Saturday, February 18, 2012

Christopher Michael

Christopher Michael has been in broadcasting since 1967, and is currently a weekend news anchor on WGN Radio. He is also the owner of an independent production company, Sound Targeting, Inc.

Rick: I've heard you on various different shifts on WGN. What is your regular timeslot there?

Chris: My regular slot is Saturday night overnight. The shift starts at 9:30, my first newscast is at 10:30, and it runs until 5. I do fill in occasionally, although not as often as I'd like. I'd love to be there even more.

Rick: You've been broadcasting in Chicago for more than 40 years now in various different capacities and at various different radio stations. How does this WGN experience rank among those?

Chris: When I was first getting started in Kankakee, I dreamed of working at WGN one day. I finally attained my dream about seven years ago when they hired me. I love being on WGN. Who wouldn't? It's the premier radio station in the Midwest, one of the best in the country, and has exceptionally talented people working here. To be among that crew is a great thing. I really liked working with Brian Noonan (photo). I thought Brian and I had good chemistry together. As I listen to Brian on his Sunday show and on Sports Night, I can hear that he works very well with everyone, which tells me Noonan is an exceptional talent.

Rick: What are some of your favorite WGN moments?

Chris: From a news perspective, one of my favorite moments was the night there was a high-rise fire and I was filling for Paula Cooper on Steve & Johnnie's show (photo). It turned into an active story--we won the AP Silver Dome award for spot news coverage. It was truly a team effort. When it comes to news coverage, that's the stuff I remember most, and that's what I've primarily focused on the last 25-30 years of my career.

Rick: Let's go back to your earliest days in Chicago radio. How did you get that first big break?

Chris: The first break in Chicago happened when a radio station was signing on for the first time, WYEN, Des Plaines.

Rick: Didn't Garry Meier get his start there too?

Chris: Yes, he did. Garry came a little later. There were a lot of really talented people there. Rob Reynolds, who is a big ad agency guy, worked there at one time. Ron Davis (WFYR) was there.

I was told they were starting this station and interviewed with Ray Smithers. He hired me for overnights as a jock, but we did a lot more than that. We played UPI Newscasts, but we also read some local headlines. We did everything from picking out our records (remember those?) to writing news, and it was great fun. It was a great learning experience. The smaller stations and small market stations don't do that too much anymore. Now they feature a lot of automation, syndication, and voice tracking. In doing so, they have taken away that learning ground from young broadcasters.

Rick: Any "learning experience" memories there?

Chris: I was taken off the air one night by the cleaning lady. There was a little toggle switch in the back of the studio that turned the transmitter off, and I had no idea. She obviously didn't either, because she was dusting the air studio with a feather duster, and must have hit that switch. Nobody knew why we were off the air, because technically we weren't. That switch only shut off our studio from the transmitter, the transmitter itself was still on the air, but it was broadcasting silence. All of the meter readings were just fine. I couldn't figure it out, so I finally called the GM, who wasn't exactly thrilled that he had to come into the station. He immediately saw the switch was turned off, switched it back on, and oh boy, was he mad as hell at me. He held that against me until the day he fired me.

Rick: After WYEN, where did you go?

Chris: I went to an AM/FM station in Zion. (The FM there now broadcasts the Drive). People's hairdryers had more power than that station. They hired me to be part of their news deperatment, which believe it or not, was a five person news department at the time. I didn't know this, but I was brought in replace everyone. Once I started, they fired everyone else. I worked like crazy in that job. They wanted as much local news as possible, and I did a few 15 minute and even a 30 minute newscast. In Zion, Illinois a half hour of news doesn't happen, but I had to fill it, and that's where I learned how to scramble. Since we were technically broadcasting into Kenosha too, I was able to put all sorts of stuff together. We had a bus driver that would stop into the police station, get the crime report, and call it in to me. I called the Kenosha animal control and did a lost dog report. We did the local obits. I also developed a sort of bravery I didn't think I had. I was desperate, so I called public officials directly. I called them all the time, and they took my calls.

Rick: You were probably most prominent during your time at WMAQ, when it was an all-news station. I get the sense that you remember those WMAQ days fondly.

Chris: That was a tremendous place. I started when they still played country music and there were lots of attitude problems there at time. There had been some union disputes with NBC, but when Westinghouse took over, and we became all news, that was fun, and exciting. It was hard work, but that half hour was your own. We had the best news staff in the country. A couple of times we even beat WBBM in the ratings, but that wasn't too often. Nonetheless, it was terrific.

Rick: Favorite news memories from that time?

Chris: I remember one vividly, the night of the West Town explosions. I was on the air when it happened. They came in through the intercom to tell me "we've got someone on the line who heard an explosion", and this guy explained to me that flames shot out of his heater when we heard the bang. While he was talking to me he said, "Wait a minute, I just heard another one." We scrambled everyone out there to report on the story. There was a Bulls pre-game scheduled at 6:20, and we were contracted to go there, but somehow, miraculously, the story died down around 6:15, and the timing was absoltuelty perfect. Our last report ended twenty seconds before the game, and I did one last ID, and hit the time perfectly. When I walked out of the booth, everybody was applauding. Unfortunately, the tape wasn't working, so that whole thing was lost to the ether.

