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Former WGN Newsman: "Sad to see what they're doing to a once great radio station"

On July 13th, Elgin Courier-News columnist Dave Gathman wrote a piece on the unsettling changes at Chicago radio's AM 720 radio entitled "WGN: A loving radio family turns into angry arguers." It was a well written column detailing out some of the many on air personnel changes, as well as an overall change in tone at the station.

The article in the small far suburban paper was linked to on this website's message board the morning it came out. It drew a lot of attention to Mr. Gathman and his words. Yesterday he wrote in regards to the attention, "It has incited more reader responses than anything else I've written during a 30-plus-year career in journalism." He & his column have even has been brought up on the air at WGN a few times in the past week.

He also has received numerous e-mails from readers who felt he hit a journalistic home run and tapped into what a great many are feeling. A few of those emails were posted today on the Courier-News' website.

One email in particular stood out. It was from Tom Petersen, WGN's former News Director and morning show News Anchor -- a 23 year veteran of the station until his retirement at the end of 2005. (Petersen did return for a short while on a part-time basis in 2006, hosting the "720 Road Show" program on Sunday nights.)

After reading his name in Gathman's original WGN column, Petersen wrote him an email that said:
It's truly sad to see what they're doing to a once great radio station.
Obviously, I'm happy to be retired.

Tom Petersen feelings on the new regime's handling of WGN-AM is far from unique. It seems many former WGN staffers have lately come out and said similar words. Petersen joins a growing list of ex-GNers, including:

Roy Leonard, who said in his first blog posting on his website in March: "The changes that have been made at 720 on the dial are supposed to attract that (25-49 age) listeners and only time will tell to know if it works." Plus "The very mention of Jim Laski, Jerry Agar or Shawn Wasson causes a race to the radio to turn it off." and "Remember when listening to the radio was fun?"

Kathy & Judy, after hearing new Program Director Kevin Metheny claim the women wanted to leave the station when they did, gave a statement & interview to a local media blogger, outing Metheny as a liar, and stated: "Kevin Metheny said on the Garry Meier Show that it was our choice to leave our show and WGN in May of 2009. It was not our choice, and we want that to be clear. Over 20 years on the air, we established a bond of trust with our radio girlfriends that we all valued. We never lied to them about the circumstances of our leaving, and we're just tired of hearing that it was our idea. It wasn't."

Roy Leonard, upon hearing & reading what had gone on between Metheny's on air wording and Kathy & Judy's blog statement, wrote on his blog: "By the way, there are some vestiges of sanity left at the station that provided me with a good living for more than 30 years. WGN still has the best sports staff in town led by the two Daves, Eanet and Kaplan. And there's Jarrett, Digilio, Rosenberg, Steve & Johnnie and the weekends with Manfredini (Mr. Fix It), Kogan and Richards as well as the Hawks and Cubs. It's just all the crap in between that you have to put up with."

Spike O'Dell, upon hearing that his friend Steve Cochran had just been released by the station a few days prior to his contract's end and with no chance to say goodbye to his fans, wrote on Steve Cochran's Facebook page, saying: "Well Steve... as long as they are making all these changes, I hope they will change the call letters too. It is certainly no longer the station that mid-America knows and trusts. I don't know if I am mad or sad. Sorry partner."

Spike O'Dell was later contacted by Chicago Tribune media columnist Phil Rosenthal. He said in his statement to Rosenthal, "A radio station has to evolve all the time. It just seems that WGN is becoming 'just another station' on the dial with what is going on now. It seems to have lost the neighborly or friendly feel to it. I think people want to turn on their radio and enjoy what they listen to -- not get mad at it."

Some of the most damning comments about the inner workings of WGN's current regime came from its most recent castaway, Steve Cochran. In an exclusive interview with Robert Feder, Cochran had plenty to say, including...
On why he was fired: "I believe it was largely because I spoke out about what I was witnessing. I didn't like what they were doing to the radio station and let them know that with regularity. They want people who will never ask questions and just do as they are told."

On the controversial new blood being brought in: "Randy Michaels is making programming decisions and has wanted to bring in his guys for as long as he has been in charge. That's why the new guy from WLW was hired and why they wanted Bill Cunningham, too."

On change at the station: "This was not about change. Change is appropriate and needed in the evolution of any company. I certainly represented change when I was hired 10 years ago. The difference here is that there seemed to be no consideration for building on what worked. Instead, it was about tearing things down and the almost daily drill of insulting and threatening memos, and a sense of a total lack of respect for anyone who was here before the Zell invasion."

And his feelings on the true problem at WGN: "In my opinion, the reason Randy Michaels & Co. have failed, are failing, and will fail here is because they have no respect for the audience. They simply don't seem to care what the listeners think. Imagine that attitude in any other business. It's so counter-intuitive because people logically think that any business run for profit would focus on pleasing their customers. The current Tribune Company appears to be run by a club of Randy and friends who only talk to each other and really seem to think they are the smartest guys in the room."

Tom Petersen's comments are part of a growing wave of upset former WGN employees, speaking their minds about WGN's upheaval. His comments are only another log on the funeral pyre of WGN's past.

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