2023: Marking The End Of An Era For The Quad-Cities
Every year’s end marks the changing of time and the perceived beginning of a new era. But usually things aren’t anywhere near as pronounced or dramatic as we frame them to be due to the calendar’s end.
For example, if you look at the change over from 2019 to 2020, it was relatively uneventful. The “new era” of that time didn’t arrive until March of 2020, when covid shut down the world and truly marked a definitive change.
However, this year seems different, at least regarding the Quad-Cities entertainment and media scene. Two huge events – the retirement of Paula Sands and the closing of RIBCO — have coincided with the last two weeks of the year, giving the turning of the calendar page an additional resonance.
The retirement of Paula Sands cannot be underestimated in regard to the impact it’s going to have on local media. Sands was undeniably the most successful and popular media figure on the local scene and had a massive financial impact on the local media. Channel 6 has been able to maintain its dominance in the area ratings for decades in large part because of the popularity of its on-air talent, led by Sands, and including Theresa Bryant, Erik Maitland, and others. As I’ve written before, after these folks leave, there’s not going to be a “next.” The ratings for broadcast TV, and broadcast news, have been precipitously sliding, and most stations don’t keep their talent around long enough to gain enough recognition in the market to really take hold. Sands, and the other long-term talent at KWQC, are products of a bygone time when people put much greater emphasis on news personalities, in part because there were only a handful of channels on TV and everyone watched them. Cable didn’t really gain a meaningful foothold until the 2000s, and streaming didn’t truly explode until covid. For decades, broadcast was the 800-pound gorilla, and so broadcast news, and the local personalities on it, had a much larger audience.
That’s not there anymore. With the plethora of options out there, and with younger generations regarding broadcast TV, radio, and newspapers as dinosaur media, they don’t have the same clout. Even if someone were to come along now with the talent, likeability, and local ties of Paula Sands, they would never be as popular as her because her massive popularity was a byproduct of her time, and the time she rose to prominence. With her departure, and, likely, the encroaching departures of others like her, that era is going to come to an end. As I wrote in a previous column, there will be no other Paula Sands. There won’t. That time has ended.
So, what does that mean? That means that the local media scene is going to be less impactful and more fragmented than it’s ever been. As the older generations, and their entrenched preferences, literally die off, will the immutable ratings order of things – always 6 on top, 8 a plucky second, and 4 lagging far behind – remain the same? Maybe, maybe not, but for the first time in a long time there’s a possibility of change occurring, and no matter who’s on top, their numbers will be only a fraction of their previous draw because fewer and fewer people are watching broadcast TV in general. That will lead to lower profits, smaller profit margins, and lower salaries for talent. It’ll lead to leaner staffs and less money for talent, which will lead top talent to leave for larger markets after a year or two, which means less time for audiences to become attached to on-air personalities, and less brand loyalty, which leads to smaller audiences, which leads to less money in profits, which leads to… a vicious circle.
I’m not saying I’m a fan of this, because I’m not. We need a vibrant and powerful local media to cover local issues. I hope that remains the case. But things are not trending in a positive way, and to put your head in the sand and say they are is delusional. Perhaps they’ll get turned around, somewhat. Perhaps something will turn the tide and local media will become more popular and regain some of its ground. I hope so. But even if it does, it’s still not going to be the same, because there will never again be a time when there are only four channels on TV, with no competition from internet shows, and no streaming. Barring some overarching disaster that turns us all into Luddites (hey, wait, what about that Julia Roberts movie… hmm… oh, yeah, that’s a separate column). And if that happens, we’re going to have a lot bigger things to worry about.
So when Paula Sands leaves come Dec. 31, we’re still not going to see another. When she walks away at the end of this year, a door will be shut behind her.
What comes next? Probably closer competition among area broadcast TV for the dwindling remaining audience. Channel 4 already has Living Local, making a smart move in hiring an engaging host in Tristan Tapscott, and you can expect 8 to come up with their own talk show to throw into the ring. KWQC will continue to field QC Live, and that’s done well as a companion show to PSL, but it’s yet to be seen how it’ll fare standing on its own, especially since its regular host, the likeable Jake Eastburn, is going to be serving in the military over the next year and thus unavailable. Maybe the competition will make things better, as everyone will be upping their game to grab ahold of market share that’s now available, and that’ll result in better local news coverage? I hope so. That would be the best case scenario. Because we’re going to miss Paula Sands. She did a lot for the community in shining a light on positive news and events in the Quad-Cities, and she was a great asset to the news community. I was a regular guest on her show for over 25 years, and she’s a good friend. I’ll miss her, and, so will local news journalism.
