Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Media: Zell hath no fury

If Sam Zell were a horse he’d be gelded.

Tell me what there is not to like about the news that the Internal Revenue Service and the Labor Department are investigating Sam Zell?

This revelation is hot on the heels of reports that Tribune Corp. creditors are demanding that the portly pugnacious Zell and his ex-Clear Channel crackerjack cronies get relieved of their duties.

So the bullies got bullied back and it’s all over now.

Their DNA is all over this malfunction.

The Sam Zell-Randy Michaels hires were dead giveaways with those wacky executive titles.

Take Lee Abrams for example. He was about to get the boot from Mel Karmazin following the Sirius-XM merger. Lee needed a job so Randy created one for his fellow chunkasaurus. Remember, these guys have been tight for decades – all the way back to the time when Lee invented FM radio.

Lee’s title is Senior Vice President/Chief Innovation Officer. His job description says he’s to “spearhead the company’s innovation efforts across its publishing, broadcasting and interactive divisions.” It added that he was “the first person to hold the position in the company’s 160-year history.” We can now say that he will also be the last.

And how does Lee work hard for the money? He writes memos. Lots of them.

I was a little surprised when his job description didn’t read that he is more of an idea than a character or a real person.

Of course, he’s also living out his fantasy of becoming a television celebrity with his new featurette for the Trib's WGN-TV, Sky Dives.

This is a high tech continuation of his old XM Radio blog, where he’d put a video of himself and hangers-on flying from Washington DC to exotic locales like New Haven, Connecticut to sample a pizza slice at Pepe’s.

Sky King reruns would be an improvement.

Zell will probably walk and surrender his option to buy a 40 percent stake in Tribune for $500 million.

Sam, the elevator is at the end of the hall. Use it. Press 'down.'

It gets even better.

Smoke smelling Trib junior investors have hired the law firm of Zuckerman Spaeder for representation.

They want to jump in line ahead of senior investors for compensation from the forthcoming Trib fire sales.

The juniors argue that the seniors have already banked fees in the Trib’s employee stock ownership plan – and contributed to the company’s collapse.

Sam, you’ve got to give up that Grave Dancer nickname you so adored.

Try this one on for size. You will be forever known as The Dismemberer.

What a legacy you’re leaving.

A $13 billion debt for starters.

Your Trib is about to be parted out like some old junked car - minus the Cash for Clunkers tax break.

Sam Zell and Randy Michaels: from Big Shots to Big Lots.

Think about it. The Trib is about to be piecemealed on the open market at a time when old media and commercial real estate is a fraction of what it was worth a decade ago.

Sam, the L.A. Times, Hartford Courant, Orlando Sentinel, South Florida Sun-Sentinel, Baltimore Sun and the The Morning Call, among others, and Tribune Broadcasting, Tribune Entertainment, Tribune Media Services, the Chicago Cubs and the Wrigley Field they play in – and the real estate – the Trib tower, the L.A. Times building - all are worth less today than when you bought them.

When a $33.7 million radio station in San Francisco is price-slashed and sold for $6 million and change you’d better be ready for your own haircut.

No one will argue that there are some troubled newspapers that’ve employed writers who can’t write, reporters who can’t report, and editors who can’t edit, but Sam, you and your cohorts were managers who couldn’t manage.

Sam, we feel for the Trib employees that were forced to live in the bubble of your ego right up to the end. Your luck ran out but they’re like passengers in a plane. You and your crackerjack cronies took your golden parachutes and jumped and no one knows how to land the plane other than crashing it.

But we all know that you, Randy, and the boys will find a way to survive this one. Eventually the economy will recover, and – who knows - when it does you’ll probably find another host to lay your eggs in.


Anonymous said...

Good to see Zell get a taste of his own medicine. You are correct in your assessment of these jokers. They will resurface when the economy improves and find new suckers whose product they can destroy while stealing their money.

Anonymous said...

The Lee Abrams videos and memos have me rolling on the floor. I can't stop laughing. What a egotistical jerk.

