Saturday, March 19, 2011

Bill White

Bill White was recently named the program director of WGN Radio.

Rick: You've only been on the job now for a few weeks. I know you were born in Oak Park, but you haven't lived here in a while. How have you managed to settle back in to the city?

Bill: Chicago is such a great city. Every day, I discover something new to do, another place to go or a great place to eat. Everybody I meet is friendly, helpful and they’re passionate about being here. So that’s also what’s great about this opportunity.

Rick: I'm sure you know all about what happened here before you arrived. I think it's safe to say that the management style of the previous regime was rather brash and bold--big changes made quickly and decisively, for better or for worse. How would you compare your own management style to that?

Bill: WGN requires a lot of care and attention on the macro and micro levels, since we’re live and local 24/7 - and Chicagoans expect excellence from us. So it’s about having a vision for where the station needs to go, a plan and day-to-day execution. Each show and talent is unique and requires a different approach. Relationships and constant communication with talent and the news, sports, sales and support staffs is critical.

Attention to detail is crucial on a station that has lots of moving parts, like WGN does. This station is like no other, and it requires global vision and hands-on leadership. I listen to the radio station nearly all the time, give feedback and get directly involved as I need to. (WGN VP/General Manager) Tom Langmyer leads that way from the top as well, and he’s worked very hard to successfully lead people through some very challenging times of transition and he guides an excellent staff at WGN. So my intent is to build on that in the programming department.

Rick: Talk radio has been dominated nationally by political talk, and more recently sports talk, but nearly all of it is driven by confrontation. There really aren't a lot of talk stations like WGN that have traditionally focused less on confrontation, and more on conversation and information. Do you think that style of station is still viable today?

Bill: It’s actually more viable than ever. Trusted information and genuine dialogue are vital elements, and that’s what WGN does best. Staged arguments don’t work for WGN -- and on the other hand, polite directionless chatter and small talk doesn’t work either anymore. It comes down to meat and substance supported by an entertaining style, not the other way around.

So if we’re bringing the story home to Chicago on the earthquakes in Japan, or the latest tie-up on the Eisenhower or other things happening in Chicago, our talent’s got to present in a conversational, respectful, informative and entertaining way – and of course direct things through the lens of what Chicagoans expect from us. So yes, issues of the day can be tackled in an engaging way without confrontation, just for confrontation sake.

But it seems that much of talk radio out there still follows the old-school playbook developed in the 1990s and copied everywhere, where each hour is based in heated argument, and it follows a formula. Nobody learns anything and nothing ever reaches any conclusion. That old radio model is where confrontation is the show. What’s funny on top of that is, talents in that world often really don’t even believe in what they’re saying. It’s just a fake world of confrontation. But most radio listeners today are way too sophisticated for an old circus act, so it makes that old thinking so easily parodied. On the other hand, what WGN does is genuine and real. You can enlighten, be entertaining, compelling and smart, but still be real.

Rick: Real or imagined, WGN has always had a perceived demo issue, meaning that it skews slightly older. I read an article in the Wall Street Journal the other day about how television is now actively targeting an older demo because the Baby Boomers are now between the ages of 47-65, and they still make up the biggest segment of American society. Do you think radio will follow suit? Is 35-64 realistically the new 25-54?

Bill: WGN has always been an adult station. The thought that all radio revenue is tied to the 25-54 demo is more driven by old thinking or less enlightened people commenting on media because they heard it somewhere in the past. Of course it still exists to a degree in the media buying world and also typically by those managing transactionally sold radio stations. But the two top revenue producing radio stations in Chicago happen to be AM stations, which debunks some of that old thinking. A look at the demographics in this country and an enlightened view of marketing also bares out the fact that products produce revenue based on superserving their own specific targets. Bottom line results for advertisers are what counts, not CPMs.

Of course, competitors and some media writers continue to hold WGN up to demos that have never been WGN’s specific target and also continue to use the clich├ęd “money demo” description. It’s like asking a music station why it doesn’t do more talk shows. It makes no sense. Fact is, WGN usually delivers a million people or more, each week. And they’re engaged listeners because WGN is foreground, live, local and vibrant. Because of that, advertisers get results. That’s what it’s all about for us.

As far as adding audience, we continue to drive new listenership to WGN through our high circulation talk shows, news and our sports partnerships with the Cubs and Blackhawks. This keeps people coming to us and allows us to expose what WGN is today. Our mobile and digital delivery platforms do skew younger, because the product is made available to younger people where they want it – and yes, WGN’s content is relevant to them.

Rick: You've obviously listened to your entire lineup by now. What do you perceive as WGN's weaknesses, and how are you planning on addressing those weaknesses?

Bill: (Laughs) I’m not going to give the competition our playbook, but I have been a student of WGN my whole career, studying WGN’ strengths, its connection to the community, its heritage brand and the magic of being a real radio station - while others tend to be more formulaic. WGN is a real and genuine station that touches people on a personal level. It’s fun too. While there are other great stations to listen to, many tend to be formulaic or homogenized. We have an opportunity not to be that, and that’s an important point of difference. So I’ll continue to build on WGN’s strengths and believe we have the line-up in place to accomplish great success, and we’ll add to it in the years ahead.

