My Year at Chicago’s FM News 101.1
I’d never been in a conference room quite like that. It was on the 54th floor of the building at 330 N. LaSalle. The main offices of GTCR showcased more marble than the Taj Mahal. I guess that’s the kind of presentation you need to have when your company manages $8 billion in investments. I was blown away by the view. I could see Lake Michigan unobstructed, turn and see Union Station and the Sears(OK, fine…Willis) Tower to my right and then pivot back left and gaze all the way up north to Evanston.
It was a bonus that Potbelly’s sandwiches and Cokes were being provided. Given how easily impressed I am by a free lunch, it’s not surprising it was my first time in this type of power meeting environment.
I took a spot at the enormous square table with my plate and drink alongside three other news writers. We were the first four hires among the writing staff and seemed to be the focal point of this particular gathering. The remaining seats were filled with editors, anchors, reporters and managers that had been assembling all week. My former WBBM-AM co-worker Belinda Babinec had called me a few weeks prior and told me that a man named Andy Friedman was ready to hire me on her recommendation without an interview. So, this day marked the first time I’d actually be meeting the boss. Friedman thanked us all for coming and began to launch into exactly what we were all doing here. He reiterated one point, again and again: A strict ‘No Asshole’ policy. He wasn’t hiring anyone with an ego. It was going to be a team effort with a strong sense of individuality and humanity. I sensed a rush of excitement and energy in the room as he told us how democratically and uniquely this business would be run compared to our previous job experiences. Of course, I had only worked at CBS stations before, so my personal bar was set fairly low.
Andy then went around the room and asked everyone to provide a self-introduction. I’d already recognized a few faces. There was Rob Hart, who I’d become acquainted with when we were both covering the R. Kelly trial, he for WGN and myself for WJMK. Noted weatherman Brant Miller was also on hand. Then there was Sam Sylk, a broadcaster I’d listened to for years on WGCI. (I was, of course, a white suburban gangsta, straight outta LaGrange.} I was mesmerized by the vast array of backgrounds that were coming together for a common purpose. Besides the myriad of radio vets in the room, there were also hires from newspapers and television. I walked away from the first day feeling like I had wandered into the foundation of something special.
The following weeks we met at a conference room in the Intercontinental across the river before finally settling into our new digs at Merchandise Mart. There was some confusion as everyone tried to fit their respective roles. We’d venture out and do Man On the Street interviews and gather other audio so we had some stuff prepared when we finally went live. The anticipation for launch had everyone excited. I recall having a beer with Hart at the Shamrock Club across from the Mart. He was set to assume his new role as morning anchor and his eagerness was apparent. Now, it was only a matter of getting this thing on the air.
The immediate transition didn’t go smoothly. Q101 had been demolished and the staff was understandably upset. Sherman and Tingle threw a wild party in the studio their last day and left it smelling like the aftermath of a high-school kegger. There were awkward introductions to the holdover staff that were being kept on to aid the switch. A few of the writers with radio experience were tapped to board op so the on-air personalities could concentrate on talking. Therefore, I found myself in the studio quite a bit during those early trials. The progression was gradual. We’d play Carrie Underwood and Katy Perry songs and then do about ten minutes of news per hour. There were plenty of snafus and mess-ups as people struggled to find their feet. There were also some great moments. The first attempt at a full hour of news was a triumph. Ed Curran and Jennifer O’Neill were on the mics and humming along. But we began running short on copy. Ed suggested we go dumpster-diving to re-use some old stories from that morning. During the break Ed and I dug through the studio garbage cans and found enough stories to reach the one-hour mark. It was an inspiring moment because I realized what a spirited broadcaster Curran was. He really didn’t want to fall short of that mostly self-imposed goal.
The new station’s target wasn’t the long-standing all-news station in town, WBBM 780. Our goal was to go after listeners from 101.9 the Mix. The fact that WBBM decided to simulcast on FM didn’t worry the management at FM News. In fact, they were thrilled because it eliminated Fresh 105.9, which also catered to the female listeners we desired. Randy Michaels was the CEO of Merlin Media. The man he brought in to give us a vision was veteran programmer Walter Sabo. Sabo was the oddest of gentlemen. I liked him immediately. His mannerisms could be compared to Christopher Walken or Michael Madsen, but the staff settled on referring to Sabo as “Robert California,” James Spader’s character on “The Office.” (Sabo eventually caught wind of the moniker and embraced it, even briefly changing his Facebook profile picture to one of Spader.)
