LUTZ — At first, Skip Mahaffey figured he wouldn't be out of work long.
After all, when Clear Channel Radio fired him in April 2009 from his high-profile job leading the morning crew at WFUS-FM (103.5), he was one of the best-known names in Tampa's country radio scene.
He had awards from Billboard magazine and the Country Music Association. His salary, which he says Clear Channel tripled when they hired him from CBS Radio in 2005, was a "very healthy six figures." An autographed Rickenbacker guitar from star Mary Chapin Carpenter, an impressive 40th birthday gift, still hangs in the living room of his spacious suburban home.
Then weeks passed, turning to months. Phone calls and e-mails to prospective employers went nowhere. An executive at a station in Charlottesville, Va., talked to him about an opening. The starting salary: $35,000 a year.
In January, Clear Channel-owned WCTQ-FM in Sarasota was ready to hire him. But days before he was to start, the offer was scuttled.
And Mahaffey had a deadline. Thanks to his contract with Clear Channel, he was paid his regular salary for a year after his firing.
When those payments ended last month, Mahaffey had no idea what he might do next — with a wife, two kids living at home and a lifestyle built around a healthy income.
With nearly 30 years' experience, he sensed the radio game had changed, shrinking smaller than ever before. Jobless friends he considered equals were selling real estate or thinking about getting into talk radio. And though he and his morning crew were fired for different reasons, Mahaffey was let go the same year more than 2,400 employees nationwide were laid off by Clear Channel Radio.
Like so many squeezed out of a radio job, the notion hit him: What if the industry he'd succeeded in for almost three decades was leaving him behind?
"You can put up a good front, but I get up in the morning, put my feet on the floor and go, 'Oh my God. Now what?' " said Mahaffey, 48, leaning back inside his home office. "The old axiom used to be, 'Never trust anyone in radio who has never been fired.' But it's never been this bad."
'We got lazy'
Six years ago, A.L. "Skip" Mahaffey was working for CBS Radio's WQYK-FM when a colleague called to tell him Clear Channel was doing market research. On him.
The company was conducting a random survey, asking if people liked Mahaffey and would follow him to another radio station. Before long, the jock was talking with Clear Channel executives. He told them he had been working for months without a contract.
Eventually, Clear Channel would jettison the classic rock format at Thunder 103.5 to create a new country station, WFUS. The company let Mahaffey bring along his WQYK co-hosts Les McDowell and Braden Gunn and design his own studio at the Gandy Boulevard complex (complete with a fake screen door) in Tampa.
A noncompete clause in his old contract prevented Mahaffey from going on air for six months, leaving Gunn and McDowell to host the new show without him. It was a tough beginning for a program that never quite caught on.
"We got lazy," Mahaffey said. "We'd go in, they would hand me everything and we'd do it and that was it."
Mahaffey's then-producer, Melissa Bunting, agreed. "I think, had everybody on the (Mahaffey) show done everything they were supposed to do 100 percent, we might still be working in Tampa. (But) radio is a business; you have to bring your best game in the hallways and on the air every day."
The end came swiftly, right after Mahaffey and his crew had finished a show on April 28, 2009. Ushered into a 9 a.m. meeting, he was thinking about interviews scheduled later in the day as Clear Channel's Tampa market manager Dan DiLoreto told him he was being fired, along with McDowell, Gunn and Bunting.
"We anticipated the show would be more successful," said DiLoreto, noting the firings were not a cost-reduction measure. "Candidly, we made a decision where Skip wouldn't be financially impacted for a year, as opposed to waiting until the contract was nearly up and telling him 60 days before the end."
'A very humbling year'
Losing his job came as a shock to a lifelong radio guy who once saw NBC late night star Jay Leno open for him at a private event.
"I was arrogant enough to believe I was immune," Mahaffey said. "It literally took me a minute to realize I was being fired. I tell people all the time, if you don't evolve in your craft, you will stagnate … and I can look back unemotionally and say I was stagnating. This has been a very humbling year."
Mahaffey also had the bad luck to lose his job as the radio world was going through another seismic change. A new ratings system changed ideas of what worked and didn't; an advertising recession made big companies such as Clear Channel think more about using syndicated shows instead of local talent, and the deluge of layoffs allowed companies to get experienced people in part-time positions for lower costs.
In his time out of work, Mahaffey weighed whether to leave music for a talk radio career and published an emotional book about a tough childhood with an alcoholic dad, Adventures with My Father. His wife of 28 years, Denise, went back to work at a local furniture store, and his 23-year-old daughter Carliegh moved back home, working in a clothing boutique after her own layoff from a teaching job in the Hillsborough County school system.
Insisting his 15-year-old daughter Meagan finish high school in Tampa made a job search tougher, limiting out-of-town options. Mahaffey was determined not to repeat mistakes of his childhood, where family dysfunction forced him to move an average of once every six months until he was 20.
"I'm lucky. I mean, I (was) still getting a paycheck," he said earlier this year. "But I wake up every morning in an absolute panic. … My main concern, my only concern is to not disrupt the life of my wife and daughters. Because they didn't ask for this — though maybe I did."
Back to the beginning
Now, like so many others who lost media jobs in 2009, Skip Mahaffey is starting over.
He debuts this morning as half of the country team at KVOO-FM, the station where he worked his second job in radio 25 years ago.
He is leaving the Tampa/St. Petersburg radio market, the country's 18th largest, for Tulsa, Okla., ranked 65th. His salary, Mahaffey said, is about the same as what he earned at CBS Radio in 2004, or a third of what he calls the "exhorbitant amount of money" Clear Channel paid. He will work to build a fan base and community connections after a dozen years developing a career in Florida.
"It's unbelievably upsetting to have to leave town," said Mahaffey, who landed the job after getting a call from co-host Sunny Leigh, the daughter of a former WQYK colleague. "But I gotta get back to work. And what greater poetry is there than going back to where I started?"
He still hopes to see Meagan finish high school in Tampa as he commutes between Oklahoma and Florida. And he's aching to prove he has learned a hard-earned lesson — resetting his career at a time when some talented friends still haven't bounced back.
"I learned you never let up steam, ever. You put your foot on your competitor's throat and you never take it off," said Mahaffey, when asked how he'll handle his new job differently.
"The condition of radio now is a ghost of what it used to be. (But) the ultimate payback will be to succeed wildly wherever I go."
Times researchers Will Gorham and Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report; Times staffer Barbara Moch transcribed the interviews. Eric Deggans can be reached at (727) 893-8521 or firstname.lastname@example.org.