Rubin: WWJ quietly cuts staff and live newscast

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

We rely on WWJ-AM (950) for traffic information, but the updates are already more thorough and dependable on SiriusXM.

We rely on WWJ for breaking news from familiar voices, but it’s dumping newscasters and preparing to give us pre-recorded monotony all night long.

It’s as though a memo came from the home office in New York for the station to immediately become less relevant and useful.

The solid professionals at Detroit’s only all-news station were told Monday that three of them were being let go and three others had been offered “voluntary layoff opportunities,” a spectacular bit of corporate double-speak whose alternative would seem to be getting escorted to their cars by a security guard.

At least 13 people at CBS Radio Detroit’s five stations were or will be kicked to the curb. The number is imprecise because local station executives still haven’t said a word — and neither has anyone from CBS Radio in New York, which ordered 200 corporate executions nationwide.

It’s a curious way for a communications business to operate, made even stranger by the fact that the company had weathered the recession without noticeable debt and news stations like WWJ are sweetly mooing cash cows.

“This format is so successful and makes so much money,” says Matt Friedman, “that when something like this happens, it’s hard to get your head around.”

Friedman, 43, the co-owner of Tanner Friedman Strategic Communications in Farmington Hills, started in radio at age 11, switched to television after college and still has the voice of a broadcaster.

“Look at the rest of the media business,” he says. “What entities have cut and weakened their product and become successful in the long term?”

Since the answer is few to none, that suggests the layoffs were rooted in the short term.

Bingo, says Dick Kernen, a vice president at Specs Howard School of Media Arts and the ultimate ear-to-the-ground source in Detroit.

The CBS Radio hog is being scrubbed and groomed for market, he predicts. And if a few hundred people lose their jobs and a few hundred thousand Michiganians get a lesser product on the airwaves, well, no one can hear the squeals back at headquarters.

No news is bad news

At WWJ, overnight anchor Rob Sanford, his producer, Gary Lundy, and tech reporter Ed Cardenas have been laid off.

Afternoon co-anchors Jayne Bower and Greg Bowman and 7 p.m.-midnight anchor Paul Snider were given 45 days to ponder their voluntary layoffs.

At least two WWJ salespeople were also bounced, along with the sales manager and most of her staff at WDZH-FM (98.7).

According to a WWJ employee whose job security depends on remaining anonymous, the afternoon pair will be replaced by a solo anchor.

Overnights will be staffed by a technician playing recorded newscasts and praying fervently that no actual news occurs after 12:01 a.m. The newcomers will presumably be less experienced, less knowledgeable and less costly than the people they replace.

“The idea is to cut the overhead and look more attractive,” says Kernen, 77.

“There’s a tremendous cash flow at all the stations. If they can boost the price, who gives a rip if the news station in Detroit does reruns in the middle of the night?”

Success, but not stability

For all the shiny innovations that were supposed to smother traditional radio — television, iPods, satellite technology — a Nielsen report says more adults listen to free radio each week (93 percent) than watch television (87 percent) or use smart phones (70 percent).

Business has been so good at WWJ that Friedman sometimes can’t get a client on the air.

“We say we want to buy commercials,” he says, “and they tell us, ‘We don’t have any left.’ ”

Detroit is a strong radio market, he says; we still commute in our cars, not on buses or trains. The four strongest CBS properties here — WWJ, sports talk WXYT-FM (97.1), country WYCD-FM (99.5) and classic hits WOMC-FM (104.3) — are consistently among the ratings leaders.

In a treacherous business where Friday’s smooth jazz station could be Monday’s Top 40 outlet, good ratings have always meant stability.

Now, apparently, nothing does — for staffers, or for listeners.