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Vol. 9 | October 2003

'Like a gunshot'

Ron Kronstein was a star host of ATV's popular Live at 5, when he was fired without warning. Was the show so successful it had become host proof?

By: Lindsay O'Reilly
Date: Oct. 12, 2003

Kronstein: "When you lose a job, it's like it's something of grief. People don't know what to say to you." Photo: Lindsay O'Reilly
Kronstein: "When you lose a job, it's like it's something of grief. People don't know what to say to you." Photo: Lindsay O'Reilly

As Ron Kronstein descended the winding staircase to the basement of the ATV Sales House on Agricola street, he knew something was up. He'd just returned from a week's vacation on May 5, 2003, when he got a call at home from his boss, news director Jay Witherbee, asking to see him before he went into work.

Kronstein had been a producer, writer and co-host of ATV's popular Live at 5 for five years. He was a Maritime celebrity. And he was about to be fired, for the first time in his 27 years in television.

Kronstein entered a small boardroom, where Witherbee stood waiting. Human resources director Alex Meilnik was already seated at the large boardroom table that dominated the sparsely furnished room. Kronstein closed the door and sat down at the head of the boardroom table, thinking, "Let's get this over with."

"They did it very quickly and very surgically, and it was over in five minutes," Kronstein says. "They said, 'We've reviewed programming and we've eliminated your position. Your services are no longer needed.' They slid an envelope in front of me, and said, 'Here's your settlement. Don't go back to the newsroom. And thank you very much.' "

Kronstein says there'd been no warning. "The week before, we had been making plans for the fall," he says.

"It's like a gunshot. It just sucks the air out of your chest, and you're like, 'Wow.' And then you have to deal with, 'How do I tell my family? How do I tell my wife? How do I tell my son?'"

Kronstein says Witherbee and Meilnik told him he could be escorted to his desk to collect his things. He declined this offer, opting to have his things delivered to his home later.

Even as he was making his way out of the building, there was an e-mail from management circulating at ATV, informing staff he was no longer with the station. Within an hour, his name and image had been removed from the ATV website and displays.

"You have friends you didn't know you had"

But the memory of Kronstein's five years at the Maritime's number one station was not so easily erased. Co-workers told him hundreds of fans called or wrote ATV to object to his being let go.

Kronstein says he received more than 400 phone calls that first week to his home, from friends, co-workers at ATV and other people he's dealt with over the years. The calls began minutes after he returned home that morning.

"You have friends you didn't know you had. And people who you thought were friends don't call. It's an awkward time. When you lose a job, it's like it's something of grief. People don't know what to say to you."

The question everyone was asking was, "Why?" There were reports in Frank Magazine that Kronstein had clashed with Witherbee. While Kronstein admits they didn't always see eye to eye, he says that's to be expected in a newsroom. And they'd always worked out their differences and got on with their work.

"I don't like the way it was done," he says. "I never got to say goodbye to the viewers. It reflected badly on me, as if I'd done something wrong."

Nancy Regan, Kronstein's former co-host, had left the show with on-air goodbyes and going-away parties a few weeks before Kronstein was let go. Normally it would have made sense to keep Kronstein on the show, to preserve a familiar face and keep viewers happy. In the case of Live at 5, however, ratings were so high in relation to the nearest competition, CBC and Global, that the show has been called "host proof."

" Live at 5's ratings were in the range of 30 rating points," says Kronstein, "whereas the nearest competitor [CBC] was about eight. The station could take a hit and lose 15 ratings points and still be number one."

As with many things, it came down to money. Bell Globe Media, which owns ATV, demands that its stations across the country meet certain productivity standards and expectations. If ATV didn't meet these requirements, it had to make changes.

Kronstein, making a yearly salary $150,000, was the second-highest-paid anchor at ATV (the highest-paid was Steve Murphy). After three consecutive layoffs at ATV in the past five years, many of the lower-paid people at the station had already been let go. In order to cut costs, the station decided to give Kronstein's position to Bruce Frisco, who would continue to do late night news through the week, as well as hosting Live at 5, all for about half of what Kronstein had been making.

