Published on Friday, 26 March 2010 00:59
In the last two years, WGN-AM has made a lot of moves and major changes, both on the radio and behind the scenes. This time period has coincided with a new regime change within the station and within the Tribune Company itself. While some change is always needed, many of the changes have confused and confounded everybody from those who worked (or still work) at the station to those who enjoyed listening to it.
Among the changes in the past two years, the lists includes:
- allowing Spike O’Dell, their #1 rated morning show host to completely leave the station
- bungling the hiring of his replacement, by first offering it to Steve Cochran, but then giving it to John Williams, after Cochran didn't immediately jump for joy at the lowball offer given to him
- after giving John Williams the morning slot, they then took it away from him just a few months later
- they brought in a complete unknown to be the morning show host. While Greg Jarrett is competent, talented voice and had an impressive resume, his only connection to Chicago was that he once worked with Tribune CEO Randy Michaels in Florida.
- Kathy & Judy, the beloved female hosts of the mid-morning show were removed from the air with almost a full year left on their contract, to make room for John Williams, who they yanked off of the morning show. There was no attempt to move the duo to a different time shift, angering fans, many of whom have not listened to the station since
- when John Williams moved to the morning show, his shift was left with no host for almost four full months. A seemingly unending roster of fill-in hosts, many of whom had no business on Chicago's airwaves took over, plummeting ratings and angering fans even more
- Garry Meier was finally hired to take over the early afternoon spot. While this move brought a new audience to WGN, it took a long time before the WGN faithful finally warmed up to his style of humor
- soon after Kevin Metheny was brought on board to be WGN's Program Director, he went on Steve Cochran's radio show and said on the air, "I like you. I just don't like your show." Way to improve station morale, Mr. New Boss...
- Wes Bleed, the talented News Director who had loyally been with the station since the 80's was let go
- Many weekend shows where cut from the schedule, including Steve Dale's popular Pet World program and the weekend edition of Sports Central
- these weekend shows were replaced by divisive political agenda shows, hosted by Jerry Agar, Shawn Wasson, and Simon Badinter
- the usual fill-in hosts, such as Nick Digilio and Dan Deibert, where now being passed over for fill-in duties to give the controversial political talkers more air time
- some on air hosts were shaken up when their longtime producers were fired with no notice
- numerous memos were often sent to staffers, angering them to the point the memos were ridiculed on the air and leaked out to journalists like Robert Feder. These memos micromanaged every aspect of the on air staffs' every breath, telling them how they could & could not talk with callers and even telling them to not worry about being truthful, just be "edgy"
- a new weekend show was added that was little more than a three-to-four hour infomercial for the Tribune Company's blogsite, ChicagoNow, featuring mostly non-radio people talking on the radio and plugging their blogs
- Bill Leff was hired on a part-time basis for fill-ins and as host of the ChicagoNow infomercial, a hire that was pretty universally cheered. However, after being passed over for many fill-in jobs for the political talkers and not being happy as hosting a show where he had to constantly train (and in at least one case, fight with) non-radio people, he abruptly quit
- then there was the hiring of one particular non-radio person to be a radio show host for the historic WGN radio: convicted felon and disgraced Chicago politician, Jim Laski.
Jim Laski was a longtime member of the Chicago political machine. He was the 23rd Ward Alderman for 5 years before becoming the Chicago City Clerk for ten years. He was living the life of royalty. As City Clerk, he had people figuratively kissing his ring all day long. When stopping off at a Chicago establishment, meals & drinks tended to be "comped." There were four Chicago Police officers assigned to drive him and his family wherever they wanted to go at all times. Jim Laski loved every second of it and wanted even more. He had his eyes on larger political offices and wanted a bigger presence in the public eye.
One of those wishes came true, in that he became more known in the public eye -- not the way he wanted, though. Jim Laski became the very first publicly elected official to be snared by the Federal Government in their Hired Truck probe. Laski was charged with taking bribes, coaxing witnesses to lie under oath and unethically wielding his clout.
