T Dog’s Think Tank: The Court Jester

Last week, A memo Tribune CEO Randy Michaels sent through WGN-AM News Director Charlie Meyerson, had a list of 119 words and phrases his employees at WGN should not say on the air in order to “improve the product”. And if they say any of these “forbidden” words, other employees can “rat them out” by noting the precise date and time of the infraction using “bingo cards”, which contains several of the words Michaels have forbidden. The item appeared on Robert Feder’s blog at Vocalo on Wednesday.

As you can imagine, the memo generated a lot of controversy in Chicago media circles this week and sparked a discussion on excessive newspeak.

The real question is, why was the list even out? Seriously, does anyone whine and bitch about what type of words being used on the air? To me, this is excessive nitpicking at its worst. Anybody who rails against something like “excessive newspeak” really needs to get a life.

And as for the mastermind behind this idiotic memo – Randy “Court Jester” Michaels, all he’s trying to do is “improve the product”. Well, since Sam Zell (the Ziphead) and the Court Jester took over the bankrupt Tribune Co., its properties have taken a huge nosedive in quality – especially WGN Radio and the Chicago Tribune, whose content is laughable. For example, their “Tribune Watchdog” series of articles is hypocrisy at its worst given a bankruptcy judge green-lighted $45 million in bonuses for Tribune executives. Well, who’s watching the watchdog?

Now, make no mistake – Randy Michaels is – or was – a master promoter and marketer, evidenced from the time he was with Jacor (now Clear Channel)-owned WFLZ-FM in the Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater Fla. market. In 1989, he masterminded the greatest publicity stunt of all time when WFLZ – then an oldies station – pulled off a faux kidnapping of soon-to-be rival WRBQ-FM morning jock Cleveland Wheeler and asked them to pay a ransom of $4 million to WFLZ so they wouldn’t flip to CHR, or contemporary-hit radio, and take WRBQ – or Q105 – on. Q105 had been the dominant Top 40 station in the Tampa area throughout the 1980’s. Well, Q105 turned down the offer and WFLZ became a contemporary-hit radio station called “The Power Pig” – and the rest was history. (WFLZ is still a huge player in Tampa-St. Petersburg, constantly ranking in the top ten in the 12+ demographic. Q105 – now owned by CBS Radio – abandoned the Top 40 format in 1993 and has had greater success as a “classic hits” station.)

Michaels attempted to duplicate that success in Chicago in early 1991 when he was hired as a consultant to help boost CHR outlet WYTZ-FM’s (now “true oldies” WLS-FM) sagging ratings against rival WBBM-FM. He came up with “Hell-FM”, a lame and unoriginal attempt that lasted all of a week, going down as one of the biggest marketing slogan failures in radio history. And ten months later, it was WYTZ-FM that would be history.

Michaels has been called out for his raunchy and unprofessional antics in the workplace while at Jacor, and was fired from a position at Clear Channel in Tampa (Jacor was bought by CC in 1998) after one of his DJ’s at WXTB-FM (former WBBM-FM nighttime personality Bubba The Love Sponge) killed a boar live on the air.

When Zell – former owner of Jacor Broadcasting – bought Tribune, he hired Michaels as CEO of the company. But Michaels’ decisions since being appointed to the post have been widely panned in media circles – especially regarding WGN radio. There, he dropped Kathy & Judy’s show, hired former Chicago alderman and ex-con James Laski as a weekend host, and scrapping Sports Central and Pet Central for right-wing political talk on the weekends.

On the TV side, the decisions have been less aggravating, but notable nonetheless. While the Tribune group did renew Family Guy for another syndication cycle and picked up American Dad!, it passed on renewing Legend of the Seeker for a third season – and is likely to fill the weekend time slots vacated by the show with more off-network reruns, which is already the norm at most TV stations on Saturdays and Sundays. Tribune’s CW affiliates are sticking with the network despite rock-bottom ratings, which in some markets have even been surpassed by My Network TV, which is now a programming service airing syndicated reruns for the most part. The CW shows have been criticized for their lack of quality and death – notably 90210, Gossip Girl, and new docu-soap High Society. But then again, this is the type of fare The Court Jester loves to put on his air.

And as a CEO “focusing on content”, it seems what he’s focusing on right now is crap – which he has done by hiring ex-con (and former WBBM-TV anchor) Larry Mendete to  do commentaries for Tribune’s WPIX in New York and hiring radio personality Gary Burbank to dress up in a redneck character to do commentaries for WGN-TV in Chicago and WGN America – moves which could alienate viewers of Tribune’s already struggling local newscasts. What’s next? Michaels hiring Survivor host Jeff Probst to do commentaries for KTLA’s newscasts in Los Angeles? (judging by Probst’s blog, the idea doesn’t sound too far-fetched.)

So, for anyone who thought Bozo’s Circus was dead, a far less enjoyable version is alive and well in the offices of Tribune Tower, with Zell the Ziphead leading the Grand March into oblivion and Court Jester Michaels destroying what was once a great newspaper and media company. The only thing left to do is rig the Grand Prize Game.