Sunday, February 18, 2007

Charlie Meyerson

UPDATED January 2012


Rick: When we last spoke the new WGN program director Bill White had just replaced you as the news director of WGN (with himself), but you weren't out of a job for very long. How are you liking this new station?

Charlie: In my job as Chicago Bureau Chief for FM News Chicago, it’s been a joy to get back to reporting the news. My main role is to explain politics and policy, giving me a daily ringside seat to the unfolding of Rahm Emanuel’s administration. But I also have freedom to cover stories about consumerism, tech, the arts, lifestyles, human interest -- anything that makes great radio. I’ve been encouraged to break out of the connect-the-dots reporting routine. I’m having fun, every day -- something I hope comes through in our coverage, including a series I've called "Who’s Mayor Emanuel Ridiculing Now?"

Rick: This has been a little different experience than WGN, hasn't it?

Charlie: FM News is a work in progress. But, boy, that startup mindset's exciting. This organization is fulfilling a prediction I made in 1998: "There's a real place on the FM dial for an all-news format station that presents a hipper, more intelligent, more innovative approach to news."

We have a talented and energetic team, encouraged every day to try doing things differently. That prompted three hours of commercial-free discussion and analysis when Blagojevich was sentenced, and more than an hour talking about Steve Jobs the night he died.

We want to hear how listeners think we're doing. I hope people will share story ideas, suggestions and criticism. I'm at, and tips or feedback for the whole station are welcome at our Web site or by email at

Updated 8/29/09


I previously interviewed Charlie two years ago when he was the editor of Daywatch, but this summer he was named WGN News Director. I got in touch with him the other day to ask the question I've been wondering about...

Rick: What are your plans for the WGN News department?

Charlie: Radio news in the 21st Century faces many of the same issues confronting newspapers and other established media. For instance: In an age when the latest headlines are (or can be) at anyone's fingertips on demand via smartphone or netbook, why does anyone need a half-hourly newscast? How can we make each of those broadcasts unique, "must-hear" events?

The challenges are particularly acute right now for low-fi AM radio in a hi-fi/hi-def landscape. But the good news is that in the world ahead -- when all radio will be available via the Web and WiFi and WiMax -- an audio stream will be an audio stream will be an audio stream. The playing field will have been leveled, and the best and most compelling programming will win.

I would love to get others' thoughts on these matters, and one of the first things I did after taking the job was to establish a page to do that:

I'm not sure how to solve the puzzles on the table, but I hope the quest will prove fun and rewarding -- for us and our audience.

The original interview follows...

(photo credit unknown for young Charlie photo on the left, not quite as young Charlie photo by Charlie Young)

Professional highlights:
=1977-1979: News director, WMRO-AM 1280 / WAUR-FM 107.9, Aurora
=1979-1989: Morning news anchor, City Hall reporter, WXRT-FM 93.1, Chicago
=1989-1998: News and public affairs director, WNUA-FM 95.5, Chicago
=1998-present: Columnist, editor and senior producer at

And in my spare time:
1982-1986: News writing instructor, Columbia College
1991-1993: Columnist, Wednesday Journal, Oak Park

From left to right: Charlie Meyerson, Dave Thomas, Rick Moranis, Terri Hemmert

Rick: People who follow your radio career might not realize how actively involved you are with the Internet, too. Could you tell us a little bit more about your work with the Chicago Tribune Internet edition, and Daywatch?

(Photo by Jean Lachat LiVigni)

Charlie: People who hear my reports on WGN may not know my primary job is helping a talented and dedicated team of journalists make sure is fresh and relevant and engaging and lively every minute of the day, with news, photos, audio, video and interactive features. On Jan. 28, our team and our print-side colleagues on the Chicago Tribune received one of the newspaper industry's top honors, the Digital Edge Award, for most innovative multimedia storytelling. The award honors two special reports in which our team played a significant role, "A tank of gas, a world of trouble" and "Did this man die ... for this man's crime?"

My job also includes overseeing the Tribune’s free, daily e-mail news briefing, Daywatch, whose style and content I think will seem familiar to those who remember those 'XRT and WNUA newscasts.

The Internet is a demanding creature, so I’m not able to contribute to WGN as often as I’d like. But it’s great to know that the door to what's historically been Chicago's No. 1 radio station is always open for my reports.

