Former WIBC morning news host Steve Simpson leaving Indy for WCCO is Minnesota’s gain

by Kent Sterling

SteverFirst, the good news – veteran broadcaster Steve Simpson has been hired to inform and inspire Minnesotans at heritage news/talk WCCO in the Twin Cities.  The bad news for Indianapolis radio listeners is that Simpson will be doing the thing in Minnesota that he has done so well here for the last 20 years.

I understand the reason he was replaced on WIBC by right wing talker Tony Katz.  The strategy makes sense on paper – if conservative radio listeners are listening to Greg Garrison and Rush Limbaugh from 9a-3p, why not hire to ideology throughout the schedule?

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The reason I understand it is that I worked at WIBC when we made a similar mistake in 1993 & 1994.  WIBC decided then that Limbaugh was such a dynamic personality that hiring more hosts who mimic his conservatism was a stroke of brilliance, and hosts like Bruce Stevens were replaced by ill-informed ideologues like Bob Kwesell and Stan Solomon.

At the time, Emmis owner Jeff Smulyan was so outraged by what happened to WIBC that he bought the station and hired management that reversed course back toward the trusted news format that had been so closely linked to the station back to Jim Shelton and Bouncin’ Bill Baker.

Now, WIBC is conservative around the clock.  Providing information without agenda to Hoosiers in a compelling way has taken a backseat to consistency in ideology.  Fox News, Limbaugh, Garrison, Katz, the Chicks on the Right, Abdul at Large, and The Dana Show keep the needles bouncing with similarly themed diatribes against same sex marriage, Barack Obama, and the supposedly liberal media.

There is nothing wrong with entertaining listeners with politically pointed performance.  Garrison in particular is capable of absolutely great radio.  But asking a broadcaster like Steve Simpson to leave the building shows either a lack of cognition in what a news/talk radio station is supposed to do or an indifference to the public trust built over 75 years as the Voice of News in Indiana.

Simpson was a trusted voice who was invaluable as a host during breaking news, severe weather, and election coverage.  One of the very best in radio history at producing and performing simultaneously, Simpson could always – ALWAYS – be counted on to bring listeners the information they needed when news broke.

He made management easy.  When news broke, calling Simpson to process it, make sense of it, and dispense it generously to listeners made those potentially difficult days easy.  He was Batman to a variety of WIBC’s Commissioner Gordons who filled the seat of program director.

His uncanny knack for producing with one part of his brain while performing with the other was called upon often as others around the country struggled to be timely, informational, and responsible.

Strategy I get.  Being unable to utilize the skills of a brilliant broadcaster who was always willing to make himself available around the clock to inform and enlighten is something I just cannot fathom.  It’s inconceivable there was no role within WIBC or Emmis that Simpson couldn’t fill better than someone who works there now.

If Emmis wanted to make the same mistake that Sconnix did in the mid-1990s, that’s their prerogative, but to jettison a respected voice and mind that was responsible for bringing so much critical information to listeners who learned over two decades to trust they were getting the straight truth is unconscionable.

Simpson has always been an easy guy to underestimate.  Never calling attention to himself, he deferred to the needs of the listeners by always allowing the story to be the star.  That kept Steve from being as polarizing and talked about as Garrison and Limbaugh, but there are times when ratings and revenue aren’t the only two metrics that matter for a supposed conveyor of information.

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Trust and reason count, and are the foundation upon which WIBC was built.  Fred Heckman was the most trusted voice in Indianapolis for generations, and Simpson worked tirelessly to justify that continued trust even as the rest of the station wobbled and wavered with occasional wild political posturing.

And now when the sky turns dark, planes are flown into buildings, corruption visits the state house, and elections change the city, state, and world, Steve Simpson will no longer be here to tell us about it.

He’ll be in Minneapolis doing it for another trusted voice.  Good for the Twin Cities; not so good for Hoosiers.

[Steve Simpson is a friend of mine with whom I worked for 17 years.  Of course, I’m personally disappointed that Steve was shown the door, but happy that he will have another chapter in his career at a great radio station.  I tried to keep this as close to down the middle as possible because that’s what responsible conduits of information do.  If you don’t believe me, just ask Stever.]

12 thoughts on “Former WIBC morning news host Steve Simpson leaving Indy for WCCO is Minnesota’s gain

  1. Sally Bonneau

    This comment mirrors a conversation I and another former Emmis staff member had just yesterday afternoon. What is on-air at 93.1 FM today is not what Mr Smulyan promised when he purchased the station in order to return it to its heritage. I think we all knew Steve would land on his feet – he is way too terrific of a broadcaster not to do so. But Minneapolis’ huge gain indeed is Indianapolis’ huge loss. I cannot fathom how these types of decisions are made by management. And as a former employee of Fairbanks Broadcasting (owner of WIBC & the late, great original WNAP – back in the sensational Gary/Orly/Chuck era on AM, and the equally outstanding Cris/Bruce/Tom/Grif/Bo years on FM), both my head and my heart hurt….

