New WGN boss hopes to rally troops in troubled times
When beleaguered employees of WGN-AM (720) assemble in Campbell Hall at Tribune Tower Wednesday morning, they’ll hear their new boss tell them why the future may not be as bad as others have led them to believe.
It’ll be the station’s first all-staff meeting in ages and, more to the point, the first since Jeff Hill moved up from director of sales to interim general manager. His new assignment followed the abrupt exit last week of Tom Langmyer after more than seven years as vice president and general manager of the Tribune Co.-owned news/talk flagship.
“I am dedicated to the success of this radio station and to serving the needs of the listeners, the advertisers and the employees here,” Hill, 47, told me Tuesday in his first interview as interim chief. “I’m a little exhausted by the kicking around that we’ve dealt with from a lot of outside sources, and think that we need to stay as positive and as focused as we can.”
One way to remain positive and focused, Hill said, is to rally the troops and share his vision for the station as it deals with a couple of high-profile departures and prepares for potential ownership change after its parent company emerges from bankruptcy. “Although it certainly has been a tough year for WGN Radio — and a tough year for radio in general — I want them to know we’ve accomplished a lot of great things over the course of this year, and we will continue to do that.”
Hill said he’s eager to “calm the waters” after Langmyer’s sudden departure, which was followed the next day by the announcement that veteran midday personality John Williams had chosen to leave at the end of the year. “Even though we were very adamant that the timing of these two announcements was completely unrelated, I felt like it needed to be said face to face rather instead of just via a memo,” Hill said.
Nils Larsen, president and CEO of Tribune Broadcasting, was invited to attend the meeting, Hill said, to explain the bankruptcy process and the steps likely to be taken by the company in the months ahead. Despite rumors to the contrary, there will be “no announcement and no breaking news to report of any changes whatsoever” at the meeting, he said.
Hill seemed especially perturbed by descriptions of a "dire meeting” at which Larsen would be setting the groundwork for the elimination of jobs. “I don’t know where the message boards come up with this, but that is by no means the case. I’m sure there are people out there that want to create havoc and confusion and distress amongst current staffers or want to create headlines that aren’t there. But the memo came from me to our staff. In my conversations with Nils he has said flatly that it’s my meeting and my agenda.”
Hill said he did not expect the word “interim” to be removed from his title any time soon. “I would not be all that comfortable being officially named the general manager because if something did change [in the ownership] of the company, I would expect they would want to make their own decisions as to the leaders of their individual business units.”
On top of all the other challenges, WGN faces the loss of revenue from Blackhawks hockey broadcasts while the NHL season remains in doubt. “It certainly is dramatic from a cash flow standpoint,” Hill said, adding that the station’s relationship with the Blackhawks remains very strong.
The latest Arbitron Portable People Meter survey released Monday showed WGN in third place overall with a 4.3 percent share and a cumulative weekly audience of 853,600. Among listeners between the ages of 25 and 54 — the demographic considered most important to the industry and to advertisers — WGN is tied for 26th place with a 1.3 share.
Hill, who was born in Elmhurst, grew up in Geneva, and graduated from Southern Illinois University, has spent his entire career in Chicago radio sales. Before joining WGN in 2006, he held top local sales positions at WLS-AM (890), the former WZZN and the former WCKG. He’s been through two changes of ownership — once when Cox Communications sold WCKG to Infinity Broadcasting, and again when Walt Disney Co. sold WLS to Citadel Broadcasting. They’re both experiences Hill soon could be drawing on at WGN.
Calling it “an amazing end to a rather amazing year,” Hill said: “I think that if we’ve learned anything at WGN over the last four or five years, it’s that all the change and distractions we’ve had to deal with have made us stronger as an organization. They’ve made us better broadcasters, better sellers, better programmers. We just have to keep our head down, stay focused and come out ahead of the game.”