Saturday, March 19, 2011
Bill White was recently named the program director of WGN Radio.
Rick: You've only been on the job now for a few weeks. I know you were born in Oak Park, but you haven't lived here in a while. How have you managed to settle back in to the city?
Bill: Chicago is such a great city. Every day, I discover something new to do, another place to go or a great place to eat. Everybody I meet is friendly, helpful and they’re passionate about being here. So that’s also what’s great about this opportunity.
Rick: I'm sure you know all about what happened here before you arrived. I think it's safe to say that the management style of the previous regime was rather brash and bold--big changes made quickly and decisively, for better or for worse. How would you compare your own management style to that?
Attention to detail is crucial on a station that has lots of moving parts, like WGN does. This station is like no other, and it requires global vision and hands-on leadership. I listen to the radio station nearly all the time, give feedback and get directly involved as I need to. (WGN VP/General Manager) Tom Langmyer leads that way from the top as well, and he’s worked very hard to successfully lead people through some very challenging times of transition and he guides an excellent staff at WGN. So my intent is to build on that in the programming department.
Rick: Talk radio has been dominated nationally by political talk, and more recently sports talk, but nearly all of it is driven by confrontation. There really aren't a lot of talk stations like WGN that have traditionally focused less on confrontation, and more on conversation and information. Do you think that style of station is still viable today?
Bill: It’s actually more viable than ever. Trusted information and genuine dialogue are vital elements, and that’s what WGN does best. Staged arguments don’t work for WGN -- and on the other hand, polite directionless chatter and small talk doesn’t work either anymore. It comes down to meat and substance supported by an entertaining style, not the other way around.
So if we’re bringing the story home to Chicago on the earthquakes in Japan, or the latest tie-up on the Eisenhower or other things happening in Chicago, our talent’s got to present in a conversational, respectful, informative and entertaining way – and of course direct things through the lens of what Chicagoans expect from us. So yes, issues of the day can be tackled in an engaging way without confrontation, just for confrontation sake.
But it seems that much of talk radio out there still follows the old-school playbook developed in the 1990s and copied everywhere, where each hour is based in heated argument, and it follows a formula. Nobody learns anything and nothing ever reaches any conclusion. That old radio model is where confrontation is the show. What’s funny on top of that is, talents in that world often really don’t even believe in what they’re saying. It’s just a fake world of confrontation. But most radio listeners today are way too sophisticated for an old circus act, so it makes that old thinking so easily parodied. On the other hand, what WGN does is genuine and real. You can enlighten, be entertaining, compelling and smart, but still be real.
Rick: Real or imagined, WGN has always had a perceived demo issue, meaning that it skews slightly older. I read an article in the Wall Street Journal the other day about how television is now actively targeting an older demo because the Baby Boomers are now between the ages of 47-65, and they still make up the biggest segment of American society. Do you think radio will follow suit? Is 35-64 realistically the new 25-54?
Of course, competitors and some media writers continue to hold WGN up to demos that have never been WGN’s specific target and also continue to use the clichéd “money demo” description. It’s like asking a music station why it doesn’t do more talk shows. It makes no sense. Fact is, WGN usually delivers a million people or more, each week. And they’re engaged listeners because WGN is foreground, live, local and vibrant. Because of that, advertisers get results. That’s what it’s all about for us.
As far as adding audience, we continue to drive new listenership to WGN through our high circulation talk shows, news and our sports partnerships with the Cubs and Blackhawks. This keeps people coming to us and allows us to expose what WGN is today. Our mobile and digital delivery platforms do skew younger, because the product is made available to younger people where they want it – and yes, WGN’s content is relevant to them.
Rick: You've obviously listened to your entire lineup by now. What do you perceive as WGN's weaknesses, and how are you planning on addressing those weaknesses?
Bill: (Laughs) I’m not going to give the competition our playbook, but I have been a student of WGN my whole career, studying WGN’ strengths, its connection to the community, its heritage brand and the magic of being a real radio station - while others tend to be more formulaic. WGN is a real and genuine station that touches people on a personal level. It’s fun too. While there are other great stations to listen to, many tend to be formulaic or homogenized. We have an opportunity not to be that, and that’s an important point of difference. So I’ll continue to build on WGN’s strengths and believe we have the line-up in place to accomplish great success, and we’ll add to it in the years ahead.
