Our beloved Brew.

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Thursday, October 1, 2009

A WGN Radio Listener Weighs In

Maybe I'm dating myself by acknowledging I have been a regular listener to WGN Radio for many years. The truth is, when at my desk, the station was on for long stretches of the day. Radio helps me concentrate. Sometimes, talk radio serves as white noise, sometimes I find I'm drawn into the interviews and discussions. However, lately, many of the WGN on-air personalities rely heavily on the front page of the Chicago Tribune for their topics. If I read the paper myself in the morning, I don't need WGN to read it to me again throughout the day, or to bring the writers from the paper on the air to summarize the story for me. The news is the news and I get that, but why not give me a different perspective rather than repeat someone else's?

Over the past few months, management of the station has made a number of changes that I assume are an attempt to capture a larger market share, and remain relevant. Audience favorite Spike O'Dell retired as the morning personality and was replaced with John Williams. Long-time mid-morning duo Kathy and Judy were asked to leave earlier this year. These two moves set off a parade of on-air auditions, and a series of changes at the station. John Williams was moved again, and now works from 9am-Noon. Garry Meier, who was once among the most popular (and some would say abrasive) characters on Chicago radio came out of an extended, self-imposed hiatus after failing to reach a contract agreement with his former employer. Greg Jarrett was brought in to fill the early morning slot.

Ironically, one of the few time slots that have remained stable is the one held by Steve Cochran from 4-7:00PM. In recent years, Steve has earned a reputation as the station's "bad boy." He openly questions management decisions on the air, and speaks often about how he gets hauled in the boss' office to be reprimanded for his behavior.

Here's where I come out on the changes:

I've stopped listening to WGN in the early morning. I find Jarrett's style to be pompous, arrogant, and self- absorbed. I tried to listen for a while, and was willing to overlook his constant references to California, and his West Coast contacts. I was even willing to put up with his conservative political blustering. Almost from day one, he tried to ingratiate himself to the audience by rooting for Chicago's teams, and acting tuned into politics, and the culture. It struck me as completely insincere, since he has virtually no history with the city, or knowledge on any of those topics. Admittedly, the station runs Cubs and Blackhawks games, so he had an obligation to get on those bandwagons, but the rest of the time he's trying so hard to appear "with it" and "someone I should want to know," he reminds me of the high school misfit who follows the cool crowd around campus and jumps into every conversation with a "me too" story in the hopes he'll be liked. His "commanding voice," which is great for radio, suffers from his attitude, which reminds me of that pompous dimwit character played by Ted Knight on the Mary Tyler Moore Show.

I have yet to hear Jarrett conduct an interview where he actually asks a question seeking any insight. In an attempt to show his command of a topic, he typically asks questions in the form of lengthy comments that generally allow for nothing more than a "yes" or "no" from the person being interviewed.

I always considered Andrea Darlus to be a credible news person, but it seems the station has encouraged her to be what I characterize as "bubbly and improvisational." I liked her better when she was more measured. Her new giddiness wears thin. Likewise, Leslie Keiling, the traffic reporter, has been given a wider berth to interact with Jarrett on the show. I liked her better when she just reported, and commented less. I admit, my morning alternative, WBBM is pure business radio, and I'm not crazy about it, but it beats "plastic" Jarrett and his harem.

Before leaving the topic of traffic, why do we need it every 8 minutes all day? Keiling's reports citing travel times on the local expressways is so formulaic, and changes so seldom that I can usually give it from memory. "If you're traveling inbound on the Edens, it 17 minutes to the junction . . ." Why not skip all that, and just give us deviations from the usual patterns and reports of accidents? I believe the frequent traffic and weather updates are nothing more than a device to create specific ad unit sales. I find the frequency gets in the way of meaningful interviews and discussions.

John Williams was never a favorite of mine, but I tolerated him the way you might a kind, but out-of-touch uncle at Thanksgiving dinner. Since the change to midmorning, I think he's found a second wind. He's showing more insight, asking probing questions of his guests, and is generally more entertaining than I found him to be in other day parts. The key differences between Jarrett and Williams are Williams understands no one is seeking for him to replace Walter Cronkite as the most trusted authority in America. He has learned people don't dial in to listen to him; they dial in because he is interested in what they think and have to say. Equally as significant, he doesn't take himself too seriously. Williams is a bright spot in a spotty line-up.

Garry Meier's delivery still sounds to me like his shorts are pulled up too high, but he adds an element of humor and irreverence the station can use. He's at his best when he's going after Greg Jarrett and Mayor Daley, and at his weakest when his sidekick "Elton Jim" interjects. Meier's sidekick lacks the quick thinking patter a sidekick should have. Again, I am reminded of the high school misfit who desperately wants to be part of the crowd so he constantly kisses up to the big man on campus while permitting them to also make him the brunt of most jokes, and accepts the bullying just to be part of the crowd.

Where did the station get this new "house announcer?" Is she someone's girlfriend, or Sam Zell's daughter? I can think of no other way she got on the air. I'm sure she's a terrific person, but the sound of her voice is fingernails on a chalk board to me. The first time I heard her I though it was bit someone was running. Her inflection, modulation, tone, and pace are ALL wrong. She talks too fast, places emphasis on the wrong words and syllables and is just plain annoying. I've begun keeping track of the products and services she hawks so as to remember not to buy them. Note to management: This is WGN Radio, not a Columbia School of Broadcasting class. Hearing that annoying voice frequently throughout the day is a factor in why I no longer consider myself a regular WGN listener.

Finally, realizing my comments have been mostly negative and somewhat harsh, I saved my greatest compliments for last. Steve Cochran's show is the only one I try to catch as often as possible. Again, the stations too frequent traffic and weather reports hurt his delivery, but Steve keeps his content fresher, his interviews more lively, and his topics more diverse. Steve's strength is interacting with and engaging the listeners.

Radio isn't rocket science. Just put someone on the air who is entertaining, knowledgeable on a variety of topics, and interested enough in me that I'd like to be sharing a private dinner with them.