New boss puts WGN-AM staff on edge

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Posted by on May 15, 2009 at 11:23:42:

Boss puts WGN-AM staff on edge

NEW SOUND | Program chief dumps talent, warns others in drive to draw more listeners

May 15, 2009

BY LEWIS LAZARE Sun-Times Columnist

The internal memos are flying out of Kevin Metheny's office. And in them, the WGN-AM (720) program director's message to his on-air talent is crystal clear: Be more edgy. Get pissed off occasionally. These blunt directives are part of how Metheny is starting to create a new sound at WGN -- one sharply at odds with what many of the station's long-standing (older) listeners are used to hearing.

In an interview Thursday, Metheny admitted he's trying to drive change. Metheny also doesn't deny that such a massive upheaval in style at WGN could alienate some listeners. Though he doesn't like losing listeners, that may be an inevitable part of what has to happen to get WGN to a new place. "We love all of our listeners; we just need more of them," Metheny said.

Plenty of WGN listeners weren't happy when Metheny recently axed three weekend hosts, including pet expert Steve Dale and personal finance guru Bill Moller. Now former WLS-AM (890) midmorning host Jerry Agar, who was cut at WLS to make room for Mancow Muller and Pat Cassidy, is a dominant presence on weekends at WGN. Agar, who strikes some as a loud fist-pounder, is a much more forceful presence than any of the talent he replaced at WGN. But Metheny said he likes Agar's "passionate" style, and he likes having to deal with fewer performers. "It's easier to set a vision and expectations that way," he said.

The now-departed weekend talent may not be the only ones to feel the effects of Metheny's winds of change. Some who have read Metheny's memos see the implicit threat of becoming expendable if the rest of the talent now on air at WGN doesn't get with the new game plan, sources said.

For some, the threat may be less of an issue than for others. Kathy O'Malley and Judy Markey are reportedly retiring from their midmorning gig next year. John Williams, recently elevated to morning drive host, is trying to inject more attitude into his delivery, but it's still a work in progress, say those who have listened to him on air recently.

Clearly, Metheny and the rest of WGN management want to attract more of the 25- to 54-year-old audience advertisers most covet.

And achieving that goal has become more urgent as the station's advertising revenue has fallen sharply.

Industry figures show WGN's total ad revenue in April was down a whopping 30 percent compared with a year ago, while the total ad revenue at competitor news-talk WLS-AM actually was up about 8 percent in April compared with a year ago.

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