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KSAX cuts staff in Alexandria, reduces operations in central Minnesota

ALEXANDRIA - For many viewers, it's like losing a long-time friend.

KSAX-TV, which has provided news programming in the Alexandria area for 25 years, announced Tuesday that it was substantially reducing its operations, effective immediately.

The local news cut-ins that the station did during Twin Cities-based KSTP-TV nightly newscasts are gone, along with local weather forecasts and locally produced commercials.

The cutback leaves 17 people without a job. Those employees will receive severance pay and benefits, according to the station's owner, Hubbard Broadcasting. In addition, KSAX will work with local and state government agencies to help employees with outplacement assistance.

KSAX's website is also gone. Online viewers are being redirected to the KSTP-TV site.

Local viewers, however, will continue to receive ABC network, Twin Cities and national news and syndicated programming from KSTP through KSAX's signal. KSAX will still have a small local presence, keeping two employees to maintain the station's transmitter and equipment.

Ed Smith, KSAX station manager for the past 12 years, will be among those looking for a new position. He said the streamlining was difficult but necessary.

"It's never an easy decision to reduce the scope of a business but this decision came down to economics." Smith said.

Smith, who has been with the station since it debuted in 1987, noted that back then, there was no cable TV available north of St. Cloud and if people wanted satellite TV, they'd have to pull in the signal through a 25-foot-wide dish.

Now, with more than 200 cable channels available in the area, along with Direct TV and Dish satellite options, the local viewing audience is much more fragmented, Smith said.

The changes have made it very difficult for smaller market TV stations to turn a profit. He noted that KCCO-TV in Alexandria, once known as KCMT, experienced the same challenges that forced it to cease operations about eight years ago. "Sadly, the economics of the TV business just couldn't continue to work for the smaller markets," he said.

There's an upside to the cutbacks. By transmitting through KSAX, KSTP will be able to improve its signal quality, bringing high definition and multiple channel options to local viewers without the expense of upgrading the Alexandria studio.

Smith looks back fondly at his years with KSAX. "When three of us started here back in 1987, we were told we had a year to get the station on the air," he said. "Twenty-five years later, I'm still living here and had the opportunity to raise four terrific kids in this community."

Smith thanked all the viewers who tuned in to KSAX over the years. "They've been fantastic," he said. "We've had a loyal base of support and we've appreciated all the news tips they've given and for allowing us to come into their homes every night to share their stories."

He also acknowledged the advertisers for their support. "They made 25 years possible," he said.

KSAX played a big role in community events - including broadcasting the popular Jingle Bells telethon for the Jaycees. Smith said it's uncertain how the station's cutbacks will affect the telethon.

The station is also a member of eight different Chambers of Commerce in its viewership area, which stretches from Bemidji to Redwood Falls.

KSAX played a role as a "training ground" for new reporters to gain valuable experience. Since the announcement of the cutbacks went out, Smith said he's heard from many of them who sent well wishes via Facebook and e-mails.

"More than 200 young people started their careers in our newsroom," Smith said. "Now, they're all over the country. That's our legacy."

Al Edenloff is the editor of the Alexandria Echo Press. The Echo Press and Morris Sun Tribune are both owned by Forum Communications.