Anonymous said...

What was Zell thinking when hired Randy Michaels. He ruined Clear Channel and radio because every other dumb chain followed whatever he was doing. Lee Abrams has been a walking joke since everyone caught on that he did not have a clue as to what he was talking about. Go play your Yes albums. The rest of the brain trust Zell and Michaels brought on board from Clear Channel makes even less sense. Talk about a gang that couldnt shoot straight.

Anonymous said...

Your new blog is very timely. This was in RBR today:

If employees of the Tribune Company ESOP choose the channel Charlie Brown, they may well be saying, “I went out to Wall Street with a piece of a legendary multimedia company and all I got was a rock (wrapped in a worthless piece of paper.)”

Under an ESOP, employees have the equity in the company but no say in management and no presence on the board of directors. Their stake is considered to be common stock, and in a bankruptcy situation, they are far back in line when creditors arrive with their hands out for some form of payback.

On the plus side for employees in this case is that none of them had to put up any cash of their own to effectuate the original deal. According to the New York Post, Tribune was supposed to put money on their behalf into 401(k) or pension accounts. But the company’s meltdown was so swift that never happened.

So what the employees are likely to wind up with is nothing more than worthless paper.

RBR/TVBR observation: Ironically, the Employee Ownership Foundation's latest study on the effectiveness of such organizations just came out, and it found that 88.5% of them outperformed the stock market in 2008. But that means 11.5% didn’t.

Anonymous said...

You don't know the half of it. I can see how these guys destroyed radio. They treat people like crap, can't keep their facts straight and leave their mess for others to clean up.

Anonymous said...

Interesting, but I'm a little more optimistic than you. I think Zell, Randy and cronies are probably done in any significant communications business. By the time the money is flowing again, they'll be too old to get in front of it. Just my guess, and I admit there's a bit of wishful thinking there. But when you look at their ages and the amount of time it will take for them to rebuild their reputations, I think it's entirely possible.

Not that the next generation of suckups and hacks will be any better. But I think at least we will be able to enjoy the sight of these guys as bitter old coots because they got their snouts slapped away from the trough before they managed to gorge themselves to death.

Anonymous said...

I think their egos are as such that when another opportunity arises they will go at it. Whether anyone wants to talk to them after this disaster is the real issue. I found it fascinating that some in the radio industry still consider Randy Michaels to be their hero. This is the guy who orchestrated a mass disaster of medium that may never come back short of a collapse of the old guard. Why would anyone in this industry think Randy is a hero. Is it because he got laid a lot and surrounded himself with strippers and hillbillies? Maybe radio should die come to think of it.

Anonymous said...

Zell and Michaels give scoundrels an even worse name than they deserve. Abrams is just plain pathetic.

Anonymous said...

There's not much I could add to this. You got Zell, Michaels and Abrams down. You may know them better than they know themselves. I did see one of those Sky Dives. I didn't think it could get any worse after putting Bob & Tom on TV. Leave it to Leeaver to top it.

Anonymous said...

John, I met you many years ago at a Billboard convention in Los Angeles. I sat with you and Paul Winchell. You and he were having a conversation of artificial hearts if I recall. Do you remember when Lee Abrams stumbled into the room? I think that was his lost weekend. He also jumped into the Pacific fully clothed and had to be pulled out by a half a dozen record guys? I read your Buzzard book. You have to do another one about your adventures in the media. I am sure you have some incredible stories. I love your blogs. Please continued them. Today's was a riot. It reminded me of Abrams at that convention. LOL!

Anonymous said...

Zell, Michaels and Abrams always survived because their timing was perfect. They knew when to get in and when to get out. I theorized that Michaels even set him self up at Clear Channel to get blown out. It was deliberate and he knew how to work the Mays family. He could see the cracks in the foundation. This time their timing was off and as the saying goes they were a day late and a dollar short. In Zell's case a few billion. Poor f-ing bastards.

