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Thursday, Feb. 19, 2004 03:52 pm

Anchor away

After devoting nearly 30 years to WICS, Don Hickman now is one of broadcasting’s harshest critics.

Illustration by Kevin Atterberry

For most of his career, Don Hickman was someone Springfield listened to and watched. Now the veteran broadcaster listens and watches -- and he's deeply troubled about the business he left behind.

A longtime WICS anchor who left the small screen three years ago, Hickman is uneasy about the growing domination of a few big media companies, a result, he says, of an inexorable march toward deregulation.

Deregulation, he says, has turned commercial broadcasting into a sea of mush and reduced the number of unique and local voices in every community. According to Hickman, the AM side of radio has been overrun by syndicated conservative gabbers who deliver "essentially the same message," cookie-cutter formats on the FM dial ensure "everything, unless it's country music, sounds the same," and television stations keep cutting their investment in local news.

At the station where he worked for nearly 30 years, Hickman complains that corporate owner Sinclair Broadcasting calls "most of the shots," that too many stories aired during local newscasts are "packaged handouts from headquarters," and commentaries provided by the main office are "a waste of precious air time."

Hickman's concerns aren't unique. Ever since the 1980s, when the first major wave of deregulation washed across the broadcasting industry, there has been concern about growing media concentration and loss of diverse content and viewpoints. Liberal Democrats, like the late Illinois Senator Paul Simon, were among the first to sound an alarm, but concern is now voiced across the political spectrum.

It'd be a mistake to describe Hickman as some sort of flaming, pro-government liberal; he prefers to describe himself as "full-fledged, card-carrying independent." He's committed to community service, hosts an annual charity golf tournament and is a leader with local organizations dedicated to stamping out illiteracy and hunger. After he left Channel 20, he spent about a year as a co-host on WMAY (AM 970) and last year, threw his hat in the ring in the race for city mayor, believing someone who wasn't a creature of local parties would appeal to voters. He finished third in the five-way primary.

Although he doesn't like dwelling on those last years at WICS, he still watches the station -- usually just long enough to catch the top story. Hickman's passionate about the business he left behind, and is adamant that the federal government needs to reassert its role as guardian of the public airwaves.

The debate over broadcast deregulation heated up last summer when a Republican-dominated Federal Communications Commission voted 3-2 to allow television networks to own stations reaching 45 percent of the nation's households, up from the current cap of 35 percent. The commission also moved to lift many of the restrictions that bar companies from owning both newspapers and broadcast outlets in the same city. The commission's action, supported by the Bush Administration but strongly opposed in Congress, was a continuation of a trend: Back in 1996, the FCC raised ownership caps on radio, allowing one company to snap up more than 10 percent of the nation's radio outlets.

Hickman worries that regulators are caving to large media corporations rather than serving the public.

"These television stations and radio stations are using air out there that's owned by us, the taxpayers," Hickman says. "Look at Clear Channel Communications' 1,200 stations: That is a sin." Clear Channel, which claims that 40 percent of all Americans between 18 and 49 listen to its stations and syndicated programs every week, owns four radio stations in Springfield.

"When you deregulate something, it sounds good. It sounds like good public policy, because 'government shouldn't be into this,'" Hickman says. But deregulation came too quickly, he says. "Airlines and airwaves, I think, ought to be regulated by the government."

"I believe that you have to have diversification of ownership to have diversification of coverage," he says. "Unless you have that, you're going to have domination."

Hickman spent most of his 66 years in broadcasting. Born in humble circumstances in Rutherford, Tenn., his career was sparked by a high school teacher who got him interested in public speaking. He competed in a contest sponsored by Future Farmers of America, demonstrating promise with a speech titled "Farm Technology." The wife of his Baptist minister insisted that he practice his speaking after school. She made him use her husband's pulpit, provided him with an audience of one, and served as a ruthless critic.

"If I mispronounced a word, she would get in my face," Hickman recalls. Meanwhile, he'd been given the opportunity to do fill-in work at a local radio station, owned by one of the FFA contest judges.

After he graduated from high school, Hickman took an announcing job at a Jackson, Tenn., radio station. Its licensee also owned a local TV station, and Hickman was offered on-camera work.

There had been no money for college even though Hickman had considered a career in law. "The living got in my way, and I didn't go to college," he says. Hickman's father worked to the age of 86, and died the year after he retired.