Sabo laid out our mission statement. We weren’t going after an age demographic, because as he liked to say, “does anyone know a person that’s 25-54? Of course you don’t, because they don’t exist.” He wanted us to focus on pleasing one specific listener…and he had her picked out. With some of our input, he created a generic listener out of thin air. Her name was Susan. She was 38 years old and lived in Itasca. Susan was in an unhappy marriage with two kids and a dog and she worked in marketing. Her favorite websites were TMZ and PerezHilton.com and she watched Grey’s Anatomy, House Hunters and The Bachelor. Sabo instructed us to keep Susan in mind when writing, broadcasting and producing.
We set to work pleasing Susan, hitting roadblocks along the way. We had many technical issues with the operating system we chose…and there were some differing opinions on what Susan would like.
The first few weeks went by and we weren’t making a dent in the ratings. It might have been difficult for any listeners to understand exactly what we were because there had been constant changes since day one. The news/talk format that most of the on-air people signed on for was altered immediately. Suddenly, admonishments were being handed down for banter that lasted more than a minute. They moved Sylk out of the studio and into a field reporter role after they realized he wasn’t a typical news anchor and was more of a talk show host (Duh…and a damn good talk show host.) They fired Dave Williams in what would be the first in a long line of staff changes. They wanted a tight newscast with snappy writing and stories that flowed quickly into one another. Gone was the notion of improvised talk after a story. We were to focus on Susan and stories that would pique her interest. Topics centered on shopping, entertainment and family.
The staff and local management remained resilient and rolled with the changes, understanding the nature of the business. Friedman was a fair and balanced boss that mostly gave it to you straight, even if he seemed to have a slight case of ADHD. He provided genuine opportunities for talented people to rise up the ranks, which is something I rarely saw in my years at CBS, save for Steve Dahl and WBBM’s managing editor Julie Mann, who was training me to become a news writer when I received the FM News offer. Andy also possessed the necessary make-up to confront and challenge his employees, which got results. He had his negative qualities, too, as most bosses do. He seemed to have a disconnect when it came to understanding the functionality of certain aspects of our system. Plus, he tended to overreact to minor things, which could be maddening at times. The editors were often stuck in a thankless murk between timing impossibilities and lofty expectations, but they came through more often than not. I was bumped up to the editor’s chair for weekends and fill-in duty, spending the rest of my newsroom hours writing or conducting interviews over the phone and on the street.
Told that Susan doesn’t care about sports, we were instructed to ignore athletics altogether. (Try telling some of the Chicago women I know that they don’t care about the Bears, then duck.) For instance, on a Bears Sunday, we wouldn’t mention that there was a game going on. Even the Navteq traffic folks couldn’t explain why there might be so much congestion around Soldier Field. Luckily, that edict didn’t last long.
We had a full bag of tricks in order to appease Susan. We gave away chocolate. We made the Missoni sale at Target our top story. We focused on entertainment. Then a focus group said women didn’t care about entertainment, so we flip-flopped and eliminated it completely to focus more on health news. Meetings with Sabo reinforced our commitment to Susan and how we would adapt to her ever changing desires…until eventually Michaels turned on Susan and said goodbye to Sabo. We were now a straight up news station for women AND men. Jokesters in the newsroom drew a grave marker for Susan on the whiteboard. We hardly knew ye.
We started aiming our stories at both sexes and going after WBBM listeners. We were told to be the young, fresh alternative to the “old man” news at Newsradio 780. While they used words like “suspect” and “perpetrator” we were going to talk like human beings and sound more relatable. The adjustment to straight up news was ultimately a good change as many found our focus on Susan’s dieting and fashion demeaning towards women. Also, a switch to a more reliable computer system made editing, writing and broadcasting 10x easier.
