‘Cash cow’ milks Aspen radio host Conniff for ski pass
October 14, 2010
ASPEN – Not only did radio talk show host Michael Conniff lose his small claims trial against KNFO for back wages Wednesday, a judge also ruled that he owes the company more than a grand for a ski pass.
Conniff, host of the “Con Games” show that ran for nearly six years on the Aspen FM station, portrayed its parent company, Denver-based NRC Broadcasting Inc., as a “cash cow” that capitalized on the popularity of his liberal talk program. He accused KNFO of boasting a “monopoly” on local talk radio, and said it did listeners a disservice when it pulled the plug on his show.
The trial came after KNFO management pulled “Con Games” from the air in April; the station replaced his daily two-hour broadcast with “Imus in the Morning.”
“NRC is a completely bottom-line organization. If they think they can get you to work for less, they will,” Conniff argued to Pitkin County Judge Erin Fernandez-Ely. “That’s their culture.”
Conniff claimed KNFO owed him $1,500 a month from October 2009 through March. While that adds up to $9,000, Conniff sought just $7,500, the maximum amount in damages small claims court allows.
Conniff said his relationship with KNFO soured sometime after he moved his broadcast location from the station studio to Aspen Meadows in the fall of 2009. Technical difficulties came with the new locale, and KNFO demanded that Conniff return to the station. He didn’t, until April 7. But that was too late, and KNFO banned Conniff from the station and its airwaves.
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Conniff’s arguments, however, did not persuade the judge, who determined that the former employer owed Conniff nothing.
That’s because, Fernandez-Ely said, Conniff had agreed to not accept a monthly stipend for his show, as revealed in an e-mail from the company to Conniff in September 2009. The e-mail exchange indicated NRC was pulling his salary but would allow Conniff to earn money through his on-air endorsements of local businesses.
“The e-mail says they were clear they were not going to pay you,” the judge told Conniff. She said the e-mail exchange indicated that an “implied contract” had been agreed upon between Conniff and the station.
She added: “Mr. Conniff feels undervalued and slighted … that’s the underlying emotion and I can’t blame him.”
But, the judge noted, “This case is really about contracts.”
Fernandez-Ely told Conniff he could have quit KNFO.
“If you didn’t like it you had the choice to leave,” she said.
Conniff, however, had contended he was trying to renegotiate his contract, all the while during an effort to buy the station.
The judge also had to rule on KNFO’s counterclaim that Conniff owed it $1,299 for the ski pass it financed for him last season. Again, the judge based her decision on e-mail evidence that showed that Conniff, in an exchange with NRC Broadcasting General Manager Colleen Barill, had agreed to reimburse the station.
The amount owed, however, had been depicted as $1,099 in the e-mail exchange.
Fernandez-Ely suggested that both sides “call it a wash,” and for KNFO not to pursue the reimbursement. Barill, however, asked the judge to render the award in her company’s favor.
“This case seems to be about contracts, and I believe the company should be paid back,” she told the judge.
Replied Conniff: “I am so not surprised by that, your honor, so not surprised.”
Conniff said he will likely appeal the verdict, on the basis that the company was unjustly enriched by his show and because it used his “likeness” and voice for radio station promotions.
Barill said the station would not have tried to recoup the money for the ski pass had Conniff not sued.
“Absolutely not,” she said after the verdict.
Conniff’s “Con Games” show is now broadcast Saturday and Sunday mornings on the FM station KUUR, also known as “Your Radio.” He also runs the website aspenpost.net.