Anonymous said...

Who was that idiot radio guy that told Radio Info (Tom Taylor) that the radio business needs a guy like Randy Michaels in it?

I want to find out who it is and hunt him down. That's exactly what we DON'T need.

I could not find it in the back editions. If you do, please post it here.

Tom Taylor, if you read this. Please help.

The sooner we rid ourselves of Dan Mason, John Hogan, Lew Dickey and Farid Suleiman the better off this industry will be.

Anonymous said...

I just read your blog. LMFAO! Great stuff. Right on the money. Keep it up. Love it.

Anonymous said...

The tragedy behind the delicious fall of Zell and Michaels is the carnage they leave behind in lost jobs, lost investor value, etc. I hope they lose every penny they own. Abrams has been a charlatan as long as I can remember. One can't read his lengthy interview in that early-'80s R&R AOR special edition without marveling that his inflated credentials got past everyone.

As for that San Francisco fire sale, the broker that did the deal is placing ads in the middle of Tom Taylor's Radio-Info newsletter trumpeting the sale price. They don't mention what it was worth the last time it changed hands!

Anonymous said...

I would love to say to Zell - HEY WAITER!

Anonymous said...

Oh, don't worry. This is just the beginning. More of the mighty will fall in the next few months.

Anonymous said...

nice that their days are numbered. these fools used to love thinking that was about us. what goes around, comes around randy boy.

Anonymous said...

Gorman - LOVE the video links. SKy King. I haven't seen that show in fifty frigging years. Brought back memories. How does that fat f--k Lee fly a plane with that girth? Why did his XM video not have any audio. What copyright infrigment did he pull this time.

Good stuff here. Love the videos. I cannot believe that anyone would allow that Sky Dives show on their station. Is this how Lee writes off his plane and the food he stuffs his fat face with?

Anonymous said...

Ha ha ha. This was in Pravda this morning:

Tribune’s Randy Michaels tells staff — owner structure “likely to change.” in a memo yesterday to staff, 
Tribune president Randy Michaels
 says, “We are having good
 discussions with our creditor groups and making 
progress on a plan for emerging 
from bankruptcy.”  It’s been nine 
months since the company sought 
court protection 
from creditors and Michaels says the
 key is leaving Chapter 11 with a
 small debt load.  “We want to 
grow our 

business, and we need liquidity to do that,” he explained.  Michaels notes Tribune’s media divisions are profitable.  
“It would be absurd to think that
 this company will be liquidated,”
 he says.  Selling some assets 
was considered but 
Michaels says there is 
“tremendous value” in the current
 mix — which includes one radio 
station — WGN, Chicago.  
“By operating media businesses 
online, over the airwaves and in 
print, we can maximize the use of 
our content 
across all platforms.”  
Michaels also gives a hint of his
 plans. “Current operating 
management is committed, and 
intends to remain in place dur
and after the restructuring,” he 
told staff.  
“Don’t let the noise get too 

Anonymous said...

John, You have to read INSIDE RADIO. Dandy Randy Michaels is pissed at you. Your blog made the rounds at Tribune yesterday and he found out about it. His memo in part is on line at INSIDE RADIO. I should be able to get a copy to you when I am out of the building. What a frigging liar. Fat bastard is trying to save his own ass. Multiplatform. He could use a pair of multiplatform shoes. His head his still stuck in the 1970'S. His feet should be there too. We havent smelled much of Zell lately. Hiding out from the feds.

Anonymous said...

John, your blog caused quite a (positive) commotion yesterday. Ah, so worthwhile. Thank you, my friend, thank you. Fat little Randy put out a memo that we are all okay. Our 401Ks are aren't. Our job security is not. So nice of Randy to be able to bundle up all the work we do into multiple platforms. He does not understand that no one buys that kind of business-speak anymore. These guys are stuck in the past. I do miss Lee Abrams's memos though.

Defenestrations"R"Us said... just me, or does Zell look like the bastard lovechild of Jean Luc Picard and a leprechaun?

