Although no one should have been surprised by last Friday’s firing of Steve Cochran from WGN-AM (720), his departure after 10 years at the Tribune Co.-owned news/talk station still came as a blow to longtime listeners.
For most of his time on the air there, Cochran, 49, had been regarded as the future of the station. By all accounts, the seasoned radio veteran was being groomed as the successor to WGN’s 40-year line of top-rated morning hosts — from Wally Phillips to Bob Collins to Spike O’Dell. But as the Sam Zell era at Tribune Co. unfolded, Cochran suddenly found himself on the outs with new management (and most notably with WGN program director Kevin “Pig Virus” Metheny).
Cochran’s fate was all but sealed when he was signed to just a four-month contract extension earlier this year and demoted from afternoon drive to a two-hour midday shift. For many listeners already disgusted by changes in the station’s lineup and attitude, his ouster may have been the last straw.
Here, in his first extensive interview since he left WGN, Cochran lets loose on what really happened to him — and what he thinks is happening to the once-great radio station:
Q. Let me get this straight: WGN just fired its most talented, youngest and most versatile full-time host. I don’t get it.
A. I don’t know that I get it either. One answer may be politics, but I believe it was largely because I spoke out about what I was witnessing. I didn’t like what they were doing to the radio station and let them know that with regularity. They want people who will never ask questions and just do as they are told.
It’s also likely to be a decision from the man behind the curtain. [Tribune Co. CEO] Randy Michaels is making programming decisions and has wanted to bring in his guys for as long as he has been in charge. That’s why the new guy from WLW [in Cincinnati] was hired and why they wanted Bill Cunningham, too.
The “young-ing up” of the demos is the funniest argument I’ve heard. I was the youngest guy in the prime-time lineup. John Williams is just a year older than me at 50. The rest of the staff is 55-plus — and sounds older than that.
Q. How long have you known this was coming?
A. That is a bit unclear, but I certainly feel I was on top of the hit list for standing up for what I felt was right. This was not about change. Change is appropriate and needed in the evolution of any company. I certainly represented change when I was hired 10 years ago. The difference here is that there seemed to be no consideration for building on what worked. Instead, it was about tearing things down and the almost daily drill of insulting and threatening memos, and a sense of a total lack of respect for anyone who was here before the Zell invasion.
When I turned down the morning show, I’m certain it was not if but when they would pull the plug. The reason it took a year and a half is because the show consistently made money.
Meanwhile, the statements made from the inside about WGN were ridiculous. One main argument from management was that once the Arbitron ratings methodology had changed to digital metering from paper diaries to record listenership, the “real” WGN ratings were known. In other words, the success for decades prior was an accident. If you believed that, then you would also have to say that any successes by the radio-heavy Tribune upper management were also fraudulent since everyone was scored the same way. In other words, the bosses owed their careers to the alleged flawed technology they were citing as the reason they had to change WGN. It’s enough to make your head hurt.
Q. You never got to say goodbye to listeners on the air. What would you have told them?
A. The 10 years I spent at WGN were the most rewarding of my career despite the lunacy of the Sam Zell era. The audience for that station has been the most loyal and supportive I have ever seen. You don’t fully get that until you work there. Bottom line is I can never thank the listeners enough for the run I had at WGN. It’s their radio station and I’m honored to have had a chance to be a part of the history of what was one of the greatest radio stations ever. From Wally to Bob Collins through Spike and Kathy & Judy, it was always a lineup of legends that I was proud to be a part of until very recently.
It’s too bad the new Tribune management never got that. In my opinion, the reason Randy Michaels & Co. have failed, are failing, and will fail here is because they have no respect for the audience. They simply don’t seem to care what the listeners think. Imagine that attitude in any other business. It’s so counter-intuitive because people logically think that any business run for profit would focus on pleasing their customers. The current Tribune Company appears to be run by a club of Randy and friends who only talk to each other and really seem to think they are the smartest guys in the room.
Q. What’s been the reaction of people to the news?
A. It’s been amazing. Thousands of emails, Facebook outrage, and more. The people are no longer confused. They are pissed off. It’s not about me. It’s the sum total of a series of decisions so bizarre and so wrong that it’s hard to remember which bad idea was worst. And no, the Sunday night show with the guy with the French accent is not meant to be a joke. Kevin Metheny apparently thinks that’s fascinating.
Q. What’s your theory on what’s really going on at WGN? To outsiders, none of this makes any sense.
A. It won’t make anyone feel better, but it makes even less sense on the inside. There are daily discussions in the hallways about what the management could be up to next. The fact is Kevin Metheny is making some of the decisions and also putting Randy Michaels’ programming decisions in play. The idiocy of it all is the notion that you can bring in unknown guys from Cincinnati and the Chicago audience is going to suddenly fall in love with them. I actually feel bad for the new guy because he has no idea what he’s in for. At a time when there have never been more entertainment choices, starting over with an all-new lineup is beyond a long shot. It’s a bad joke.
