The Royal treatment

KHSL-TV cuts loose longtime sportscaster

FINAL COURTAIN <br>Royal Courtain, glancing back at the KHSL studios where he worked until he was fired July 11, said, “That building is full of good people. All they want to do is do their jobs and get paid accordingly.”

Royal Courtain, glancing back at the KHSL studios where he worked until he was fired July 11, said, “That building is full of good people. All they want to do is do their jobs and get paid accordingly.”

Photo by Tom Angel Although Royal Courtain wasn’t able to say goodbye to viewers on the air, they can still see his bio on KHSL’s Web site, which states, “Royal has been on the air at Channel 12 longer than any of our on-air talent. One of the best loved personalities at Channel 12, he has been voted ‘Best Media Personality’ by the readers of the Chico News & Review more times than anyone can count.

After almost 22 years of being known as Chico’s hometown sports personality, just-fired KHSL-TV sportscaster Royal Courtain is worried local viewers may never again hear, “And now, Royal Courtain on sports.”

“To me, this was always a 24-hour job,” said Courtain, sounding somewhat lost in an interview two days after he was fired. “I fully envisioned being here till 65. I’m shocked, hurt—all those emotions.”

Since February 2000, when KHSL Channel 12 entered into a shared-services agreement with KNVN Channel 24, viewers have seen a subtle shift in how their news is served up—though nothing as radically different as critics had feared. The stations are sharing more and more video footage, and recently they began considering a simulcast morning news show.

And the two stations, which had traditionally been rivals, are moving even closer together: They’ll be sharing the same newsroom in a matter of weeks, confirmed Raymond Johns, president and chief executive officer of Connecticut-based Catamount Broadcasting Group, which owns KHSL.

Johns said every move Catamount makes is intended to give viewers and advertisers better TV news. Since the pairing, he pointed out, the stations haven’t “jacked up” rates or “done anything terrible to the market.”

But in a town where the TV sports guys, weathermen and news anchors are celebrities, Courtain’s dismissal was certainly the most visible move Catamount has made.

The way Courtain tells it, he was in the middle of ironing out his work schedule with station brass but had no reason to think the talks were going south. About five years ago, Courtain said, he worked out a deal to work half time, retaining health benefits. But under the new business arrangement, the owners didn’t like that and told him to go up to at least 32 hours or take a severance package.

For six months, he crazily worked full time while at the same time running Royal’s Team Sports, a shop he had opened just across the freeway from his former employer. (It was enough to take up a lot of his time but not enough to support his three children, ages 10, 11 and 13, as a day job. Plus, his wife wanted to go back to school to get a teaching credential.) A couple of weeks ago, Courtain said, he was told he would be working 20 hours a week with no benefits for $11.56 an hour—"a lot less” than he’d been making. So Courtain kept trying to work out a deal. For a while, he acknowledged, he had been working part-time and getting paid what he had been paid for full-time, which he thought was OK with his then-supervisor, Dino Corbin.

But on July 11, he was called into work by the human resources director (the interim general manager was on vacation) and told—with no euphemisms—that he was fired.

“No severance, no chance to go on the air and say goodbye after 21 and one-half years,” Courtain said. “I’ve never gotten an explanation from anybody. … I still feel numb. My stomach is all over the place.

“I’m not the first person to ever get fired,” he acknowledged. “It’s the way that they did it.”

Johns says it went down much differently. “There was much more to this than a few lousy hours and benefits,” he said, refusing to be more specific out of “respect” for Courtain. “This had nothing to do with corporate anything,” Johns said. “We really had no choice but to make this move on Royal. It was very distasteful to us. … This was a tough, tough decision.”

Johns said that “Royal was sat down more than once” on issues having to do with his work schedule, interaction with other employees and other issues that may have been tolerated under previous management but were no longer OK. “[There was] a series of behaviors that over time was a problem [and then] a serious infraction that was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

“This should not come as a surprise,” Johns said. “All he’s got to do is look in the mirror and say, ‘I brought this on myself.'”

Johns also said there were fewer than 20 calls to the station from viewers concerned about Courtain’s departure. “It has not been a groundswell.”

While Channel 12 has as many on-air veterans (Debbie Cobb, Linda Watkins-Bennett, Anthony Watts) as its competitor-turned-partner Channel 24 has had turnover, in recent months both News Director Bruce Lang and General Manager Dino Corbin left the company. (Johns said a new GM would be announced “shortly.")

Corbin, who now manages several Chico radio stations, said, “It’s really not my place to comment on anything over there, especially on a personnel matter.” He said he considers Courtain a friend, but he also has respected Catamount’s way of doing business in an increasingly rough economy. Catamount has been a “gracious” owner, Corbin said, and rather than a big, bad, Murdoch-esque corporation, it owns only three little stations.

“It’s a whole new ballgame out there,” Courtain countered. “The newsroom right now, they work in fear.

“I totally think the plan is they’re going to continue to chop heads,” he predicted, and sell the station after it’s made as profitable as possible.

Johns said the two stations still compete with one another, just more efficiently. Ideally, the arrangement makes it possible to send two reporters to different stories rather than have them covering the same car accident or fire. Johns said decisions are made based on what’s best for the future of the station.

Courtain, although he has feelers out on other jobs, said he’d take the Channel 12 gig back in a minute—though he knows there’s little chance of its being offered. “I’m looking all over the country right now,” he said. “Ultimately, I would love to stay here and still be involved in sports. … I’m 45 and I’ve done one thing for 22 years.”

Courtain said he’s learned at least two things from the ordeal: The Lord works in mysterious ways, and always get your contract in writing.