Rick: You and I met during your time at WJJD. You were the morning news anchor for awhile there, when our morning news anchor was Richard Cantu (at WJMK). How did you come to work there?

Chris: That happened by accident after WMAQ fired me--which had come as a complete shock. I really thought I would be there until I died. They had this idea to do a different afternoon show, and they had told me that they wanted me to anchor it, and even asked me who I wanted as a co-anchor. I said Nancy Benson, who is really good. It was to be a news program with live interviews, and we were really excited about it--it was going to be a great show. They took us off the air to rehearse it and we loved it. Then, on March 3 at 2:30pm, instead of putting us on, they fired us both, and put the program in the hands of Criss Cross and Derek Hill, sports talk guys. They fired us together. They asked if I had anything I wanted to say, and as someone who never seems to hold back I said: "You fired the wrong anchors, and you're gonna find that out in a few weeks, but don't surprised when you do, because it's just another stupid thing you've done."

Rick: Subtle.

Chris: (Laughs) Yes. So I worked fill in that summer at ten different stations, including WJMK when you were there, and one day I filled in for Kurt Schafer at WJJD. The Operations Manager Rick Patton asked me "How would you like to do it full time?" I assumed he meant they were going to add an afternoon newscast, but the more things he said, the more it sounded like Kurt's job. So, I flat out asked him, and when he told me I'd be replacing Kurt, I said I didn't want the job. He was a friend of mine and that wasn't right. Rick replied "Well, whether or not you take it, he's out."

So, I said, "Here's what I'll do. I will fill in after you let him go while you look for somebody else, but that's it. I'm not going to take his job." I went there on a fill in basis and did it for a few months, and by then Kurt was working at WMAQ, so when they said they'd like me do it full-time, I felt like it was OK. This is a hard business, and I love it, and I have a passion for it, and I know a lot of other people feel the same way, so to go in to take the job just because you want one is not humane. I like to think of myself as a good guy.

Rick: Here's what I remember from your time at WJJD. I remember walking into the newsroom before, during, and after the shows and hearing you and Richard Cantu engaged in "friendly political discussions."

Chris: (Laughs) Yes, it was sort of like a Point-Counter Point, wasn't it? "Richard, you ignorant slut!" (laughs)

Rick: Was Clark Weber still doing the morning show at that time?

Chris: By then it was Ed (Vrdolyak) and Ty (Wansley), and we weren't on the morning shift too long, because shortly after I started, they brought in Howard Stern to do mornings. I was moved to afternoons with Ed and Ty (photo).

I must admit, at first our relationship was a little frosty, but it got better. In fact in 1995, I got quite ill with a rare illness known as Guillain-Barre syndrome--a serious disorder that occurs when the body's defense (immune) system mistakenly attacks part of the nervous system. I lost the ability to walk. By the time they put me in the hospital, I had the use of my left arm and hand, and could still breath and swallow, but it was quite serious. I was in the hospital for awhile, and when I was ready to come back to work I still could't drive. Ed sent a car to pick me up. He was very good to me.

Rick: I know you work with Clark Weber at your independent production company Sound Targeting. How did you and he cross paths?

Chris: I met him when I was filling in for Kurt. Years later, I was working at a station in Waukegan. Clark came in one day because they wanted to get him on the air there. It didn't work out, but I had a nice conversation with him. I had fond memories of working with him--he really is a true gentleman, and at that time I had just started my own business. I had this idea for Clark. I wanted him to do a daily one minute essay of some kind. I finally got up the courage to call him, and he agreed to do it. We called it "A Senior Moment", and it will run until the end of this month. Clark has decided that it's time to retire from it, but it's been 6 years, almost seven years now.

Rick: You've obviously worked with some of the biggest names in Chicago radio (like Clark) during your 45 years of broadcasting. Of those, who were some of the personalities you were most impressed by?

Chris: There are some really really good people. I'm going to leave some out so let me apologize in advance. For one, Bill Cameron. He's the best. I employed Jim Gudas at one time. He works tirelessly to get his job done. He gives it 150%. I worked briefly with Joel Sebastian. I was there his last week on the air. I had no idea he was that ill. He looked thin, but I had no idea what he looked like before that. I worked with Paul Harvey (photo) for awhile. He was a great person to work with because he would trust your opinion on stuff even if he didn't always take it. I asked him how he managed to stay positive, and he said: "Tomorrow will always be better than today." Just a great, great attitude.

Some of these others, you might not know. Mike Doyle was a terrific reporter at WMAQ. I had a newswriter named Chris Havlik. I think he works for AP in Phoenix now, but he was terrific. I used to joke that I couldn't speak on the air unless he wrote it. You don't find that often.

Rick: I know you're obviously not retiring anytime soon, but you must look back at your career and all you've seen and heard, and think of a few big moments. What are some of those moments that immediately come to mind?

Chris: I think what comes to mind most are things that I did well. Sometimes it was the turn of a phrase, or something that made me or somebody else laugh, but most of all, it's just the satisfaction of a job well done. You say so many things on the air. Some are good, some are bad, and most are in between. Rather than whine about the bad things, I like to think of the good ones.