Four on-air personalities have been fired and two production workers have reportedly quit in the three weeks since new owner Bill Fielder took the reins at Casper-based KTWO-TV, heralding an apparent shift away from local journalism at the legacy station that has been broadcasting from central Wyoming for over 63 years.
“Viewers want Wyoming news, they want Wyoming sports, they want Wyoming weather,” a source said Monday. “They don’t want anything canned coming out of Michigan.”
“[The new ownership] rightfully just pissed off the entire state of Wyoming,” the same person continued. “They kissed the ratings goodbye.”
Chief Meteorologist Erik Dean — Wyoming’s longest-tenured television personality with six years at K2TV — was let go Monday. He won the 2020 award for best weather from the Wyoming Association of Broadcasters.
The new owners on Wednesday fired Anchor Jiani Navarro, Meteorologist Ryan Gold and Sports Director Kiera Grogan. With their departures, the television station’s newsroom has lost over half of its on-air news team in 2020. Sloan Dickey, David Furtado and Carmine Gemei left amicably earlier this year.
In addition to the terminations, several people familiar with the matter tell K2 Radio News that two tentative employees who had effectively been headed to Casper to begin working for the television station saw their job offers rescinded after ownership changed hands at the beginning of this month.
K2TV and several other Wyoming Media Group television stations are now owned by Front Range Television, a division of Coastal Television Broadcasting Holdings, LLC. Coastal made the acquisitions with support from Capital Southwest Corporation in the form of term loans and a revolving credit facility.
K2 Radio News — which is not affiliated with the television station — was unable to independently confirm reports from multiple sources who said two traffic management employees quit last week, citing what they dubbed a ‘hostile work environment.’
Steve Scollard, the new general manager of K2TV did not respond to repeated requests to provide comment for this story.
“I understand a business has to make money, but this is just insane,” one person involved with the changes said in a phone interview Monday. “Did that really just happen? Did three of our best people really just get let go?”
Those comments were made before the person being interviewed learned of Dean’s firing Monday afternoon. Dean was told to leave the building an hour after he returned to the office following several days of vacation for his wedding.
In compiling this report, K2 Radio News spoke with several people close to the developments at K2TV. Due to the possibility of retaliation against those sources for their contributions to this piece, K2 Radio News has elected to withhold their names.
With the significant staff cuts and no public affirmation of any plan to replace those on-air employees, the television station over the weekend dropped its local newscasts and pivoted instead to carrying national and international coverage provided by Cadillac, Michigan-based NewsNet.
With that move, the new owners also eliminated weekend sports coverage.
Viewers took to social media to voice criticism, with several pledging to get their news elsewhere.
“It’s just heartbreaking for us to see the local news aspect of it slip away,” one source familiar with the matter told K2 Radio News in a phone interview Monday. “That’s just not fair.”
NewsNet broadcasts in a traditional ‘news wheel’ format which the company says “has become overshadowed by opinion-based shows. NewsNet has brought it back.”
However, NewsNet itself offers no original local journalism. It simply offers affiliates the option to cut in with local news.
For the time being, the NewsNet product exists locally only on the weekends — one weekend so far, to be precise. Weekday newscasts remain unchanged at K2TV in terms of location and length, but several people who’ve experienced the recent shift firsthand are wary of further local cutbacks that could be implemented in an effort to cut costs.
As it often does in any industry, the new ownership brought apprehension in the form of potential staff turnover, but sources say the new managers promised to make the newsroom more capable and take the brand to the next level.
A few positive changes have been implemented, including some new computers along with new editing and production software. Employees reportedly began training on the new systems in the past couple of weeks.
Despite those moves, the more recent firings have soured the atmosphere in the office at 1896 Skyview Drive.
“They told us all how great it’s going to be,” one source told K2 Radio News. “When you look at what’s happened thus far, it’s hard to be that optimistic about it.”
Unfortunately, sources say, the transition has been exactly what they were warned about.
Coastal Television also owns news stations in Alaska and Mississippi. People who saw another Coastal Television newsroom gutted reached out to the local on-air crew in Casper recently to warn them of tactics reportedly employed by Coastal President and CEO Bill Fielder and his team.
Several of the recently fired personalities were part of a confrontation with Fielder last week, sources tell K2 Radio News, over a new employee handbook. Though its contents are fairly typical, sources say the 35-page document did include one substantive change: it declares all Coastal Television employees work on an at-will basis, and can leave or be let go at any time for any or no cause, which reportedly differs from the contracts employees had signed under the previous owner.
According to sources, Fielder stormed into a workspace Tuesday afternoon as local journalists were working to produce a newscast. He demanded that they immediately fill out the signature page of the handbook.
Some employees were apprehensive to do so, and were conscious of their approaching deadline.
“You don’t have a 6 p.m. newscast if I say you don’t have a 6 p.m. newscast,” Fielder reportedly told them.
A source says the journalists handed the signed papers over at 5:56 p.m. Tuesday, and the production crew had to replay the 5 p.m. newscast because Fielder’s actions prevented them from completing a fresh newscast to air at 6 p.m.
“We were very level-headed and he was just freaking out on us,” one person who was present recounted in a phone interview.
At least one employee who signed the handbook returned to work on Wednesday and found they had been let go. Sources say managers hounded the award-winning Dean to sign the handbook while he was taking vacation time for his wedding.
One source reports the new managers sometimes avoid making eye contact with the employees.
“They know what they’re doing is wrong,” that person said Monday.
Sources also report the recently fired employees were offered only two weeks worth of severance pay, when their original contracts promised four weeks’ pay and compensation for any vacation time left on the table.
“I’m still kind of in a state of denial,” a source close to the transition said.
Meanwhile, the ownership is focused on increasing ad sales and driving revenue, sources say. K2 Radio News could not independently confirm any alterations to the business strategy, as our interview requests were not acknowledged by managers.
Still, at least one of the sources who contributed to this story retains some “cautious positivity.”
“If everything that [the new owners] said comes true, that’d be great,” they said. “There could still be a future for K2.”
K2 Radio News will continue trying to contact K2TV management for comment on this story. This piece will be updated with the substance of any comments they may elect to make.
K2 Radio News is not affiliated with K2TV. Although the two news brands were previously operated under a single management structure, that has not been the case for some time.