There was a time when the sudden exodus of three high-profile personalities would have been cause for alarm, if not embarrassment, in the executive suites of a television station. But not anymore. At least not at WBBM-Channel 2.
In the span of just five days last month, the CBS-owned station lost three familiar faces -- political editor Mike Flannery, weatherman and technology reporter Ed Curran and news anchor Anne State. Since then, beyond issuing perfunctory statements wishing them well, Channel 2 management has declined to make any comment or offer any explanation about the rash of departures. So we're left to figure it out for ourselves.
Although the circumstances in each case were different, the underlying issue in all three was, in one way or another, money.
Two months shy of what would have been his 30th‚ anniversary as political know-it-all at Channel 2, Flannery was granted an early release from his contract to accept an offer from Fox-owned WFLD-Channel 32 (where he's expected to turn up around July 1). It's hard to imagine that Flannery's ambition was to cut short three decades of distinguished work at CBS and finish out his career at the fifth-rated station in the market. But considering the drastic pay cut he reportedly took in his last contract at Channel 2 -- and the fact that his bosses did nothing to stand in his way when Fox offered him a better deal -- it all adds up. No decision has been made on how his former beat will be covered.
Curran also faced the prospect of a drastic pay cut after eight years at Channel 2 (and more than 30 years in Chicago broadcasting). But in his case, he still had 14 months left on a much more lucrative contract negotiated under previous management. Refusing to accept the take-it-or-leave-it offer of a substantially lower salary in exchange for additional years of security, Curran was sent home to sit out the remainder of his deal while collecting full pay. It's a measure of his self-confidence and self-respect that Curran was able to hold Channel 2 to the original agreement they'd signed.
State, who arrived only two years ago from San Diego as designated successor to lead news anchor Diann Burns, never really caught on with viewers or, more importantly, with the management that inherited her services. After reducing her salary by removing State from the 10 p.m. newscast last April (opting to go with Rob Johnson as solo anchor), Channel 2 dropped her last month. In State's case, according to insiders, renewal was not an option.
When Bruno Cohen succeeded Joe Ahern as president and general manager of Channel 2 in October 2008, one of the biggest problems he acknowledged was the station's woeful lack of stability on the air. The 10 p.m. newscast alone had changed anchor lineups 10 times since 2000. Anchors and reporters seemed to come and go before most viewers ever knew their names. So avoiding -- or at least limiting -- additional turnover became a top priority for Cohen and his news director, Jeff Kiernan.
However laudable, that goal quickly came in conflict with enormous pressure they faced to bring costs under control and stem multimillion-dollar losses that threatened the news department's survival. Waves of cutbacks followed, including painful layoffs and humbling salary reductions.
A survey released this week by the Radio Television Digital News Association and Hofstra University showed a 4.3 percent reduction in TV news jobs nationwide in 2008 and another 1.5 percent decline in 2009. This year, according to the survey, it's expected to level off.
That may provide little comfort to Channel 2 staffers or little reason for optimism among viewers. In the end, if station bosses have no qualms about losing Flannery, Curran and State all in one week, is there anyone they'd make an effort to keep?