I mean, seriously, recent Trib history makes one wonder if the good captain was beaming down into a clover patch and hit Dr. Who's phone booth on the way, and out popped Ol' Zell instead - to wit:

"I am Locutus of Borg. Resistance is futile. Your life as it has been is over. From this time forward, you service us."
(Best of Both Worlds I)

"I'd be delighted to offer any advice I have on understanding women. When I have some, I'll let you know."
(In Theory)

"There was no opportunity. There was no pause. He just kept talking in one long incredibly unbroken sentence moving from topic to topic so that no one had a chance to interrupt. It was really quite hypnotic." *

*After meeting Lee...or Randy??

"I shall appoint you my executive officer in charge of radishes!" ** (Disaster)


"Always after me Lucky Charms!"
(countless Saturday morning cartoon spotbreaks)

Just sayin'... ;)

Anonymous said...

I guess whenever an industry has run its course, there always needs to be a bad guy to blame. All I know about Randy Michaels is that he was the magician behind three of the best radio stations (in their time and day) I have ever heard in my entire life. WKRQ-Cincinnati, WFLZ-Tampa and WYTZ-Chicago were, to my CHR-loving ears, simply the BEST radio stations of their genre I have ever heard in my entire life. The music was right, the talent exceptional. Randy was also the architect behind the growth of Jacor and its strategy of acquiring the best signals available.

And let's also not forget that Randy was the first radio operator willing to spend the bucks en masse to upgrade and move around signals. Now some may quibble with me on this issue, but as far as I'm concerned, Podunk, FL (pop. 1,200) doesn't need a 100,000-watt Class-C station that can be put to better use in a big city.

I know everybody needs a scapegoat, but if you guys are truly honest, I think Randy had a pretty exemplary record until he got to Clear Channel. A logical person would look at the patterns and draw the conclusion not that Randy was at fault, but maybe the Mays' were? I don't know, all I do know is Jacor's WFLZ kicked the butts of the Mays' Q-105 in Tampa.

As to Sam Zell, he's made and has more money than all the people on this board combined. And, if anybody noticed, he was smart enough not to put any of his own money into this ordeal. You can't fault the guy for having faith in Randy and trying to see if they could recreate some of the same magic they created at Jacor.

Anonymous said...

In answer to the Power Pig comment. I know a good amount about it. I was in the market at the time at another station that was not caught up in the frey. It is true that Randy and the boys did take a page from and stole a lot of "liners" and ideas from both Gorman in Cleveland and Shannon in New York. Gorman tore apart WGCL and Shannon shattered WPLJ. Where Randy and his boys went wrong is they did not know when to stop. The liners got too suggestive, too bullyish and even though they did knock the Q down which was something few expected could be done Power Pig did not make money. The market was down on Power Pig for their overdoing of bullyism and suggestive comments and most clients and agencies refused to buy time on the Power Pig. That is a fact, Ask anyone who was there. Randy may be a "genius" but he is also the boy that never grew up and is lucky more than he is good. Power Pig did not make money until it dropped that image and even then it took a while for FLZ to get any kind of revenue traction. Even then they were never generating the revenue for their ratings. Their power ratio was well below the market average and definitely less than other CHRs were getting at the time. The moral of the story here is know when to stop. Randy never seems to know where the line is. You can hear some of the Power Pig airchecks on line. You can also hear the WMMS-WGCL and Z100-WPLJ promos too if you know where to look/hear them. You will see that Shannon and Gorman knew when to stop whereas Michaels just could not control himself. Some of his liners were not even clever. Just dirty, suggestive or too in your face. It seems like Randy did the same thing at Tribune with his boys and now they are getting slapped back by budgetary realities.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous (re: The Power Pig): As a college kid at the time, I thought the liners and the imaging was amusing at the time. That said, I agree with you that they wouldn't wear well. You have to scratch your head and ask yourself if the only trick they have is just being vulgar. I also think it sounds cute the first time you hear it, but when you try to export it through an entire chain of radio stations, it sounds dated, worn and canned.

