UPDATED January 2012
Rick: When I last spoke with you, you were a member of the WGN Radio news staff. Now you're the morning co-anchor at FM News 101.1. How has that transition gone for you?
It's been a hell of a lot of fun. The station's early growing pains have been well documented. But what can I say? News/talk radio stations are complex entities that take a long time to gel. Thankfully, we had the right manager to keep us positive. The first couple of days of the format were so bad, they are best heard through a pinhole in a paper plate. Even so, Andy Friedman (our supervisor, for lack of a better word) told the troops they were doing good work, and that things would only get better.
You know what? Things did get better. An ill-conceived and poorly executed attempt at "lifestyle news" was jettisoned in late September. Our technical capabilities and procedures came together in a matter of weeks...and now we have ourselves a darn fine radio station. We are first on breaking news more often than not. We had dozens of guests during our three hours of commercial-free coverage of the Blagojevich sentencing hearing. I'm looking forward to flexing our muscles during the first big snowfall.
We don't have much of an audience - yet. But we all know news/talk formats take a long time to build. We have managers who know this. Andy Friedman was around for the first days of the talk format at KFI in Los Angeles. Our executive producer, Diana Bodkins, helped launch the talk format at WLS in 1989. In both cases, it took years to catch on with the audience. It will take time. Thankfully, everyone involved in Merlin has plenty of patience.
I love this job. I love the fact that you have the opportunity to do great things every day. I love the idea that we are building something that could be around for a very long time. I'm well aware of the fact that some people in the industry are rooting for us to fall on our asses. That would be a very bad thing for radio in this town. If Merlin is successful, it will demonstrate to the world at large that local radio is a worthwhile investment. If not...we're back to where we were: tired music formats, syndicated talk shows, and a radio environment that punishes risk. Who wants that?
The original interview follows...
Rob Hart is a reporter and anchor at WGN Radio
Rick: I'm a big fan of the quality reporting coming out of the WGN newsroom--one of only two actual newsrooms still functioning in Chicago radio as far as I can tell. (In order to qualify, you need at least five full-timers). How would you describe your role in that newsroom?
Rob: Four days out of the week, I am the morning reporter. You can hear me on the street during the John Williams Show. I'm the guy at O'Hare on the day before Thanksgiving. During the Cubs playoff run last October, I was live on Clark street during morning drive watching the beer truck drivers roll kegs into the bars. I covered the Holy Name Cathedral fire. Back in December, I was one of the reporters staking out Rod Blagojevich's house the day after his arrest. My reports usually air during Andrea Darlas' newscasts, but I am also a contributor to the show. John will talk to me for a couple of minutes if I am at a breaking news story.
I'm also the news anchor on Dean Richards' Sunday Morning show, which is a lot of fun. We get along very well. (Photo: Rob with Dean Richards and Scott Childers)
After that, I update the WGN web site, shoot videos for the YouTube page, do the news podcast, and a bunch of other stuff.
Rick: You've covered quite a few big stories in your time at WGN, including most recently the Family Secrets trial. What are a few of the favorite stories you've covered for WGN, either out in the field or from the anchor chair?
Rob: The Family Secrets trial was like something out of a movie. Five feared members of the Chicago Outfit were on trial for a bunch of crimes - from extortion to murder. The feds said they were bad guys who did very bad things. I saw five old men wearing cheap suits. (Photo: Star witness Nick Calabrese)
Most federal trials are pretty dry. You could spend the entire day in a courtroom and get nothing more than attorneys detailing tax returns. Not this trial. On the first day, the federal prosecutor showed the pictures of the dozen or so men killed by the Outfit over the past 20 years. One week was devoted to secret tapes of mob enforcers shaking down an adult bookstore owner.
Every morning you had to wait in line outside the courtroom while US Marshalls looked for bombs.
Last October I got to cover playoff runs by the White Sox and Cubs. You can't argue with a week of free baseball games.
It goes without saying that the Rod Blagojevich saga has been hours of fun. I was on that story from beginning to end. I was standing next to Rod when he said he had nothing but sunshine on his shoulders, and the station paid my way down to Springfield for the vote to remove Blago from office.
Rick: Recently you've also had a chance to spread your wings a little and co-host a talk show or two. How did you like that experience, and would you be interested in doing more of that?
Rob: My career as a talk show host is still in its larval stage. I like doing it. But my expectations are rather low. I consider my show a success if the bosses ask me to fill in again.
Here's what I have learned so far - the preparation is much harder than the actual show. I spend so much time worrying about finding show material, that the actual program is a snap.