    1. kentsterling Post author

      You aren’t alone, Sally. Those conversations happen more and more often. Making the right call with WIBC requires more heart than head, and that’s a tough putt in a business where the report cards are too often measured in ratings and revenue. Like I wrote in the post, the same mistake was made 20 years ago. It made sense on paper then just as it does now, but stations like WIBC cannot be built to specs on the page.

  2. Ben

    Excellent synopsis on Steve. What a great tribute you’ve written about him. And yes you did put it straight down the middle. My only contention is where you mention the “supposedly liberal media.” There’s no supposedly about it. Just as WIBC has taken the incredibly obvious hard right turn, the majority of network news shows have made the incredibly obvious hard left turn. The term “news” should be dropped altogether. Everything we get anymore is commentary & spin. No real news reporting whatsoever. If you can’t see that, then I would have to consider your reporting to be slanted one way or another. Very few true journalists left out there who simply report & let the story speak for itself. Steve was & still is so good at doing that. He will be sorely missed in Indy. I truly wish him all the best.

    1. kentsterling Post author

      I have worked with liberals in the media who were thought to be conservative by the public and several conservatives who were thought to be liberal. It’s easy to assume an agenda or leaning, but I have rarely come across it personally (in newspeople – hosts are obviously a different story). Unless I know for a fact political axe is been wielded, I can only suppose it exists. Many times, it’s just the result of laziness.

      Thank you though for the compliment. Despite some chapped asses at Emmis over the post, I tried to be as honest and impersonal as possible. I harbor no ill will toward Emmis, and consider Jeff Smulyan a friend.

  3. Rob

    Best synopsis I’ve read/heard of what Steve Simpson provides to a station…Unbelievable talent and heart, and unique in his ability to be calm, tactful, think quickly and give listeners what they need, all without agenda. He will continue to be a great broadcaster. Thanks for the words…

  4. Abdul

    As someone who offers his opinion for a living, I can’t dog anyone else who does, but I do have to take somewhat of an issue with your characterization of our programming.
    Yes, WIBC-FM is a conservative-oriented talk radio station, just like most of the other talk stations in this country. Although there are some progressive-oriented stations, WCPT-AM out of Chicago for example, conservative talk still dominates the most of the markets.
    Second, even though Tony, Garrison, Rush, the Chicks, Dana and I are conservative, per se, if you listen closely you will notice a diversity of opinion. We do not all agree on same-sex marriage, the President and “the liberal media” and if you were to listen for any length of time you would know that. For example, on the evening program you will hardly hear me mention the President because we focus more local and state issues and I have said on numerous occasions that when it comes to same-sex marriage, everyone is as entitled to be as happy as my wife of five years.
    Now of course the main point of your blog was to chastise WIBC-FM with respect to what happened to Steve Simpson. When Steve left there was no one sadder than me to hear the news and no one happier when I found out he landed on his feet in Minnesota. But you know as well as I do that is the nature of this business. Management makes decisions, some good, some bad and life goes on. In fact, the reason you are sitting in that chair in the afternoons is because WXNT made a decision to part ways with me and dump its talk programming for sports. And I can assure you the reaction three years ago was pretty similar to what’s posted on your blog.
    Our business, for good or bad, is changing. The old days of an old man with a stodgy voice delivering news pulled off a teletype are gone. We have to deliver news and information when consumers want it not when we feel like it. We have to do it quickly and on multiple platforms. We have to be compelling and entertaining and we have to maintain our credibility with our audience. And that means we have to adapt accordingly. Will some of us get displaced in the process, yes. But I believe good, talented people will always land on their feet and life will go on as it always has.

    Thanks for letting me share my thoughts.

    1. kentsterling Post author

      I appreciate your perspective as always. WIBC is best operated as an all-inclusive portal of specifically local content. It took time for people at WIBC in the 1990s to figure out that programming to ideology does not work for the talk leader. it unnecessarily limits the potential audience for the station to those who prefer that specific ideology. It’s a great tactic for a station like KFTK in St. Louis as they flank KMOX. While KFTK continues to find success in ratings in St. Louis, KMOX is far and away more successful from a revenue perspective – for a lot of reasons, Cardinals baseball among them.

      The diversity of opinion on WIBC of which you speak is mostly nuanced, and while I agree with you, the overall self-niching being exercised by Emmis with regards to WIBC is unnecessary, and will likely be corrected over time – just as it was when Sconnix made the same mistake (although with inferior talent to that currently at WIBC).

      I wish you and the rest of the hosts at WIBC the very best. The work you do is challenging and relentless. My hope is that everyone in talk radio finds a way to succeed and thrive. My concern is that WIBC has marginalized itself unnecessarily, and is fighting against 50 years of branding that has created inertia that is difficult – really difficult – to overcome.

