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Ghosts of Clear Channel continue to haunt Tribune Company

Randy Michaels with 2 great tastes that taste great together?

New York Times media reporter David Carr dropped a bombshell on Tribune Company CEO Randy Michaels today, and paragraph number seven pretty much says it all:

Based on interviews with more than 20 employees and former employees of Tribune, Mr. Michaels’s and his executives’ use of sexual innuendo, poisonous workplace banter and profane invective shocked and offended people throughout the company. Tribune Tower, the architectural symbol of the staid company, came to resemble a frat house, complete with poker parties, juke boxes and pervasive sex talk.

If this all sounds familiar, that’s because it is. These are the sorts of reports that circulated throughout the radio industry during Michaels’ heydey at Clear Channel as the company snarfed up stations across the country, unceremoniously firing their staffs and consolidating them into cheap, voice-tracked and consolidated outlets. But in those heady days at Clear Channel the whole company was flying high with a sturdy stock price and an exploding roster of stations. The situation at Tribune, however, is quite different.

Tribune declared bankruptcy in 2008 and has shed 4,200 employees since the company was bought by real estate mogul Sam Zell in 2007. Right after the purchase Zell promised that there would be no job losses. Right. Anyone believing that should have done just a little bit of research. Zell once owned a little radio company called Jacor, which gave Rush Limbaugh his start in national syndication and employed none other than Randy Michael. Jacor was sold to Clear Channel in 1999 for $4.4 billion.

In debt for $13 billion while possessing assets of only $7.6 billion, Tribune nevertheless paid out $57.3 million in bonuses to the current management team between May 2009 and February 2010.

But really, none of this should be a surprise to anyone who has followed the history of Randy Michaels’ old home of Clear Channel which was bought by a private equity firm in 2008 and taken off the public market lest its stock become junk.

Radio is really only a small part of Tribune’s business, owning just one station, the well-known WGN-AM in Chicago. media blogger Robert Feder has done a great job of covering the gutting of WGN’s once iconic status, and was the source of some the primary research sited in David Carr’s New York Times piece.

So, now Michaels and his old boss Zell have brought their own special brand of frat-party consolidation radio management to the newspaper and television business, and they have the decline in circulation and income to prove it. According to Carr the company intends to debut a news television format that seems like the TV equivalent of radio automation and voice-tracking:

there would be no on-air anchors and few live reports. The newscasts will rely on narration over a stream of clips, a Web-centric approach that has the added benefit of requiring fewer bodies to produce.

For his part Michaels sent around an email memo to the Tribune staff in advance of David Carr’s article. In it he warns employees that David Carr is trying to influence management changes at Tribune and reminds them that “it is our intention to create a fun, non-linear creative environment,” whatever a “non-linear” environment is. He instructs them to “ignore the noise.”

I advise caution, they might wear out their ignoring muscle.

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