Rick: When I looked at the numbers for the individual shows on WGN, I have to tell you, I was a little bit surprised. When you break it down by show instead of looking at the traditional time slots (because WGN has unusual time slots), it looks to me like Greg Jarrett has the highest rated morning show in Chicago (12+). Am I looking at that correctly, and if so, that's a pretty good base to build on, isn't it?
Bill: That’s absolutely true. The morning show with Greg is the highest rated show in Chicago overall. And since talk stations don’t follow the traditional Arbitron daypart model, thanks for being thorough in your research. Of course people don’t use stations the same way at 6:00 am that they do at, say, 9:45 am anyway.
And yeah, Greg has the strongest ratings the station’s had in mornings in quite a number of years. Greg works extremely hard to involve himself in the community and he doesn’t turn into a pumpkin when he gets off the air. You just can’t afford to do that anymore, no matter how long you sit in that chair and could think you’ve earned your way to laziness. Greg’s a very interested person and he gets out - and that’s what makes him appreciate Chicago. And there’s sure lots to be interested in here.
The morning show is now more targeted to today’s busy lifestyle - and it’s more relevant now. Most people use radio in the car, and obviously more so during mornings and afternoons. And to a great extent, we talk with busy people who are getting ready for work and school and they’re commuting. That’s why I’d shake my head when I heard talent here actually complaining on the air about having to give listeners what they needed and wanted.
Of course it’s important to have a good combination of warmth, personality lightness and fun from an ensemble cast. But again, it’s about added relevance with strong information elements. Listeners in the morning do want a mix of personality and fun, yet they want and need to be informed; and Greg leads that in the morning. And the ratings show that the station’s doing a better job now in that area.
Rick: The other show I was curious about is your afternoon show, and Garry Meier's numbers are very solid. He was #2 in Chicago in January (12+), Do you think WGN has already started to turn it around?
WGN has different elements, unlike a station that does the same thing year-round, so it’s very important to be more sophisticated in the analysis of WGN. Garry is a natural talent who works hard at winning and we’re pleased with his success. Overall the newer people in place at WGN have improved the ratings, and veteran people like John Williams have grown the ratings too.
Rick: What about the shows that have recently left WGN? Some of those divorces were pretty acrimonious. In the past, WGN has always welcomed back its previous stars (like Roy Leonard, Wally Phillips, etc) for occasional visits--which I think was a nice way of transitioning from one era to the next. Will you reach out to some of the previous hosts, or are those relationships irreparably damaged?
Bill: We’ve already met and communicated with many of the WGN family, from over the years. Those relationships are important to our listeners and to us. Everyone from our great history will always be part of what’s made WGN what it is today.
Bill: I don’t deal in rumors, but will say that we’re talking to several major well-known talents that are currently working and a few that are on hiatus too. Regardless, it’s important to understand that a truly great talent is one that gets great ratings in today’s world that we can convert into revenue. WGN can’t change that model for any talent. It’s tricky, and it’s important to have the right talent – although being successful on another station or in another era doesn’t always translate to being successful on WGN or in the PPM world overall, for that matter. In general, a big name alone isn’t a rite of passage.
There are success stories like Garry Meier. Garry has re-invented himself over the years to keep relevant and that’s why what he does works today. Bottom line, no matter who it is, it’s about performance.
Rick: And finally, I'm going to give you the opportunity to speak directly to the WGN listeners out there. I know you're probably hearing from many of them, but is there anything you'd like to say to those listeners that don't call or e-mail or write?
Tom and I are on the same page in vision and style and we believe that WGN is the neighborhood meeting place for Chicago. We’ve got to be relevant, informative, and entertaining. It’s about being a trusted and familiar friend. We’re both always listening to the station and working with the staff to find better ways of doing things to meet that expectation. And it also comes down to leading by being respectful to our staff and listeners.
We still have work to do, and WGN is a great place to work. Tribune Company has great resources, and that’s also what makes this such a cool opportunity. I’m very lucky to be at WGN and it’s unbelievable to get to return to the city where I was born.
Saturday, March 12, 2011
Judd Sirott is part of the Chicago Blackhawks and the Chicago Cubs broadcast teams for WGN Radio.
Rick: I’m talking to you right after a Blackhawks practice, in the midst of a great hot streak. Do you think this Blackhawks team has what it takes to repeat, or at the very least, scare some of the teams that are seeded higher than they are?
Now let’s look at some of the other teams in the same conference as the Hawks. Even if the Blackhawks fall back a bit, and end up as the #8 seed, and the Canucks are the #1 seed—do they really scare you? Vancouver is a very good team but the Hawks have beaten them in the playoffs the past two years. Whether it’s the Canucks or the Red Wings or anyone else they have to face, there’s not a team they don’t have a chance against. It’s a wide open conference and anybody can win it.
