It’s happened. After more than a week of intense media speculation — both locally and nationally — Larry Wert made it official Wednesday afternoon.
Wert is leaving his post as general manager of NBC-owned WMAQ-Channel 5 and joining the Tribune Co., where he will have the title president of local broadcasting.
That means Wert will be in charge of the media behemoth’s 23 television stations scattered around the country, including prominent outlets in Chicago (that would be WGN-Ch. 9, of course), Los Angeles and New York City. Wert will not, however have direct oversight over the WGN America cable offering that also is part the Tribune Co. broadcast portfolio.
Wert’s responsibilities don’t end there however.
Newly-minted Tribune Co. CEO Peter Liguori, to whom Wert will report, also has put the former Channel 5 boss in charge of its sole radio holding. That would be news-talk WGN-AM (720), a station that has gone through considerable turmoil and talent turnover since former Tribune Co. CEO Randy Michaels began fiddling with it during his tenure.
That radio-related role could be both a fun and challenging part of Wert’s new assignment, as his resume also includes a significant stint in the radio business. Wert was for a time the general manager at rock-formatted WLUP-FM (97.9). That led to a role as president of Evergreen Media, which eventually merged with Chancellor Broadcasting, where Wert was made senior vice president of a chain of 13 radio outlets.
From Chancellor, Wert moved on in 1998 to Channel 5, where he would establish himself over the next 15-years as one of the city’s most high-profile television executives, perhaps matched only by Emily Barr, the former, well-respected general manager at ABC-owned WLS-Channel 7.
Wert’s Ch. 5 career had highs and lows
Wert’s lengthy tenure at Channel 5 would, inevitably, be marked by highs and lows. The lows include his having to dismiss ace reporter Amy Jacobson after a controversial lapse in judgment while she was reporting a story apparently left Wert no other choice.
Some also are still debating whether it was a smart move to say bye-bye to Bob Sirott, who had been in line to become co-anchor of the station’s 10 p.m. newscast. Sirott wound up at Fox-owned WFLD-Channel 32, where he has definitely be a square peg trying desperately to fit into an intractable round hole. Rob Stafford ultimately became lead co-anchor at 10 p.m. at Channel 5.
Finally, there was the big brouhaha surrounding much-liked anchor/reporter Anna Davlantes, who got tired of waiting for Wert to promote her to an appropriately high-level anchor role at Channel 5.
Davlantes marched over to Channel 32, where she has been forced, alas, to remain the lady-in-waiting working as a co-anchor on the station’s little-watched “Good Day, Chicago” morning show.
Those were some of the low points in Wert’s career at Channel 5. But Wert also must be given credit for the great effort he and station manager Frank Whittaker put into making the station’s news department a fine operation during a time when cost-cutting was paramount throughout the broadcasting industry.
Though the Channel 5 news teams doesn’t hit a home run every day, they are aggressive and eager to tell the most compelling stories. And that goes double for Channel 5’s best, most seasoned reporters — Dick Johnson, Mary Ann Ahern and Phil Rogers.
So, as we said earlier, there will be a lot on Wert’s plate when he arrives at his new home at Tribune Co. and starts to chow down. But it’s what wasn’t specifically mentioned as being among Wert’s new responsibilities that may be the most enticing part of the Tribune Co. package for him.
An enticing part of the package for Wert
Liguori, along with scores of observers who have been closely watching Tribune Co. as it emerged from bankruptcy, have made it clear that huge change is coming to the Chicago-based media company.
Liguori is a television executive, first and foremost, and Tribune Co.’s broadcast properties likely will get most, if not all, of his attention — leaving most to conclude the newspaper properties will leave the Tribune Co. fold, perhaps sooner rather than later.
Liguori wants to get into program development in a big way to enrich the content for his stable of TV stations, and that is something of interest to Wert. When the Steve Harvey talk show debuted last September, Wert wasn’t shy about saying he played a role in bringing the show to Chicago, where it is taped at the NBC Tower. The Harvey show has proved a success in its afternoon time slot.
No doubt Liguori will have an open ear if Wert has ideas about what kind of programming Tribune Co. should think about developing.
Now that Wert is leaving WMAQ, there will, of course, be speculation about his successor. Will NBC, now fully-owned by cable giant Comcast, give Whittaker a shot at the top job? He certainly deserves consideration.
But broadcasting, like Wert himself, is a mercurial, unpredictable business. All we can know for sure at this very moment is that Wert is leaving Channel 5, and a new leader soon will be put in charge to chart the station’s future.
Contact Lewis Lazare at LewisL3@aol.com.