock is about even, according to Duffy, who also cites KMOX’s favorable demographics: “Our audience tends to be younger, and that’s good.”

But the question remains: What does Roby’s unexpected defection to KSD mean to the “news team” he left behind at Channel 4?

A Blessing in Disguise?

Although the station’s management is officially disappointed by Roby’s departure, there are those who believe it will prove to be a good thing for the KMOX news operation. Without the long-time anchorman, the station may be able to provide an alternative to the unrelenting sameness of the leading channels’ news programing.

“Maybe we were being safe without realizing it,” one executive admitted privately. With a “more aggressing anchorman” and better use of new minicameras (which can also be found at Channel 5), there is talk of “putting together a good, fast paced news program.” That remains to be seen. In the interim, Barry Serafin, who once did time at KMOX before going with CBS, has been borrowed from the network as a fill-in. Even in the first few days he was on the job, Serafin demonstrated poise and sophistication that comes from working the Big Leagues in Washington. Some executives at KMOX would like to make him a permanent star at Channel 4, but it is doubtful he can be persuaded to stay.

The problem of filling the anchorman spot aside, KMOX’s Duffy took a predictably positive view of the Channel 4 news operation in an interview with the Journalism Review.

“I would say the quality of this station’s news has improved tremendously in the last year and a half to two years,” he said. “But,” he conceded, “it’s not the best news market I’ve ever worked in.”

Duffy came to KMOX about 18 months ago after spending six years in Chicago with ABC. “Chicago has a more aggressive television – and newspaper – market. And we’re going to come up with that competition in St. Louis.”

KMOX News Director Robert Schaefer is also a relative newcomer at Channel 4, having come to St. Louis from New Orleans in September 1970. Prior to that his news experience included work as an investigative reporter for a Louisiana newspaper and five years with UPI.

Both Schaefer and Duffy say they are interested in seeing more “enterprise” and “investigative” reporting from their staff. “It’s one of our priorities,” said Duffy.

Investigative Reporting Limited

But the realities of meeting the daily “news diet” leave little in time, talent, or money for such projects, Schaefer admitted.

That is why so much TV news comes from “press conferences” or directly from the pages of the St. Louis Globe-Democrat and the St. Louis Post0Dispatch.

KMOX tries to avoid such pitfalls, Schaefer said. “We try to get something different, something other than the ‘talking heads’ that inevitably come from covering news conferences. And I think we do a better job than the competition.

“If you look at the future book (a log of press conferences and other events scheduled in advance largely in the hope of attracting television coverage) you can pretty much predict what they (KSD) will be covering.”

The KMOX efforts to do something a little different have been more in the way of a feature – some might say fluff – stories rather than investigative reporting. There are some examples of “enterprise” reporting cited by Duffy. They include coverage of proposed helicopter ambulance service (“We did a lot before the papers”), prescription drug prices and restaurant sanitation conditions.

“There’s a bunch of stuff – but no biggies. We’d like a biggie.” But, he continued, “when you have only 28 people , you don’t have enough bodies to go out and do investigative reporting. We hope to do something about that. I’m not promising anything, but we’re going to try very hard. It’s one of our priorities.”

Schaefer, too, cited staff limitations as a major factor in limiting investigative work by KMOX newsmen, both in terms of numbers and in terms of reporters with necessary qualifications and interest in the digging that goes with uncovering news.

Costs Inhibit Coverage

Such reporting and such reporters are not foreign to local TV news operations in other cities, or to the networks. A big factor is, to be blunt, money, and neither Duffy nor Schaefer would reveal how big a budget KMOX’s news operation has. “It’s never big enough,” Schaefer said. “Like everyone else, I’d like to have a lot more.”

As it is, he has to juggle considerations of news value with overtime and technical costs. The time of three-man camera crews, film, and processing do not come cheaply, and Schaefer said it sometimes was a limiting factor. On the other hand, if he should become too cost-conscious and miss covering certain events, his superiors could be calling for his job.