Q. What do you think of the current daytime lineup on the station?
A. These are professional opinions only and not meant to be personal in any way.
Greg Jarrett is not ready to host his own show, and therefore not ready to host mornings on WGN. He doesn’t listen, which makes him a bad interviewer. He doesn’t seem to prepare, so he consistently sounds like an outsider even after a year here.
John Williams is doing a great show — especially under these circumstances. If they lose him, the last link to what WGN has always meant to Chicago will be gone.
Jim Laski is an inexplicable hire. At a time when crooked politicians are front and center as The Problem, Laski is hired as the answer? He has zero experience as a talk show host and proves it everyday. And none of this goes to his hiring being primarily to replace “Sports Central,” where David Kaplan was the perfect fit between Cubs and Blackhawks games and had done a great show for years. You can’t make it up.
Garry Meier is in a tough spot. He’s got a big crowd from the old days that are finding him, but the regular audience needs to give him a chance. He’s still funny, and the rap on him that he’s a co-host only is B.S. He works hard and I like his show.
Q. I heard something about management changing the lock on your office door without telling you several days before you were fired. That didn’t really happen, did it?
A. Last Wednesday [June 23], after the show, I had numerous people stop me on the way back to my office to say that the lock on my office door was changed while I was on the air. Since I wasn’t told I needed a new key and was expecting to be popped at any point, I thought this was their subtle way of saying goodbye. I was later told they were re-keying the lock so my new producer could have a key, but that seems a bit pricey for a bankrupt company. I was then given the new key but not fired until two days later. Another WGN “you can’t make it up” moment.
Q. I got the sense that there was bad blood between you and your bosses ever since you turned down the morning job. What really happened then?
A. [General manager] Tom Langmyer offered me mornings after Spike left, and I assumed we would easily come to a deal. It was never close. The offer was for the exact same dollars that I made doing the afternoon show even though the morning show was billing two to three times as much. So to get up at 3 a.m. and make the company even more money meant this deal was beyond bad. It was very disappointing, but the absolute right decision for me.
John Williams was offered the show after I turned it down — then had it taken away a few months later when Randy Michaels insisted Greg Jarrett be hired from San Francisco despite apparently never having been to Chicago before or never having hosted a show on his own. The sad thing is John was never given a fair chance.
Q. Don’t hold back: What do you really think of Tom Langmyer and Kevin Metheny?
A. Langmyer mostly got what WGN was, and I think he meant well when he came in. He made some positive moves, but then watered them down with some really bad ideas. The worst for me was giving me the afternoon show but adding traffic every 10 minutes, which made it nearly impossible to do a show with any flow at all. Somewhere along the way, he lost control of the place, and I believe he hasn’t made any programming decisions since Metheny was hired.
I think Kevin has been a disaster. He has made a Joe DiMaggio hit streak of bad decisions with no end in sight. His leadership style varies between absent and intimidation. Since the intimidation never worked with me, he was just absent. He almost never held a staff meeting because he never wanted to be challenged. His disdain for the audience was clear when he was on with me last summer and with Garry last week. Any caller who asked a tough question was cut off by sarcasm or bitterness. I believe he has no interest in programming WGN day-to-day, and he seems to be burned out beyond belief.
Q. What’s next?
A. This Internet thing might eventually catch on so I’m launching stevecochranshow.comwithin days. The website will have podcasts and live shows including the best guests from my former show. It also will allow me to do many things that I couldn’t do within the confines of WGN, and I’m excited about that. There will definitely be more stand-up dates in my future. I also am closing in on a book deal and have some offers to do radio that I’ll decide on soon. If you keep an eye on Facebook and Twitter, I expect I’ll be living there daily as well with updates on whatever I am doing.
Q. Think you’ll ever be invited to one of Randy’s drinking/smoking/gambling parties at Tribune Tower?
A. So far nothing in the mail. What amazes me is that those pictures and text here on your blog didn’t become a criminal matter. The gambling is one thing, but in the city of the great Chicago Fire to have the landmark Tribune Tower’s smoke detectors tampered with is beyond words. Have I said this yet? You can’t make it up! But that was a proud moment for the company, wasn’t it? And by the way, that wasn’t some company morale-building event. It was the small group of yes-men who Randy keeps closest to him.
Bottom line is just because they own the place doesn’t mean everything is OK. It’s stunning that the primary creditors in the bankruptcy would want these people to continue to run this company and expect they would be successful on any level.
The bad signs were there from the beginning. In the first “dog-and-pony show” meeting, Sam Zell announced to the radio staff that if this new Tribune Company didn’t work, it wouldn’t affect his lifestyle but it sure would affect ours. Then as they kept cutting $25,000 to $50,000-a-year employees, they approved huge bonuses for themselves. Very classy.
They claim success because they are able to show better money numbers. What is never stated is that personnel have been cut beyond reasonable totals and the quality of the product suffers more everyday. So they pay less money to less people with less experience and damn the consequences. Gee . . . good plan.
What I have witnessed is the worst possible kind of management that trips over itself to cover their asses and manage up, so that Randy Michaels will keep them around and overpay them for jobs they don’t deserve. Chicago deserves better than that. The question is: Is it too late to save Tribune Company?