During an informal visit last month with the head honchos at KSTP, I stopped by the studio to catch part of the 11 a.m. news broadcast. Near the end of the show, co-anchor Vineeta Sawkar spent about a minute rattling off a series of entertainment headlines. At the commercial break, I asked general manager Rob Hubbard if that was a regular feature.

Hubbard, who's not exactly known as Guy Smiley, looked grimmer than usual. "No," he said. "We shouldn't be doing that at all."

Several weeks later, Hubbard's no-fluff philosophy is more apparent than ever. Last week, traffic reporter Rusty Gatenby was told his entertainment beat was being retired, as well as his sweater collection that's second only to Cliff Huxtable's.

After watching a week of KSTP's morning programs, it's clear to me that the ABC affiliate is deadly serious about being the area's hard-news destination around the clock, even as other media organizations are investing more time in lighter fare, like shoe shopping and Britney Spears' meltdowns.

"Everyone else has to relearn the lesson time and time again," Hubbard said last week. "They get away from news and then go back to doing it. In the morning, people want information that helps them get ready for their day. They want the headlines, they want weather and they want traffic."

Hubbard's strategy, which has been developing over the course of the year, appears to be having some success. The station won an Emmy in October for best morning show. The 6 a.m. broadcast has gone from a 3.0 rating last November to a 3.4 this year, giving KSTP a solid second-place finish. Tom Lindner, news director at first-place KARE, says the Twin Cities now has one of the tightest morning races in the country.

I can respect Hubbard's vision, although it's not for everybody. His morning newscasts are designed for viewers who like to wake up with a double espresso. I prefer a mug of chamomile tea, which means a goofy weatherman and some gossip to help me ease into the day.

Personally, I'm going to miss those sweaters.

Content isn't the only thing that might be changing at KSTP during daytime hours. Tom Hauser continues to hold onto the title "temporary morning anchor" and several other candidates have emerged this month, including former KSTP reporter Dean Staley, former KSTP morning host Art Barron and Burnsville native John Hanson, who most recently worked for ESPN radio in Las Vegas and has already been hired to participate in KSTP's upcoming afternoon talk show.

Hubbard, who insists that Hauser is still in the running, said he won't hesitate to name a permanent anchor before he chooses a news director.

Dance fever

Minnesota may have its version of "The Hills." Maryse Thomas, who is married to former Golden Gopher basketball star John Thomas, is co-producing a new reality show, "5, 6, 7, 8," which will follow four Minnesota high-school dancers for three months as they attempt to juggle school, social life and practice. Thomas and her co-producer, actress Faune Chambers ("Epic Movie"), have been scouting local dance schools and held auditions in Victoria, Minn., this past weekend. The finalists will most likely be selected next month. Thomas said both the Fox Reality Channel and MTV have expressed interest.

The case of the WCCO reporter

Alan K. Austin's story on a Minnesota man wrongly imprisoned in Texas not only led to an early release. It also led to a novel. Austin, a WCCO investigative reporter from 1969 to 1992, said his new novel, "The Adagio," available at Amazon.com, was informed largely by a 1986 story he did that looked at the injustices of the legal system in Texas, where former Minnesotan Steven Lynn Fossum was being held. In the book, hero Jack Duncan, a disc jockey and amateur actor, swears that he can hear a scream during a recording of Barber's "Adagio." That leads to being falsely accused of murder.

"My experiences, from predicament to predicament, served as good fodder," said Austin, who currently lives in Arkansas. "As a reporter, I saw a great drive in prosecutors who were only interested in trying to make their careers."

Austin, who has won 10 national Emmys, doesn't have any immediate plans to do any book signings in the area, but he's scheduled for a Jan. 3 interview on Don Shelby's WCCO radio show.

njustin@startribune.com • 612-673-7431