For WFLA-Ch. 8 anchor Bill Ratliff, the question came while trudging through the TV station's parking lot in the dark, heading in for another 5 a.m. newscast: Should a 60-year-old guy really be doing this?
Ratliff finally found his answer, confirming Friday he will leave his job anchoring WFLA's morning weekday newscasts June 25, ending a 27-year tenure at the station.
Sparked by the continuing pressure to cut costs, Ratliff's departure comes as WFLA parent Media General announced an 19 percent drop in broadcast revenue for the first quarter of 2009 and competing area stations ramp up their morning shows.
Entering the final year of a 10-year deal, Ratliff said station management asked him to take reduced hours for reduced pay. He decided to take a severance package and retire instead.
"Media General refers to an employee like me as a — quote — highly compensated employee," noted Ratliff, who said his current salary is in the mid six-figure range.
At rival WTSP-Ch. 10, 15-year veteran Marty Matthews was let go March 31; WFLA laid off sports anchor Dave Reynolds the same week, announcing it would also eliminate the 11 a.m. newscast Ratliff co-anchored.
Michael Bille, owner of the Tampa-based online TV employment service Collective Talent, said stations are betting they will save more money in salary than they might lose in advertising revenue if ratings dip.
"They're really rolling the dice," he said. "If we get to the point in local news where we say content is king … I think we're killing the goose that laid the golden egg."
WFLA announced Ratliff's longtime co-anchor Gayle Guyardo will anchor the morning newscast alone, flanked by weather forecaster Jennifer Hill and traffic reporter Alicia Roberts.
They'll face tough competition: Next week, WTSP will debut a new morning anchor, Keith Jones, hired from Pittsburgh, joining a new traffic reporter. Earlier this year, rival WFTS-Ch. 28 hired a new weather forecaster and traffic reporter for its weekday morning show and has debuted a new morning newscast on weekends.
A native of Cincinnati, Ohio, Ratliff came to WFLA in March 1982 from Dallas. By 1984, he was teamed with Bob Hite on the evening newscasts.
Ratliff eventually landed on the morning newscast in 1997, taking a break in 1999 before teaming with Guyardo.
Now Ratliff plans to take at least two months off and get his sleeping patterns back in order. He's not barred from working at other stations, though he's wary of staying in an industry where he's worked for 41 years.
"The hours I work have worn me out," he said. "But the one feeling I have is that I'm just grateful I had 27 years in one place. … In a way, they kind of did me a favor."