Cumulus Broadcasting laid off seven of the 42 employees at its six Lexington radio stations last week, including two of its three news reporters, as it deals with declining advertising revenues.
The Cumulus cuts included full-time news staffers Joe Gillespie and Kendra Steele. Scott Johnson, who is now news director, was the only reporter spared.
Steele said Cumulus had reduced staffing at its stations in other cities, and the company's Lexington employees feared it would happen here.
"WVLK (the company's Lexington flagship AM station) has always been news-oriented, and we have always kind of prided ourselves in having people live in the studio and live on the street," Steele said. "Obviously, that's going to change now. It's going to have to."
Smaller radio news staffs has been the trend since the mid-1980s when the federal government began deregulating the medium, but downsizings have accelerated with the current economic slump, said Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky.
Most of the exceptions have been in smaller markets where the radio stations have remained independent and have not been bought up by publicly owned companies that must satisfy stockholders, he said.
"It's really sad that Lexington is now reduced to the same level of radio news coverage as a typical Kentucky county-seat town," Cross said. "I never thought I would see this happen."
Cumulus has one full-time news staffer, and Clear Channel Communications, which also owns six Lexington stations, apparently has only one, Karen Czar, a reporter. (Clear Channel declined to comment for this story.)
Other smaller stations or groups generally rely on news services or other media outlets for local news coverage.
The area's non-profit National Public Radio affiliates appear to have the largest radio news staffs.
UK's WUKY-FM has one full-time reporter, one part-time news anchor, one staffer who can be called on for reporting if events warrant and four student interns, said General Manager Tom Godell. One full-time position was eliminated last year to solve a budget problem.
"I think we are doing an adequate job, but we don't have the flexibility we need, " Godell said. "It's our goal to get back up to full staff eventually."
WUKY and other Kentucky Public Radio stations, including Eastern Kentucky University's WEKU-FM, also share a reporter in Frankfort, the state capital.
For its staff, WEKU has a news director, two reporters, seven student interns and several announcers who can cover breaking news, said Roger Duvall, the station manager.
"We are trying to hold steady (with staffing) and bring even more news-type programming to the community," Duvall said.
"News is not going to be able to pay for itself," he added. "It's the kind of thing you do as a public service."
The economic downturn has hurt advertising revenues at media companies across the country, including the Herald-Leader, forcing staff cuts.
Hal Hofman, general manager of the Cumulus stations in Lexington, said his staff will make the best of the current economic realities and hope for a quick turnaround.
"It's tough," he said. To bolster news coverage, "we are relying on our partnership with WLEX-TV 18 and other news sources throughout the community."
The station has two student interns and other staff members with news-gathering experience who can contribute if there is a major news event.
Hofman noted that he and other managers have reporting experience and will pitch in in a crisis. "You wear a lot of hats when you work at a radio station," he said.
Hofman said no more staff reductions are planned, but "you can never say never."