Beyond WGN debacle, Kevin Metheny leaves larger-than-life legacy

Randy Michaels and Kevin Metheny

Randy Michaels and Kevin Metheny (2009)

Kevin Metheny, who suffered a heart attack and died Friday in San Francisco, may have been the most famous program director in America.

By the time he came to Chicago for his ill-fated run at WGN AM 720 in 2008, he’d already been immortalized by Howard Stern, who clashed with Metheny in the 1980s at WNBC AM in New York. Stern famously dubbed his meddling, memo-crazy boss “Pig Virus” (renamed “Pig Vomit” and played by Paul Giamatti as a sputtering rube in the film version of Stern’s autobiography Private Parts).

Kevin Metheny

Kevin Metheny

Metheny, who was 60, spent 44 years in radio. Starting in Oklahoma City, he also plied his trade at stations in Seattle, Philadelphia, New Orleans, Pittsburgh, Chicago (twice), St. Louis, New York, Dallas, Savannah, San Francisco (twice), Minneapolis, Jacksonville, Cleveland and Detroit, along with other corporate programming jobs and consultancies. Since July he had been operations manager of Cumulus Media’s KGO and KSFO in San Francisco.

It is an anomaly of radio that one can hop from job to job and from city to city for decades and still be considered an industry superstar. “His reputation and accomplishments are simply unparalleled,” Cumulus Media executive vice president John Dickey said in a tribute to Metheny, whom he called “a legendary broadcasting talent.”

Michael Harrison, publisher of Talkers magazine and RadioInfo.com, wrote: “Metheny was one of the major radio programmers of the modern era.  He had a keen understanding of the basics of talk radio and the important role talent plays within it. He wasn’t afraid of controversy nor subjecting himself to criticism. . . . This is a tragic loss for all of us who care about radio.”

Said Tom Tradup, vice president of news and talk programming for Salem Radio Network: “In an industry with a dwindling number of larger-than-life, creative geniuses, Kevin will be surely missed.”

Notwithstanding those accolades, the two years Metheny spent as program director of WGN were a low point for the Tribune Media news/talk station — if not for his career. (In a minor footnote, he’d worked briefly at the former WEFM here in the ’70s.)

Hand-picked by Tribune Co. CEO Randy Michaels, a radio crony from their days together at Jacor Communications, Metheny arrived at WGN with a mandate to revitalize what he called “the crown jewel of American broadcasting.” Instead, he nearly wrecked the place with a series of bad programming and personnel moves that alienated listeners, demoralized staff and tarnished a great heritage. “At some point, this will be a case study of how to dismantle a radio station,” veteran media buyer Paula Hambrick predicted. She was right.

It was never clear how many of Metheny’s missteps at WGN were directed by Michaels, but the two proved a lethal duo. When Michaels desecrated the Tribune Tower inner sanctum of company patriarch Col. Robert R. McCormick with a gambling, liquor and cigar party in 2009, Metheny was right at his side.

Three weeks after Michaels was sacked as CEO in 2010, Metheny was fired from WGN, prompting my hyperbolic description of him as “the worst program director in the history of Chicago radio.” His untimely passing Friday doesn’t negate that assessment, but it provides an opportunity to reflect more fully on his life and career.

My only meeting with Metheny was at a book party for Richard Roeper in April 2010. At the time, Metheny was trying to hire Roeper (who opted to join WLS AM 890 instead). As soon as I saw him, I walked across the room and introduced myself. To his credit, Metheny was quite gracious. Considering how harshly I’d been writing about him — and what I knew he thought about me — we made the best of an awkward situation. I got the feeling he understood we both had jobs to do, and that we could still be civil to one another.

That impression was borne out a few weeks later when Metheny acknowledged what an irresistible target he was for those who write about radio.

Pig Virus

Mocking “Pig Virus” on Twitter

“I don’t see a lot of merit to getting disturbed about somebody writing something when what they’re basically doing isn’t journalism, it isn’t reporting,” he told “RadioGirl” podcaster Margaret Larkin. “They’re doing the same thing that they want to hold my feet to the fire for doing, which is they basically are doing a talk show with a blog. These things are better, they’re more interesting, they are richer if they tell stories — as I attempt to get our talent to do — just tell fascinating stories. But you want context in a fascinating story, you want it to be colorful . . . you want to provide some historical context, you want drama, you want heroes, you want villains, you want sensory experiences, you want more than just the sound, you want the taste and the smell and the texture — those things make great stories.”

He even joked about the “Pig Virus” nickname, posting a photo of himself on Twitter last spring mocking the phrase in a Detroit newspaper headline. “Bacon prices soar! #blamepigvirus,” he wrote.

Like him or not, Kevin Metheny was a great story that ended too soon.

 

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