Kronstein: "You look around and think, 'I have the opportunity now to try something else,' which you don't have when you have the safety of a pay cheque." Photo: Lindsay O'Reilly
Kronstein: "You look around and think, 'I have the opportunity now to try something else,' which you don't have when you have the safety of a pay cheque." Photo: Lindsay O'Reilly

ATV PR: "There is no good time to announce something like this"

"It was a matter of internal restructuring," says Renee Fournier, public relations representative for ATV. "We had to reduce our workforce and we eliminated some positions. It was mostly a matter of early retirement. Two people were let go. Ron Kronstein was one of them."

Fournier says the contrast between Regan's send-off and Kronstein's was due to the difference in the reasons for the anchors' departures. Regan left the show because she wanted to pursue other interests, while Kronstein was let go due to economic reasons.

"When a person is on the air, in the public domain, there is no good time to announce something like this," says Fournier. "It's a negative situation and, as heartless as it seems, it's best just to get it over with as quickly as possible."

That Kronstein was let go (the second person was not named) meant that instead of being offered an early retirement package, he was given the minimal union settlement. "Some people have said to me, 'Oh, well, you probably got a nice package.' But I didn't," says Kronstein. "They offered packages to whoever wanted to leave afterward. I didn't get that choice."

Peter Coade, meteorologist and former union president at ATV, says that although people behind the scenes have the right to stay on and just "bump" down to lower positions, management reserves the right to let anchors go without allowing them that option. "It would just not look good for [management] to say, 'We're letting you go from Live at 5, but we don't want to lose you,' and putting [Kronstein] in a lower position, such as a reporter. It just wouldn't reflect well on them."

Coade says that it wouldn't have made sense economically for ATV to switch Kronstein to a lower position either, since they would have to continue to pay him the same salary for several months.

Although Kronstein could have fought for a better package, he says he didn't think it was worth it. "The settlement I was offered was prescribed in the union contract negotiated between ATV and the Teamsters. Fighting it would take years with a possibility of no gain. I didn't want that. Under those conditions, the settlement was fair."

Neither Fournier nor anyone else at ATV (all questions were directed back to Fournier) had anything more to say about how or why Kronstein was let go, except that it was a purely financial decision. No one suggested it had anything to do with his job performance. "It had nothing to do with the personality," says Fournier.

"Ron Kronstein was very knowledgeable," says Coade. "He knew his subject. If not, he would study up on it. He was a professional to the core."

ATV news anchor Steve Murphy says his working relationship with Kronstein was a "long and effective" one, but said he felt uncomfortable saying anything more on the subject.

Unlike many who are laid off every day, Kronstein has had to deal with losing his job from within the fish bowl of public attention. He still gets stopped two or three times a day by people saying they miss him on TV. "Which is nice," he says. "But then people start asking, 'So what are you doing now?' Well, I don't want to answer that. What am I doing? I'm doing some freelancing, I'm looking for work, I'm actively networking, I'm looking at my own business opportunities. But after a while you just want to get away, you want to go away. But you can't. You have to keep at it."

Kronstein has remained active within the army reserves, which he says helped him greatly by keeping him busy in the time following his lay-off. He has also remained active in many charity groups, including being on the board of directors of the Abilities Foundation. He says he's considering taking up a new career in business or communications.

"You have to look at it very positively," he says. "You could sit there moping and feeling sorry for yourself -- you're allowed to do that for about 10 minutes. Then get over it. Move on. It's a great opportunity, actually, to do something else, to try something else. You look around and think, 'I've done one thing for this long. I have the opportunity now to try something else,' which you don't have when you have the safety of a pay cheque."

Asked if he would still go into television journalism if he were to do it all over again, Kronstein, who started in journalism as a news anchor in Thunder Bay when he was 19, says he would. "I had fabulous experiences doing what I did. I've travelled all over the world; I've met some of the most interesting people in the world -- history makers. I've been in experiences and situations -- not necessarily all of which were pleasant or safe -- where I never would have been. It helped me to develop my personality and my character. I appreciate what I have an awful lot more, because I've seen the worst side of people and the worst side of life. You realize that there is always someone who's out there with more problems than you have, who still hopes."

He says he hasn't completely closed the door on going back to working in television and for now, freelancing allows him to "get his fix."

"Life goes on," he says. "Some people change their careers every four years. I didn't. Now it's my turn."

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