Cochran defies odds with WGN comeback

Steve Cochran

Steve Cochran

When Steve Cochran was unceremoniously dumped after 10 years at WGN AM 720 in 2010, he made no secret of his contempt for the station's Tribune Co. bosses, calling them "the worst kind of management" and lambasting them by name.

After that, the chances of Cochran ever being allowed to set foot in Tribune Tower again — much less work for the news/talk station he labeled a disaster — were pretty close to zero.

Fast forward to today and Cochran, 52, is not only happily ensconced as WGN's morning personality, but he's a major figure in the management team that's remaking the station from top to bottom. "Imagine the money you could have made if Vegas had taken bets on that," the Chicago radio veteran told me Sunday.

As Cochran starts his fourth week in the job once held by Wally Phillips, Bob Collins and Spike O'Dell, he shared this exchange with me:

Q.  After the first three weeks, how are you feeling about the show? It seems like you've been back a lot longer, doesn't it?

A. It's been an amazingly comfortable return. Feels like coming home. Working with people who have been my friends for years helps, too. It's always going to be a work in progress, but the listener and sponsor response has been phenomenal. And it's fun to be on the radio again.

Having said that, the 3 a.m. alarm is crazy, but for now, I'm told, the morning show has to start before noon.

Q. Tell me about your efforts to reach out to listeners who abandoned WGN during the dark years.

A. I've spoken to many of them by phone, more by email, and I'm reaching out and catching up as fast as I can. The listeners didn't abandon the station. They were driven away by the lunacy that took place with programming decisions that tossed away 80-plus years of branding. We are committed to regaining their trust and rebuilding this place. The mission is "honor the past, fix the present, build the future," and we are doing that every day.

Meanwhile, I'm doing the "Listener of the Day" on my show. Current listeners tell me about someone they know who quit this place. We get them on the air and I ask them why they left. Then if they will try us again for a week, everybody gets prizes and we likely win another one back.

The message from me is there is no attempt to hide. We know WGN went a long way the wrong way. We are sorry that happened . . . your opinion really does matter . . . and we want you back.

Q. In addition to hosting your morning show, you've been playing a key role in the programming changes at WGN with Jimmy deCastro [president and general manager] and Todd Manley [vice president of creative content]. What's that been like?

A. For a guy who has hated and baited management for most of my career, it's been an education and a great time. Todd Manley and I have a lot of history together, and we care about this radio station maybe more than anyone else.  It's a privilege to help rebuild it. And one of the best things about Jimmy deCastro is that he asks for and respects our views.  Larry Wert [president of broadcast media for Tribune Co.] has been great, too. We agree on most things, disagree on some, and so far I think we have made some very strong moves to relaunch 720 WGN.

The lesson I've learned is management works harder and is smarter than I thought they were.  And there's a chance I'm not as bright as I think I am.

Q. How will you know if you've succeeded in turning the station around — and how long do you think it will take?

A. Measuring success of the new WGN is also a combination of old and new.  Ratings and revenue absolutely matter, but success will also be blending traditional broadcasts into a viable, profitable web product that will serve WGN well into the future. This station always has been an important part of Chicago, Illinois, and the Midwest. We feel a responsibility to get it right.

The cool thing is we are having a blast — that's right . . . beyond all reasonable expectations — and a year ago no one would have believed any of this was possible: "The Steve Cochran Show" is back on WGN and it's fun to work in Tribune Tower again. Imagine the money you could have made if Vegas had taken bets on that.