We still weren’t getting any ratings (and remained without promotion/billboards) but there was a good feeling about the direction of the station. They had strong on-air pairings throughout the day and we were starting to become a reliable news source alternative. Relatively inexperienced writers like myself were given real responsibilities and most rose to the occasion. Dedicated, highly productive reporters like O’Neill, Ryan Burrow, Debra Dale and Veronica Carter attacked breaking news stories and gave us a real advantage in our coverage. I truly believe that the station would’ve eventually found success if they’d stuck with this incarnation. Alas, Michaels wasn’t done tinkering.
The Christmas party was a jolly affair in the Merchandise Mart Lobby. Everyone had been working like dogs since the station launched and it was a chance to bond over too much beer and liquor instead of crashing newscasts and missing audio. When the party ended, a large group headed over to the Shamrock Club to continue the festivities. For myself, I enjoyed throwing a few back alongside some co-workers with whom I’d grown close with during the past few months. (Although Lindsey Reiser would come to curse my “one more drink” mantra that she blamed for a wicked hangover the next day.) Overall, the tidings were good and morale was still abundant. That was the rare thing about the FM News experience. It was quite a large staff, but, in general, everyone seemed to genuinely like one another and get along. Perhaps that “no asshole” policy is something all big companies should consider.
By winter I had completely settled into my weekend gig. Jay Cutler’s thumb injury had ensured that I wouldn’t be missing a Bears Super Bowl Sunday, so my worries were nil. Plus, the weekend crew was a blast. Christine Fiedler and Megan Buckley handled mornings, John Gregory worked the night shift and I was in-between. Being stuck at work on the weekend brought out a Breakfast Club-mentality. With no bosses there…the editor (that would be me) was in charge. That pretty much ensured a light-hearted and freewheeling environment. Whether we were fabricating abandoned puppy news stories to get a rise out of animal-lover Lise Dominique, cheering on Guy Bauer’s stunning carbo-loading displays on a diet cheat day or teasing writer Shannon Beverly about embracing her Indiana-fabulous lifestyle, there were plenty of laughs. Comedians/anchors Mike Wilson and Scott Miller (the former whom I consider to be the second-coming of Roe Conn and the latter the first-coming of Scott Miller) never failed to bring the hilarity. It made news stacking more than tolerable.
Billionaires must be impatient. We were told repeatedly that our ratings wouldn’t be any kind of issue until at least Year 3 of the FM News experiment. Looking back now, I think that was a lie. Michaels must’ve been searching for answers to give the billionaires when inspiration struck. He got an idea in his head that he just couldn’t shake: voice-tracking. He envisioned a national news cooperative that would overtake the media world. New York’s FM News was instructed to work hand-in-hand with Chicago’s FM News. One anchor would handle all the national stories and others would do only local. We stopped going live sometime in early 2012. As anchor Jeff McKinney told me at the time: He was no longer a news anchor, he was a voice actor.
Several problems arose. There were issues coordinating between two stations in different time zones. A few (but not all) Big Apple egos took umbrage playing second fiddle to the Second City when it came to national anchor status. Pre-recorded time checks often played at the wrong times. There were constant failures in maintaining cohesive policies that were supposed to govern both newsrooms. (The blame for that didn’t lie with Friedman or anyone in Chicago. Rather, it was the New York leadership that seemed to be lacking.) Meanwhile, another FM News station in Philadelphia was purchased and in development. Only, they were going their own direction for some reason…and airing Rush Limbaugh. So much for a national brand.
Long-promised billboards finally arrived. Some read “Light’s On, News is On” with a play button that lit up. The only downsides were: the slogan was confusing and you couldn’t tell if the light was on when the sun was up. We also had the infamous Rod Blagojevich billboards. They pictured our corrupt former governor and read “He never listens.” The idea being that he was in prison in Colorado and couldn’t listen. The Blago boards received some attention from local TV news. In that sense, I suppose they were a success. But Blagojevich’s lawyers weren’t happy with his likeness being used and eventually his head was covered up with a smiley face on most of the signs.
