Sunday, November 18, 2007

Roe Conn

UPDATED 9/4/10


Since we last spoke, Bill Leff is gone from the show, Cisco Cotto has come and gone, Jill Urchak has come and gone, and Christina has come and gone and come back again. Now on the show: Richard Roeper, Jim Johnson (who never left) and Christina Filliagi. I asked Roe how he likes the changes that have been made to his show...

Roe: What a difference a year makes. In 2009, our company (Citadel) was going bankrupt, management panicked and adopted a "try anything" approach that relied more on stunts and controversy than content. The audience was left whip-sawed and confused.

With Michael Damsky and Drew Hayes at the helm (and Citadel successfully emerging from bankruptcy) the environment changed. Damsky had an actual business plan that put WLS back on offense, the centerpiece of which was repairing afternoons.

He brought in Drew, brought back fan-favorite Christina Filiaggi and let us rebuild a show around current events that uses entertainment instead of anger to make a point.

It's easy to piss people off. Outrage is cheap to produce and hard to sell. Entertainment is harder to produce but much easier to sell.

Mike and Drew understand that and were very supportive in allowing me and Jock Hedblade our Executive Producer to do whatever we needed to do.

Our first job was to get Richard Roeper on board. He was close to signing with WGN, but was hesitant about their direction. They have fallen into the trap we nearly did. Build cheap controversial programming and hope for the best. That has never worked in Chicago.

Richard, Jock and I have crafted a show that plays to all of our strengths. It's packed with information, but fun. It doesn't rely on the tactic of pitting people politically. It has an edge without being predictable.

And apparently it's working. We are up 110% 25-54. We are back in the top 10 with adults 25-54 and the top rated show on AM with women 25-54. But most importantly, we're having fun again.

The original interview follows...

Roe Conn hosts one of Chicago's highest rated talk shows. His show airs every afternoon on WLS-AM 890.

Rick: Were you really an anthropology major?

Roe: Denison is a liberal arts college and I could have been a basket weaving major--it didn't really matter there. 2/3 of the classes are core requirements anyway. They do have a really good anthropology department though, which focuses on cultural anthropology. I think that kind of an education gives journalists (not that I am one), a pretty good situational awareness of the world. I'm really happy I did it. It's not like I was going around digging up bones. I only took one course like that, and believe me, that was enough. I'll never forget this one professor who came back from a dig in Cameroon with malaria, and she ended up missing a whole semester while she recovered. That cured any thoughts I had of getting my PhD in anthropology.

Rick: You started as a producer (in radio and television). How did that experience shape what you've become on the air, and how does it affect your relationships with your own producers?

Roe: That's a great question. The truth is that really great producers know that they're producers, and I was never a really great producer. I always knew I wanted to do this, so I was impatient, which is just about the worst trait a producer can have.

As for how it affects my relationships with producers, I try remain cognizant of how difficult the job is. Everyone always tells me that they could do my job, but go in and spend one hour answering the phones at a talk show. It gives you a bent view of the world. Extremists on every side are calling you. They'll argue with you if you say the sky is blue. It's mentally exhausting. About half the people that call, don't even want to go on the air, they just want to vent. Listening to that, and trying to wade through those people to get to the calls you can actually use on the air is really wearing and draining on a producer. I really try to remain cognizant of that while I’m doing the show.

Rick: I've heard you talk with obvious affection about Don Vogel. Describe what it was like working with him at WMAQ, and what did you learn from that experience?

Roe: I was so lucky to work with him. My whole career has really been that way, I've had some really good breaks, but the first big break was working with Don. Because he was blind, his ability to listen was second to none. He was shut out of any other stimulus, even smell and taste really, because he smoked so much, so his listening was legendary. He was hyper-focused. He did this bit called Swami Don. He taught me the tricks of listening to the voices, to hear their stress points, to know what they were thinking. And he was also a great mimic—the best I've ever heard. His vocal impressions were dead on, because he heard the little nuances.

Rick: Let's talk about your pre-Garry WLS career for a second. I've always been curious about it. How did you go from being a producer at Channel 2 to doing a talk show on WLS?

Roe: I was working at Channel 2 when WLS changed over to the news/talk format in 1989. They called me the first week they were on--asking me if I would be up for doing a weekend show. I had to clear working there with my bosses at CBS, which I figured wouldn't be a big deal. They actually said no. I guess it was an ABC/CBS issue. I took the radio job anyway, and did both jobs for almost a year before my bosses at Channel 2 found out. It's not like I was trying to hide it. I went on the air with my real name, and even billed myself as TV producer Roe Conn (laughs). I'm not sure what insults me the most about that.

Anyway, when they discovered it, I was called into the big office of the head honcho over there. He had this beautiful office with big plush chairs…exactly the opposite of the crappy surroundings I was working in at the time. He said, "You know son, there's no future in radio. We really need you to stay here in TV and work with Walter (Jacobsen)."

And just for a second, as I looked around, and listened to this guy making the pitch, I actually considered staying. But WLS was offering me $10,000 a year more to be the fill-in/weekend guy and the executive producer of the station. I said "Can you match their offer?" And he said no. So I left.