Although I found the imaging entertaining, that's not what I'm talking about. What I'm talking about is the music. From my limited experience as a consumer (and outside the industry), over the years I can only think of less than a dozen radio stations that I've heard over the years that I could listen to non-stop and where I thought to myself, "I wish the stations back home sounded that way." Mind you, I am a pop-CHR fan, and every station he had a hand in that I am familiar with SOUNDED AWESOME, music wise, and he had a great ear for DJ talent.

Randy, to my ears, always had a knack for putting in place a great sounding upbeat pop-based CHR station with a little bit of a beat. WKRQ was an awesome station when he was involve. My listening experience with WFLZ was more limited, but I always came back home from Tampa trying to figure out the names of the songs they were playing because they didn't play such music here. And I once spent 6 weeks in the Chicago area listening to WYTZ circa 1989-1990 ... again, it was music to my particular ears. It was only later I found out that Randy Michaels was consulting on the station.

Why can't stations here in Podunk, Ohio program that way, or even like the old WIXY/WXGT 92-X/WGTZ/WKDD (the old one) ... or even like the old WLWD of a few years ago. Yes, Lima, LIMA! had a better CHR station than most of the big cities of the midwest!

But I digress ...

Again, my only comment is that whenever a business fails, people always look for a scapegoat. Nobody complains when all is making money, and a President is always brilliant whenever the economy is doing well. Consolidation had its good points, and has its bad points, but it seems to me that it's hard to take a finance-driven business and make it successful in a creative industry. GM is a case study proving that.

Anonymous said...

I got a little off track on my last post, but I am a genuine fan of the stations I am familiar with that Randy Michaels programmed mostly because the music was great and the DJ's were also pretty good. I can't stand to listen to most CHR stations anymore because they just don't have that same upbeat sound of, say, a WIXY or a WKDD (the old one) or a WLWD. The music on those stations ruled.

That's all I'm saying ... he was the architect of three of the all-time great sounding stations to my ears.

Anonymous said...

Sorry to spam everybody, but I just had one more thing to add. Another of Randy's babies was the first incarnation of Kiss-107 FM in Cincinnati. Awesome sounding station when it first came on, but now, like WFLZ, it sounds awful. WFLZ and most CHR's these days sound just like a midwestern CHR like, say, WNCI or Cleveland's KISS. WFLZ (again, to my ears) hasn't been worth listening to in over 10 years.

By the way, my musical tastes aren't "niche", they are pretty mainstream. Think WIXY or WGTZ. I'm not expecting anything too obsucre, just upbeat presentation with maybe a tiny bit of rhythm.

danni said...

Business is a dirty game that Benji Homel only makes dirtier. Yea. he did a great job with Q102. Among his achievments were giving out the home phone numbers of his competitors on the air, scavenging through his competitors trash for intelligence, paying off his competitors low level employees for inside information, paying for arbitron diaries and calling his competitors employees "slimy street whores" on the air. Yea buddy, Benji has left some real beauty in his wake.

Anonymous said...

Kant eny1 spel enymohr?

Anonymous said...

danni said: Business is a dirty game that Benji Homel only makes dirtier. Yea. he did a great job with Q102. Among his achievments were giving out the home phone numbers of his competitors on the air, scavenging through his competitors trash for intelligence, paying off his competitors low level employees for inside information, paying for arbitron diaries and calling his competitors employees "slimy street whores" on the air. Yea buddy, Benji has left some real beauty in his wake.

Again, I'm not interested in any of the personal vendettas you guys have against him. I just know that as a consumer, the four best-sounding CHR stations I ever heard were Randy Michaels stations. Yeah, you can call Q102 an accident, but I think people in the area universally recognize how good it sounded. WFLZ was another success story as was the earliest incarnation of WKFS, Kiss 107 FM, Cincinnati, not to mention the creativity of taking a 3,000-watt Class A station and bumping it up to a Class B1 with a signal that could adequately cover the area.

