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HOWARD ROSENBERG

A Real Community Station

February 12, 1988|HOWARD ROSENBERG

GLENDIVE, Mont. — A television station here ?

Yes, KXGN-5, in the tiniest of the nation's 213 TV markets, enduring in a once-thriving, now-wilting town of 6,500 in eastern Montana.

"It's getting harder and harder," said general manager/sales manager/sportscaster/commercial voice/TV bingo host Dan Frenzel, known in these parts as Dapper Dan.

How small is KXGN?

--So small that it's a CBS affiliate that also airs NBC programs.

--So small that its total staff numbers only eight.

--So small that when 23-year-old Terry Kegley calls a meeting of his full-time "Action 5 News" staff--news director, anchor, reporter and cameraperson--he's the only one in the room.

--So small that KXGN hears about its ratings only in "bits and pieces" from national sales reps. That's because it doesn't subscribe to a ratings service, even though its audience is included in the February, May, July and November ratings "books" distributed to paying clients by ARB and the A. C. Nielsen Co.

"The cost to subscribe is $12,000," Frenzel said, "and we don't have it."

--So small that its only concession to ratings sweeps months is to advertise more on radio, with CBS and NBC sharing the cost. "And we also tell our engineer to replace all the tubes, because we don't want to go off the air," Frenzel said.

--So small that the average cost of a 30-second spot in prime time on KXGN is a mere $15.

Local ads aren't enough to sustain the station. "We were surviving on national spot sales, but that's gone down 200%-300% since Black Monday, costing us 20 grand a month," Frenzel said.

Former disc jockey Dapper Dan has spent 23 of his 42 years at either KXGN or its companion radio station here, both owned by elderly Lewis W. Moore, who now resides most of the time in Palm Desert, Calif.

Frenzel saw the TV station's boom years, from 1976 to 1982, and is now seeing the bum years, in an area where people regard television as perhaps their closest companion. There isn't much else to do here, particularly if you're snowbound or hiding indoors from the awesome winter cold.

KXGN's signal extends 140 miles, reaching such hamlets as Ekalaka, Plevna, Ollie, Willard and Mildred, some with as few as 50 inhabitants.

"When we're in those towns, they treat us like Dan Rather," Frenzel said. "They can still get him on satellite, but we're their only local news."

KXGN's electronic heart is Glendive, though, a town some say is named after a man named Glen who owned a dive.

"It's a blessing to have a television station in a community this size," said Karen Straus, the sophisticated managing editor of the town's biweekly Ranger-Review newspaper and a transplanted Southern Californian. "It gives us something other small communities don't have."

You can reach Glendive by car or bus from Billings, the state's largest city. Or if you're adventurous, you can hop a 10-seater--you're asked your weight before you get on--and fly a bumpy 65 minutes with Big Sky Airlines, which the locals have nicknamed "Big Scare."

Glendive is more than just a friendly place. It's also the home of Dawson Community College, and it's a trendsetter. Where else--eat your heart out, L.A.--would you find a beauty salon/self-service gas station?

What are the TV tastes of eastern Montana? "They don't like sex on TV out here," said Frenzel, a native of nearby Dickinson. "They want country shows. 'Hee Haw' does very well for us."

KXGN and Glendive could use some hee haws.

The TV station was started in 1958 by Moore, a decade after he had founded the radio station. For a long time, his broadcast properties prospered; then they started to skid about 1983 when faced with the growth of cable and the decline of Montana's and Glendive's economy.

"This used to be a railroad and oil town," Frenzel said. "But the railroad (Burlington Northern) stopped coming through here and the oil boom stopped three years ago."

That, along with a farming recession and corporate pullouts from the Glendive area, led to a devastating 33% population plunge (from more than 10,000) and the death of many small businesses.

The impact on KXGN has been disastrous.

Frenzel estimates that KXGN's audience has shrunk to 15,000 households from a peak of 22,000 because of the declining population and increased competition.

Satellite dishes now dot Montana's rural landscape almost as much as farm buildings. The VCR revolution has hit Glendive, too, with videos now available at three locations. And ironically, KXGN is side-by-side on South Douglas Street with Glendive Cable TV. The enemy.

The cable firm's 26-channel offering includes KXGN, but also NBC affiliates in Salt Lake City and nearby Williston, N.D, which compete with KXGN.

Backed against the wall, Frenzel got permission from CBS to begin its prime-time schedule an hour early on KXGN. So now the CBS schedule runs from 6 to 9 p.m., followed by NBC programming from 9 to 10 p.m.. "CBS didn't want to do it, but they understood my position."

Desperate.

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