UPDATE: Farewell Pepper: TV host signs off Friday

Thursday, September 17, 2009 | 11:08 a.m. CDT; updated 11:24 a.m. CDT, Thursday, September 17, 2009

COLUMBIA— The kids' corner will soon be kid-free. The dogs in the adopt-a-pet segment will bark no more. The cooking demos, musical interludes and interviews with community leaders? Kaput.

For 27 years, central Missouri television viewers turned to "Pepper & Friends" for a daily dose of small-town miscellany. On Friday, the morning variety show — a dying breed in the digital era — bids farewell for good, the victim of a cost-cutting move at KOMU-TV, a commercial station owned by MU .

From Moberly to Montgomery City, Lake of the Ozarks to Sedalia, the show served as a community beacon for small-town community groups, social clubs and civic organizations.

The decision, announced in May, has been greeted with a flurry of protests by Pepper's loyal legions. Demonstrators marched at the Jesse Hall office of university Chancellor Brady Deaton. Program sponsors vowed to yank their advertising dollars.

On Monday, 15 Pepper supporters held a mock funeral on campus, reading the names of hundreds of past guests from a "death scroll."

"I think they had no idea how this show was a community network," said Missouri geography instructor Larry Brown, a local activist and frequent guest. "Again and again, people have thought of this show as 'our show,' not Paul's show."

Pepper, 63, joined KOMU 40 years ago as a booth announcer. He spent several decades as the station's weatherman but has focused exclusively on the morning show since the early '90s.

Along with his on-air sidekick, James Mouser, Pepper's TV persona radiates a sunny disposition with a casual familiarity. At a recent taping, a producer's hearty laugh could be heard off-camera as the co-hosts joked with their stage-prop mascot, a disembodied mannequin head.

Pepper has grown more combative in the weeks leading up to the cancellation, openly challenging his university bosses and station general manager Marty Siddall.

"This was a good way to hide, with the economic downturn, to get rid of the show," said Pepper, a Jefferson County native born Paul Urzi who embraced the stage name bestowed for his fiery personality. "It's not the money. They just don't want the show. And that's closing out the entire community."

Siddall says the program costs about $222,000 annually but generates $74,000 less in advertising revenue. A pair of tabloid entertainment shows — "Access Hollywood" and "The Insider" — will replace "Pepper and Friends" in the time slot.

Pepper said he offered to help reduce the show's costs by $55,000 and accept a $25,000 salary (he earns $67,458 annually in wages and benefits), with Mouser taking a 35 percent pay cut. The appeal was ignored.

Pepper and Mouser said they were asked to provide supportive comments to be used with a public statement explaining the university's decision. Both refused.

The station, an NBC affiliate, serves as a teaching lab for students from the Missouri School of Journalism, who serve as reporters and producers on KOMU news broadcasts while working alongside industry professionals. Its operations are self-supported through advertising income, with no state or university money used.

"It is KOMU's continued financial viability that allows us to provide the necessary technology and learning opportunities for these students," the statement noted.

Among the alternatives proposed by Brown and others was a hybrid program that would combine the hometown approach of "Pepper and Friends" with a more news-driven look at university research and newsmakers.

Siddall, who joined the station a decade ago, said he was surprised by the vociferous objections to the decision. He noted that rather than pull the plug on the show without warning, he allowed Pepper and Mouser an extended farewell after the announcement so they can pay a "respectful goodbye."

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