In the 1960s, Hickman joined WMC-TV, Channel 5, the NBC affiliate in Memphis, Tenn. In 1962, he covered the riots in Oxford, Miss., when James Meredith became the first black student to attend Old Miss. And he broadcast the first local news story on April 4, 1968 when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel, only a few blocks from the station's studios. WMC suspended its network programming and ran continuous local coverage. Hickman credits the local TV coverage of King's murder for helping to prevent an all-out race riot in Memphis.

After Memphis, Hickman joined NBC as a correspondent, and in 1969-70, covered the trial of the "Chicago Seven," the anti-war activists accused of fomenting riots at the 1968 Democratic convention.

In April 1972, Hickman came to Springfield, where he served as Channel 20's 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. anchor. In 2000, the year after Sinclair acquired WICS from Guy Gannett Communications, station general manager Jack Connors pulled Hickman off the 6 p.m. newscast. In early 2001, Sinclair offered Hickman and other WICS vets a choice: retire early or face the chopping block.

"The handwriting was on the wall," Hickman says.

Hickman's abrupt departure from the airwaves -- he made no bones about it being involuntary -- didn't play well with many viewers, who regarded him as an institution. In an editorial published in 2001, the State Journal-Register compared him to another broadcasting icon: "Don Hickman," the newspaper wrote, "was to Springfield what Walter Cronkite was to America." And the Chicago Tribune, in a look at the diminishing role of TV anchorpersons, highlighted Hickman's departure in a story about the exodus of well-paid veterans at TV stations. In small markets, the newspaper reported in early 2002, broadcasters are trying "to get by with budget anchors."

After WICS, Hickman teamed up with Bob Murray as the co-host of a morning show on WMAY. Murray had been a weathercaster at Decatur's WAND-TV, Channel 17; like Hickman, he'd been a casualty of cutbacks. The show lasted less than a year. Hickman abruptly left the radio program in May 2002, saying he'd been frustrated with the format of the show. He found working regularly in talk radio a strain because of the pressure to stake out adversary positions with callers. On the air, he felt he was obligated to disagree with every listener who called in. "Once in a while," he remembers, "there would be a caller I agreed with." Ultimately, "it just wasn't fun anymore," he says.

Hickman looked for a new way to serve, and though he'd never held elective office, he decided to run for city mayor even before incumbent Karen Hasara decided against a third term. Given his high profile -- a poll of registered voters commissioned by the SJ-R in February 2003 showed a whopping 98 percent knew Hickman's name -- Hickman expected to do well. Indeed, his own early polls showed him leading the field, which included Tony Libri, Tim Davlin, and former mayor Mike Houston. At the same time, however, familiarity wasn't necessarily a good thing: the newspaper's poll also showed Hickman had the highest unfavorable name recognition. Hickman ended up with 11 percent of the votes in the mayoral primary. During the general election, he endorsed Davlin, who won.

Hickman says the election and its aftermath were eye-openers for him. He says partisanship was inserted into a non-partisan process (city candidates' party affiliations are not listed), given that the top two vote-getters respectively had the backing of top county Republican and Democratic leaders.

"This mayor's race," he says, "was not about what's best for the city of Springfield. It turned out to be nothing more than a campaign to perpetuate the power that is."

Clearly, Don Hickman has the freedom to speak his mind these days. And his views on broadcasting certainly are colored by his personal experience and how he was forced to leave WICS. Yet, those views resonate with those of other broadcast veterans.

Take Dr. Jerold Gruebel, president and general manager of WSEC-TV and two sister public television affiliates. "I have serious concerns about the present stance of the FCC under [chairman] Michael Powell," says Gruebel, who points out there isn't a single commercial TV station in this market owned by an Illinois company. Gruebel argues that cost-cutting has reduced the quality of broadcast journalism. "You have fewer and fewer experienced journalists anymore, either anchoring or reporting the news," he says.

Gruebel's stations (WSEC, WMEC and WQEC) attempt to fill the vacuum by producing local public affairs shows, including "Illinois Lawmakers" with Mark McDonald and "CapitolView" with Ben Kiningham. [Illinois Times co-sponsors some local PBS programs.]

Like Hickman, Gruebel notes the increased use of "national clips" in local newscasts. And like Hickman, he worries about broadcast station deregulation. Gruebel calls media consolidation "one of the greatest threats to our democracy."

