Love it or hate it, KUSI covers San Diego in its own special, old-school way

by on August 6, 2008 · 3 comments

in Media, San Diego

Editor: In light of recent developments regarding the owners of KUSI – the McKinnon family – posed to buy the Union-Tribune, we found the following piece from last May to be of interest.

By Karla Peterson /UNION-TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER / originally posted May 26, 2008

Teacher layoffs. Drug violence in Mexico. College tuition increases. On any given day, much of the local news reported on KUSI/Channel 51 is the same as the news on any other TV station in town. But its newscasts couldn’t happen anywhere but there.

HOWARD LIPIN / Union-Tribune

Anchor Sandra Maas of KUSI greeted viewers at the North Park Festival of the Arts.

On KUSI, you will find crusading reporter Michael Turko tackling suspicious parking tickets and predatory mortgage brokers with superhero gusto, while meteorologist and off-camera global-warming skeptic John Coleman windmills his arms over his weather map as if he is trying to conjure up his own tornado.

It is also where you would have found boisterous morning-show reporter Rod Luck checking in from an elementary school read-a-thon or a local food festival. If Luck hadn’t been put on administrative leave earlier this month after being arrested on suspicion of hitting a female companion in San Francisco – much to the voyeuristic (and often vitriolic) interest of the blogosphere.

With its small operating budget and big, polarizing personalities, the locally owned KUSI is the kind of colorful, homegrown institution that people love or loathe with a passion that is usually reserved for sports teams and extended families. And the folks at KUSI return the favor by continuing to report our news in their own special way.

Small screen, big personalities. At KUSI, the roster of polarizing personnel includes morning-show reporter Rod Luck (above), meteorologist John Coleman (below) and consumer advocate Michael Turko (bottom).

“(Broadcasting) isn’t always about being popular. Sometimes, it’s about having someone who is a force of nature on television, and that’s OK,” KUSI news director Steve Cohen said. “What’s the other side of that? Milquetoast presenters that are all the same and all look like they came out of some consultant’s computer. That’s not KUSI. That’s not who we’ve been, and that’s not who we’ll ever be.”

The complicated nature of station ownership makes it difficult to determine exactly how many truly independent television outlets exist in the U.S. Even the National Association of Broadcasters isn’t sure how many there are.

But as more and more independents have become outlets for Fox, the CW and MyNetwork TV through the years, there are fewer independents than there used to be, and KUSI is one of them. And while it may look hopelessly old-school, it is built for survival.

“Some might argue that we might be going back to the future with this (kind of station),” said Dennis Wharton, executive vice president of media relations for the National Association of Broadcasters. “When you are a truly local station and you don’t have network-affiliated programming, you don’t have to deal with things like the writers’ strike. That’s one of the advantages of being hyper-local and doing a mix of local news and syndicated programming.”

The station became the property of McKinnon Broadcasting in 1990, when minority stockholder Michael McKinnon bought out United States International University’s interest for $17 million in cash. With the exception of a brief stint as a UPN outlet in the mid-1990s, Channel 51 has been independent and affiliate-free. President and general manager Michael D. McKinnon (McKinnon’s son) lives here and keeps a close eye on the station’s day-to-day operations.

A new report by the BIA Financial Network Inc. puts KUSI’s estimated 2007 revenue at nearly $20.3 million, making it the fifth most-profitable station in San Diego. But while it isn’t the biggest station in town, it is probably the most eccentric. And it owes much of its individualist personality to its rare-bird media status.

With no parent network or media conglomerate weighing in from the wings, the station is free to serve San Diego as it sees fit. It stopped carrying Padres games after the 2003 season, but with more than seven hours of weekday news coverage surrounding its “Judge Judy” episodes and “Law & Order” reruns, KUSI sees fit to cover San Diego like a security blanket.“There is no board of directors, it’s just Mike and Mike,” said Cathy Clark, who spent almost 10 years at KUSI both on and off the air as an anchor and assistant news director before resigning in 1999. “Because they are not restricted, they can go live for as long as they want for as long as they can afford it. Which is why during a major news story, the station has made it clear that it will always be there.”

