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Media: February 2015

| February 2, 2015

Todd Manley

A decade ago Todd Manley was the man behind the innovative production work at WGN, including the hilarious Pat & Ron Show promos that peppered the Cubs games every summer. In the summer of 2013 after stints in St. Louis and WXRT, he returned to the WGN family in a new role as part of the management team. Todd is now the Vice President of Content and Programming.

“What always drove my passion to have fun in the studio in an audio branding world was a love of talent and story tellers,” he says. “I still most love the pieces of the day where I’m in a room with a show and we’re crafting the next day, or going over the wins of the last week. On the other hand, there’s a piece of being in management that is business driven, and those have certainly been the toughest decisions of the past year.”

There have indeed been some tough calls along the way. When Manley and (Jim) de Castro came to WGN, two broadcasting icons were on the air; Jonathon Brandmeier and Garry Meier. Neither of them are on the air anymore. “The Loop had a broad and potent image back in the day,” Todd explains, “but each show was an island – and it worked very well there. But that has never really worked for the core WGN audience. I think Brandmeier did some of the best radio he’s ever done over the past few months he was with us. Johnny was always great about embracing the newest thing. When we told him he’d be streaming only, he lit up. He was so excited about just going in every day and doing his art without worrying about ratings. Unfortunately in both Garry’s and Brandmeier’s case, the business model was built on who was buying radio 15 or 20 years ago and they’re not anymore.”

That old business model was also a stumbling block that contributed to the ending of WGN’s 90-year relationship with the Cubs.”MLB has its own app. Sirius/XM distributes the games,” Manley points out, “But the rights deals didn’t reflect that new watered down reality.”

Nevertheless, WGN leapt with both feet into the sports world when they attempted to create an FM sports-talk station (87.7 FM) “The Game”. It was a bold experiment, but there were a few miscalculations. “We really believed that being first on FM was the key, but that became inconsequential. There were already two well established sports brands in town, and we were just considered the third one in. And then, from a revenue point of view, the entire market had a very rough year. We had no idea that even as conservatively as we built it, the market wasn’t going to be able to sustain the revenue. We were not overly concerned about the trajectory of the ratings – we knew it was going to take some time. It was the revenue end that really disappointed us.”

Another disappointment came in the way the news of the station’s demise became public. Midday talker Ben Finfer found out about his fate while he was on the air, thanks to social media. The video of that moment went viral. “I didn’t hear about it right away,” Manley admits. “But when I did, I was disappointed on many levels and for a zillion reasons. I did learn something from that experience, however. We knew we were going to share the fate of the radio station with everyone that day – but I was operating with the old pre-social media philosophy – thinking that the worst thing you could do to someone is lay something like that on them BEFORE they were going in to do their art. You always did it afterwards. We were going to talk to them at 3pm that day, but somebody leaked it. So what I learned is that sort of thing can and will happen now, and that’s far worse than telling them before the show.”

Several of the players in “The Game” have stayed aboard at WGN, however, and that’s part of the station’s plan for the future. Manley and de Castro aren’t getting gun-shy about trying new things, and one of those is a leap into the digital content world. “WGN Plus is in the middle of a migration. It still will really focus on the content from the 50,000 watt blowtorch, but it will also go beyond repurposing what already exists. We have to be more than that. For now I want WGN Plus to incubate new talent, and create behind the curtain material. We also acquired a few good writers from the sports realm when we created The Game, guys like Connor McKnight and Adam Hoge, who are now part of the greater WGN brand. That’s all a part of what WGN Plus is. We have a few young producers and social media people who are really strong in this category. We’re heading toward making WGN Plus a destination. That’s the goal.”

Meanwhile, the WGN terrestrial lineup is still undergoing changes, including a few recently involving Bill Leff and Wendy Snyder, and Roe Conn. Manley insists this latest move wasn’t an indictment on Bill & Wendy’s show. He remains a big fan. “Ratings performance in PM drive wasn’t there, but I think it’s because the show they do is really more suited to their previous time slot. In PM drive, you need a more news-focused show. I love what they do. They are very special, and they still haven’t really gotten into their real rhythm yet. I still firmly believe they can grow and get even better. Roe has really deep roots at the city’s core – from where he grew up, to where he went to school, to where he’s lived. He connects with it. He is a lifer, but he’s always trying to understand it better, and he has a perpetual curiosity about it. Plus, he has a healthy respect for those mythical three letters.”

And so does Manley, who has been a part of it now through two very different eras.

– Rick Kaempfer

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Category: Columns, Media, Monthly

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