Everything that's gone wrong at WGN-AM (720) in the past year can be summed up in two words: "Pig Virus."
No, we're not talking H1N1 here. "Pig Virus" is the nickname Howard Stern gave long ago to Kevin Metheny, the man in charge of programming at the Tribune Co.-owned news/talk station since January.
Under Metheny, an acolyte of Tribune Co. operating boss Randy Michaels (and one of nearly two dozen Clear Channel alumni Michaels brought in with him), WGN has shown disdain or disregard for listeners who felt a unique bond with the station and its personalities.
There was the needlessly ham-fisted way Kathy O'Malley and Judy Markey were run off the air after a phenomenal 20 years as midday duo. (Since they're still being paid every penny of their contracts, what was so urgent that WGN couldn't let them finish out as they'd planned and retire this spring?) There was the hiring of morning host Greg Jarrett, a capable broadcaster but one who'd never worked a day in his life in Chicago, to step right into the No. 1 job in local radio. (Jarrett almost lost me for good his first day on the air when he mispronounced "Devon Avenue.") And there have been numerous other personnel and programming moves -- in afternoons and on weekends, especially -- that simply boggle the mind.
As Metheny continues to overhaul WGN's programming with a bag of tricks he acquired working in some 16 markets over his career, the station's hallmarks of honesty and truthfulness slowly are being replaced by posturing and attitude. If you listen carefully, you can hear it in the way some hosts stake out ludicrous positions or go off on phony tirades to provoke callers. (Metheny calls it "reality through a fun house mirror.")
Unhappy staffers describe his management style as bipolar. "He has these bizarre mood swings where he'll be incredibly vicious and mean one minute and then shut down and not talk to anyone," said one insider. What some resent most is Metheny's micromanaging, second-guessing and hectoring -- precisely the type of behavior that earned him that unfortunate nickname when he butted heads with Howard Stern as program director of New York's WNBC-AM in the early 1980s.
"He would memo me all these idiotic rules and ideas he had," Stern recalled in his 1993 best-selling memoir Private Parts. "He came up with this complicated terminology to make it sound as if he knew something, but it was all mystification. Any idiot could go into radio. But he knew the vocabulary."
Stern's words are still true today. Here are some highlights from Metheny's barrage of directives to WGN personalities:
- A memo banning the use of two words: " 'Coming Up.' Can you possibly do without these two words? Can you possibly find a less hackneyed, transformed-by-20th-Century-Media-to-wallpaper vocabulary with which to tantalize your listener into sharing some 21st Century time with you?"
- A memo banning the use of one word: "Please dispense with the word 'degrees' when delivering forecasts and currents. I'm pretty sure we can be comfortable the temperature measurement increment is almost always degrees. Seldom is the temperature measured in Aardvarks, Ford Mustangs or Belly Button Lint."
- A memo about giving away tickets: "Don't do it. As discussed, tickets are accounting devices. The thing of emotional value is the EXPERIENCE. . . . I will cancel winning events in programs I hear referring to them in an inside out, hackneyed, old school lexicon. STOP selling the little pieces of paper. Sell the SWEAT!"
- A memo on the exact words to use when introducing news, weather and traffic reports: "No 'creeping and beeping,' no 'how are the cars,' no 'thunder boomer report,' no 'let's check the roads,' no need to improvise, expand, amend, extend, truncate, evolve, devolve or otherwise improve. Perhaps we will get to that later. For now, do it this way. Do it only this way. Don't do it any other way. No need to personalize, customize or otherwise revise. Regardless of time of day or day of week. Regardless of the magnitude of the digits on your W-2. Do it this way. When it's time to do it another way, someone will let you know."
- A memo setting forth Metheny's philosophy on "takes" (or points of view hosts should adopt in order to provoke listeners): "Truthfulness is only an added benefit when it happens to drop into your lap," Metheny wrote. "Truthfulness in takes optional. This is SHOW BIZ, not a court of a law."
- The same memo, threatening dire consequences for disobedience: "I am sorry that is necessary to be unpleasant about this. If you're struggling because you don't understand, then please ask for help or we'll presume you're just unwilling to comply with the coaching. If you understand the concept and you're noncompliant, there can only be two reasons: you're unwilling or you're unable. The reason doesn't matter. The end result will be the same."