From last year’s wildfire reporting, when the station ran 100 hours of uninterrupted news coverage, to Wednesday’s prime-time debate featuring all five San Diego city-attorney candidates, KUSI can throw its reporters and air time behind any story it wants for as long as it wants. It can also open up its studios to city council members, local artists and musicians, visiting celebrities, fashion shows and congressman Bob Filner.

This combination of watchdog news coverage and small-town boosterism helps KUSI’s “Good Morning San Diego” beat both the CBS and ABC national morning shows in the Nielsen ratings. But the station still struggles at night, where its four low-budget, issue-heavy newscasts regularly lose the ratings battle to their local network-affiliate competitors at XETV (Fox), KFMB (CBS), KGTV (ABC) and KNSD (NBC). Not to mention the networks’ prime-time entertainment programming.

“Every day, we struggle to get the numbers that we get. Not everybody cares about the kind of news we do,” said Cohen, whose 35 years in the television journalism business includes stints at WCBS in New York and KNXT (now KCBS) in Los Angeles.

“Not everybody wants to hear why the mayor thinks the new bond rating is a great thing. We think it’s important, so we’re going to do a long story about it. We definitely struggle with the type of journalism we partake in.”

For better or worse, much of KUSI’s identity is wrapped up in its accessibility. The station’s slogan is “More local news,” and its constant presence in the community can result in a familiarity that spurs affection as easily as it breeds contempt. And in his 18 years with KUSI, Luck is everything that is lovable and debatable about the station in one perpetually windblown package.

“There is no question that Rod works extraordinarily hard, but he is an acquired taste,” Clark said. “It’s the same sort of thing you had with (sportscaster) Ted Leitner. People love him or they hate him.”

Filing four “Good Morning San Diego” reports a day from four locations, Luck has covered everything from Humane Society telethons to academic improvements at Crawford High School. On good days, he is funny and enthusiastically engaged. On bad days, he can seem boorish and ill-prepared. And when news of Luck’s recent arrest spread, online comments found some viewers wondering why the station had kept him on for so long, while others hoped KUSI wouldn’t fire him.

Neither response took Cohen by surprise.

“San Diego is still a small town in a lot of ways. It still has a sensibility that we are all sort of part of the same community and the same family. And if any family member goes awry, this vitriolic reaction can occur.

“Who would care about Rod Luck in L.A.? He’s not Nick Nolte or Mel Gibson. He’s just a local newscaster. But because this place has a small-town connection, he’s like everybody’s nutty uncle. The nutty uncle did something nobody can (put up with), and people think, ‘God I’m really hurt by that.’ ”

Cohen says Luck’s leave of absence is “open-minded and open-ended,” the better to let him pursue treatment reportedly through two local rehab programs without feeling any pressure to return before he’s ready.

In the meantime, sardonic anchor Paul Bloom, crusading Michael Turko and his big mustache and John Coleman and his signature “KUUUUSI” weather reports will be around to remind San Diegans that no matter what they think about the station, when they are watching KUSI, they know they are home.

“That’s what’s cool about broadcasting, these personalities who are identifiable to a certain community and that community only,” said the NAB’s Wharton. “They go to churches or synagogues in the community, you see them at local high school sporting events, and that is not something you find in the cable world. When people come back for their high-school reunions, they’ll say, ‘Remember that wild and crazy guy? What ever happened to him?’ ”

[Go here for the original article.]

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Ties his own shoes January 27, 2010 at 5:57 am

Good to see that there is at least one outlet for the truth. We should do everything we can to support independent voice. Freedom of speech is an essential liberty and is our only resistance against tyranny. Again thanks KUSI.


lane tobias January 27, 2010 at 9:05 am

John Coleman, meteorologist (a journalist by training, meteorologist by trade…) just did an hour long “expose” on the global warming “scam”. In fact, he has in the past called it the “scam of the century”, using evidence from unsubstantiated and unprofessional “scientists” that have long been refuted and proven wrong in their “research”.

If stupidity is what an independent voice brings us, I’m scared.


Frank Gormlie January 27, 2010 at 10:53 am

What a knucklehead ! That’s why I won’t and can’t watch him.


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