After denying any wrong doing for a couple of years, he finally admitted guilt, especially when he was faced with up to ten years in prison for his crimes. A plea bargain and an admission of guilt knocked the possible jail time down to approximately three years. After a seemingly heartfelt apology to the judge and admission to coaching a witness to lie to a grand jury and to accepting at least $48,000 in various bribes, the judge sentenced Laski to only two years in a Federal prison. After only eleven months, he was able to walk out of prison a free man. Some say he paid his debt to society. Some claim he got off too easy and received what amounted to a vacation away from his problems so he could write a book, which he in turn sold soon out of prison, supposedly making much more than the $48,000 in bribes he took.
He was a powerful politician, who campaigned on being a clean, honest civil worker, not like his "crooked" predecessors. Sometimes, it's the ones that protest the loudest that we have to keep the closest eyes on...
This man who was elected to do good by Chicago's citizens also admitted on his sentencing report that he drank nine beers a day and took numerous medications. Before heading off to prison, he publicly admitted to actually drinking around 14 beers per day, plus at least two valium pills daily. It is nice to know that he cared so much about Chicago and his family that he kept his mind so sharp. With all those chemicals in his bloodstream, it is amazing he got any work done at all.
Upon exiting prison and hawking his new book, he reinvented himself as a reformer. He had supposedly seen the light, renounced his past mistakes and vowed to expose politicians who were not as clean and honest as he now is. Hmmm... That sounds an awful lot like the empty campaign speeches that fooled Chicagoans into voting for him in the first place.
He continues to downplay his past problems and continues to push the "new & improved" Jim Laski. These words sound as empty as his previous promises to be a clean & honest politician and the promises that he did not take any bribes, both of which were lies. Once a crooked politician, always a crooked politician, whether they hold public office or not. A leopard cannot change his spots and Jim Laski is one spotted cat.
His soft sell of a bio on his WGN page
says "while his political career was on the rise, Jim took a wrong turn..." Wrong turn??? Swearing while speaking into somebody's ear as a microphone catches the swear word is a wrong turn. Lying and screwing over the citizens of Chicago, forcing others to lie to a Grand Jury, happily accepting bribes and other "perks," and knowingly committing Federal crimes over an extended period of time is much more than a "wrong turn."
WGN even hiring this convicted felon is a "wrong turn."
Jim Laski is shameful. He is Chicago's shame. He is the stereotypical, disgusting, corrupt Chicago politician that Chicagoans do not want to be associated with. As a city and as a collective of citizens, we are ashamed of the Jim Laskis we have put into office and that have made politics here a punch line for comedians. We would like to remove that stereotype as much as we have fought hard to remove the stereotype that Chicago is a town overrun with Capone-like mobsters. Yet here is WGN, one of the nations most historic and iconic radio stations, hiring this felon and giving him a platform to spew his words. Words, that if Laski's history has taught us anything, are quite probably mixed with lies.
Kevin Metheny, the Program Director who has been more of a lightning rod for criticism than any other local radio executive in many years, hired Jim Laski to work various weekend shifts. That expanded to a great deal of fill-in work when the regular station personalities were on vacation or ill. Earlier this evening, it was announced
that Jim Laski would be taking over the 7:00pm-9:00pm weeknight shift. Metheny somehow thinks that displacing Chicago radio's premier sports talk show, "Sports Central," the longest running sports talk show in Chicago, with Laski taking about city politics is a good idea. This change takes effect in mid-April.
Prior to starting work on WGN radio a few months ago, one of the most sought-after jobs in all of radio from a personality's point of view, I might add, Jim Laski had never once held any type of radio job. He had never spoken into a radio microphone professionally. He had never held any type of media job. He had never had any type of journalistic background or training. Other than having his voice transmitted through Federal wire tapings as a crooked politician, WGN was his first time working a radio wave. Talk radio personalities all across Chicago and the country dream of being able to work for a station as prestigious as WGN. It is the equivalent to a lifelong hiker making it to the top of Mt. Everest. Yet, this man, Jim Laski, just months out of Federal prison, was given a free elevator ride to the top of Everest. I wonder if four police officers were forced to drive him to that elevator...?