Good intentions aside, it appears that there will have to be considerable change in emphasis – which is to say budgeting policies – before KMOX will make much of a mark as an initiator and uncoverer of news.

Even though KMOX boasts of “more locally produced programing than any other station in town” its public affairs line up contains little in the way of special news programs, except for periodic (and low budget) interview programs.

Regular local news programs include three 30-minute “shows” at 5, 6 and 10 p.m. Monday through Friday, and two 30-minute broadcasts on Saturdays and Sundays, plus a total of 20 minutes for daily sign-on and sign-off news.

In terms of locally produced public affairs programing, the station carries about six hours a week, plus whatever offerings come from the network and early morning educational programs six days a week. Included in the locally produced list are “Newsmakers,” an interview show, “Heads Up,” a black oriented program, “Town and Country,” a weekly exercise in gardening and homemaking, “Scholar Quiz,” “For Kids Only” and religious programing. Not all “public affairs” programs are without sponsors. “If you can sell a public affairs show, the better off you are,” remarks Duffy.

Highest Minority Representation

Whatever its shortcomings as an investigative unit, the KMOX staff has the best minority mix in town. In terms of on camera “talent” there are two blacks (George Groce and Robin Brown), a woman (Betsey Bruce) and a Mexican-American (Ollie Raymand). It also has women and blacks working behind the scenes, including Karen Strobach, producer of the 5 o’clock news, and Lynn Shifflett, a black woman, producer of the weekend news shows and the interview program “Newsmakers.” Three other women, one of them black, also help out behind the scenes.

Although there has been more emphasis placed on the entire news staff – with broadcasts from an open newsroom (as opposed to a studio set) and opening shots showing a long desk filled end-to-end with reporters, conventional wisdom still attributes much of the success of a news operation to the anchorman, the spot vacated at KMOX by Roby.

“Historically, TV has been a personality business,” Duffy observed. “It’s a kind of a magical person who can become a good anchorman by today’s concepts.

“Ted Knight (the character on the Mary Tyler Moore Show) would have been a good anchorman 10 years ago,” he said. “Today he wouldn’t be.”

Today, to judge from local TV news in St. Louis, an anchorman must be serious, but not too serious. In recent months, in fact, a premium has been placed on joviality. This strained effort to portray newscasters as regular and witty guys has been dubbed by some “ha ha news.”

The fumblings of local TV newsmen have done little to dampen Duffy’s enthusiasm for the technique, however.

“I was in Chicago at ABC where it started, and I had a great deal to do with promoting the thing and getting it going,” he said.

“But ‘ha ha news’ is a misnomer,” he explained. “It’s called Happy Talk News, and it was coined by a writer for Variety.

“When we first put that show together in Chicago we had a lousy news department and four awfully good personalities,” he said. But because the personalities were “guys who happened to get along very well” and were good at ad libbing one-liners, the end result, according to Duffy, was a news department that became much better and is now “one of the best, by far, in Chicago.”

The Risks of Ad Libbing

“But what has happened elsewhere,” he went on, “is that imitators have spun off and picked up just the ad lib part of it, which is wrong. But I think there is one very important spin-off, and that is what everybody is really trying to do, which is to have the anchor people talk straight to the audience and not down at them. But you have to have a certain kind of people to do that. Condon can’t do it, and Max can’t do it.

“But it has been successful all over the country, and you can’t knock that as a broadcaster. It’s where the product stinks and it’s a laugh a minute that the problems are,” he said.

Given the obvious potential for problems, why has it been so imitated?

“Anything in broadcasting that is successful is imitated. It’s a very tough business and a very expensive business. If you can have a successful product and make money with it, you’re much better off than having an unsuccessful product and not making any money. It’s a ratings game, and nobody is kidding anybody.”

(Used with permission of the St. Louis Journalism Review. Originally published 5/1973).