Power in the Tower: Tribune Co. execs keep jockeying for position
Sure, Tribune Co. may be in its record-breaking third year of bankruptcy with legal fees topping$150 million and no end in sight to its financial turmoil. But that’s no reason you can’t admire the way their folks still manage to put a positive spin on corporate intrigue inside Tribune Tower.
The latest back-stabbing shenanigans at 435 North Michigan involve the knifing of one of former CEO Randy Michaels’ last lieutenants by Nils Larsen, a longtime and trusted associate of the company’s embattled chairman, Sam Zell.
“It’s another case of Sam’s guys turning on Randy’s guys,” said a former insider who met a similar fate after Michaels was bounced last fall. “But they all know they could be gone once the bankruptcy is settled and Sam is out of the picture.”
The ouster this week of Jerry Kersting and the elimination of his position as president of Tribune Broadcasting leaves just two cronies of Michaels in positions of authority at Tribune Co. Where once dozens of his former Jacor and Clear Channel Radio buddies ran amok in the suites of Tribune Tower, now only Steve Gable remains as executive vice president and chief technology officer, and Sean Compton continues as president of programming.
Like many of Michaels’ key hires, Kersting was short on qualifications but long on bluster: “We intend to shake up traditional local television news by doing things differently,” he declared at the time of his promotion in May 2010. To Kersting, doing things differently apparently meantgutting major market newscasts and resurrecting the career of convicted felon Larry Mendte. In the end, the only meaningful shakeup occurred in Kersting’s office.
Yet as unfit as Kersting was to run Tribune’s broadcasting empire — encompassing cable network WGN America, news/talk WGN-AM (720), WGN-Channel 9, CLTV, and 22 other television stations — Larsen (pictured left) seems hardly more qualified. Known as the financial whiz who was instrumental in Zell’s takeover of Tribune Co., he was strictly a back-room mergers and acquisitions guy. From what I can tell, he has never managed a broadcast operation of any size or worked a day in his life in the business.
“He’s someone who grew up in Sam’s environment and made a lot of money for him, but I don’t know how he sold himself as the right person to lead a group of television stations and a radio station,” said a former colleague. “A lot of general managers who’ve been career broadcasters for 30 or 40 years must be scratching their heads today.”
Larsen is crafty, too. When the Tribune Co. board installed him as part of a four-man executive council after forcing out Michaels last fall, he created an additional title for himself — “chairman of Tribune Broadcasting” — as a way to insure his survival if he didn’t emerge as top dog. Sure enough, when Eddy Hartenstein beat out Larsen and fellow execs Tony Hunter and Don Liebentritt for the job of president and CEO of Tribune Co. last month, it was a simple step for Larsen to remove Kersting and seize the broadcasting division for himself.
On Tuesday, Larsen was named chief executive officer of Tribune Broadcasting while continuing as chief investment officer of Tribune Co. “We have momentum and there’s a lot more opportunity ahead,” he said in a statement.
Now that’s something Larsen knows all about.