Rick: I know you’re a hockey guy—before the Hawks, you were the play by play guy for the Chicago Wolves for twelve years.
Judd: And I did hockey games for HD Net for two years. I left the Wolves after 2006 and broadcast hockey games for Mark Cuban’s network. It was a terrific gig. Every week we would broadcast the best team, the best game we could get. It was fabulous and it was a great package. Unfortunately, Cuban opted not to renew with the NHL—he shifted his direction. I loved working there, but when the network didn’t renew, I was fortunate enough to land with the Hawks on WGN. I had actually gotten wind of Mark not renewing before it was officially announced, so I had called Dave Eanet, and told him I would be available. He called back and we managed to find a fit.
Rick: Before the last couple of years, when the Blackhawks were, let’s be nice about it, underperforming, a lot of people were saying Chicago isn’t a hockey town. That must have frustrated you. I mean, here you were, doing the games for a minor league team that was drawing almost as many fans as the NHL team. If that’s not a hockey town, what is?
Judd: I think there were about two million fans at the rally downtown that would disagree about Chicago not being a hockey town.
Rick: I’m sure you grew up a Hawks fan in Arlington Heights. What does it mean to you to be a part of this Blackhawks experience; hosting the pre and post-game shows?
I always loved listening to Pat Foley on the radio too going all the way back to his time on WIND. He had that phenomenal voice. When I listened to him I thought—I want to do this. Ken Wilson was good too, and he was doing them on TV at the time, but I always preferred listening to Pat on the radio. It’s hard to put into words how much of a thrill it is to be doing what I’m doing now, not only with the Hawks, but also with the Cubs.
Rick: How do they work that with you when the Hawks and the Cubs are both playing? Does one team take precedence over the other?
Judd: If there’s a conflict, the Cubs take precedence.
Rick: Even during the playoffs?
Judd: Well, there usually aren’t too many conflicts. Last year during the playoffs, I would do both. Say, if the Cubs were on during the day and the Hawks at night, I could do both, and I did several times. But if the schedules conflicted, and both games were on at the same time, or I was out on the road with the Cubs, the Cubs took precedence. I’m guessing it will be the same way this year.
Rick: I interviewed your uncle (Bob Sirott) for Shore Magazine a few years ago and asked him if he could be doing any other job in the world, what would it be? He said it would be your job. As far as he’s concerned, you have the dream job with the Cubs.
Rick: I love listening to Cubs games on the radio. I’ve always wondered about the job that you have—namely that one inning during the game that you get to do play by play. That must be rough to get a flow going.
Judd: I think you figure out a way to jump right in. With Ronnie in the past, it was a treat. He was so much fun to work with. It’s really just a matter of being a conduit to the game. Do it accurately, descriptively, and provide some banter. Every game is different. I used to joke that nobody could call three up and three down like me, but then all of a sudden it would go the other way, with an eight run inning and three pitching changes. I think the key is that I always prepare myself as if I am doing the entire game.
Rick: Last year I interviewed Pat Hughes for this blog, and asked him what the worst part of the job was. He didn’t hesitate. For him, it’s the travel. I suspect that with two young kids at home, that’s a difficult part of the job for you too.
Judd: It’s tough, that’s true. It’s not just tough on you; your whole family inherits this schedule. My wife is an absolute saint; I couldn’t do this without her. The travel itself doesn’t bother me, and the work is something I really enjoy, but I do miss being with my family. It’s a hardship on them even more than me.
Rick: Before you got involved with the Wolves, you worked at the Score during its early years—if I’m not mistaken, producing for Dan McNeil.
Rick: That original stable of Score producers was very strong.
Judd: No question. We all started together on the first day. Mike Greenberg, Jesse Rogers, and I were all producers there. The program director Ron Gleason eventually moved Greenberg to anchoring and reporting. I think he started covering the Bears beat, if I’m not mistaken, and then got the television gig at CLTV, and then to ESPN. He does a great job on that morning show with Golic. But we had a great time in those early days at the Score.
Rick: Do you still listen to sports talk in Chicago (other than the shows on WGN), and if so, what are some of the shows that you think do a good job?
Judd: Oh definitely. I listen to them all. I think there are a ton of quality shows out there, Mully and Hanley in the morning do a great job, and McNeil and Matt have a good show too. I listen to Boers & Bernstein. But I also check out the guys on ESPN. I really think that Waddle and Silvy have a good chemistry together, and I’ll tune in the Afternoon Saloon from time to time too.