The situation with RIBCO is a similar one, albeit with a little more hope for a renaissance on the horizon. Like Sands, RIBCO’s success was a product of a bygone era, one where more people were going out and Rock Island was the dominant entertainment destination in the Quad-Cities. Oddly enough, in some ways, Sands and RIBCO are intertwined, because the decline in people – especially young people – going out is related to the same reason broadcast TV ratings are down. People have more options, and more opportunities to entertain themselves at home with streaming TV, the internet, and more. The economy isn’t doing well, and so people have less disposable income. That adds up to a down trend for audiences for live venues and bars. It’s cheaper and easier to stay home. And even if they are going out, it’s not typically to downtown Rock Island. It’s to downtown Davenport, maybe the Village, or downtown Moline, or to outlier places nearby where they live since there are more options available spread out from the downtowns.
It may be hard for some to believe that now, but as recently as a decade ago, that was not really the case. Downtown Rock Island was still pretty popular, and 15-20 years ago and beyond into the ‘90s, it was the only place to be. It was packed with activity and people. As the millenium turned, the landscape was very different. Downtown Moline was a bunch of boarded up old department stores and small businesses with a few scattered restaurants and pubs. There wasn’t much happening there. Downtown Davenport was even worse, it was pretty much a series of seedy bars and dilapidated buildings interspersed with a few solid places like Mac’s Tavern. But there was no identity to it, no unifying strip, and most people avoided it because of the sus people walking around. The Village was a sleepy enclave with 11th Street, the Mound, and not much else, and while there were still some scattered pubs and nightclubs around the area, there wasn’t any unified place to be other than the District in downtown Rock Island.
During the ‘90s and ‘00s, the District was awesome. It was a great place to be, and RIBCO was its hub, bringing in fantastic live music and offering a welcoming and open atmosphere for anyone. Its owner, Terry Tilka, was a great business leader and entrepreneur, who ran a tight ship and made savvy decisions. One of those decisions was opening up 2nd Ave Dance Club (which also closed down Dec. 17 along with RIBCO), a fantastically popular and unusually well-run dance club which likewise had an unusual longevity due to Tilka’s business acumen and good habits in running it.
And that, really, is one of the things that long made RIBCO stand out – Terry Tilka’s business acumen and the smart decisions he made to guide his club through the difficult times and to take advantage of the robust times. He was undeniably one of the strongest business owners and entrepreneurs in the Quad-Cities and definitely one of the driving forces in keeping the District going, even long after it had passed its prime.
Without him, I’m not sure what’s going to become of the downtown Rock Island area – at least those two blocks formerly known as The District.
Dave Phillips is certainly an icon at ICONS, who has built and maintained a great business downtown. But there’s no longer any legacy businesses and owners in the downtown District area. Blue Cat is gone. DaqFaq is in downtown Davenport. MD Greens is gone. There are a couple of random bars, but none of them have had consistent ownership, certainly not the kind that Tilka offered.
The future for downtown Rock Island seems to be in the blooming area east of the District, from the Speakeasy and Circa ’21 on down to dphilms, which includes those businesses as well as The Establishment Theatre, Rozz Tox, Ragged Records and others. There’s a lot of potential there for a nice arts district, minus the headaches of having a row of bars. There’s also a nice stretch in the downtown between Skellington Manor and Skeleton Key to the south. We’ll see what happens. As a Rock Island resident for over 25 years, I sure as hell want the city to prosper. And I sure as hell have not been happy with what I’ve seen over the past decade or so. I’m also not feeling great about Tilka leaving the district and RIBCO and 2nd Ave, two of my regular haunts for a lot of years, closing their doors. But it is what it is.
And that’s the only way to sum up these changes.
It is what it is.
Time goes on. People get older. People retire. People move on. Sands and Tilka have earned their retirements, have earned the opportunity to move on with their lives, and, those of us who have a sentimental or business attachment to them have to do the same.
Things are going to evolve into something different. There will be a new era. And there’s nothing to say that in its own right, it won’t be just as good if not better than the old one. We all have to adapt and change, and have hope that the future holds a lot of great memories we just haven’t had yet.
So, going into 2024, starting this new era, I’ll remain optimistic, and wish the best to two old friends who are starting their own new eras in their lives. Thanks for being a major part of mine, and many others’, for so long, and best wishes for the future, for all of us.