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Earl Beall, who created 61 Country dies

March 28, 2003

Earl Beall, who created "61 Country" radio in the 1970s, then guided WDAF-TV to excellence in the 1980s, died Thursday night. He was 69.

He had been recovering from scheduled open heart surgery March 11, according to his family.

Beall was remembered Friday as a quiet but effective leader who valued friendships and was committed to the community where he worked. Colleagues praised his eye for talent and his willingness to take chances in a business where conservatism was, and is, the norm.

Along the way, Beall hired and mentored many future broadcasting executives. At the time of his retirement in 1991, his two main rivals in town -- KMBC's Dino Dinovitz and KCTV's Phil Jones -- had both worked for him at WDAF. Beall also gave Jones' successor at Channel 5, John Rose, his first broadcast job, and in 1984 he hired Cheryl Kerns McDonald, now Channel 4's general manager.

His daughter, Lynn Beall, who is general manager of KSDK-TV in St. Louis, said his success could be traced to his belief in hard work and making decisions for the long run.

Born in 1933 and raised in Chicago, Earl Beall earned an economics degree from Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa, then joined a radio station in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, as a sales representative. The station was owned by Taft Broadcasting, which moved him to Kansas City in 1960 to work for Channel 4. Beall was promoted to local sales manager in 1965 and general sales manager in 1969.

Taft sent him to Buffalo, N.Y., in 1972 to run WGR-TV. Returning in 1976, Beall was made general manager of WDAF-AM (610) and "KY-102." It was a time when AM stations nationwide were in crisis. Beall hired a operations manager out of Cincinnati named Randy Michaels and in 1977 flipped WDAF to country.

WDAF's ratings more than doubled and became the No. 1 station in Kansas City. In the broadcasting business, "61 Country" was heralded as one of the great radio ideas of its time and was imitated in other cities. Michaels would eventually become the head of radio's largest chain, Clear Channel.

In 1978 Taft named Beall general manager of Channel 4. The station had been languishing in third place for years. It had been criticized for airing large numbers of commercials while spending little money on local news.

One of Beall's first decisions was promoting Mike McDonald to news director, a position he would hold for 22 years. Beall took the lead in hiring on-air talent, but as McDonald grew into the job, the two men made those choices as a team.

"I always appreciated that Earl took a chance with me, a rookie news director," McDonald said.

Beall signed Phil Witt and Frank Boal and promoted weathercaster Cynthia Smith to news anchor. WDAF started a 6 p.m. newscast. With Witt and Smith as co-anchors, WDAF in 1983 became the top-rated station in Kansas City and remained the market leader until 1989.

"He never put pressure on us about ratings, but he relished our victories," Smith said. "He was willing to take risks, and he had a news director who thought exactly like him."

McDonald said that Beall was ahead of his time in realizing that local TV news could be a profit builder, not a loss leader. He spent money on satellite equipment -- an emerging technology in the early 1980s -- and on upgrading production gear.

One of his boldest moves was bringing Kansas City Royals broadcasts to Channel 4 in 1980, an expensive gamble that paid off.

Smith credited Beall with approving her idea of the Love Fund and putting the station's resources behind it. The fund, which marked its 20th anniversary last year, helps children and families in need.

In recent years Beall traveled widely with Elaine, his wife of 44 years. He also served on the board of Avila University.