Rick: When I looked at the numbers for the individual shows on WGN, I have to tell you, I was a little bit surprised. When you break it down by show instead of looking at the traditional time slots (because WGN has unusual time slots), it looks to me like Greg Jarrett has the highest rated morning show in Chicago (12+). Am I looking at that correctly, and if so, that's a pretty good base to build on, isn't it?

Bill: That’s absolutely true. The morning show with Greg is the highest rated show in Chicago overall. And since talk stations don’t follow the traditional Arbitron daypart model, thanks for being thorough in your research. Of course people don’t use stations the same way at 6:00 am that they do at, say, 9:45 am anyway.

In Greg’s case, he works hard with his producers and with the news department to identify the most important news stories for Chicagoans each morning. I have been particularly pleased with his work on bringing the Japan Earthquake story home and connecting it with Chicago angles. His experience as a world correspondent also gives Greg keen insight to stories and our overall team finds new angles to connect the relevance to Chicago.

And yeah, Greg has the strongest ratings the station’s had in mornings in quite a number of years. Greg works extremely hard to involve himself in the community and he doesn’t turn into a pumpkin when he gets off the air. You just can’t afford to do that anymore, no matter how long you sit in that chair and could think you’ve earned your way to laziness. Greg’s a very interested person and he gets out - and that’s what makes him appreciate Chicago. And there’s sure lots to be interested in here.

The morning show is now more targeted to today’s busy lifestyle - and it’s more relevant now. Most people use radio in the car, and obviously more so during mornings and afternoons. And to a great extent, we talk with busy people who are getting ready for work and school and they’re commuting. That’s why I’d shake my head when I heard talent here actually complaining on the air about having to give listeners what they needed and wanted.

Of course it’s important to have a good combination of warmth, personality lightness and fun from an ensemble cast. But again, it’s about added relevance with strong information elements. Listeners in the morning do want a mix of personality and fun, yet they want and need to be informed; and Greg leads that in the morning. And the ratings show that the station’s doing a better job now in that area.

Rick: The other show I was curious about is your afternoon show, and Garry Meier's numbers are very solid. He was #2 in Chicago in January (12+), Do you think WGN has already started to turn it around?

Bill: The station’s getting great ratings traction in afternoons too. It’s very important to also measure Garry’s performance year-to-year for comparison, and you’ll see that the growth is tremendous. You peel baseball away and look at what hosts deliver on their own, and that’s where you get the real story.

WGN has different elements, unlike a station that does the same thing year-round, so it’s very important to be more sophisticated in the analysis of WGN. Garry is a natural talent who works hard at winning and we’re pleased with his success. Overall the newer people in place at WGN have improved the ratings, and veteran people like John Williams have grown the ratings too.

Rick: What about the shows that have recently left WGN? Some of those divorces were pretty acrimonious. In the past, WGN has always welcomed back its previous stars (like Roy Leonard, Wally Phillips, etc) for occasional visits--which I think was a nice way of transitioning from one era to the next. Will you reach out to some of the previous hosts, or are those relationships irreparably damaged?

Bill: We’ve already met and communicated with many of the WGN family, from over the years. Those relationships are important to our listeners and to us. Everyone from our great history will always be part of what’s made WGN what it is today.

Rick: I know you can't really talk about changes you plan on making to the WGN lineup (if any), but there is one big name in Chicago, Steve Dahl (photo), that will become available later this year, and the rumors have been swirling that WGN might be interested in talking to him. I thought I would give you the opportunity to either confirm or deny those rumors.

Bill: I don’t deal in rumors, but will say that we’re talking to several major well-known talents that are currently working and a few that are on hiatus too. Regardless, it’s important to understand that a truly great talent is one that gets great ratings in today’s world that we can convert into revenue. WGN can’t change that model for any talent. It’s tricky, and it’s important to have the right talent – although being successful on another station or in another era doesn’t always translate to being successful on WGN or in the PPM world overall, for that matter. In general, a big name alone isn’t a rite of passage.

There are success stories like Garry Meier. Garry has re-invented himself over the years to keep relevant and that’s why what he does works today. Bottom line, no matter who it is, it’s about performance.

Rick: And finally, I'm going to give you the opportunity to speak directly to the WGN listeners out there. I know you're probably hearing from many of them, but is there anything you'd like to say to those listeners that don't call or e-mail or write?

Bill: In the last 3 to 4 months, the tide has turned on listener feedback thanks really to the moves Tom Langmyer (photo) made. During that period where he did double-duty as GM and the PD, he made smart, quick changes to move the station forward to set up WGN for the future. Getting things off the air that didn’t fit WGN, fixing evening programming, creating the new WGN Sports Night concept from 7 to 10 pm, rebuilding weekends, hiring talent, fixing fundamentals, bringing in Keith Moreland to the Cubs broadcasts and other things. That was all done in a very short period of time. Listeners have noticed the difference and the positive feedback and the increased ratings speak for themselves.

Tom and I are on the same page in vision and style and we believe that WGN is the neighborhood meeting place for Chicago. We’ve got to be relevant, informative, and entertaining. It’s about being a trusted and familiar friend. We’re both always listening to the station and working with the staff to find better ways of doing things to meet that expectation. And it also comes down to leading by being respectful to our staff and listeners.

We still have work to do, and WGN is a great place to work. Tribune Company has great resources, and that’s also what makes this such a cool opportunity. I’m very lucky to be at WGN and it’s unbelievable to get to return to the city where I was born.