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Livingston broadcaster discusses “forced departure” from radio station

Former WHMI News Director and morning show co-host Jon King
Brett Mountain
Former WHMI News Director and morning show co-host Jon King

For nearly 20 years, Livingston County broadcasters Jon King and Mike Marino hosted a popular, respected morning radio show on WHMI 93.5 FM. Just last year, the Michigan Association of Broadcasters crowned Mike & Jon in the Morning as the state’s “Morning Show of the Year” and honored King, also WHMI’s News Director, with its award for best investigative reporting.

But behind the scenes, according to King, WHMI management was pressuring King to alter his reporting.

“There'd be questions about news stories and the fact that certain advertisers were not happy with those stories,” King said.

King said he stood by his work as tensions rose, resisting what he characterized as vague requests to succumb to commercial and political interference. Krol Communications, which owns WHMI, said in a statement that the company offered him a separation proposal early last week.

King and Marino surprised listeners by quitting on-air on Friday.

What King described as his “forced departure” raises questions about the future of fact-based reporting in Livingston County as broadcasters face commercial considerations in a politically polarized landscape.

King said he believes he was pushed out because of external pressure from influential conservative advertisers and local Republican political leaders who accused him of biased reporting.

WHMI management never substantiated the accusations of bias with specific examples from his reporting, King said.

“I would always ask for specific examples of a story or anything that I reported that was untrue or unfactual. And I can absolutely say that at no time was any particular story or anything that I reported pointed out to me as being untrue or unfactual.”

He also said that management never engaged his requests to work together to address the alleged problems. He told Stateside that he suggested examining individual stories and having conversations with advertisers to clarify concerns. In the absence of a constructive work session, he said he asked management to at least articulate what they wanted him to do.

“I said, please put in writing the specific directives that you have for me, and they never did because — and honestly, in my opinion — how could they? What are they going to put in a memo? 'Please stop reporting things that are going to make our advertisers mad?'”

Instead, he said, “I was told that, well, there's a perception that I am biased.

Some opponents stoked that perception among advertisers with fodder not from King’s journalism, but his personal life. King’s participation in a public reading of the children’s book I Am Jazz, about a transgender child, became the centerpiece of a heated online ad hominem campaign.

The vitriol has been hard on King and his family.

“I have a trans son, who I love very much, and it's been very difficult to shield a 13-year-old from this sustained online social media attack,” he said.

King said he isn’t only worried about his work and his son’s well-being, but also more broadly about the future of independent fact-based journalism.

“My concern is that Livingston County is going to become what we're seeing across the nation. It's going to become a news desert in which there are going to be no independent journalistic-based enterprises to let residents know what is going on,” King said. He worried that his successor will have to operate under “the tacit understanding that you shall not upset the advertisers.”

That understanding should concern people across the political spectrum, King said.

“I think whether you're a conservative and Republican or a liberal and a Democrat, that's something that you want, that you have a source of information that you trust.”

Krol Communications declined to speak with Michigan Radio. They pointed us instead to a statement released on 1/31/22:

Regarding Jon King’s decision to exit early from WHMI, there are reports that state a single advertiser is responsible for his exit which is completely false. The fact is that no advertiser gave an ultimatum to terminate Jon King or they would pull their advertising. The company would never cower to such a demand. Additionally, no advertiser pulled their advertising due to threats of boycotts from various groups.

In our need to address the concerns of the Station’s news presentation, the management team at WHMI met with Jon to discuss this. We had fundamental disagreements on the direction of the News Department moving forward. As hope for an agreed strategy failed, Jon suggested that we create an exit plan for him. On January 27, 2022 Krol Communications presented Jon with a Separation Agreement making February 25, 2022 his last day at WHMI. Without informing us, the following day on the air, Jon decided to make Friday, January 28 his last day signing off near the end of the shift. Mike Marino independently submitted his resignation and signed off as well. We wish the two of them all the best! WHMI will continue to provide our community with the best in local news and information. We ask for your patience during the process of hiring our next News Director and Morning Show.

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Elizabeth Harlow is an Assistant Producer for Stateside.
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