Rick: At this point of your career, even though you’re still a relatively young guy, you’ve really done it all in sports radio; reporting, anchoring, hosting, producing, and play-by-play. Of all those roles, which is the most rewarding and why?
Saturday, March 05, 2011
Michael Damsky is the GM of WLS-AM (890 AM) and WLS-FM (94.7 FM).
Rick: You’ve been the GM of WLS now for a little over a year. When you took over the station wasn’t exactly in a great place. What was your assessment of the problems at that time, and are you satisfied with the steps that have been taken to address those issues?
Michael: I was so frustrated watching this place come unraveled in 2009 when I was still the director of sales, so I had a clear vision of what the problems were. I saw this from an insider’s perspective. The story I always tell people to help explain what was wrong happened around the time Chicago lost the Olympic bid. In the days leading up to that, I kept asking the PD how we were going to handle it--the biggest story in Chicago. He had no idea and no plan of attack for dealing with it. As a station we lacked vision and urgency. I kept pointing that out to the GM; pointing out that the PD was an issue. He had systematically dismantled the Roe show, got rid of Ron Magers and Christina Filliagi and brought in Cisco Cotto. Cisco, who I have a great respect for, and love in his current role, was a terrible fit for that show. Also, as the director of sales, I watched research being misinterpreted. All of those factors together led me to the same conclusion--the PD had to go.
Rick: You mentioned that the former PD misinterpreted research. How so?
Michael: We did a research project with John Parikhal, and he’s the very best, but I thought that the wrong lessons were taken from his presentation.
Rick: Which were?
Michael: Crudely speaking, that we needed to bring in more right wing elements. But that’s not the way I heard the research results. Yes, the station has that right-leaning perspective, but it’s not right for every show, and it certainly wasn’t the right thing to do to Roe’s show.
Rick: I’ve actually been very impressed with the new Roe and Roeper show.
Michael: I wish I could take credit for it, but I can’t. That sort of fell into our laps. I hired Drew within seven days of taking over as GM, and had Parikhal come in to re-do the research presentation so we could get a better read on what it was really telling us.
And from there we made some moves. We eliminated the Mancow show. As much as I like him personally, and I’m actually eating some food that he gave me right now (laughs), it wasn’t the right fit for us. The pairing with Pat Cassidy just wasn’t working. In one day we made some pretty dramatic moves. We put Cisco into the midday slot, and then brought back Ron Magers and Christina Filliagi to Roe's show.
Rick: So did Drew go after Richard Roeper?
Rick: You did have a few very important linchpins in place when you took over, and one of those is the Don & Roma show. They don’t seem to be showing any signs of slowing down. I know their work ethic is legendary, but could you give us a little insight into the amount of work that goes into that show every day?
Michael: It’s funny you should mention them, because Drew and I were just looking at the numbers in January for the show—really, really solid. Don is the best prepared radio personality I’ve ever seen. He’s so persuasive, he has actually modified my own political perspective. He’s highly intelligent, incredibly well informed, and lives a highly unreasonable life—one that would kill mere mortals like you and me.
Rick: The other linchpin you had was obviously Rush Limbaugh. His numbers have been outstanding in this town for twenty years. When I was on my book tour promoting my novel “$everance,” I was asked about Rush all the time. People that aren’t fans wonder why he never gets in trouble for the things he says when other people like Imus or Rick Sanchez get fired for saying similar things.
Michael: I cannot explain why it is that he never gets in trouble. To be totally honest with you, that’s three hours of the broadcast day I don’t give a lot of thought to, because it’s a given. I don’t worry about it, except from a sales perspective.
Rick: Isn’t the reason he doesn’t get in trouble the fact that he owns his show?
Michael: Well, yes, that’s true. But to be honest, I’m not even sure if Rush is that outrageous anymore. There are others out there that are far more outrageous than Rush now.
Rick: Steve Dahl is going to be available sometime this year. Have you already spoken to him? Is there any interest in possibly bringing him aboard?
Rick: You’ve got some great talent on the weekends like Bruce Wolf and Jake Hartford, but you’ve also got some brokered shows. One of your former brokered weekend shows got sued recently, which I suppose is one of the dangers of featuring brokered programming. I know that’s a good revenue stream for the station, but do you see brokered weekend shows continuing to be a part of the lineup for the foreseeable future?
