Over and out: Tribune Co. cancels Randy Michaels

October 22, 2010

So long, Randy. We hardly knew ye.


Randy Michaels

Randy Michaels resigned Friday as chief executive officer of Tribune Co. amid allegations that his personal conduct and management style had crippled his ability to lead the company out of bankruptcy and had put its board of directors at risk.

Replacing Michaels temporarily will be a four-person office of the president comprised of Tony Hunter and Eddy Hartenstein, publishers of the Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times, respectively; Nils Larsen, Tribune’s chief investment officer; and Don Liebentritt, chief restructuring officer.

Michaels’ ouster ended an embarrassing reign that tarnished Tribune Co. and showed flagrant contempt for the heritage of one of the country’s oldest and most respected media brands, parent of the Chicago Tribune newspaper and WGN broadcast properties. In the end, the innovation and energy Michaels and his followers claimed to champion came to be seen simply as arrogance and boorishness.

At the behest of his longtime patron, Chicago billionaire Sam Zell, Michaels joined Tribune Co. shortly after Zell took over the company in a highly leveraged deal in 2007. Starting as executive vice president of Tribune’s broadcasting and interactive businesses, Michaels quickly moved up to chief operating officer of the company and then, last December, to chief executive officer after Zell relinquished the job and retained the title of chairman as the company struggled to emerge from bankruptcy.

None of the allegations against Michaels came as a surprise to those who followed his career as a radio executive. While heading Jacor Communications (under Zell’s ownership) and later as chief of Clear Channel Communications’ radio division, Michaels’ immature and outlandish behavior had been well documented. Similar concerns over lawsuits and workplace issues led to his ouster from Clear Channel in 2002.

Any hopes that he might have outgrown his profane and sexist reputation vanished early in Michaels’ tenure at Tribune Co. — although it would take nearly three years and a front-page expose in The New York Times to bring about his downfall. Once in control of the company, Michaels loaded the executive offices with nearly two dozen of his former radio associates from Jacor and Clear Channel, dubbed “family and friends,” placing many of them in jobs for which they had little or no qualifications. Their raucous social gatherings transformed the august Tribune Tower into what came to resemble a frat house.

Given his radio pedigree, Michaels exerted his greatest influence over the company’s lone radio property, news/talk WGN-AM (720), upending its format, alienating listeners, and squandering more than eight decades of goodwill with a series of moves carried out by his hand-picked program director.

Michaels’ ouster was foreshadowed by the resignation last week of Lee Abrams, the veteran radio programmer and consultant Michaels had hired as chief innovation officer. Abrams was forced to quit after objections were raised to a companywide memo he wrote that included the link to a video depicting scantily clad women engaged in lewd behavior.

(Update: A year in the life of Tribune Co. — headline by headline)