Firing Line

Former Visotcky employees sound off.

 Bob Visotcky, who was recently profiled in this space ("The Man You Hate to Love," August 26), continues to be among the hottest topics on the Denver radio rumor mill, in part because of the many hirings and firings at six local stations he oversees for Dallas-based AMFM Inc. Keeping up with such changes is a challenge: One insider estimates that around eighty employees have lost their jobs at AMFM properties since November 1998, when Visotcky took over -- that's a big number even by the standards of the notoriously fickle media business. Some of these folks were disappeared because of format shifts; for instance, when KVOD was moved from 92.5 FM to 1280 AM, talk station KRRF was wiped out, along with most of its staff. But there have been plenty of individual sacking victims as well, including Terri Takahashi and Kit Smith -- and since the former was a poster child who still wears a leg brace and walks with the help of a cane and the latter recently went through treatment for breast cancer, their dismissals have surprised even some radio unshockables.

Vistocky insists that there was nothing untoward about these terminations: "Neither of them were discriminated against," he says, "and no one else has been discriminated against, either. Period." But Takahashi, who refused to sign a post-employment confidentiality agreement with AMFM, and Smith, who initially did so but later revoked it, are singing a different tune. "He just threw me out like I was garbage," Takahashi maintains, "and it's time people knew about it." As for Smith, she says, "I would prefer to believe that my cancer didn't have anything to do with what happened, but it may have. Everybody I talk to about it tells me, 'Come on, Kit. Grow up.'"

An Ohio native, Takahashi, 46, moved to Colorado with her family when she was a toddler newly diagnosed with polio. Between the ages of four and ten, she served as the March of Dimes poster child for the Rocky Mountain region because, in her words, "I was really cute." Later she worked in marketing capacities at a couple of record retailers (and, briefly, as a Westword salesperson) before landing a series of radio gigs. In 1996, she was named executive assistant to Skip Weller, then a regional manager for Chancellor Broadcasting, AMFM's predecessor, and general manager of the Peak.

A big stick: After Bob Visotcky fired her, Terri Takahashi filed an EEOC complaint against Chancellor Broadcasting.
David Rehor
A big stick: After Bob Visotcky fired her, Terri Takahashi filed an EEOC complaint against Chancellor Broadcasting.

Because Takahashi has post-polio syndrome, a fatigue-related malady that began afflicting her when she was 32, she requested that Weller let her leave early on Fridays under the "reasonable accommodation" clause of the Americans With Disabilities Act. "By the end of the week, I'm pretty well toasted," she says, "and Skip was fine with it. There was no problem."

More than two years later, Weller was sent packing and Visotcky came to town. Takahashi's first impressions were favorable. "He called me up and told me, 'I'm your new boss,' and we had a nice conversation," she recalls. "And the day when he came to Colorado, we had a big party for him, and as he was leaving, he kissed me on the top of my head and said, 'Thanks, hon -- thanks for all your help. I'll see you tomorrow.' I thought, this guy will be cool." She was so confident they'd have a good working relationship that she didn't worry in the slightest when she mentioned to him on November 12, Visotcky's fourth day in Chancellor's Denver offices, about her early departure on Fridays. But perhaps she should have. "I talked to him on a Thursday, and after that, he went back to California for a few days. The next time I saw him was on Monday, when he fired me."

Takahashi says that Visotcky, in the presence of KVOD general manager Pam Kenney (who has since left the station), told her that her position was being eliminated because of job duplication; Graham Satherlie, previously in charge of four Chancellor properties, would be leaving by Thanksgiving, thereby freeing up his assistant -- "a really great-looking young girl," in Takahashi's words -- to work for Visotcky. "I asked Bob, 'Why me?' and he didn't answer my question. All he told me was, 'These things are never easy.'"

Immediately after being ousted, Takahashi began looking into her legal options, and in December she secured representation with Mark Rau, a local attorney who promptly filed a charge of discrimination against Chancellor with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). "We felt after an investigation that there was more than enough evidence to show that Mr. Visotcky got rid of Terri because she didn't look right to him," Rau says. "It was a perception of disability rather than any actual disability, which is one of the stronger elements of the case."

At this point, Takahashi's complaint remains in limbo: Chancellor representatives offered a written response to the EEOC just over a month ago, and Rau is assembling a reply. If the EEOC doesn't take action in a timely manner, Rau will ask for the right to sue the company, a request he says is routinely granted.

Thus far, Smith, who was the morning news personality at rock-oldies outlet KXKL-FM/105.1 (KOOL 105) until early last month, hasn't followed Takahashi's example. "I'm a single mom and the sole support of my family," she says. "I need the severance pay, and if I start bringing lawsuits against the company, the severance pay goes away -- and I can't afford that." But, she notes, "a lot of people have been very outraged that I was fired, and I can understand how they feel."

Smith is hardly a newcomer to radio. She worked in various broadcast capacities in Colorado Springs for nine years, and after stints in Oklahoma and California, she returned to the Springs as a Metro Traffic correspondent. Before long, she was transferred to Metro Traffic's Denver desk, where she made a name for herself both on the radio and on KMGH-TV/Channel 7 under the tongue-in-cheek pseudonym Elaine Change. She joined the KOOL 105 morning team in April 1998, and during her sixteen months on the job, she says, "the Arbitrons were great. We were number one in our target demo."