It wasn’t long before cost-cutting began. Curran, Miller, Katherine Kelly and others were dismissed. Wilson, Bauer and reporter Kevin Patrick showed foresight and found other jobs. FM News was starting to feel like a season of CBS’ “Survivor” – only without the million-dollar prize at the end. Nevertheless, the editors, anchors and writers continued to work tirelessly kept the non-linear(our special name for voice-tracking) train moving 24-hours a day, 7 days a week.
As personnel changed throughout the months, Friedman filled the holes with less expensive but talented people like Brad Robinson and John Czahor. Czahor quickly grew into a budding talk show personality once we abandoned the all-news format and Robinson was a solid news and sports guy who’d previously toiled alongside yours truly on the bottom rung of WBBM for an eternity. Rob LaFrentz pulled double-duty as a newsman/editor and Reiser grew into an All-Star reporter. Friedman even gave young writers like (my buddies) Beverly, Sarah Engel and Safa Eshmawy a chance to do news and weather on newly acquired 88.7 and our Philadelphia sister-station. I was also in that group. My skeptical, sarcastic demeanor hardly makes me an ideal newsman, but I do have good pipes. Thanks to some professional advice from my colleagues I was able to summon my inner Bill Kurtis and deliver news minutes to the greater Philadelphia area. That was a personal accomplishment for me because my father lives in New Jersey. He’d never heard me on the air in all my years with Steve…so this gave him the chance. He texted me his approval, something I found emotionally rewarding. While I’m on the subject, I’d like to apologize to the fine people of Pennsylvania for pronouncing “Reading” like a book-related action. One of the numerous reasons I’m not a real news anchor.
As I mentioned, the all-news format was soon hastily abandoned, killing whatever miniscule momentum we’d collected amongst our audience. In an act of desperation, they brought in talk personalities like Mancow, Mike North and Greg Jarrett. Kevin Matthews even came in for a “tryout” alongside anchor Monica DeSantis (who told me it was the most fun she’d had on the radio in a long time.) They’d do some all-news hours interspersed with random pairings of anchors and talkers for something they called “expanded news coverage” (basically calling talk radio “news” so they didn’t have to return ad money to companies that bought “news” time.)
Most employees felt the writing was on the wall. Friedman seemed even more distracted than usual and the staff could sense his nervousness. We began anticipating a switch to news/talk centered around Mancow and Greg Jarrett. Everyone figured there’d be some blood-letting, but the consensus was it’d be minimal. Reporters were really feeling the most heat, sensing we’d need fewer for talk radio purposes. I felt bad for guys like Matt McClain, a reporter Merlin brought in from Tampa Bay in April. Never having lived here, management suggested he buy a house in Mundelein so he could cover Lake County. Unfortunately, stories more often led him to make the 2-hour commute downtown. A couple months later they switched formats and canned him. He’s back in Florida and once again working for Clear Channel, much to his chagrin.
McClain wasn’t the only one let go. About a year after its launch, FM News called an all-staff meeting and envelopes were handed out to all employees. Most were dismissed while a small number were retained to work for the new music station and contribute at the Loop. It was noon on a Tuesday when I met the surprised staff at Shamrock Club (I’d turned in notice the day before and skipped the meeting because Steve’s show records in the morning.)
$2 beer flowed as the shock and awe was relived over and over. There was a feeling of celebration combined with melancholy. It reminded me in some ways of high-school graduation. Pete Siegal bought shots, producer James Edwards continued his tradition of mistaken identity and those suddenly without jobs wondered what was on the horizon.
The crowd began to dwindle with hugs and goodbyes. Hart and LaFrentz went on a cigar run and offered them to those that stuck around. I eventually was able to peel myself off a barstool and call it a day.
A jumble of emotions traveled with me. I was personally enthused about my new full-time position with the Dahlcast (Radio is dead. I should know, I was just at its funeral.) Another part of me was concerned about those that were about to suffer through unemployment. But, mostly I knew that I’d miss the day-to-day stuff like monitoring Siegal’s McChicken intake, listening to Eshmawy swear recklessly and talking baseball with the night crew (even Cardinals fan McKinney.) Veteran newsman Charlie Meyerson always assured us that we’d look back on the error-laden, frustrating early trials of FM News as the good ol’ days. He may have been right, but we won’t be employees of Merlin Media when we do.