Frank N. Magid died Friday. To say the 78-year-old Iowa consultant influenced TV news would be an understatement. By all accounts, he brought research to the medium, birthed “Action News” (according to his fans), “Happy Talk” (according to his detractors), morning newscasts, and, oh yeah, made sure Walter Cronkite anchored solo.
But locally, Magid was best known in media circles as KSTP patriarch Stanley S. Hubbard’s close personal friend. For the past quarter-century, KSTP’s late news has been an also-ran to KARE and WCCO; as news directors and anchor teams cycled through the operation, Magid’s influence — or so the muttering goes, meddling — is cited for holding Channel 5 down.
On the occasion of Magid’s passing, I decided to call up Hubbard, always a good and tart interview, to ask point-blank about the criticism.
“It’s unfair,” Hubbard replied. “We never went wrong because of anything Magid recommended. The reason [for KSTP’s poor showing] — and it just drove Frank nuts — is that we weren’t doing what the research recommended. There’s a lot of turnover in management, a lot of ego in the news business.”
Former news directors, station execs and staffers are now banging their heads against their desks.
Hubbard struck a populist tone: “You find out what the people say — not what Magid says, but what do the people think? Peter Jennings used to hate Frank Magid — oh, did he hate Frank Magid! — but nobody likes to hear they’re not popular, they’re not catching on. Some people work in some places, some people don’t.”
It’s probably worth noting that Jennings, before his untimely 2005 death, was pretty popular. Then again, his newscasts included the health, consumer and lifestyle stories Magid championed.
Surely, I asked, Magid bears some responsibility for KSTP’s revolving door of forgettable male anchors — guys like Randall Carlisle, Kent Ninomiya, Chris Conangla, who were sandwiched around solid newsmen but bland personalities such as Stan Turner and John Mason?
As for the neutrality of research, one anchor with possible long-term potential, Randy Meier, was famously not a Magid fave despite testing better than replacements; Meier’s partner and future star Julie Nelson left for top-rated KARE a year later. No team, recently anyway, has been allowed the four or five years needed to turn a station’s fortunes around.
“That’s baloney,” Hubbard replied. “You either catch on or you don’t.”
Hubbard noted that Magid advised other company-owned stations in Albuquerque; Albany and Rochester, New York; and Duluth and Rochester, Minnesota, “and all are never lower than number two. This is just a very tough, very competitive market.”
It’s worth noting that KSTP News fares well in the mornings, where newscasts have been in first or second place in the prime 25-to-54-year-old demographic. By the way, Hubbard’s son Rob is now in charge of the TV station, and Magid’s son Brent runs the 200-employee Frank Magid Associates — now based in Minneapolis.
Although Frank Magid retired from his firm in 2002, Hubbard says that as recently as a month and a half ago, Rob was sending the elder researcher “pictures, billboards, what the show looks like” for feedback.
Stanley Hubbard’s bond with Magid began in 1970. “There were no other viable research firms in broadcasting. My dad was still here, he was getting a little older, almost 80, and needed convincing. But Frank was right — boy was he right!”
Magid’s name had been made via the breathless, high-story-count “Action News” format, which catapulted an obscure Philadelphia station, WPVI, to first place; it remained for three decades (with the same male anchor). KSTP adopted its version, “Eyewitness News,” in 1973; with Magid’s strong push, the format found its star, Ron Magers, in 1974. The result: first place.
However, when Magers left for Chicago in 1981, KSTP began its descent, which accelerated when Gannett acquired KARE (then WTCN) and grabbed the NBC affiliation Hubbard dropped. Hubbard says Magid was “not a huge factor” in KSTP’s switch to ABC, which had the better entertainment programming at the time.
These days, KSTP — which in recent years emphasized “more news” — retains the “Action News” DNA. I’ve spoken with media pros who judge the relatively sensationalist format a loser in this better-educated market, especially with Fox9 as a new, aggressive player. Then again, while we’re not in an anchors-don’t-matter world, icons have left (Paul Magers) or are departing (Don Shelby), and KSTP’s disadvantages may dwindle.
Stanley Hubbard didn’t make the Broadcasting Hall of Fame by running a third-place news operation; he also started the first independent satellite newsgathering operation, Conus Communications, and US Satellite Broadcasting (now DirectTV). He says Magid was integral to those massive successes; the researcher would accompany Hubbard on worldwide fundraising trips, his data reassuring skittish investors.
“He died so suddenly,” Hubbard laments. “He had some rare kind of lymphoma. We lost a great American. He was genius, number one, but he was also a man of integrity — he never lied, never cheated, he was honest. You could debate with him, and might not agree, but he was the sort of person who would come back and tell you that you were right.”
That didn’t stop Magid from tweaking his famously stubborn buddy. “Last summer, he called me. We have a ranch in New Mexico, and he said, ‘I’m sending you a gift, but you’ve got to agree not to change his name,” Hubbard says with a chuckle. “It turned out to be a mule, and he named it ‘Mr. Stanley.’”