I would love to do it again. I would not mind making the jump from news anchor to host. But that's still a long ways off. I'm still working on the fundamentals.
Rick: You've worked with just about everyone at WGN. Tell us a behind-the-scenes story or two that helps to illustrate the atmosphere in the WGN hallways.
Rob: People ask me about the mood here since the bankruptcy. It hasn't changed much. We're still a bunch of cynical, funny, sarcastic bastards. Like every other newsroom in America. (Photo: Rob with Spike O'Dell and Dave Stewart)
I have a couple of behind the scenes stories. But they are so good, and so funny, they can never be told in public. Ever. I've got to work here, you know....
Let's just put it this way: there are a lot of creative people working at WGN, and if they weren't working here, they would probably be in jail.
Rick: You got your start in Milwaukee at another legendary station, WTMJ. Tell the story about the morning a bear climbed a tree...
Rob: April of 2005. Wauwatosa, Wisconsin. For a couple of days, there had been reports of a bear lumbering down the street. But police couldn't find the bear. A couple of days later, the bear was spotted napping under a tractor trailer at a warehouse loading dock. The Milwaukee County Sheriff's Department had to shut down US 45, a major expressway, as a precaution.
This happened during the morning show, so I did live play by play of the Sheriff's Deputies chasing the bear into a tree, shooting the bear with a tranquilzer dart, and then the bear falling out of the tree and clothes-lining itself on a branch on the way down. You could hear the crowd gasping in the background.
Of course, a bunch of other stuff happened in Milwaukee during that time. Three aldermen and a state senator went to federal prison, Green Bay Packer Mark Chmura was accused of teenage sex assault (he walked), and there was a near-riot at the Harley Davidson 100th Anniversary Concert. Bikers don't like Elton John, apparently.
Rick: When I met you I was surprised at how young you are. For all the talk of young people not breaking into the big bad Chicago market, here we have a 28-year-old man working at Chicago's biggest station. First of all, what's that like for a native Chicagoan like yourself to be working at WGN at such a young age?
Rob: I started at WTMJ when I was a sophomore at Marquette University in Milwaukee. It was my goal to get to Chicago by the time I was 30. I said that when I was 21, and it seemed reasonable that it would take nine years to get to Chicago.
I wanted to work in a larger market than Milwaukee (#31) before making the jump to Chicago. I interviewed at stations in Tampa, Cleveland, and Dallas. I could not get a job to save my life. In July of 2005, I cold called WLS, WBBM, and WGN. WLS and WBBM were full up, but there were several part time openings available at WGN. Six weeks later, News Director Wes Bleed offered me a job. In the end, it was easier to get hired in Chicago than it was in several smaller markets.
I was 25 when I started at WGN. I thought that was pretty cool. But then I did the math and figured out that all of the other full time reporters and anchors were hired at 25. There have been plenty of twenty-somethings in this news department. I'm glad I accomplished a personal goal, getting hired in Chicago five years ahead of schedule, but I wouldn't say I'm breaking any barriers here.
Rick: What advice do you have for your fellow 20-somethings trying to break into this market?
Rob: Good Timing. That's the name of the game. I could not get hired in Cleveland, Ohio. That does not mean I wasn't cut out to work in northeast Ohio. There were no radio news openings available when I was looking in late 2004 and 2005. I had the good fortune to call Wes just as (news anchor) Tom Petersen announced his retirement. Tom retired, Andrea Darlas went to the early morning shift, and the next thing you know I was a full time reporter/anchor at WGN.
My best advice is "be in the right place at the right time." But it's up to you to find that right place and that right time.
Rick: You're also, dare I say it, a White Sox fan. There can't be too many of you at WGN. Do you have a secret handshake or wink to let each other know you aren't drinking the blue koolaid? Are you secretly sabotaging the broadcasts? You can tell me. I won't reveal your methods.
Rob: There are three of us. I won't name names. We're like early Catholics. We meet in storage closets, and sub-basements. In lieu of secret handshakes we make the sign of Carlos Quentin (I won't say what it is, but it involves breaking your wrist).
It's pretty cool, actually. For all of the screaming and yelling, Sox fans and Cubs fans are a lot alike. With one very notable exception, it's not like the White Sox have a distinguished, Yankees-like history. There have been a bunch of fun seasons on both sides of town, with ton of crap in between.
Here's the one thing I don't like: If the Cubs win on Opening Day, the fans at WGN will start planning the World Series parade. Wait until May at least.