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Randy Michaels: Tribune CEO & "Hell"-raiser

Yesterday, Tribune Company CEO Randy Michaels wrote a long memo to WGN-AM news Director Charlie Myerson, who in turn passed it on to the WGN News Staff. This memo contained almost 120 commonly-used words and phrases that are now banned from ever being spoken on WGN Radio's airwaves. To add insult to injury, in addition to the memo from the top of Tribune Tower, makeshift "bingo cards" were handed out to the staff, each containing some of the now-forbidden words. staffers are to use these cards to "tattle" on a co-worker, who may slip up and say a phrase he or she shouldn't say.

Earlier today, Chicago Public Radio media blogger Robert Feder wrote about this stunning incident. He even was able to reprint all 119 of the banned words & phrases. It is highly recommended reading. In the comment section under Mr. Feder's blog, there are dozens of responses (although that could turn in to "hundreds" before the day is over) -- most shocked at the memo, some in defense of it. The CRM Message board is also filled with similar comments today.

I do not have a problem with a radio station wanting to improve its product. I have no problem with management asking staffers to avoid certain slang or wanting its voices to sound more professional or more relaxed. This is fairly common practice in almost all media. In fact, I'll go as far as to say that I applaud WGN for wanting to find ways to improve their station, as its ratings in the important 25-54 demographic are at its worst point in memory. I do have many problems with this particular memo, though. I have a problem with some of the "evil" words and phrases picked. I have a problem in asking staffers to point the finger of blame at one another. Perhaps, most of all, I have a problem with just who originated the memo and why he did so.

It isn't just this memo, either. This memo is symptomatic of a much larger issue. This memo is just another in a long string of disturbing decisions, all of which have originated from one source: Randy Michaels.

Just who is Randy Michaels? Why does he do the things he does? Let's look at that first...

Randy Michaels is not even the man's true name. He was born Benjamin Homel. He took the name "Randy Michaels" as his fake 70's radio name, something many DJs did back then. The gimmick of using two first names as an on-air name was very common practice at that time. He has stuck with that name ever since.

Since a youth, Michaels was an enthusiast of radio & broadcasting. He used to repair & rebuild old radios. He started his radio career as an engineer first and then as a DJ while in college in New York. He quickly moved into commercial radio as a DJ. He made a name for himself by being a shock jock in the 70's & 80's. He was known for such low-brow humor as farting on the air, making fun of homosexuals and graphic descriptions of supposedly naked women in the studio with him. This behavior gained him big ratings. Quality on the air did not matter to young Randy Michaels. He just wanted the attention.

In addition to his behind-the-microphone work, he started become known for his behind-the-scenes work, especially in radio programming. He is credited for helping to create modern Country radio. In the 70's, at Kansas City's WDAF, he played top Country songs at a fast Top 40 pace, creating an excitement there. He is known for taking dying AM radio stations and breathing new life into them, by creative programming and investing heavily in their news departments. Unfortunately, Chicagoans may best remember him for one of his worst programming decisions. It was Michaels' idea to take WYTZ (now WLS-FM) and make it into "Hell Radio." Using slogans like "Go To Hell" and "You've Gone To Hell," the "Hell 94.7" experiment lasted only one week before an embarrassed ABC Radio pulled the plug.

Randy Michaels became an officer of a little Cincinnati, OH company called Jacor. The company was on the brink of bankruptcy in 1993 and closing its doors for good, until Michaels was able to somehow convince a certain Chicago billionaire business man to invest $70 million into this dying radio company. That businessman was Sam Zell -- the very same Sam Zell who now owns the Tribune Company. Soon after, Michaels convinced Jacor's owner Terry Jacobs to retire and Michaels took over the company. Using Zell's money, Michaels started buying up radio stations.

Even as CEO of Jacor, Michaels continued to dabble in radio, both in programming and as a shock jock. This shock jock behavior extended beyond the radio studio and earned him a sexual harassment suit. Liz Richards, a female DJ working at Jacor-owned WFLA sued the company and Michaels personally. Michaels was vice president of programming and a DJ at WFLA in Tampa. Richards said on ABC TV's investigative news program "20/20" that Michaels once walked the station halls with a large rubber dildo around his neck, accosting and chasing after female employees. She claimed he also turned the station into a "frat house" atmosphere. Caricatures of Richards giving blow jobs were drawn on the employee sign-in board and the station manager liked to brag about receiving oral sex from Richards, which never actually happened. Richards claimed that Michaels encouraged this type of behavior. Not wanting to make the details of this suit any more public than they already were, the suit was later settled out of court.

Less than two years later, the Republican-run Congress pushed through the Telecommunications Act, enabling companies to own multiple radio stations in the same market. In a short amount of time, the Michaels-run Jacor went from owning 25 stations to 450. This caught the eye of a very similar aggressive company, Clear Channel, who was also on a nationwide spending spree thanks to the relaxed restrictions on ownership, buying up stations and smaller companies. Zell & Michaels sold Jacor to Clear Channel, making Zell over a billion dollars in profit.

