Published on Thursday, 09 September 2010 08:27
On August 12th, this website broke the news that WGN's Program Director, Kevin Metheny had emailed a memo out to WGN & Tribune staffers
asking them to phone into Mike McConnell's then-new radio show, pretending to be somebody else and engaging him in conversation.
Vocalo.org's Robert Feder broke the story open even wider with his column of September 3rd
. In that column, he directly quoted most of the memo (something I could not do, due to an agreement I had) and also uncovered that the fake calls have continued well past McConnell's first week on the air.
The memo, which Kevin Metheny had sent out with the subject line "I could use a little help ... there's no money in it, but I'll appreciate it!", has stirred up a lot of conversation, both pro & con. Perhaps even more conversation that a faked phone call would create on McConnell's radio show.
The stance that I stand firm on is that the station is deceiving the listeners by having fake calls come in. It would be different if staffers enjoying the show, wanted to call in and interact with the host. At that point, they are listeners like everybody else. However, when the station's big boss asks people to phone in and fool the audience into thinking the host is generating numerous callers, then a line has been crossed. Robert Feder, one of the most respected media columnists in the nation, agrees that this memo and these calls that are being placed on the air by that memo's urging are deceitful. At the time of this writing, the comments section under Mr. Feder's column is up to 158 comments, the vast majority of which also agree.
The flipside to that argument seemed to have happened on this site's message board, where some people dismissed the fake calls because:
1. since fake calls have been a dirty PD trick on many other stations and many other shows over the years, it is OK for that to still happen today.
2. radio is "theater of the mind" and not reality anyway.
I again strongly disagree. Just because something was done wrong one way for a long time, does not make it right today. Women were not given the right to vote for the majority of years that this country has been in existence. Just because it was always done that way, did not make it right. People spoke out about the incorrectness of it and the wrong practice was stopped. Faked phone calls have been complained about for years. For the most part, it has stopped in radio. It seems Kevin Metheny wants to bring it back. That is wrong. People are again speaking out about it.
As far as the "theater of the mind" argument goes, that holds little merit, as well. Since the dawn of radio, when a work of fiction was produced, it was clearly labeled as such. When "Fibber McGee & Molly" got into a funny situation, the audience knew it was actors working for laughs. When Orson Wells talked about Martians landing on Earth, it was clearly noted before and during the broadcast that the show was a work of fiction (even though some people ignored those disclaimers and were somehow fooled). Fictitious radio shows have always let the audience know it was just audio "showbiz" and not reality. A local radio talk show with live callers is not supposed to be a work of fiction or "theater of the mind." At no point during any of WGN's radio shows in August was a disclaimer aired stating that calls are works of fiction and not to be believed.
What WGN management was asking Tribune staffers to do was not "theater of the mind." It was an old underhanded radio trick that is not to be allowed.
Kevin Metheny's point of view in this situation is that as Program Director, it is his job to make sure that entertaining & engaging product goes out over his radio station's airwaves. I can fully respect and appreciate that. However, on a live & local talk radio station that deals directly with the listeners, that entertainment needs to come from the people the PD hired to deliver the entertainment. Mike McConnell was talked up to be the next great Chicago radio host prior to his moving here from Cincinnati. If McConnell is as great as the Tribune's Michaels, Compton and Metheny brag that he is, he should not need the help of fake callers. If he is not as good as they bragged and cannot generate the callers, then perhaps it is time to admit a mistake was made by hiring him and find a host that can get the job done.
Another former Chicago radio show often used faked callers. "Mancow's Morning Madhouse" would routinely have staffers and actors call in, using fake names and fake situations to talk about. The lies were often exposed and complained about by columnists, bloggers & message boards. The argument against what WGN is doing with McConnell is not an argument that is picking just on WGN. It is a deceitful practice done by lesser talents trying to fool the audience into believing they have more talent than they actually do. It was complained about then and it will be complained about today.
Radio-Info has a columnist who writes a weekly newsletter called "News Talk Edge." The writer, Randall Bloomquist is a former Program Director, who now runs a radio consulting group. In his newsletter today, he takes Kevin Metheny's side and makes what he feels is an argument for fake calls. Below, in the yellow font, is what Bloomquist wrote today about Metheny & fake calls. (NOTE: Radio-Info has posted up this morning's newsletter on their website. Bloomquist's entire newsletter can be red HERE.)
The Legitimate Role of Fake Phone Calls
Mike McConnell's debut earlier this month on WGN/Chicago was met with thundering silence. The new mid-morning host was starved for good phone calls. WGN PD Kevin Metheny fixed that problem by arranging for some of his more clever Tribune Media colleagues to call-in and spar with McConnell. Metheny's solution drew fire from critics, including Chicago media observer Robert Feder.
But here's the deal. Talk shows are supposed to attract and hold an audience with entertaining programming. They are not newscasts or documentaries. They are amusements, diversions -- SHOWS. Wouldn't listeners rather hear a funny or insightful call from a "phony" caller than sit through a ramble from a "real" caller? Or listen to the host tap dance? Example: Early in my programming career, my Saturday sports talk host was struggling. It was a holiday weekend and he was battling a migraine. I called him off-air and told him to introduce the topic "What's the worst experience you've ever had at a sporting event?" I immediately called in and told the very entertaining story of my expulsion from a Chicago Cubs' game. By the time I finished, the phones were filling up with calls. Another hour of radio made great. Anything wrong with that?
I offer these important caveats on planted calls.
1. A chronic shortage of listener calls might be a sign of trouble. A well-done talk show should prompt healthy response from the audience. Pre-arranged calls are a tool, not a crutch.
2. Hosts should be told when the pump has been primed. Failure to let them in on the bit could lead to outcomes ranging from awkward to embarrassing.
3. Personalities who engage in serious political argument in an effort to change minds and votes should be held to a higher standard. Faking calls (especially ones that make provocative claims or allegations) in this environment is like flicking matches in the barn where the host's credibility is stored.
Read Feder's piece here. It includes Metheny's very candid memo asking his colleagues to call McConnell's show.
Bloomquist's argument is much like Metheny's in that he feels a PD's job is to get the most entertaining product on the airwaves, by any means necessary. He calls fake callers a "tool" in getting the job done. Yet again, I cannot disagree more. The only "tool" the station should be using is the talk show host's natural communication talent and the talents of good producers. What these programmers are looking at as a "tool box" is actually a dirty bag of tricks. The station's audience and listeners deserve far better.
Making matters worse is that these dirty tricks are happening on WGN-AM. The station did not have to resort to deceiving listeners for decades before this. It was not done before the current regime of former Jacor/Clear Channel employees moved into Tribune Tower. WGN is (or perhaps "was") one of the nation's premier radio stations. It was the radio station that most other radio stations in America looked up to and tried to emulate. It set the bar in how to do an AM talk station correctly. With the exception of a few longtime shows on the station that have not yet been been tampered with by new management, there is no longer a bar set up high it seems.
WGN has gone from the gold standard to sub-standard. It has gone from embarrassing the competition to just embarrassing. It has gone from must-listen radio to must trick people into listening.
Perhaps that is where the real anger lies in most of the public's reaction with Metheny's memo. Trying to pump up a host's lack of popularity is just a minor issue in the big picture. Unfortunately, it is indicative of a much larger problem happening at the station. It is a sad problem that a staffer down the hall, pretending to be a caller from the suburbs, can't just pretend away.