Monday, October 25, 2010

Randy Michaels

Ah, but I was so much older then.
I'm younger than that now.
Bob Dylan

I don't know what your first boss was like, but mine started water pistol fights in the halls, stole memos from competing stations out of dumpsters, and called certain stupid people boneheads on the air. I would arrive in the morning to a talk studio festooned with empty beer cans and reeking of cigar smoke. And we always... always rolled air check recordings for legal protection, and ran all talk shows through a 7-second delay. Such were the working conditions at WLW in the 1980's when your boss was Randy Micheals.

It was paradise for the 20-something radio geek. I ate sponsor-delivered fried chicken at 10AM in master control. I took a hotline call from Pete Rose. I met Johnny Bench in the hall where he asked me for directions to the can. I fetched coffee for Joe Nuxhall. My name was playfully slandered on a fifty thousand watt signal by talk show hosts. And I drove the station van to live broadcasts and parked wherever the hell I wanted because I'm with WLW, sunshine. I was in the center of the universe where we could freely misquote the cowboy in "Blazing Saddles" with the line, "Piss on you. I work for Randy Micheals."

It worked at WLW. For one thing, the timing was right. Ronald Reagan was starting his second term as president. After the turmoil of the 1960's and the shame of the Watergate and in the eyes of many losing in Vietnam, America was feeling good about itself again. Superman, Rocky, Rambo, and Lee Iaccoca. It was in this era that Rush Limbaugh's show was born, while in Cincinnati The Big One began shaking things up on the radio.

By 1983 WLW had become the real-life WKRP: a sorrowful under performing AM radio station with an image stuck in the the Eisenhower era and an overabundance of agriculture programming. The personalities were playing Englebert Humperdink, and telling us news was coming up at the top of the hour as they voiced-over Herb Alpert's "Rise," rocking the volume up and down with each inane comment. The programming was boring on this three-call letter old lady of the golden age with tremendous signal coverage in the Midwest; the station relying heavily on being the flagship of a floundering baseball franchise whose fans still yearned for a bygone play-by-play man. It was nowhere near the top of the ratings. Something had to give.

What gave was Randy Michaels. After a successful stint programming rival WKRC to top billing in the market, Michaels gathered the finances to start a company to buy WLW, at a bargain price. From there on, it was simply a matter of luring away the best talent from WKRC and keeping those with promise already at WLW. Michaels paid big bucks for his air talent, going against the trend in most local radio. His philosophy was simple yet elusive for others in mass media to comprehend: The audience comes first. Without an audience, you have no ratings. No ratings means no sales, and no sales means you end up working at The Finish Line. Give the audience a reason to tune in, and everybody wins.

So, while other stations threw money at the cubicle farm hoping to raise sales revenue by offering incentives, deals, giving away sponsor mentions and naming the studio after a client as "value added," while firing well-paid talent and replacing them with a revolving door of mediocre card readers and wondering why clients balk at paying higher rates for lower ratings, Randy Michaels' "Audience First" approach propelled WLW to that rare position in the current radio status: a radio station that makes a profit.

By now you know how things turned out at Tribune. The same techniques that worked at WLW in 1983 didn't work in 2010. And I'm sure the phrase, "This ain't Cincinnati" was spoken more than once in the halls of the Tribune Building. True, it's not. Chicago, with its heritage of broadcasting legends and near legends, can be every bit as insular as any small market, and the infusion of Ohio upstarts invading the Trib was probably not well taken either inside or outside the studio. In the beginning of the "Audience First" approach on WGN-TV episodes of "WKRP in Cincinnati" aired back-to-back, interspersed with recollections by former Cincinnati DJ Pat Barry. I'm sure this was a ratings coup for cable viewers in Cincinnati, but even there a person has to be at least 45 to remember Pat Barry on Q102. For Chicago viewers, the closest this guy ever got to their hometown was a 1970's stint on WMEE in Ft. Wayne, Indiana. For Channel 9 viewers Barry was not exactly on the same level with Larry Lujack or Steve Dahl.

Of course, what really led to Michael's downfall was what's been described as a frat house atmosphere under his management. Lee Abrams' emailed PG-13 video was the last straw on the camel's back... or the last beer can in the studio trash can, if you prefer. You should know that Lee Abrams, the man who took underground FM in the 1960's, gave it a playlist, and called it Album Oriented Rock, is considered a god in radio circles. Many in the biz would sell a vital organ in order to work for this man, even if "Chief Innovation Officer" is the most fabricated title in the history of Mankind. Sending a porno email is neither smart nor correct, but it is Radio. If you pursue a career in Radio, you pursue in order to, among other things, work in an informal - dare I say frat house atmosphere. Female air talent I have known don't just put up with this sort of thing, they give it right back. As I've said more than once, sexual harassment in this workplace is not tolerated... it is expected. Going to work in a radio station and complaining about the atmosphere is like joining the Army and then complaining that nobody else in your company likes show tunes.

But maybe I'm wrong. Time moves on, and these days I'm not sure I want to be a part of that sort of thing anymore. I thought about sending Randy a resume a few months ago. But family matters intervened along with an overall sense of - no, I won't call it maturity. Maybe it's just that I've moved on. The world has. We don't rely on radio like we once did, before the Internet and HDTV. To work in radio now one must admit to something that Garrison Keillor has said before: radio is an antique. To work in antiques means you must love the object for its own sake. And in the case of radio that's an awfully expensive hobby. So, I've freed myself from thinking of what I can do as a career simply in terms of radio. Call it adapting to the New Media if you like.

Randy Michaels may have thought he was trying to force Tribune to adapting New Media, but perhaps what was really in his heart was a chance to play with WGN radio, and once again revive a boring three-call letter old lady of the golden age with tremendous signal coverage in the Midwest; a station relying heavily on being the flagship of a floundering baseball franchise whose fans still yearn for a bygone play-by-play man. Randy wants to dabble in antiques.

I hope he finds one. It would be nice if there was at least one radio station somewhere that was fun again.

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