And once again my timing was just right. I got to WLS just as Rush took off, and the midday host they had, Stacey Taylor, wasn't clicking in Chicago. I didn't have to bide my time long before I got a shot at that midday slot, and I jumped at it. Then they brought in Ed Vrdolyak and Ty Wansley to do afternoons, and the whole station sort of took off. Shortly after that, OJ Simpson had the decency to kill his wife, and I was hired to do an OJ wrap up show for Court TV and ABC Radio. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Rick: So how did you and Garry get paired up in the first place?

Roe: After the OJ Trial ended, WABC was looking for a nighttime host, and they offered it to me. It would have been a big transition, but I decided to take the job. This was January of 1996, and I was supposed to start in March.

Just after I said yes, Drew Hayes walked into the studio one day and said that he had run into Garry Meier on the street. Drew knew I wasn't crazy about going to New York, so he said "I've got this crazy idea." He wanted me to do the show with Garry on a trial basis. He said "try it for a week."

I was already filling in on WABC via satellite and getting my head around the move to New York, but this was something I couldn't pass up. I was a HUGE Steve and Garry fan since the very beginning. I even hosted a Disco Demolition night at my school in 1979. It was such a thrill to do the show with him, and from the very first minute, it was great. I loved it. It was everything I ever wanted to do in radio. I knew right away that I wasn't going to be going to New York, so I called the program director there and told him. They hired Sean Hannity instead.

Rick: Really?

Roe: Yeah. I know. It's funny.

Rick: Looking back on it, with a few years of hindsight, how do you view those years with Garry now?

Roe: Great. Absolutely 8 great years of radio. It was a great experience. I learned a lot from him, but I think he learned some things from me too. The last time he got to do a solo show (at the Loop in the mid-90s), his only real prior experience had been with Steve. I think the difference between his show then, and his recent solo show on WCKG, was that he learned something from our experience together, from the talk radio format.

Professionally, as an on-air relationship, working with Garry was clearly a great experience. As a business relationship, as it turns out, it was clearly a bad one. He is a little lost about the way this business operates. I know I've gone over this a million times before, but I really was with him all the way to the very bitter end.

Rick: Were there any other offers at the time?

Roe: Yes, there were. But the offer we had on the table from ABC was clearly the best offer, despite the interest we received from other stations.

Rick: Let's talk about your current show. How do you see the roles of the other members of your show?

Roe: Jim's role has remained consistently the same. He's the wisecrackin' news-guy. And he's an excellent news-guy too. Really solid. Of course, we drag him out of the role quite a bit. At the beginning we were constantly told not to do that, because most news guys would have trouble switching roles, but Jim is one of the best ever at sliding out of his role while still maintaining his news credibility.

Bill is the consummate comedic reactor. He's a very different kind of voice than you hear a lot of other places on the radio dial. Sometimes I'll be driving and listening to a best of bit, and hear his line that I hadn't heard the first time, and just be amazed. He's like a guy with a silencer, and it's very funny stuff…

As for Christina, what can you say? People always ask if she is really like that. Normally in radio you figure that people add about 10% to their real selves to make it more interesting, but those of us in the business know it's even more than that…like say 60%. Christina is different. In some cases we're actually pulling her back. She really is just like she sounds. We went to the Bahamas and people on the flight home said "We thought you were making that up about her." They couldn't believe it was true.

Rick: You've talked to just about every Chicago dignitary. Are there any that have really impressed you or that you really enjoying having on the show?

Roe: I like the guys you don't hear all over the place, but really know how things work. The ideal place to find people like that is in the business community.

Before he entered the public eye with this Olympic bid, Pat Ryan was one of those guys for us. Eddie Vrdolyak has always been one of those guys. Our legal analyst Mike Monico is another one of those guys. He is such a widely respected legal mind…the very top of the legal game. People come to Chicago just to hire him. When the Michael Vick story broke…he literally picked up the phone and talked to Vick's lawyer to get the story for us. He's that connected. When he calls, people listen.

I like hearing the real conversations of the insiders who make the city tick. I love hearing how they really talk to each other. Chicago really is a big small town in that way.

Rick: What about nationally known celebrities?

Roe: I used to listen to Steve & Garry, and they had all those celebrities come into town and hang out with them, but I really think that time in history is gone now. The big celebrities are much more careful, more managed, more cognizant of the information getting out around the world. I haven't really made a personal connection with any of them.

Rick: You've done some television the last few years too, including guest stints on Glenn Beck's show. Do you see your career heading that way?

Roe: Glenn took the short money of television and created the long money of radio. That was his plan and he executed it beautifully (he just signed a $50 million radio contract). I enjoyed being on his TV show, but I couldn't commit to flying back and forth, which is what I needed to do. It was just too much. It impacted negatively on the radio show, and it was killing me, so I decided to move on. Glenn would call me up and say, I need you to fill in for me tomorrow on the radio show, and I would do Glenn's radio show, and his TV show, and my own five hour radio show. It was too much. Since then, I've been concentrating on my radio show. The ramp up to people meters has been a big deal, and WLS has been working on being at the forefront of changing the mechanics of radio. That has been exciting, and I look forward to doing it for a long time.