An interesting kerfuffle blew up in Chicago last week when the CEO of the Tribune Company, which owns WGN, sent a memo to the station’s news department containing 119 words and phrases that are no longer to be uttered by anchors and reporters on the air. WGN’s news director passed it on to longtime Chicago media reporter Robert Feder, who published it on his website. The list itself isn’t all that objectionable—it includes a lot of cliches and lazy newscaster jargon, although I’m not sure how a reporter will write around now-forbidden words like “officials,” “authorities,” “alleged,” and “undisclosed.” The broader issue is whether the CEO of the parent company should be making such a list in the first place, or sending it directly to the staff, bypassing the myriad managers between the CEO’s office and the news department.
The Tribune CEO is Randy Michaels, and his biography is not that of the typical corporate suit—he came up as a jock, became a group program director in the 80s, eventually put together a station group, then sold it to Clear Channel in 1999, becoming CEO there through 2002. (As such, he’s one of the architects of the massive consolidation that plagues the industry today.) He began overseeing the Tribune Company’s broadcasting and interactive operations and some of its newspapers in 2007. So he’s got a background in radio programming, but he’s also got a program director at WGN, Kevin Metheny, a guy with his own substantial resume and a track record of success. Had the list of banned words come down through channels, from Michaels to Metheny to the poor news director, Charlie Meyerson, it might never have made it to the public eye. But given the genesis of the list, it’s easy to understand why Meyerson gave it to Feder: When you’ve got nothing—as in power, authority, or your own cojones anymore—you’ve got nothing to lose.
(Digression: The Michaels/Metheny reign at WGN the last couple of years has coincided with the torching of the station’s substantial legacy as one of America’s great full-service AM stations in favor of becoming just another major-market talk station chasing male listeners with sports, right-leaning politics, and juvenile attitude. The Mrs., a longtime WGN listener, is pissed. But that’s a topic for another post.)
You can argue—and some people will—that CEOs, or high corporate suits in general, should take a direct interest in programming. It’s where the battles are won and lost and where the money is made. If the CEO has a programming background, that’s one thing. (Randy Michaels has reportedly spent a lot of time over the years coaching newscasters to talk like real people.) But all of us in radio have run across guys who spent their entire careers in sales, but who believed that as soon as they got into the general manager’s office, they became experts in programming. Or owners who believed that just because they had enough money to buy a station, they knew how to run one day-to-day.
When the new owner of one of my stations came to town for the first time, we were dismayed to find that he’d never sold advertising, he’d never been a programmer, had never even been on the air—the only job he’d ever had in radio was as a station owner. And so he spent most of his first day at our station redesigning the station logo. (I suppose we should have been grateful that he didn’t start rewriting liner cards or rearranging the music library.) He later hired a general manager who suggested that our station should pick up St. Louis Cardinals baseball broadcasts. Never mind that there were few Cardinals fans in the market—we were a music station that depended on in-office listening during the working day. Baseball would have destroyed that image, and he was eventually persuaded to give up the idea.
That is not to say that all GMs are empty suits. The last GM I worked for as a full-timer loved getting involved in the day-to-day stuff, but he knew what he was doing—most of the time. (We would clash occasionally, but when we did, it wasn’t necessarily a foregone conclusion that I’d lose the argument.) His willingness to roll up his sleeves and do everything alongside the rest of the staff made it a lot easier for me to manage my people. They couldn’t claim they were being asked to do things that the GM himself wasn’t willing to do.
In the end, it’s a battle as old as radio itself—the conflict between programmers, who are paid to know what sounds good on the radio, and executives, who are paid more to worry about a bigger picture that includes what sounds good on the radio. Each of us is inclined to protect our turf. Ideally, we agree how to share it.