As a way to save money, Clear Channel figured it would be cheaper to keep on Randy Michaels and his clique, rather than buyout their expensive executive contracts. Michaels was appointed as Clear Channel's Division President and soon after, worked his way up to being the company's Chairman and CEO. During his time with Clear Channel, Michaels grew the company to over 1200 radio stations. Many insiders say that even though Clear Channel bought and took over Jacor, Clear Channel itself was taken over by Michaels and Jacor's ways from the inside out. Clear Channel went from being a well-respected media corporation to being the most hated media corporation, especially among its peers.

Though working as CEO for Clear Channel and no longer working as a DJ, Michaels did not shed his shock jock ways, earning him even more lawsuits. Jerry Del Colliano, who was the Editor of Inside Radio magazine & website at this time, sued Clear Channel in 2001 asking for $115 million in damages. He claimed that Michaels started up a website called InsideInsideRadio.com, which was a nasty parody of Del Colliano's own InsideRadio.com. It was filled with ugly "jokes" aimed at Del Colliano, most of which was reportedly written by Randy Michaels himself.

Another lawsuit came when yet another of Jacor's Tampa radio stations aired the brutal killing of a live boar in the station's parking lot and then posted the bloody pictures of the incident on their website. Michaels supposedly loved the stunt done by the DJ known as "Bubba the Love Sponge." It was the third time in a year that an animal was killed or tortured on-air at a Clear Channel station. The Mays family, who owned Clear Channel, were not as amused. A few months later, Michaels was gone from the company.

When Michaels was forced out from Clear Channel, the magazine & website Radio Ink did a story on him, printing quotes about Michaels calling him "The Anti-Christ of Radio," "a blight on professionalism," and "representative of the heinous crimes perpetrated by Clear Channel."

The Chicago Tribune music columnist, Greg Kot, writing for Rolling Stone magazine in August of 2001, printed a quote about Randy Michaels, given to him by a program director. This program director said, "I believe there is a special place in hell for Randy Michaels. I can't tell you how much I think this conglomeration thing has totally ruined our industry. People are listening to radio less and are disappointed more when they do listen."

For a few years, Michaels tried starting up several radio companies, including one that wanted to sabotage Air America, so it could be the country's provider of left-leaning syndicated radio programs called "Product First." He bought up WLIB, Air America's home base radio station from under them. The companies ultimately did not succeed. He then worked for another company, helping them with television station acquisitions. That is until Sam Zell decided to buy the Chicago Tribune and the Tribune Company. In December 2007, Zell brought Michaels on as Executive Vice President the Tribune Company and Chief Executive Officer of Interactive and Broadcasting operations. Michaels quickly started to bring into the Tribune Company as many former Jacor & Clear Channel people as he could. A practice that is still going on. In May 2008, he was promoted to Chief Operating Officer. In December of 2009, facing pressure from creditors, Sam Zell stepped down as Tribune CEO and named his good friend Randy Michaels as his replacement. Michaels was also named to the Board of Directors then. It is widely believed Michaels was quietly working as CEO even when Sam Zell held the title. The official changing of the guard was more of a formality.

That is how little Benjamin Homel went from a young radio geek to becoming Randy Michaels, running one of the country's largest media empires.

Since taking the reigns as a top Tribune executive, Michaels refuses to give up his shock jock ways or tinkering with the Tribune's media properties. Numerous corners have been cut with their newspapers, which have also been changed to appear to be more sensationalized. Gone is the traditional, respected journalistic leader. In its place stands a skinny, daily periodical, just barely a few steps above a weekly supermarket tabloid. Changes to the WGN cable superstation were almost instant, as it quickly borrowed the old Jacor slogan of "Noise You Can't Ignore" to become "WGN America: Television You Can't Ignore." Just a few days ago, it was discovered that Michaels had hired a former Jacor DJ, Gary Burbank to bring his redneck character "Earl Pitts" to WGN to deliver "commentaries." This, just a week or so after bringing back the controversial Larry Mendte to deliver commentaries on at least two of its stations, including Chicago's WGN-TV.

All of this pales in comparison with the hands-on tinkering Randy Michaels has done at its historic radio station, WGN-AM. Bob Shomper, the Program Director was removed to make room for another controversial Jacor-alum, Kevin Metheny, the man Howard Stern so despised, he famously nicknamed him "Pig Virus." The station's popular morning star, Spike O'Dell retired, with little or no attempt to stop him from doing so. When afternoon host Steve Cochran did not agree to the new ownerships terms, he was passed over for the morning show job, which was given to John Williams. Just a few months later, Williams was removed from the morning show, replaced by a newsman from San Fransisco, Greg Jarrett, a talented, but completely unknown entity in Chicago. Longtime WGN staples Kathy & Judy were yanked from the air long before their contracts were over to make room for Williams. Cochran himself is rumored to be on the bubble as far as his future at WGN is concerned. Numerous staff members, producers and a veteran news director were let go. Beloved weekend shows were removed and replaced with controversial political programs. Then there were the memos... Memo after memo, telling staffers just what they can & can't do; what they can & can't say; what they should and shouldn't think; how they can & cannot address callers, and so on. Memos asking them to gloss over truth & fairness, in favor or controversy & edginess. Much of this was attributed to Kevin Metheny, the Program Director. However, it continues to be proven that much of this has come from well above Metheny. They come from well above Station Manager Tom Langmyer (whose powers and decision making abilities seem to have been neutered with the Tribune ownership change). These moves seem to be coming from Randy Michaels.