Michael: In the long haul we’d like to have the weekend programming be a viable extension of what we do Monday through Friday so our listeners feel they can always be serviced by what we do—whenever they want it. In the meantime, there’s a level of revenue you have to replace, and the fact of the matter is that there’s nothing we can immediately do that can have a direct impact on our ratings. At least not enough to make a difference at this point. The amount we have to raise our ratings to make up that weekend revenue is pretty difficult to attain. But we’re still heading in that direction. We’ve given more time to people like Eddie & Jobo, Bruce and Dan, and Jake. But because of the financial realities, that move is going to be a little more gradual than it otherwise would be.
Rick: Switching gears for a moment, there’s something I’ve always wondered about WLS-FM. You’re playing oldies, you’re using the old WLS call letters, and yet, you’ve only got one person on staff (Dick Biondi) that has any connection to the old MusicRadio WLS (although Greg Brown does have that WJMK Oldies experience). A lot of those great WLS talents are still out there and available; including the biggest stars from that era like Larry Lujack, Fred Winston, John Records Landecker, and more. Is there a reason those guys aren’t on the air with you?
What we’re trying to do is frame the music a little differently. We’re not just trying to present the music to the people that listened to it originally. This music has an appeal beyond that audience--people of a slightly younger generation who love the music from shows like Jersey Boys or American Idol. For them, the presentation needs to be slightly different. We’re taking the opportunity to broaden the appeal to a younger generation, still playing the music those older listeners like, but presenting it in a way that the 35 year olds can relate to.
Rick: I’ve talked to more than 200 radio pros since I started this blog, and nearly all of them privately tell me they read Larz’ Chicagolandradioandmedia board, but you’re one of the only ones that openly posts on it using your real name.
Michael: He does a nice job with that board. There a couple of reasons I post under my real name. I think radio is a local medium, and it’s only right that the local audience knows what the local manager thinks. Sometimes you want to tell people that you know the truth from your vantage point—that you aren’t just an anonymous poster with no actual knowledge of what’s going on. Sometimes I just want to be a part of the dialogue.
Rick: I know you can’t talk about the upcoming sale/merger with Cumulus, and you don’t really know any of the details at this time, but you’ve gone through this before when you were with WXRT—and that had to be even more of a culture shock at the time. You went from being a mom and pop place to part of a multi-billion dollar corporation overnight. What was that like?
Michael: Actually it was a little more gradual than you remember. Westinghouse was the first one that bought us. Then they bought CBS the same week—so that was a little strange. We were still part of Westinghouse for awhile—Dan Mason ran that company. Of course we were scared, but it was a really easy transition and I thoroughly enjoyed the Westinghouse times and even the first few years when we became a part of CBS. In some ways things were better right away. For instance, we didn’t even have computers or e-mail with the old owners.
Rick: Did they pressure you to leave the old building on Belmont?
Rick: You were with XRT for more than 20 years, and I know you still think very fondly of it. What are some of your favorite memories from those years?
Michael: I do feel very strongly about it. Ten of us had lunch together yesterday and twelve others called bitching they weren’t invited. This is going to sound trite and cliché, but it really was a family. We related to each other. We watched our children grow up...and not just one part of the station, like the sales staff. All of us. As for one special memory, I still get a little choked up even thinking about this, so forgive me, but the day before my daughter got married, Lin Brehmer did about a five minute tribute to her, and....it was truly special. I can’t even think about it without getting choked up. We lived our lives together. We were all coming from a 60s hippie ethos. Not just the listeners, also the employees.
Rick: OK, one last question. You came up through sales and probably know just about every radio salesman in this town. Everybody knows the great air talent, but who are Chicago’s radio sales superstars, current staff excluded?
Michael: Oh boy, well the first one that comes to mind without a doubt, and granted there's a little prejudice on my part, but it's gotta be Patty Reilly Murphy. She started with me in 1980 at the same station, and then we went to WXRT together. She is absolutely incredible. She harnessed the passion in ways that nobody else ever could. There’s Laura DeGrandis at WBBM-FM. What a talent she is—she’s been at WBBM her whole career. At one point she really wanted to work for me, and I didn’t hire her, which is something I’ve always regretted. Debra McCabe at WBBM-AM—she is WBBM-AM sales. There are others there that do a great job, but she is the face of that place. Dan Richman is the LSM at WGN, and he is 'the natural.' He sells with great passion and the enthusiasm. I have a great staff now too. And by the way, thanks for asking about the sales people. Thanks for including that.
Rick: Thanks for doing the interview.
Michael: My pleasure.