Ready or not, it’s showtime for ringmaster Randy again
On the first day of summer the circus came back to town.
When I first heard the rumor weeks ago that Randy Michaels (pictured above) was making a serious bid for the Emmis Communications stations in Chicago, I found it hard to believe — and too good to be true. Then I asked someone who understands him better than anyone else I know. “Randy is addicted to radio and the spotlight,” he told me. “He has to get back in somehow.”
Sure enough, on Tuesday — eight months after he resigned in disgrace as CEO of Tribune Co. — Michaels was back in radio and in the spotlight. In a deal worth more than $110 million, his newly formed Merlin Media had agreed to acquire two of Chicago’s iconic radio brands — Q101 and the Loop — along with a station in New York.
Cue the calliope music.
Now that he’s back in business as radio’s raunchiest ringmaster, Michaels will be free to resume the lewd behavior and frat house antics that led to his downfall at Tribune Co. and, before that, at Clear Channel Communications. Only this time he won’t have to answer to anyone for his conduct. (Think the new list of workplace rules for Merlin Media — copied almost verbatim from his Tribune Co. handbook — will apply to the boss himself?)
We know why Emmis made the deal. Under pressure from creditors, the company had been desperate to find a buyer since at least 2009. Even as CEO Jeff Smulyan continued to lower his asking price, there were no takers for the money-losing Chicago combo. The deal with Michaels and his investment group didn’t come together until the middle of May, according to sources familiar with the negotiations.
But what was Michaels’ motivation? Some see it purely as a revenge move to stick it to his competitors and critics after the beating he took at Tribune Co. Others see it as a way for him to reclaim his reputation as a “radio genius” and prove that he can succeed where others have failed. Then, of course, there’s the inescapable lure of the spotlight.
Given the baggage he carries, Michaels bought himself a modicum of respectability by hiring a goodwill ambassador of impeccable credentials. Announced as Merlin Media’s first hire Tuesday was esteemed broadcast veteran John Gehron, who’ll serve as chairman of the company’s advisory board. While he’ll be “responsible for building a strategic and robust relationship with key business partners in Chicago,” it’s worth noting that Gehron won’t be giving up his day jobs as chief operating officer of AccuRadio or head of his own consulting firm.
Staffers at Q101 and the Loop will learn their fate in the next 45 days as Michaels' group prepares to take over programming and advertising from Emmis. Official license transfer, which requires federal regulatory approval, is still months away.
Plans for the two stations have not been announced, but sources said Q101 is expected to drop its modern rock format to go all-news, while the Loop will retain its classic rock franchise. Andy Friedman, onetime news director at CBS Radio all-news WBBM-AM (780) who also headed online content and marketing for Clear Channel before becoming vice president of interactive content at Tribune Co., is believed to be helping Michaels assemble his news team at Q101.
Michaels clearly has greater ambitions for his new company than simply to rescue radio stations. “At Merlin Media we aren’t building a broadcast company but a multimedia, multiplatform company,” he said in a statement.
You almost smell the greasepaint and the popcorn already, can't you?