Program Directors on both the radio & television sides seem to just be marionette puppets, with Michaels standing on a few boxes, controlling the puppets' strings. They are allowed to deal with the day-to-day minutia, but all of the major moves come from the mind & pen of Michaels. It is Michaels that is touring the station's hallways with potential hires. It is Michaels holding meeting after meeting with the radio & TV management. It is Michaels making the decisions and telling them how the stations need to be run.

Randy Michaels is the Tribune's Chief Executive Officer. As CEO of a major corporation, Michaels' duties are to oversee all important aspects of the corporation. He is the Captain of the ship, guiding it internally & externally with the company's vision. The CEO is not to get bogged down with lesser duties of the job functions of the many who work under him; just to make sure they are all ultimately accountable to him.

The CEO answers only to the owner and the Board of Directors, who in turn answer to shareholders and creditors. Of course, Randy Michaels is also running the Board of Directors, so he truly only has to answer to his good buddy, Sam Zell, who does not wish to deal with the details of the company, just the bottom line profits. It seems with nobody to truly answer to, Michaels is free to do whatever he wants. That is troublesome.

The Tribune Company is in bankruptcy, largely due to the restructuring that took place when Sam Zell bought the company. The CEO should be focusing on ways to get his company out of bankruptcy and in a strong enough position to ensure it does not happen again. He should also be planning for the company's future, to help it grow in the fast-changing media landscape.

Perhaps since Zell and his teams of attorneys have set the company on the path that should see it exit bankruptcy in a few months, Michaels doesn't feel the need to do much. Perhaps because just a few weeks ago, those attorneys convinced a bankruptcy judge to allow the Tribune Company to pay $45 million in bonuses out to its managers, Randy Michaels being top of that list, he doesn't have to worry about his next paycheck and doesn't feel the need to steer the entire company onto a more profitable path. After all, he's going to get his millions regardless.

Instead, Randy Michaels is spending an inordinate amount of time trying to micro-manage every little detail of Chicago's WGN-AM & WGN-TV. There is no excuse for this level of micro-management coming from a supposedly busy CEO. The memo like the one revealed by Robert Feder earlier today should never have happened. It most definately should not be the immediate concern of a CEO of a major corporation.

These memos, coupled with the very unsettling personnel moves of the last couple of years, have crushed the station morale. Asking staffers to "tattle-tale" on each other like a bunch of third graders has driven it down even farther. This is no way for any person to run a TV or radio station. This is absolutely no way a human being should be running a gigantic corporation.

Despite the CEO title on his business card, Randy Michaels continues to be that young broadcast enthusiast from upstate New York. He continues to be that young shock jock who would do anything for ratings and attention. He continues to be the radio geek who wants to rebuild old radios. Only this time, the old radio he is trying to rebuild is Chicago's WGN. Instead using the proper tools to fix it, he using the horrific tools he used to ruin radio quality and standards nationwide as a shock jock first, and then as the overlord of Jacor & Clear Channel. I only hope he doesn't break it to the point where it can never be fixed again.

More than likely, the Tribune Company will be forced to appoint a whole new Board of Directors when it exits bankruptcy. That Board will make decisions on all senior management. Before anybody breaks out the champagne and party favors, Michaels has filled the company with so many ex-Jacor faces, that the new Board will probably be made up of people loyal to him. A change at the top will be unlikely. Only Sam Zell, or extreme public pressure, could push Randy Michaels out of the company or force him to change his ways. I fear that as he did with Clear Channel and as he is doing with the Tribune's Chicago radio station, it may be too late by the time he leaves.

There are many fantastic things that can be said about Randy Michaels. Many people who know him feel he is a very good person and enjoyable to be around. Many people love his corporate media ideas and hire him to speak at conferences. A few months ago, he was inducted into the Buffalo Broadcasters Hall of Fame for his radio achievements. He has a long list of career successes. Unfortunately, he has a list even longer of what many people feel are not only colossal failures, but industry killing moves. I'm trying to focus on the man's positives, but unfortunately, they are extremely hard to see through the growing amount of dark negatives.

Let me say that I love WGN. I love the radio station and the television station. Not only are they local Chicago treasures, but national ones. I adore its deep heritage and the fact it is live & local, something that has become increasing rare -- thanks especially to companies like Jacor & Clear Channel. I like most of WGN's on air talent a great deal. I have no axe to grind with anybody at WGN. I simply cannot stand what is happening behind the scenes to destroy itself from within. These people at WGN all deserve better. WGN's fans deserve better. All of Chicago deserves better.

Let's hope that Sam Zell or some Tribune Director has the proper inspiration to use Randy's old WYTZ slogan, and firmly ask him to "Go to Hell" before he makes Chicago's historic media properties any more hellish than he already has.


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