A footnote: In some ways, my present job brings me full circle. When I graduated from the University of Illinois in 1977 -- this August marks my 30th year in Chicago-area radio news -- my partners at WMRO/WAUR included Dean Richards and Johnnie Putman, both pillars of WGN’s programming today. And my first on-air partner at 'XRT was Garry Lee Wright, also now on WGN. Even one of my bosses, Chicago Tribune Vice President Alison Scholly, was once an 'XRT intern. Which just goes to show you, kids, why you should be nice to everyone all the time.

Rick: By the way, those two award-winning reports were pretty darn impressive.

Charlie: Yes, they were, and I'm delighted to have played even just the smallest role in their creation. The essential work, of course, was done by the newspaper's great reporters. Most of the presentation work was done by others, notably my fellow senior producer, Danielle Gordon, working with talented print and Web designers. My role was limited mainly to kibitzing on how best to present these reports on their own introductory pages and on the front page to maximize their audience. That's one of the true joys of my job: Finding new and more effective ways of connecting Tribune journalism with people -- particularly with people who might otherwise think they have no interest in "serious journalism."

Rick: You've always been a journalist, but you've worked in some very different radio formats. How has your style changed and adapted with each format change?

Charlie: Each successive job has opened my eyes wider to just how hard it is to get and keep people’s attention -- and what a gift it is when they give it to you. At WMRO, our noon newscast was 12 minutes long. At WNUA, by the end, my newscasts were 95 seconds. At WGN, my reports fall under a 35-second limit. So, by necessity, I've learned to obey one of the fundamental rules of Strunk and White's inspiring book on writing, "The Elements of Style": "Omit needless words."

Keeping things to the point -- always bearing in mind the fundamentally selfish nature of an audience -- makes for better, more compelling and ultimately more effective journalism.

Rick: Along those lines, since the radio stations were so different, could you give us one highlight from each of them? (The one moment that pops into your mind when someone asks you about your time there.)

Charlie: WMRO/WAUR: Elvis Presley died at the end of my first week on the job. I learned the hard way that "mausoleum" is not pronounced "muh-ZOLE-ee-um."

'XRT: The greatest perk of journalism is that it empowers you to seek an interview with anyone. At 'XRT, this meant long conversations with Apollo 11 astronaut Jim Lovell, "Rocky and Bullwinkle" stars June Foray and Bill Scott, and a much younger (and not yet mayor) Richard M. Daley on the anniversary of his father's death. I am deeply grateful for the intimate knowledge of Chicago I gained crisscrossing the city covering the 1989 mayoral campaign. Oh, and Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull played my flute.

WNUA: Again, memorable interviews: Pulitzer winners Dave Barry and Anna Quindlen, the late Douglas Adams ("Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy"), the late Joe Barbera (Hanna-Barbera cartoons); Stan Lee (Marvel Comics).

And, thanks to the man who hired me, John Gehron -- the only boss ever to tell me to make a newscast longer! -- WNUA proved a wonderful lab for some pioneering work melding radio and computers. We may have been the first Chicago newsroom to invite listeners' e-mail, and we almost certainly were the first to offer updates via e-mail.

Rick: I have to ask you this, because I love the answers I've been getting. What is the worst advice radio management has ever given you?

Charlie: You know, I really can't think of any. Maybe it's because all my bosses were, like those kids in Lake Wobegon, above average. But even when managers told me -- sometimes with a measly raise, sometimes more clearly -- that it was time for a change, they were probably right, and they in essence propelled me to more rewarding work. I snickered at the concept of 95-second newscasts, but learning to write those things -- figuring out how to wring every unnecessary word from every sentence -- proved invaluable preparation for working on the Internet, where persuading a Web-surfing, time-pressed reader to stick around for 95 seconds is something to celebrate.

Rick: Radio journalism has changed dramatically since you began thirty years ago. Many stations, even here in Chicago, have eliminated radio news altogether. What would you tell someone getting into the business today?

(Photo by Jean Lachat LiVigni)

Charlie: Hard though some journalists may find it to believe, I think this is the best time in history to become a journalist. Yes, times are tough for some media companies. But, as I told students at the University of Illinois last fall, we are closer now than ever to the ideal advanced by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, who said, "the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market." These days, if you have something true to say -- and I mean "true" here broadly: not just "truthful" or "factual," but also "truly funny," or "truly moving," or "truly beautiful" -- this new digital world empowers you to communicate it to anyone, anywhere, regardless of medium. You don't need a printing press. You don't need an antenna. All you need is a way with words or sound or pictures and a library card to use a computer.