Saturday, March 03, 2012

Jonathan Hansen

Jonathan Hansen is a reporter for Total Traffic Network and Metro Traffic Network. He's only been in Chicago radio for about a year, but is quickly moving up the ranks.

Rick: The first time I met you was the night of an Illini Media Hall of Fame event a few years ago. It was a room packed full of Illini media all-stars including nationally known journalists and broadcasters, and you, this kid, you were the master of ceremonies. You were fearless. You treated it like a Dean Martin roast, playfully ripping all of the people there. I remember turning to my buddy Dane Placko (a fellow rip-ee) and saying: "This kid is going to be a star." What do you remember about that night, and how in the world did you do it?

Jon: First, thank you for the kind words. Those Hall of Fame events were something special and wonderful to host. There are only so many chances that a 23-year-old nobody gets to playfully rip Robert Novak, Larry Doyle and Dave Eggers to their faces in front of 300 people (including Bob Epstein, an Executive Producer at NBC Corporate). I didn't want to take it for granted. Fellow Illini Media employees Kit Donahue and Melinda Miller put together an amazing program, and gave me as much time (and editorial license) to open the show as I wanted. Once I discovered I could have a projector screen, with the help of photoshop and WPGU Program Director Joe Lamberson, the rest kind of fell into place.

Honestly, it was an honor to be a part of those ceremonies and get a chance to meet the some of Illini Media's most famous alums. I've already started preparing your introduction, so perhaps if you donate a little more we can get you in, Rick.

Rick: I'll have my people call your people. My other memory of that night was the late Robert Novak's speech when he was inducted into the Hall of Fame there. He spent the entire speech angrily spitting on the Daily Illini because they didn't name him sports editor in 1953. He wasn't joking either. He was still royally pissed off--more than 50 years later. Were you thinking to yourself, "Holy crap, I just spent the last ten minutes ripping this guy. He's going to have me whacked"?

Jon: Having never been a CIA employee I felt confident that he wouldn't screw me over. And actually, I had one student employee whose job it was to watch Bob Novak and see if I could get him to laugh. Mission accomplished. But with all due respect to Mr. Novak, who had a great career, I do remember how petty that speech came across. Mr. Novak had an opportunity to impart a very profound lesson to an audience of college media students. Careers in media don't have a set path, and you have to be able to roll with the punches. I think that's something that I have learned quickly in this business--sh*t happens. Holding grudges and asking woulda-coulda-shoulda questions usually wont get you anywhere.

Rick: You were in charge of the student-run radio station in Champaign (WPGU) for a few years after you graduated. That station is owned by the same company that owns The Daily Illini (The Illini Media Company), and they have been in the news recently. Roger Ebert has been championing the cause of saving the company from bankruptcy, and even I have opened up my checkbook (which had cobwebs on it) to help out. As an insider who worked there until pretty recently, what can you tell us about how it got to this point?

Jon: When I was hired as a full-time employee to be the Broadcast Operations Manager in 2006, I quickly learned how tough it really is to sustain a media company--even as a non-profit. When national ad buys started cratering as a result of the 2008 recession, I don't think we reacted fast enough. Part of the problem was our recent move into a brand new building in 2006. It's an amazing facility and has served the company well, but the timing could not have been worse to take on a large mortgage.

Money was always extremely tight, and the full-time employees and students all dealt with countless cutbacks to help keep the company afloat. At the same time, we worked tirelessly to provide excellent content to Champaign-Urbana, and give our students a valuable experience. I give a lot of credit to the entire staff there, and am very proud of the work we created even while taking large pay cuts, losing many employees, and operating essentially day-to-day. There are a lot of proud people that worked and continue to work at Illini Media.

Rick: So here's a softball follow up. What did your WPGU time mean to you and your professional development?

Jon: When I was 19-years-old, I was writing and delivering news updates. At 20, I covered the Illini Basketball team on their run to the NCAA Championship game. As a 21-year-old news director, it was my responsibility to manage our coverage of a terrible accident after a college freshman was struck and killed by a campus bus. At 22, I helped converge a print and radio newsroom to provide a multi-media product for a quickly changing audience. I list these experiences not to boast, but to simply show that Illini Media gave me the opportunity to make countless mistakes and learn from them.

I was then very blessed to work as the Broadcast operations manager as a full-time employee from 2006-2010. Some days I would be working with the FCC on license renewals, other days I would be putting out fires with upset clients, and then most of the days I got to be a glorified babysitter to 200+ 18-22 year olds. I am so grateful to my experience there and felt 100% prepared to enter any job in media.

Rick: Now you're in Chicago working as a traffic reporter for the Total Traffic Network and Metro Networks. How has that transition gone for you?

