NBC 5’s Wert to head local broadcasting for Tribune Co.
Photo: ExecPix.com/Matt Ferguson
Fifteen years ago, Larry Wert came to the rescue of a Chicago television station in distress. Accepting the biggest challenge of his career, he stepped in as president and general manager of NBC-owned WMAQ-Channel 5 at a low point in its history.
On Wednesday, he did it again: This time, Wert, 56, was named president of local broadcasting for Tribune Co., overseeing 23 television stations and one radio station. His widely rumored appointment comes weeks after Tribune Co. emerged badly battered from a four-year bankruptcy ordeal. Under new CEO Peter Liguori, the reorganized company is expected to increase its focus on broadcasting and shed other assets.
"Larry's talent, creativity, and broad television, digital and radio experience make him the ideal person to lead our local broadcasting and radio businesses," Liguori said in a statement. "Larry is also a skilled manager of people, an innovative programmer, and understands the important role our local TV news operations play in the communities we serve."
Tribune Co.’s flagship broadcast properties — particularly news/talk WGN-AM (720) — are desperately in need of new leadership and direction. At Chicago’s Very Own WGN-Channel 9, Steve Farber, vice president of programming operations, has been acting general manager since Marty Wilke fled to CBS 2 in September. On the radio side, Jeff Hill, director of sales at WGN, has been interim general manager since Tom Langmyer was fired in October.
“My 15 years at NBC have been rewarding, and I have no doubt that NBC Chicago and Comcast are on the upswing,” Wert said in a statement. “Tribune has a rich history of broadcast excellence, powerful television and radio media businesses and an extremely talented staff. I am excited by the opportunity to build on this great foundation. I can't wait to get started.”
The challenge Wert faces is quite different from the one he inherited in January 1998, when he took over as the fifth general manager in 10 years at NBC 5. Ratings, revenue and morale had plunged after prior management installed talk-show host Jerry Springer as a commentator on the 10pm newscast, prompting highly respected star anchors Carol Marin and Ron Magers to flee in protest. In television terms, it was an epic disaster.
Wert, then 41 and riding a wave of good will after running the Loop and other radio stations in town, was greeted as a savior at NBC Tower. He quickly restored stability, moved Springer’s syndicated talk show off the station, and raided key management personnel from market leader ABC 7 (where he’d worked early in his career as local sales manager).
As he improved the fortunes of NBC 5, Wert expanded his role, adding the title of president of the central and western region, overseeing NBC-owned stations in Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego and Dallas/Fort Worth. After Comcast Corp. took over NBC Universal in 2011, Wert was passed over for promotion to president of the stations division, but was named executive vice president of station initiatives.
His 15-year tenure at NBC 5 marked the longest run of any general manager in the station’s 65-year history. He is credited with advancing Robin Meade, Paula Faris, Zoraida Sambolin and Ginger Zee, among others, to national stardom.
Wert's current boss wished him well: "This is a rare and exciting opportunity for Larry to run a broadcast group and stay in his hometown of Chicago," said Valari Staab, president of NBC Owned Television Stations. "I greatly appreciate his dedication and truly enjoyed working with him over the last 18 months. I wish him the very best in his new role."
A native of west suburban Riverside, Wert graduated from Fenwick High School in Oak Park (where he was a champion diver) and the University of Wisconsin (where he majored in journalism). He began his career as a media buyer for Leo Burnett Co. and shifted to sales positions at ABC-owned stations. When Evergreen Media boss Jimmy deCastro tapped him to oversee the red-hot WLUP-AM/FM (1000/97.9) in 1989, Wert became a local celebrity alongside such personalities as Jonathon Brandmeier, Steve Dahl, Garry Meier, Kevin Matthews and Danny Bonaduce.
Wert’s fame also made him a target. He ran afoul of Howard Stern after dropping his syndicated radio show from WLUP-AM in 1993 after only 10 months on the air. Stern, who cursed Wert publicly and repeatedly, sued for $45 million and eventually settled out of court.
“I’m very happy to be working in the greatest city anywhere,” Wert once told me. “I know that friends and associates are important wherever you go, but I think they can be even more valuable in the Chicago business world.”