In December 2007, on the day Sam Zell named his old pal Randy Michaels as head of broadcast operations for Tribune Co., I wrote these words: “Woe is us.”
Even I didn't know how prophetic that would be.
My column for the Sun-Times that day — under the headline “The man from ‘Hell’ ” — ominously recalled the first time Michaels blew through Chicago when he was just a Cincinnati-based radio consultant whose claim to fame was "The Power Pig,” a crude but successful format he’d created in Tampa, Fla. In 1991, Capital Cities/ABC hired Michaels to try to save its dying Top 40 station here, WYTZ-FM (94.7).
Promising to deliver “a major injection of excitement,” (forerunner no doubt to the “fun, nonlinear creative environment” he’d later espouse), Michaels began by airing a series of promos in Spanish that denigrated the competition, CBS-owned WBBM-FM (96.3), and insulted its program director, Dave Shakes, by name. For three weeks Michaels played the same handful of dance and rap songs over and over, also airing updates about the Gulf War in Spanish. But that was just his warm-up.
The main event turned out to be one of the most ill-conceived and tasteless radio stunts Chicago had ever heard. Overnight, Michaels renamed the station “Hell.”
So when listeners tuned in one day, the station’s mostly teen audience (and their parents) suddenly found their radios spewing out such lines as “Go to Hell,” “Oh, Hell!” and “You’ve Gone to Hell.” That may seem mild by today’s standards, but nearly 20 years ago, it struck a lot people as profane and offensive. The station then began airing promos that targeted specific personalities, including Oprah Winfrey, Jonathon Brandmeier, Steve Dahl and Terri Hemmert. Radio archivist Robyn Watts recalled:
“While at WYTZ, Randy Michaels had tried to employ some of the same tricks that he had used at ‘The Power Pig’ in their battle against Q-105. But B-96’s then-PD, Dave Shakes, had carefully studied Randy’s ‘playbook’ and was able to counter-program against him. A prime example of this was when Z-95 would claim that B-96 wasn’t playing any [music] and would encourage their audience to ‘check them out, while they wait.’ When the audience flipped over to B-96, they would stop their commercial break at that moment and play music, making it seem that Z-95 was lying to them.”
Angry calls and letters about “Hell Radio” flooded Captial Cities/ABC, which quickly realized what a colossal mistake it had made. After about a week or two, the company pulled the plug on the stunt and aborted the rest of Michaels’ plan. A short time later, the station dropped its format and changed call letters.
“The last time Randy Michaels got his hands on a Chicago radio station, the results were nothing less than disastrous,” I wrote that day in December 2007 — when Tribune-owned news/talk WGN-AM (720) was still one of the top-rated and most respected radio stations in Chicago if not the country. “Woe is us.”
As WGN begins to unravel itself from the effects of Michaels’ three-year campaign to wreck everything that used to be good about the station, it’s comforting to know this isn’t the first time Chicago has had the good sense to send him packing.