Saturday, March 05, 2011

Michael Damsky

Michael Damsky is the GM of WLS-AM (890 AM) and WLS-FM (94.7 FM).

Rick: You’ve been the GM of WLS now for a little over a year. When you took over the station wasn’t exactly in a great place. What was your assessment of the problems at that time, and are you satisfied with the steps that have been taken to address those issues?

Michael: I was so frustrated watching this place come unraveled in 2009 when I was still the director of sales, so I had a clear vision of what the problems were. I saw this from an insider’s perspective. The story I always tell people to help explain what was wrong happened around the time Chicago lost the Olympic bid. In the days leading up to that, I kept asking the PD how we were going to handle it--the biggest story in Chicago. He had no idea and no plan of attack for dealing with it. As a station we lacked vision and urgency. I kept pointing that out to the GM; pointing out that the PD was an issue. He had systematically dismantled the Roe show, got rid of Ron Magers and Christina Filliagi and brought in Cisco Cotto. Cisco, who I have a great respect for, and love in his current role, was a terrible fit for that show.  Also, as the director of sales, I watched research being misinterpreted. All of those factors together led me to the same conclusion--the PD had to go.

I also knew who the new one had to be—Drew Hayes. I’ve known him for years, and knew he would bring a sense of urgency, but more importantly, Drew instinctively knows what the big story of the day is, and what needs to be the topic of conversation on our station. He was the right man for the job all the way. (Photo: Damsky & Hayes)

Rick: You mentioned that the former PD misinterpreted research. How so?

Michael: We did a research project with John Parikhal, and he’s the very best, but I thought that the wrong lessons were taken from his presentation.

Rick: Which were?

Michael: Crudely speaking, that we needed to bring in more right wing elements. But that’s not the way I heard the research results. Yes, the station has that right-leaning perspective, but it’s not right for every show, and it certainly wasn’t the right thing to do to Roe’s show.

Rick: I’ve actually been very impressed with the new Roe and Roeper show.

Michael: I wish I could take credit for it, but I can’t. That sort of fell into our laps. I hired Drew within seven days of taking over as GM, and had Parikhal come in to re-do the research presentation so we could get a better read on what it was really telling us.

And from there we made some moves. We eliminated the Mancow show. As much as I like him personally, and I’m actually eating some food that he gave me right now (laughs), it wasn’t the right fit for us. The pairing with Pat Cassidy just wasn’t working. In one day we made some pretty dramatic moves. We put Cisco into the midday slot, and then brought back Ron Magers and Christina Filliagi to Roe's show.

Rick: So did Drew go after Richard Roeper?

Michael: Actually I got a call from Todd and Brian Musberger, who are Roeper’s agents. They brought Richard to us because he wanted to do radio, but he wasn’t comfortable with management structure at WGN at the time. I wasn’t immediately sold on the idea. The biggest issue I had was that the management before me reached for all the bright shiny objects (like Mancow and Pat Cassidy), and I didn’t want to be lured into a move that wasn’t the best strategic fit. But after we put him on the air with Roe for an hour, we knew right away it was great chemistry. If I do nothing else in this job, putting that show together will have been the thing I can hang my hat on, even though, as I mentioned, I really can’t take credit for it.

Rick: You did have a few very important linchpins in place when you took over, and one of those is the Don & Roma show. They don’t seem to be showing any signs of slowing down. I know their work ethic is legendary, but could you give us a little insight into the amount of work that goes into that show every day?

Michael: It’s funny you should mention them, because Drew and I were just looking at the numbers in January for the show—really, really solid. Don is the best prepared radio personality I’ve ever seen. He’s so persuasive, he has actually modified my own political perspective. He’s highly intelligent, incredibly well informed, and lives a highly unreasonable life—one that would kill mere mortals like you and me.

He gets up in the middle of the night, and sleeps during the day, but when the show starts up, he quite simply knows everything there is to know. It’s exciting to be able to work with them. You're right, he is the exemplification of that great work ethic, and that was a great relief to me. There was nothing that needed to be done to that show. In fact, the only real reservation Drew had when I asked him to come over was that he worried that we wouldn’t be able to keep Don and Roma for budgetary reasons. I told him, no way. We’re keeping them. In fact, I thought so much of them I ran Drew’s name by them before I even offered the job to Drew, and I did the same with Roe, and they were both enthusiastic about bringing Drew aboard.

Rick: The other linchpin you had was obviously Rush Limbaugh. His numbers have been outstanding in this town for twenty years. When I was on my book tour promoting my novel “$everance,” I was asked about Rush all the time. People that aren’t fans wonder why he never gets in trouble for the things he says when other people like Imus or Rick Sanchez get fired for saying similar things.

Michael: I cannot explain why it is that he never gets in trouble. To be totally honest with you, that’s three hours of the broadcast day I don’t give a lot of thought to, because it’s a given. I don’t worry about it, except from a sales perspective.

Rick: Isn’t the reason he doesn’t get in trouble the fact that he owns his show?

Michael: Well, yes, that’s true. But to be honest, I’m not even sure if Rush is that outrageous anymore. There are others out there that are far more outrageous than Rush now.

Rick: Steve Dahl is going to be available sometime this year. Have you already spoken to him? Is there any interest in possibly bringing him aboard?

Michael: I don’t want to sound cagey, or evasive, but here’s the way I would answer that. We want to consider all of the potential options as we continue to grow the radio station. We’re clearly done with phase one of improving the station. Now, Steve (photo) is a great talent, and I’ve always admired him. I was lucky enough to play golf with him at an outing not too long ago. The decision about his next move will really be in his hands. I’ve read the same things you have. Is he considering going back with Garry? He certainly hasn’t closed the door. I’m not trying to be evasive, but until he’s officially available, we’ll let him take the lead. Plus, we don’t really have an open slot at this time anyway.