In the midst of this run, Smith was diagnosed with breast cancer. But she didn't let the disease slow her down. "It was caught very early, and the surgery went fine. I only took six days of sick leave through the whole thing and otherwise didn't miss any other work." When she returned to KOOL, Smith openly shared her experiences with listeners. "There are tons of people who have cancer or have had it who are living everyday lives; they need jobs and friends and everything else that other people need. And I thought it was important to talk about that. But we didn't dwell on it. I never got any calls that said, 'Could you stop talking about your breast cancer? It's bringing me down.' And I never heard of anyone else hearing something like that, either. Both men and women were overwhelmingly supportive."

So, initially, was station management -- and a profile of Smith that appeared on KUSA-TV/Channel 9 went over well, too. But by mid-summer, she says, she began to notice a subtle shift in opinion. "Toward the end, I think my talking about the breast cancer began to be perceived as a negative. All of a sudden, it was verboten -- don't mention it." Soon after, the hammer came down, ostensibly because management wanted someone who was, in Smith's words, "bubblier and friendlier" to fill her slot. (Terrie Springs, late of Las Vegas, subsequently replaced her.)

When Smith was canned, Visotcky wasn't present, but he has been the most vocal proponent of bubbly friendliness at KOOL; in his interview for Westword's recent article, he said he and his associates had increased the good-times quotient at the station by bringing in new, more upbeat personalities. Rather than formally accusing AMFM of dismissing her because her cancer wasn't fun enough, however, Smith is choosing to focus on the positive. She's optimistic about her odds of becoming a long-term cancer survivor, as are her doctors, and she's confident she'll land on her feet professionally as well. "Thank God that, for whatever reasons, the ratings have gone up wherever I've gone," she says. "I've got a good track record, and that's what matters to people in this business."

This observation is echoed by Visotcky, who notes, "I think Kit Smith is a great lady, and I have nothing bad to say about her." But while he declines to talk specifically about the reasons for Smith's firing, he strongly disputes the implication that she was sent packing for anything other than radio considerations. "It had absolutely nothing to do with her contracting breast cancer or talking about it on the air, and I'm in shock that she would even think for a minute that it did," he says. "We helped her out as much as we could when she was going through her health problems, and she knows that. Plus, we came to an amicable agreement with her when we had to make the change -- and she was a professional about it the whole time."

The Visotcky response to Takahashi's claims is a little more complicated. He says it's inaccurate to directly equate him with Skip Weller, her previous boss, "because I was the market manager, which was a newly created position. Terri's job responsibilities would have been completely different than they had been. And I didn't have two jobs available at the time." He also points out that the woman who was initially kept on board was subsequently let go -- something that Takahashi confirms. "I tried this other person out for a while, but I decided that I needed someone who was loyal to me," Visotcky asserts. "We ended up offering both of them the exact same package. One of them took it; the other one didn't."

The prospect of going to court against Takahashi doesn't worry Visotcky in the slightest, he says. "The truth always comes out, so if Terri wants to take it to the court system, I welcome that, because I never did any of those bad things. I never had a problem with her leaving early on Friday." He adds, "I don't like to try cases in the press, but if people are going to take shots at me that are inaccurate, I'm going to set the record straight."

In the meantime, Takahasi is still looking for a job -- but she vows to fight Visotcky and AMFM to the finish. "This is no big deal to them, but it is to me," she says. "It's a waiting game, but I'm willing to wait it out because I feel so strongly about what they did."


The following trio of blurbs has been itemized for your protection.

Glenn Guzzo, who left his job as managing editor for the Akron Beacon Journal to take the editor's post at the Denver Post in the wake of Dennis Britton's firing, has his work cut out for him. Britton's forum-group approach to newspapering, epitomized by the laughable series of public meetings dubbed "Snapshots of Colorado" (see Off Limits,), has resulted in a publication that often is conceptually suspect (e.g., the embarrassing Sunday Lifestyles section), visually dull (lousy photographs and art appear on a daily basis) or downright puzzling: "Retired Judge Didn't Have Swearwithal to Act," the tortured front-page, above-the-fold headline in the September 1 issue, wasn't exactly an advertisement for good news judgment. Then there's the question of aggressiveness -- or lack thereof. Case in point: The Post's online arm, run by Eric Grilly (son of Post publisher Gerald Grilly), didn't announce Britton's dumping until after the story had already appeared on the Rocky Mountain News's Web site. Could the News have better sources at the Post than the Post does?

As usual, area radio, print and TV outlets gave oodles of coverage to Jerry Lewis's annual Labor Day telethon. KWGN-TV/Channel 2, which airs the telethon and uses anchors such as Ernie Bjorkman for local segments, especially trumpeted this year's record donations (more than $53 million) and Lewis's health difficulties (he reportedly suffered from double vision throughout the event). However, no one covered a September 6 demonstration against Lewis's sometimes patronizing fundraising approach that took place locally, outside the Albertson's store at 323 Broadway. Laura Hershey, a member of the Colorado Cross-Disability Coalition who was among the dozen or so protesters, wasn't stunned by the media no-show; she's participated in such consciousness-raisers annually since 1991 and notes that the press hasn't turned out for at least five years. "I think it shows the reluctance of the media to address issues that seem outside the mainstream," she says. "Both the national and local segments tend to define us as pitiful, which really gets in the way of our efforts to achieve equality and be accepted as who we are."

Ever since the August 23 police chase videotaped by KMGH-TV/Channel 7's helicopter, station general manager Cindy Velasquez and news director Diane Mulligan have made much of the fact that the footage hasn't been used in promos ("The Eyes in the Sky," September 2). Guess they've got to stop congratulating themselves: Car-chase highlights make up the bulk of the "reason to watch" spots airing now. That's restraint, television style.

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