New Voice, New Style at KOFI

By Beacon Staff

Just after 8 a.m. in the KOFI radio newsroom, Mike Holton leans into the microphone to report a story on budget increases at Glacier National Park. Snow caused several car accidents overnight and Holton is working on getting more details. Later in the day, the trial resumes for Steffanie Ann Schauf, accused of killing a Bigfork man while drunk driving. Holton, who arrived at the station before 6 a.m., will spend the last hours of his shift covering Schauf’s trial.

It’s all part of a typical workday for Holton, or at least it will be after a few weeks. This is Holton’s sixth day on the job as the new morning news anchor at KOFI, so it’s a bit premature to call any day “typical,” but he doesn’t mind. “I love it – I missed it tremendously,” Holton said during a break of the “Mike and Mike in the Morning” show. “The immediacy of radio is what I really like about this.”

KOFI has had a tumultuous year, with two of its best-known on-air personalities, George Ostrom and his daughter Wendy Ostrom Price, leaving the station. Ostrom, a 53-year veteran of the station, left his post as morning news anchor March 3, after a widely publicized dispute with management over whether to air a story about a former KOFI employee indicted for mail fraud. Former office manager Kent Etchison is accused of ordering $925,000 in excess office supplies over a three-year period. Ostrom walked out after he said station general manager and partial owner Dave Rae ordered him not to air a story about the Etchison case.

Now, Holton is tasked with filling Ostrom’s shoes behind the microphone in the morning, after a stint as a delivery driver. But Holton’s radio career began in 1971, taking him all over the Northwest since graduating from Idaho State University in 1976 – from Carson City, Nev., to Belgrade to Seattle to Polson to Whitefish to jobs at KOFI in the mid-1990s – where he worked alongside Ostrom.

Holton barely slept for two nights before his first morning show. “I was a little apprehensive after being out of the saddle for a few years,” he said, but several hours into the broadcast, he began to relax. With Holton now sitting comfortably in the morning hot seat, executives at his station hope they have achieved some stability in their staffing after the shakeups.

Ostrom declined to comment for this story, saying he wants to put the incident behind him. Rae did not comment on Ostrom’s departure, calling it a “disgruntled employee issue,” nor would he discuss Etchison’s case, since it is headed to federal court. But Rae calls Holton’s arrival at the station “a welcome change.”

“He’s been waiting for this position to open up,” Rae added. “He’s a real digger, as far as digging to get news.”

Along with colleagues Mike Hammer and Dax VanFossen, Holton intends to improve the way KOFI covers news, using more sound bites, interviews and ambient or natural sound in reports. The team also plans to spend more time at the Flathead County Justice Center building, reporting on law enforcement and trials.

“It’s vibrant and it’s fast-paced and it’s up to date,” Holton said. “We just want to continue the tradition at KOFI that we’ve had for more than 50 years.”

Earlier in the week, a listener called in concerned about a smoke plume rising from Glacier High School. Holton made several calls and was on the air within ten minutes reporting that the school was safe. Few other forms of journalism can turn a story around that quickly, he said.

“That’s something you can’t do with television or a newspaper,” Holton added. “That’s why we feel radio is really important.”

Holton and co-host Hammer, KOFI’s sports director, are also getting used to each other and practicing their on-air banter, what Hammer refers to as “just kind of shooting it back and forth a little bit.”

A few hours into the morning shift, VanFossen arrives, and he and Holton discuss the news of the day. VanFossen is also pleased with KOFI’s new arrival, though he admits to having one minor problem with Holton: “With the exception of Mike being an Idaho State Bengal, I’m absolutely OK with him being here.”

The two figure out their coverage plan, and then set about chasing the news. It’s uncharted territory for this newly assembled team, but they’re getting the hang of it.

“I’m just trying not to screw up,” VanFossen said.

“That’s what we are all trying to do,” Holton adds.

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