Jon: The past year-plus has been quite an adventure. After six months working in a Senate office in DC, I moved back to Chicago just hoping to do anything on-air or behind the scenes. When a former WPGU employee suggested I check out Metro Networks, I really had no idea what she was talking about. What do you mean that the great Joe Collins and Bart Shore (photo) don't work in the WBBM studio? Traffic broadcasting in St. Louis can come from Chicago? I was very naive to the world of traffic reporting.

I applied for a "fill-in" reporter position and was hired with the promise of at least zero hours per week. I was just excited at even the possibility of getting on-air at WGN or WBBM. I grew up listening to AM radio, and--as strange as this sounds--always loved listening to the traffic reports. I knew of Eisenhower and Kennedy as expressways before I knew them as presidents. I decided that if I always said "Yes" to any shift, I would eventually get more hours. And luckily, that's exactly what happened. Producing overnights eventually led to a few on-air overnight weekend shifts, which eventually led to some weekend shifts, which led to day-time and drive-time shifts, flying opportunities and some on-air TV gigs as well.

Also, this past summer, I was fortunate to be hired this year as Gene Honda's backup PA announcer for the Chicago Blackhawks. And while I only get to fill in here-and-there, I think announcing a Blackhawks game is about the coolest thing I've ever done. And after some nervous moments pass, it is quite a thrilling three hours of "work."

Rick: Have there been any favorite moments so far?

Jon: My favorite moments are being on-air anywhere in Chicago. Whether reporting for John Williams, Garry Meier, Steve and Johnny, Bill Leff and Nick DiGilio, it's all quite humbling. On a holiday shift, it was myself, Dean Richards and Tom Skilling just chatting away. Quite a "pinch me, is this real?" moment.

Also, something about doing traffic on WBBM anytime--afternoon, night, or Christmas morning--gives me such a rush. Also, the morning of our first bad snowfall this winter I was doing traffic on FOX-TV for Good Day Chicago. So, not to sound cheesy, but they are all favorite moments. It still is amazing to me that I get to be on-air with these people I grew up listening to.

One particularly strange night I worked was the night of the February 2011 blizzard. The entire evening I answered phone calls from people stuck on Lake Shore Drive, or worried mothers and fathers calling about their kids snowed-in on the Drive. Expecting mothers frantically asking me what they were supposed to do. We heard some amazing things on the scanners that night, whether it be the police on snowmobiles trying to get people to warming buses, or people simply having panic attacks because they didn't know what to do.

Rick: Last year when CBS had that contest to name a new traffic reporter, you were one of the finalists. People may not remember, but they put all of your bios and videos on the website and had viewers vote on their favorites. What was that experience like?

Jon: The CBS experience was a blast. After 700+ people submitted videos for consideration, they brought 75 of us to the studio for an on-camera audition. CBS did a fantastic job hosting and making everyone feel important. The final 10 of us got a day on-air, and again--CBS went above and beyond to make the experience very special. While I didn't get the gig, I made some great connections and the experience really solidified my goal of having a career in television.

As for having my bio and videos online, well, I guess I better get used to that. Reading negative comments is never fun, but I guess just part of the job. I figure that if I want to continue in this field, I've got to be perceptive to what people think but not let it weigh me down.

Rick: When you were in Champaign you also were part of an improvisational comedy group. Any plans to do that in Chicago? I understand there are a few outlets for that sort of thing here.

Jon: I did take a few levels of iO when I moved back, but with my ever-changing schedule each week, I can't really find consistent time to devote to comedy. But, I will be getting back involved the moment I have a "regular schedule" (of course, its all relative in the media world).

Rick: Not many people from your generation have chosen to pursue careers in broadcasting. Why do you think radio has become such an afterthought for people your age?

Jon: I was in Champaign fairly recently and talked to some WPGU students, and I can report that there are still plenty of people who want a career in media. I grew up listening to AM radio every night while falling asleep, so this kind of a career is all I've ever wanted. As radio becomes less prominent in kids' bedrooms, teenager's cars, and college students' dorms, it's only natural for interest in radio to dwindle.

This is a generation that can blog, post youtube videos, create clever twitter accounts. There are quicker, easier ways to get your voice out there and "be famous." I think radio has lost a lot of its sexiness. And simply put, there aren't as many jobs in radio as there used to be. No need to harp on all the reasons/benefits/drawbacks of consolidation, but it is the reality.

Rick: I know you're slightly embarrassed being featured on Chicago Radio Spotlight because you've only been working here for about a year, so thanks for agreeing to do it. I hope you don't get too much grief from your colleagues.

Jon: Metro/Total Traffic is a great place to work. Jim Dubenetzky, Kevin Scott and Mark Napoleon have given me so many amazing opportunities in one short year. And luckily, I seem to not have pissed anyone off too badly...yet. I guess that formula is working so far. But as great as my bosses and co-workers are, I will rightfully get some playful ribbing. I'm sure I deserve it. Thanks Rick!