Rick: You’ve got some great talent on the weekends like Bruce Wolf and Jake Hartford, but you’ve also got some brokered shows. One of your former brokered weekend shows got sued recently, which I suppose is one of the dangers of featuring brokered programming. I know that’s a good revenue stream for the station, but do you see brokered weekend shows continuing to be a part of the lineup for the foreseeable future?

Michael: In the long haul we’d like to have the weekend programming be a viable extension of what we do Monday through Friday so our listeners feel they can always be serviced by what we do—whenever they want it. In the meantime, there’s a level of revenue you have to replace, and the fact of the matter is that there’s nothing we can immediately do that can have a direct impact on our ratings. At least not enough to make a difference at this point. The amount we have to raise our ratings to make up that weekend revenue is pretty difficult to attain. But we’re still heading in that direction. We’ve given more time to people like Eddie & Jobo, Bruce and Dan, and Jake. But because of the financial realities, that move is going to be a little more gradual than it otherwise would be.

Rick: Switching gears for a moment, there’s something I’ve always wondered about WLS-FM. You’re playing oldies, you’re using the old WLS call letters, and yet, you’ve only got one person on staff (Dick Biondi) that has any connection to the old MusicRadio WLS (although Greg Brown does have that WJMK Oldies experience). A lot of those great WLS talents are still out there and available; including the biggest stars from that era like Larry Lujack, Fred Winston, John Records Landecker, and more. Is there a reason those guys aren’t on the air with you?

Michael: I think that the old model for oldies radio was to recreate the type of radio that people went to high school with—you not only played the music, you presented it with the talent they remembered, like the guys you mentioned—who are all great talents.

What we’re trying to do is frame the music a little differently. We’re not just trying to present the music to the people that listened to it originally. This music has an appeal beyond that audience--people of a slightly younger generation who love the music from shows like Jersey Boys or American Idol. For them, the presentation needs to be slightly different. We’re taking the opportunity to broaden the appeal to a younger generation, still playing the music those older listeners like, but presenting it in a way that the 35 year olds can relate to.

Rick: I’ve talked to more than 200 radio pros since I started this blog, and nearly all of them privately tell me they read Larz’ Chicagolandradioandmedia board, but you’re one of the only ones that openly posts on it using your real name.

Michael: He does a nice job with that board. There a couple of reasons I post under my real name. I think radio is a local medium, and it’s only right that the local audience knows what the local manager thinks. Sometimes you want to tell people that you know the truth from your vantage point—that you aren’t just an anonymous poster with no actual knowledge of what’s going on. Sometimes I just want to be a part of the dialogue.

Rick: I know you can’t talk about the upcoming sale/merger with Cumulus, and you don’t really know any of the details at this time, but you’ve gone through this before when you were with WXRT—and that had to be even more of a culture shock at the time. You went from being a mom and pop place to part of a multi-billion dollar corporation overnight. What was that like?

Michael: Actually it was a little more gradual than you remember. Westinghouse was the first one that bought us. Then they bought CBS the same week—so that was a little strange. We were still part of Westinghouse for awhile—Dan Mason ran that company. Of course we were scared, but it was a really easy transition and I thoroughly enjoyed the Westinghouse times and even the first few years when we became a part of CBS. In some ways things were better right away. For instance, we didn’t even have computers or e-mail with the old owners.

Rick: Did they pressure you to leave the old building on Belmont?

Mike: No, but we certainly could have left several years sooner—I just didn’t want to move. I felt strongly about that building. I felt the building was the gestational device that built XRT. We were isolated out there on Belmont, but we were all together. We ate lunch together, ideas flowed through the building. I fought the opportunity to move downtown because of that atmosphere. It was really conducive to creativity.

Rick: You were with XRT for more than 20 years, and I know you still think very fondly of it. What are some of your favorite memories from those years?

Michael: I do feel very strongly about it. Ten of us had lunch together yesterday and twelve others called bitching they weren’t invited. This is going to sound trite and cliché, but it really was a family. We related to each other. We watched our children grow up...and not just one part of the station, like the sales staff. All of us. As for one special memory, I still get a little choked up even thinking about this, so forgive me, but the day before my daughter got married, Lin Brehmer did about a five minute tribute to her, was truly special. I can’t even think about it without getting choked up. We lived our lives together. We were all coming from a 60s hippie ethos. Not just the listeners, also the employees.

Rick: OK, one last question. You came up through sales and probably know just about every radio salesman in this town. Everybody knows the great air talent, but who are Chicago’s radio sales superstars, current staff excluded?

Michael: Oh boy, well the first one that comes to mind without a doubt, and granted there's a little prejudice on my part, but it's gotta be Patty Reilly Murphy. She started with me in 1980 at the same station, and then we went to WXRT together. She is absolutely incredible. She harnessed the passion in ways that nobody else ever could. There’s Laura DeGrandis at WBBM-FM. What a talent she is—she’s been at WBBM her whole career. At one point she really wanted to work for me, and I didn’t hire her, which is something I’ve always regretted. Debra McCabe at WBBM-AM—she is WBBM-AM sales. There are others there that do a great job, but she is the face of that place. Dan Richman is the LSM at WGN, and he is 'the natural.' He sells with great passion and the enthusiasm. I have a great staff now too. And by the way, thanks for asking about the sales people. Thanks for including that.

Rick: Thanks for doing the interview.

Michael: My pleasure.