      The decision to go all right at WIBC was smart – on paper. The arguments made to support it are logical and reasonable, but the reality is that WIBC is what WIBC is, and it isn’t what currently airs on 93.1 FM.

      Sadly, I have never heard less buzz in the community about the station, and fear for its future. What I wrote wasn’t an attack on the current strategy, but a message of concern for a station many have contributed to since 1938. Steve Simpson is a great broadcaster, and when a spot cannot be found for a talent as gifted in so many realms as Steve is cast to the wind, I begin to feel my fears are justified.

      I made mistakes at WIBC myself. The overreaction to 9/11 coverage and shifting the DNA of WIBC at that time toward a pure news outlet was a mistake, and I was complicit in agreeing with that logical decision. It denied what the station is and how it serves the market best. It made sense on paper – similar to the current strategy – but it was an inappropriate response to what were seen as unassailable market conditions.

      One correction in your note – I was not chastising WIBC for the decision to fire Steve. I lamented management’s decision to fire Steve. There is a difference. I will always root for WIBC to succeed.

      No one wants a return of a story old man delivering news off a teletype, and that is hardly what Steve Simpson represents.

      There is no schism between those who currently work at WIBC and those who went before. All of us want the same two things – a little security for the talent and staff, and success for a station we all care about. That’s what the post was about. All the best to you.

  5. B.C. Henschen

    As just a listener to WIBC for many, many years I will give my thoughts. Steve Simpson is awesome and it is sad that he will be gone. Thank goodness for social media I can still get a dose of Stever from time to time. Abdul is great and I do think of him more middle of the road. I think of Abdul as a good representation of my demographics – more libertarian in thoughts but given the limited choices we tend to lean right. I never listened to WIBC for Limbaugh or Garrison, I listened for local personalities and local information. Terri, Jake, Dave the King, Ed, Jeff, Steve, and many others was the reason I listened. That is all gone and it is sad. I, like many, want WIBC back. You know you could take WIBC line up and air it anywhere in the country and nobody would know that it’s not originating from their town. Is that good or bad? For me, it is very bad.

    1. kentsterling Post author

      Local is always best and the lack of locality in topicality makes WIBC less relevant to Indiana residents. That’s bad. There are four qualities of great radio – authenticity, relevance, fun, and innovation. Let’s take Garrison as an example, as he is the host with whom I am most familiar, and rate WIBC based upon those four criteria.

      In authenticity, Greg gets an A+. Love or hate his perspective, no one can argue that he is not exactly who he is. He is one of the most authentic hosts in radio.

      For relevance, I give Greg a C with the following caveat – his choice of topics and guests hits the button dead-center for those who are like-minded. Sadly, Greg is a good enough host to drive a mass appeal show, but has no interest in audience growth. Greg hosts the show he would most love to listen to. Nothing wrong with that, but he is leaving a large audience unserved because of his desire to super serve himself and those who happen to be very much like him.

      There is neither a lot of fun being had or innovative radio being produced. Greg’s success is in his ability to cleverly attack those with whom he disagrees.

      The show is not designed to be inclusive, and it is resolutely clubby. That makes growth almost impossible. His language is clever, and can make those who share his perspective laugh. Those who disagree loathe Greg. Part of his charm is that he could care less.

      I like Greg very much personally. He is exceptionally smart and incisive, but his listeners belong to a far too exclusive fraternity.

      What WIBC did was to cast aside the portion of listeners who want news, personality, and perspective in favor of programming to ideology. That shrinks the pool of willing consumers, and reduces the perspective being offered to virtual irrelevance because listeners are sharp enough to know that topicality is being micromanaged. That is viewed as a contrivance, and erodes trust.

      While Stever is leaving for WCCO, don’t worry about WIBC. It always swings back to what it’s supposed to be. Turning the station into something it is not is impossible, unless you’re willing to drive it off a cliff of impertinence. Eventually, logic will reign, and talent will be hired because of their personalities instead of willingness to lean far right.

      This is like The Godfather when Clemenza tells Michael Corleone “We need a war every ten years to clear the bad blood.” At WIBC, every 20 years, people think they can steer WIBC into a strategic position it cannot inhabit. I’ve been a part of trying to do it myself, and it just doesn’t work.

      Be patient. This too shall pass.

      1. anthony smith

        Radio requires 4 elements…. authenticity, relevance, fun, and innovation.
        news 2. authenticity and relevance of the news.
        Hearing the same rants all day by 6 different right wing conspiracy theorists isn’t innovative or authentic. Repeating a lie (opinion) doesn’t make it true.

  6. Gary Brown

    As an Indy native living in Texas, Steve’s voice in the morning was a great replacement for the loss of Jeff and Terri’s. I have an hour drive to work and I listened via the net every morning. I am a hardcore Constitutional Conservative but I’d rather listen to Steve than Katz any day of the week. I have tried to listen to Katz and I just can’t do it. I’ll be listening to Steve on his new station. Terrible mistake WIBC.


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