Mike Wilson, a host at WMAY (AM 970), agrees that deregulation has a negative effect on the diversity of viewpoints on broadcasting. "The FCC and the federal government have certainly wounded radio, but I think talk radio has felt those effects more severely." Though WMAY's still heavy -- at least during daytime -- with local-originated programming, that's an exception. "What deregulation has done," Wilson says, "is it's taken a lot of the local flavor out of radio by making it more cost-effective for stations to pipe in hosts from LA or New York."

There's less alarm among the suits at WICS and Sinclair, the nation's No. 1 non-network TV-station group owner (the Baltimore company owns, operates, or programs 62 stations in 39 markets). Connors, the top executive at WICS, referred Illinois Times to his corporate office for comment. There, Sinclair general counsel Barry Faber argues group ownership "provides for increased news coverage." For example, Sinclair recently sent a news team to Iraq. If WISC and WICD, its sister station in Champaign, were only part of a four- or five-station group, that kind of story wouldn't be economically feasible, Faber says. According to a report this week in the Baltimore Sun, Sinclair's Iraq coverage is designed to present the "positive, untold stories that the 'liberal media' " aren't telling about the occupation. The coverage is being led by Sinclair's Washington bureau chief Jon Leiberman and vice president and editorialist Mark Hyman. "At Sinclair, our goal is simply to report the news that occurs and present it in a fair and unbiased way," Faber tells Illinois Times.

But in some cases, Sinclair doesn't present the news at all. At its ABC affiliate in St. Louis, the company eliminated its entire newscast. And in many of the other 31 markets where it provides news, Sinclair has introduced its NewsCentral format, severely cutting the amount of locally produced programming. For example, at Sinclair stations in Pittsburgh and Oklahoma City, newscasts open with a local segment, but the remainder of the broadcast, including weather and sports, comes from Sinclair's Maryland studios. Springfield viewers have received only a small taste of the NewsCentral format, including last fall's exclusive "one-on-one" interview with President Bush [Dusty Rhodes, "Less point," Oct. 16].

Sinclair's Faber says the deregulation that people like Hickman worry about hasn't "resulted in a sea-change of ownership in TV stations." Currently, Sinclair is bidding to buy five stations it operates under local marketing agreements. If successful, the deal would give Sinclair two TV stations in each of five cities: Baltimore, Md.; Columbus, Ohio; Dayton, Ohio; Charleston, W. Va.; and Charleston, S.C.

And less than two weeks after we spoke with Faber, Comcast, the nation's largest cable company, announced a bid to take over Walt Disney Co. (owner of the ABC network, among other properties). The deal, if consummated, would create one of the world's biggest media conglomerates. It's those kinds of media titans Hickman fears most: "What you will have in the next few years [are] no more than ten companies dominating the entire media."

Not everybody blames decreased government oversight for consolidation.

Jim Bolick, who taught communications and journalism at Colorado State University until last year, says consolidation is being driven by consumer demand. "Individual ownership is threatened by demands that we as consumers make on mass media for high-quality programming, a wide range of choices and reasonable prices," Bolick says. A former reporter for the Denver Post who currently runs a small television production company, Bolick says blaming deregulation for the disappearance of small and independent broadcasters paints "an incomplete picture." Listener and viewer tastes, especially among younger audiences, have encouraged a shift in resources from traditional mass media to the Internet and other technologies.

Even Don Hickman can appreciate that trend. He has his own home page, www.donhickman.com that advertises his services in public relations and communications.

Hickman's study looks like the special retreat of a golfer, which he is, and a professor, which he is not. A vast number of books are shelved neatly, filling up a wall. Keepsake golf balls fill special hanging racks. Electronics -- a computer, a sound system, a TV and VCR -- face his desk on three sides. During a recent interview, Palmer the Maltese (the dog's named for Arnold Palmer) dozes on his personal afghan, a gift from Hickman's wife, Betty. The dog isn't interested much in a visiting writer.

Hickman says he's still figuring out what he'll do next. He's itching to make a contribution. At the urging of former congressman Paul Findley, Hickman's working on a book. He describes it as part memoir and part commentary. So far, two chapters are finished.

He says he's given thought to doing a public affairs program on local TV, but nothing's imminent.

"Somewhere out there," Hickman says, "there is a place for me in Springfield."

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