The announcement came with a stealthiness that suggested the handiwork of the Cigarette-Smoking Man from the "X-Files" - another truth-teller daring to flout conventional wisdom, silenced by shadowy figures of authority.
The rebellious voice belonged to Zoh Hieronimus, Baltimore's answer to Fox Mulder. The authority figures - oh, all right, maybe not so shadowy - were Bob Pettit and Sean Casey, the station manager and programming director of WCBM (680 AM).
Last Friday, the two men called Hieronimus in to tell her that she had already broadcast her final show for the locally owned station. Not only that, but she didn't even get a chance to tape a farewell show. After more than eight years of spinning a tangled web of conspiracy theories, UFO alerts and murders that she says are linked to the Clinton White House, this is what she gets?
"On WCBM, and much of American radio, it's become very average, very mundane and, in my opinion, very, very boring," Hieronimus said in an interview this week. "I have a reputation nationally of bringing you next year's news today."
Casey and Pettit, however, were more interested in having WCBM's hosts bringing listeners today's news today. "We know we want topical, event-based, issue-driven shows," Casey said. "Her program wasn't meeting our expectations in terms of revenue or ratings."
Added Pettit, "We wanted to broaden our net, to appeal to more people."
And the shows on UFOs?
"There's time for that on our stations during evenings and weekends," Pettit said. But both sides agree that Hieronimus rebuffed the station's previous requests to move to those slots.
According to Arbitron radio listernership surveys released Monday, Hieronimus' show, previously broadcast on weekdays between 1 p.m. and 3 p.m., drew about 6,400 listeners to each 15-minute period measured. That's about 15th in the Baltimore region, only slightly worse than WCBM's overall ranking.
"They can't say I didn't bring in significant revenue, because I did," Hieronimus said. "I brought a whole new revenue of advertising for talk radio."
During her programs filled with dire Y2K warnings last fall, for example, her program attracted an unconventional crop of sponsors: manufacturers of power generators, packaged food suppliers, even gold traders, Pettit said. But he feels listeners - and advertisers - will see more coherence with the station's new lineup. "This flows," Pettit said. "It is much more mainstream."
Unhappily for conspiracy buffs, Hieronimus said she doesn't believe the station's decision was caused by her criticism of a controversial plan to condemn an East Baltimore County working-class neighborhood for development.
Instead, WCBM's move appears to be an effort to revamp the station to compete better against WBAL (1090 AM), one of the region's top talk stations. The newly Zoh-less lineup will first air next Monday.
Casey, who doubles as a host, will continue with his morning show from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m., followed by Tom Marr, who offers conservative views on his politics-based program. From noon to 1 p.m., staff members will talk about the day's news.
The program with Dr. Laura Schlessinger, the nationally syndicated dispenser of tough-love advice, will air in the afternoon, taking over Hieronimus' slot to compete with uber-ditto Rush Limbaugh on WBAL. A new program will be led by Bob Scherr, a divorce lawyer and former prosecutor. Pettit and Casey hope that Scherr's more empathetic style will attract black listeners.
"The one thing they said to me before I [started], you cannot do shows on UFOs," Hieronimus recalled. "And I said, 'then I won't be doing any shows.' The question of extra-terrestrial contact, and government coverup - this is the biggest question there is. We have always had a fundamental disagreement about covering the frontier sciences, and the new paradigm issues that are not covered by the mainstream media."
So long, Zoh. But maybe not for long.
She said she's negotiating with other local stations, and that her show can be found in syndication on about 20 stations throughout the country. If the truth is out there, it might be found on www.zohshow.com, Hieronimous' Web site, where she expresses appreciation for her loyal listeners. As of yesterday afternoon, the station's Web site, www.wcbm.com, still listed her program on its schedule.
Speaking of radio ratings, two clear winners emerged from the spring's radio rankings, and they're both owned by Cathy Hughes' Radio One juggernaut.
WERQ (95.9 FM) commanded an average audience of 31,000 people over the age of 12 during any given quarter-hour between 6 a.m. and midnight from April through June; WWIN (92.3) attracted an average 24,700 people by the same measure, reclaiming the second spot after a sluggish performance earlier in the year. WWIN was closely followed by WPOC (93.1 FM) and WBAL.
WBAL, owned by Hearst's radio unit, dominated the drive-time morning hours, radio's equivalent of prime-time. And the station also showed a marked improvement in the evening hours, when the Orioles' games are broadcast. The station had a bump in its share of the adult listening audience despite the mediocre play of dem Os - or perhaps because of the migration of fans who couldn't bear to watch on TV.
Questions? Comments? Story ideas that don't involve UFOs? You can reach David Folkenflik by calling 410-332-6923 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
TV's top shows
Here are last week's top TV shows, according to A. C. Nielsen Co. figures:
1 Survivor CBS 15.9
2 Who Wants To Be a Millionaire-Sunday ABC 14.1
3 Who Wants To Be a Millionaire-Tuesday ABC 13.9
4 Who Wants To Be a Millionaire-Thursday ABC 13.8
5 The Practice ABC 9.5
6 60 Minutes CBS 9.1
7 20/20-Wednesday ABC 8.9
8 20/20 Downtown ABC 8.8, 9 Dharma & Greg ABC 8.2
10 Will & Grace (10 p.m.) NBC 8.2
10 Will & Grace (9:30 p.m.) NBC 8.2
The rating is the percentage of homes equipped with a TV in use.