Kevin "Pig Virus" Metheny, the program director of WGN-AM (720), was worried. After one day on the air, the man he'd brought in to host middays on the Tribune Co. news/talk station was finding himself "often stranded without many callers." Something had to be done.
In announcing the hiring of Mike McConnell from WLW-AM in Cincinnati a few weeks earlier (and assigning him to a four-hour shift -- from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. weekdays), Metheny had called him "arguably the most gifted of all American broadcasters at leveraging the news and events of the day into compelling radio shows." In a subsequent press release, WGN general manager Tom Langmyer boasted that McConnell could "engage listeners like no one else in Chicagoland."
But that apparently wasn't happening soon enough for Metheny, who was quick to blame the audience for not appreciating the scintillating newcomer from Ohio. "Interesting thing about WGN," Metheny wrote in a memo dated Aug. 10 -- the day after McConnell's debut. "Our legacy listeners seem to leave our new talent hanging out to dry while they figure out how to interact with someone with an opinion."
Metheny's solution was to reach out to a dozen of his colleagues in Tribune Tower and ask them to call in to McConnell's show and pretend to be ordinary listeners. Among those he solicited for what he called "a little help" were: Lee Abrams, senior vice president and chief innovation officer of Tribune Co.; Marc Chase, president of Tribune Interactive; Carolyn Gilbert, executive vice president of Tribune Interactive; Tim Dukes, vice president of interactive marketing; Scott Baker, promotions director at Tribune Co.; Dan Zampillo, then assistant program director of WGN, and John Phillips, Tribune Tower building manager.
Here's what Metheny told them:
"Mike McConnell's doing terrific work on WGN, great takes twisted out of unusual and obvious/unavoidable topics. But he is often stranded without many callers. I'd like to prime the pump with a few more clued in callers. Could you give a listen 8:30a-12:30p the next few days and call and engage him. "Try not to sound like you've been stranded in your mom's basement on the sofa that looks like Bear Bryant's hat since the early '60s. We've got a few of those already."
Word of Metheny's memo surfaced a couple of days later on ChicagolandRadioandMedia, which called it "a rather dishonest way of fooling [McConnell's] listeners into thinking there is more going on than there actually is yet." The report described the intent of the memo, but never quoted from it.
Initial reaction to Metheny's effort was mixed, with many of the message board's readers pointing out that fake callers have been deployed by other radio stations for years. Some dismissed it as "theater of the mind."
Insiders at the station said fake calls from Tribune Tower offices continue to air on McConnell's show (as well as that hosted by Jim Laski, another one of Metheny's protégés). One of those callers is believed to be Tribune Tower building manager Phillips, a former WLW colleague of McConnell and the man who once posted photos of Tribune Co. executives at a gambling, drinking and smoking party on his Facebook page.
A year or so ago, an ongoing deception of this sort at WGN might have struck many people as shameful or scandalous. But not anymore. It's par for the course for Metheny, who's never shown any reluctance to deceive the audience. "Truthfulness is only an added benefit when it happens to drop into your lap," he wrote in an earlier memo to WGN staffers. "Truthfulness in takes optional. This is SHOW BIZ, not a court of a law."