I don't know the guy, so I don't really care if there's bad blood or not. All I know is that the music product was great AND he was a big mover and shaker from the standpoint of upgrading signals in his markets, while a lot of other owners were too content or too cheap to think this way. You have to give the guy credit for turning, in many cases, something out of nothing.

Another irony in the CHR format to me is how stations like Q-102 or Z-93 have a run when they sound great and gain a lot of loyalty with listeners. Then what seemingly ALWAYS happens ... they change the program director, the station gets dumbed down, and it becomes virtually unlistenable.

Believe it or not, even though I am in my 40's, I actually used to look forward to driving through the Lima area a few years ago just to listen to WLWD. They had a good run for a few years where they sounded great. These days they sound just like any other station.

So, yeah, you can hate Randy as much as you want. You can hate his tactics and you can think he's a jerk. But, in my opinion, the product speaks for itself.

Anonymous said...

I think Randy Michaels is the problem and not the solution of radio's ills. He created talked-about products and I won't debate you on that.

The name of the game is to make money, generate revenue and that is where Michaels falls short.

Power Pig and some of his other shocker-debuts got lots of press and trade paper coverage though what was not mentioned was that he could not translate it into sales. He created a product no advertiser in his or her right mind wanted to be associate with. His stations make money only after he begins massive downsizing and usually by that time it is too late. He cheapens the product, loses the numbers and the end result is failure but since no one covers failure in the trade papers you only hear of the "good" Randy did.

Randy also treats people poorly. Steals ideas and fires the creator. He is the bully who never grew up. He surrounds himself with cronies like himself.

I cannot find anything positive about the man. I'm sorry.

danni said...

"The name of the game is to make money, generate revenue and that is where Michaels falls short."

Clearly it's a waste of time to try to make any kind of ethical argument against Benji's tactics. The people who populate the broadcast industry these days have no regard for ethics, not even common decency.

Isn't it sad that the above stated argument regarding revenue is the only one that seems to matter anymore.

People who lusted after greed and success at any human cost, now look what they've got left.


Anonymous said...

Power Pig and some of his other shocker-debuts got lots of press and trade paper coverage though what was not mentioned was that he could not translate it into sales. He created a product no advertiser in his or her right mind wanted to be associate with.

If you say the stations' vulgarity led them to be commercial failures, I will accept that as you are "in the know" and I am not. But, I'm not talking about the "shocker" aspect. I'm talking primarily about the selection music, as well as the voice talent and the overall production value of the station. And, yes, even the fact that they used edgier cuts on WFLZ (like the Salt-n-Peppa version of "Lets Talk About Sex" which included lots of moaning sounds), I thought was even okay. My point is, it is all about product and from a music standpoint, the product was exemplary and even unforgettable, at least to my ears. And, given the fact that so many people hold his stations in such high regard, music-wise, I would say the guy has some talent.

Again, I'm not saying he was a nice guy, or had class, or was a good employer, or was even a good broadcaster, or even that he was good for radio. I just know what my ears tell me, and they tell me he was the force behind some of the true kick-ass CHR stations I've listened to over the years.

Take even Randy Michaels out of the mix. What I'd give to have someone resurrect even Z-93 in Dayton or the old WKDD in Akron. Why do stations these days have to be about as exciting as a trip to your neighborhood Sears store?

Anonymous said...

I realize that many who post here have broadcast roots, but let me speak for the newspaper folks who work/worked in newsrooms that tanked under Zell.
While you may or may not like journalists, we wonder what will become of cities and towns that are left with stripped down husks where they used to have a paper.
With, you know, news in it.
Delighted to see Zell and his dope sidekick get their heads chopped off. Been waiting for that.
But what about the communities left with little or no local news, no watchdog function of investigative reporting and no informed opinion writers, just screaming bloggers?
How will Humpty Dumpty be put back now?