His radio shows are uncomfortably bad on so many levels. To have this convicted crook spending the majority of his shows complaining about bad politicians, is both hypocritical and twisted. Even if the listener were to put aside all of his political baggage; even if the listener knew nothing about this man prior to him stepping foot into Tribune Tower to talk into a WGN microphone; even if the listener forgave Laski for all of his sins against Chicago and this government... it would still be a horrible radio show.
His lack of radio know-how shines through. He is not smooth on the radio. He repeats himself often. He mangles words. He speaks like a stereotypical, under-educated Chicagoan. Some radio personalities found a way to make that rough sound work them -- Mike North comes to mind. Jim Laski has not found that way. Maybe if he had a few years of radio training under his belt on a suburban station or a station with less of an audience, he could have found a way to make his style work. He didn't. Maybe he would turn out to be a natural, much like Ed Vrdolyak turned out to be for WLS & WJJD back in the 90's. He's not. He has no natural radio talents whatsoever.
There are no redeeming qualities to Jim Laski on the radio, not from a content point of view, not from a technical point of view, not from any moral point of view, not from any enjoyable point of view at all.
So why in the world, would Kevin Metheny, a man with an impressive radio resume and deep radio intelligence, put on his radio station, a personality that would not make the cut even on a small college station? I wish there was an easy, logical answer to that question.
I can understand his wanting to remove "Sports Central." (I can't say I agree with it, but can understand it.) A sports show in-between talk shows, can break up the flow of an audience. The crowd that enjoys "Sports Central" may not necessarily enjoy the show before or after it, and vice versa. When "Sports Central" started, there were not as many other outlets to get sports talk. Now, Chicago has two strong sports stations on the radio, numerous sports stations on cable & satellite television, and instant sports news & analysis via the Internet. Since the show had been on the air for so many years, it probably was not the cheapest show for the station, either. Removing it could help the bottom line (depending on Dave Kaplan's contract, of course). It is easy to see some of the thought processes behind the decision to ax "Sports Central."
There is no easy way to understand a decision to put an embarrassment like Jim Laski on the air. I have thrown out numerous scenarios and possible reasons in my mind for the last few hours since this decision was made public. The only thing I can come up with is negative attention -- a staple of Tribune CEO Randy Michaels' old radio ways.
Negative Attention is a psychological term to describe those who seek attention so badly, they do not care if it is positive or negative, as long as they get the attention they desperately want. The need to be paid attention to becomes an addition. Think of the strange little kid at school who keeps making obnoxious noises and throwing things at other children. The obnoxious kid gets warned numerous times that if he keeps doing it, he is going to get punched in the face. Of course, he keeps doing it anyway and gets that facial punch. It is not a deterrent, though. To that attention seeking kid, a punch in the face is better than no attention at all. The radio equivalent to that would be a shock jock, which of course was what Randy Michaels was as a DJ
and what Kevin Metheny & Randy Michaels enjoyed as programmers. It didn't matter if people loved or hated the product -- just as long as people took notice. That was the Jacor way of thinking when Randy Michaels ran that radio company. That has now become WGN's method of operation as well, it sadly seems.
I have had no problem defending some of the decisions made at WGN over the last couple of years. Even if I disagreed with them from a fan's perspective, I could understand the business reasons why some of the changes were made. There is no way to defend this latest decision to give Jim Laski a full-time role on WGN. There is no to defend those who made this decision.
Wally Phillips, Ward Quaal, Bob Collins, Roy Leonard, Paul Harvey, Jack Brickhouse, Orion Samuelson, Eddie Schwartz, Lou Boudreau, Irv Kupcinet, Jack Taylor, Harry Caray, Sig Sakowicz, Lyle Dean, Spike O’Dell, Milt Rosenberg, Kathy & Judy, Steve & Johnnie, Garry Meier... These are Chicago radio icons; legendary voices that will be talked about with pride & respect for decades. These are all voices that have been part (or are thankfully still part) of the WGN family. There is no argument that can be made that says Jim Laski deserves to be on that list or anywhere near that list.
Jim Laski's radio show is a disgrace. It is a disgrace to radio, a disgrace to the historic importance of WGN, a disgrace to the fine talents that continue to work at that station, and a disgrace to all of Chicago.