WTTW claims 30 more firings won't 'jeopardize quality'

June 7, 2010

As much as I miss John Callaway --  and I do miss him terribly --  I'm glad he doesn't have to witness what's happening to WTTW-Channel 11, the public television station he served so well for so long before his passing a year ago this month.

I know it would break his heart to see what's become of the institution he came to symbolize and the values he championed throughout his career. The latest affront to his legacy came in form of a $3 million operating cut and the elimination of as many as 30 staff positions announced Friday by Window to the World Communications.

It's not just the personal anguish he'd feel over the firing of Susan Godfrey, who'd been the key go-to person at "Chicago Tonight" and Callaway's closest assistant for more than 20 years, or that of Marc Glick, a smart and talented producer of many fine programs, including Callaway's "Friday Night Show" (which also, by the way, just got canceled).

It's the insult added to injury when the firings of dozens of other men and women --  on top of those previously forced out --  are dismissed as having little or no impact on the station's mission. "Chicago Tonight," Channel 11's flagship news program, is already a shell of its former self, and other programming initiatives are either on life support or dead. In a statement released Friday, Daniel Schmidt, president and CEO of WTTW, said:

"As difficult as it is in the near term to take these steps, we must have a sound financial base to sustain ourselves as a vital community resource. We believe the cost reductions we are implementing directly address both our short and longer term financial challenges and provide a base on which we can build for the future. The key to the plan is to reduce costs without jeopardizing the quality of our content. Using that criteria, we looked at every aspect of our operations to find strategic solutions that met our immediate cost needs but, at the same time, positioned‚ WTTW‚ to take advantage of revenue opportunities as the business climate improves."

To suggest that these layoffs can be made "without jeopardizing the quality of our content" is ludicrous. And if the loss of corporate underwriting and state funding, which were the reasons cited for the cuts, came as such a surprise to Schmidt & Co., what does that say about their competence and foresight as managers?

Schmidt made $426,178 in salary and benefits in 2009, according to public documents. His chief financial officer made $265,916. Even with supposed five-percent pay cuts this year and next, isn't there something wrong when the officers of a nonprofit company make that kind of money but claim they can't afford to pay a‚ Rich Samuels? When viewers are being begged for donations, is it really to support the bloated salaries of management that chooses to cut off Chicago's "most literate and thoughtful broadcast journalist" at the height of his career?

It still amazes me that Schmidt was able to survive a near mutiny in 2003 when it was disclosed that the company paid for the luxury Lexus he drove (and the cars three other top executives drove) shortly after they'd laid off 56 employees -- one-quarter of the station's workforce. Later that year, media columnist Jim Kirk detailed in a Chicago Tribune Sunday magazine story how Schmidt was "running WTTW into the ground" and had brought the station "to the brink of calamity." Noting that it was "on the verge of a financial meltdown," Kirk wrote:‚ "Many at the station were beginning to believe that they were not watching an executive with a vision for public television's future, but one who was presiding over the financial unraveling of one of the gems of public broadcasting."

Schmidt is the guy who squandered $22 million on the boondoggle known as Network Chicago, creating horrible programming no one wanted to watch (remember "The Cheap Show"?), publishing a newspaper no one wanted to read (remember CityTalk?), and building a marketing campaign no one could understand (remember that blue chair?).

Things have only gotten worse in the last seven years. Schmidt's latest head-scratcher involves a partnership with the Chicago News Cooperative, the startup venture populated mainly by former Tribune employees, launched under the 501(c)(3) nonprofit status of WTTW's parent company. While the partnership enabled the CNC to line up charitable funding from sources such as the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, it's not clear to anyone at Channel 11 what the station is getting in the bargain.

The 62 members of WTTW's board of trustees have shown themselves to be little more than a rubber stamp for Schmidt and his failed leadership. With the exception of emeritus trustee William J. McCarter, who was Schmidt's visionary predecessor and Callaway's mentor, there isn't a genuine broadcaster among them. Maybe that's a good place to start.

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