How Randy Michaels' Plan For Digital Overhaul Of Tribune Co. Fell Short

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Braulio Ramirez via Flickr

Randy Michaels had a plan. The former chief of Tribune would convert the stumbling newspaper and broadcast giant into a media and marketing company. A company that just so happened to own printing presses and broadcast towers. The best way to accomplish this? Transform the company’s deeply rooted and stodgy culture into one that was experimental, lean and nimble. Trib employees had to think and act differently if they were to beat back the growing local threat of AOL, Google and other online pure-plays. Randy knew that digital would play a major role in this transformation, much like it did in previous makeovers the ex-DJ spearheaded in his past.  The attempted Trib-culture makeover had mixed results. Some, like embedding radio vets into the ranks, ruffled more than a few feathers. Today, many of these so-called “Randy hires” are no longer with the company; Lee Abrams, Marc Chase, Jeff “Booger” Kapugi, Kim Johnson, and John Martin. Other new-culture infusions went over a bit better, like the removal of redundant positions and activities, hybrid sales teams, and smarter newspaper production techniques.

Like him or not for those recent, unsavory accusations, Randy has an enviable track record of smartly using digital tech for innovation in media. Like any pioneer, he took al ot of arrows. His early work with radio voice-tracking around 1996 (ex: seasoned DJ in Miami being pumped into Peoria) was hated by third-tier on-air talent that were quickly canned by these so-called robo-jocks. But station management and investors loved this cost-cutting tool. Cash-strapped managers saw voice-tracking as a simple and affordable way to have major market talent on their small market stations. The quick expansion of NYC-based Howard Stern affiliates is another example of how operators like Infinity/CBS and Mel Karmazin leveraged emerging technology.

Michael’s takeover of Tribune with financier Sam Zell shows similar digital thinking and strategy being applied to the Chicago based company. Take a look at this five-minute video clip (from almost two years ago) that highlights a speech given to employees of The Morning Call, Tribune’s print operation just outside of Philadelphia. Even after all this time, this entertaining lecture is still accurate and relevant. Unfortunately, some of what Randy wanted the staff to embrace and execute either fell on deaf ears, or was sloppily executed at the local level.

This article originally appeared on Mel Taylor Media and is reprinted here with permission.

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