Just eight days after a glowing performance review at WCPT, the ax fell | On Politics | Chicago Reader

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Just eight days after a glowing performance review at WCPT, the ax fell

But don't worry: The Ben Joravsky Show will be back.

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DRONE PHOTO BY DWIGHT IRWIN
  • Drone photo by Dwight Irwin

On Wednesday, December 19, Mark Pinski, the general manager for WCPT—Chicago's progressive talk radio station—took me out for breakfast to give me an "annual performance review" about my afternoon show.

Over a delicious omelet—stack of pancakes on the side—Pinski told me things couldn't be better. I was doing a great job. Getting better and better at the technical end of hosting a show (after a year and nine months on the air, I was still very much an old rookie at this game). Said I was great at getting guests to schlep all the way to the northwest-side studio (I booked my own program). And although there are no ratings (WCPT doesn't subscribe to a ratings service), the sponsors liked me, and revenues were rising thanks to my show.

"Keep up the good work," he said.

It took Pinski about 15 minutes to get through his performance review, after which we spent the better part of a half an hour talking about—what else—our beloved Bulls. Like I didn't have a job-related care in the world.

And then, just eight days later—on December 27—that very same Pinski, along with Brian Linscott, the company's COO, called me into the conference room to break a bombshell.

"It's a tough business," Pinski declared. "You're hired to be fired."

And just like that they fired me. It happened right after I got off the air—I'd already booked my guests for Friday's show. Essentially, they said the company would be giving me five and a half weeks of severance pay to get out and never come back.

I never saw it coming. It's like that breakfast of eggs and pancakes was the company's way of fattening me up for the kill. Plus, my firing came just before the long New Year's weekend, when few people would be paying attention to the news. Who knew these cats could be so cunning—Tony Soprano's got nothing on the nice progressives at WCPT.

Actually, the timing's relevant in more ways than one. We are, of course, on the cusp of a contentious mayoral election—a nasty catfight even by Chicago standards. And for the last few weeks I'd been rather gleefully bringing on one mayoral candidate after another and giving them free rein to rip the hell out of each other. All the time, I'd be peppering them with questions about my pet peeves—like, how do we cut up the pie so all neighborhoods benefit. Not just the rich ones.

Ultimately, I believe I was fired because the top brass didn't want my left-of-center voice broadcast from their station. I might ask questions that could embarrass whatever candidate they support (and that turned out to be Toni Preckwinkle ). And so out the door they sent me.

Look, I know I'm not the first radio personality to get "whacked," as David Hochberg, one of my show's sponsors, so eloquently put it. In fact, WCPT fired Wayne Besen, the previous afternoon show host, to make way for me. As you might imagine, I'm not getting much sympathy from Wayne these days.

Since I got sacked, my feelings have raced from denial to defiance back to disbelief. I loved that show. Loved talking politics with my guests. Loved cracking wise with producer Dennis—aka Dr. D. Loved bringing in community activists and labor leaders and lefties who rarely get heard on mainstream radio. Loved my supertalented colleagues at the station—I'd mention them by name except I worry management might retaliate against them.

But mostly I've been feeling overwhelming gratitude at the outpouring of love and support I've been receiving since the word got out.

It's hard to say which message is my favorite. But this Facebook comment from a man named Barry Marshall definitely ranks in the top ten.

"I don't know who did the firing. But I'm confident they some ho's. (And I'm not talking the Holly jolly types). #benjoravskyisdope #butalsoanirresponsiblewhiteguy #hetellstoomuchtruth".

I don't mean to denigrate sex workers, but you have to appreciate the spirit of Barry's comment.

So now I've reached the point of my column where I must choose one of two roads. I could go all Johnny Paycheck and say—take this job and shove it. But I think I'll do like Michelle Obama and take the high road when they go low.

So, gulp, here goes . . .

I want to thank Fred Eychaner, the wealthy businessman and heavy donor to Democratic and progressive causes—like marriage equality and reproductive rights—who owns WCPT.

Yes, Fred's the man who fired me—Pinski & Linscott made it clear that the decision came from the top. But he's also the person who hired me, even though I had no previous radio experience. And he left me on air for almost two years to hone my skills and do my thing.

So, Fred, thank you for all of that. Even though you and your henchmen set me up like a freaking bowling pin.

Oh, wait—I was supposed to be going high road, wasn't I?

As to why I was fired, Pinski and Linscott offered two explanations in our brief exchange.

They said they wanted a more experienced broadcaster—meaning someone with a smoother, more conventional radio sound.

Fair enough. But I'd think they'd appreciate a normal-sounding guy who's just being himself.

They also said they wanted to, as Linscott put it, "promote the mayoral election in a more positive way."

I'm not entirely sure what that means, but I do have two reactions. First of all, I don't believe journalists are supposed to "promote" mayoral elections—we cover them. And second of all, good luck finding something positive to promote about this epic free-for-all.

It seems as though the station and I have what you might call a fundamental disagreement over how to cover Chicago mayoral elections. I believe in bringing in all the candidates. Ask them tough questions. Give them time to respond. And then call on other sharp political observers to help you figure out what's really going on—with lots of humor to make the BS a little easier to take.

Actually, now that I think about it, I should have seen this coming. Several months ago—well before Rahm said he wasn't running for reelection—a honcho at the station told me I was being too tough on the mayor. "Go easy on Rahm," he said.

I paid no attention—it's a little late to put that genie back in the bottle. Also, I never figured a Chicago journalist would be fired for being too tough on politicians. Man, was I naive. Guess the Reader spoiled me by letting do my thing for all these years.

On Friday I read WCPT's official explanation for why I was fired—it came in a press release that quoted Pinski. Which I will quote. 'Cause, as every journalist knows, you gotta tell both sides of the story. (By the way, I reached out to Fred for comment and he didn't respond.)

"We want to thank Ben for all of his hard work and dedication. . . . Ben did a great job of moving our brand forward, and want our next host to take us to the next level."

That sounds like a rewrite of the Bulls statement from 1989 when they fired coach Doug Collins on the grounds that even though he got them from point A to point B they needed another coach to get them to point C.

Hey, maybe WCPT's next afternoon host will be Phil Jackson.

You know, wisecracks like that always get me in trouble.

Whoever winds up getting the afternoon gig—no hard feelings. I suggest you remember the immortal words of Pinski: "You're hired to be fired." So, watch your back.

Anyway, it was a blast—and turns out it's not over yet. The Ben Joravsky Show will continue (keep it here for details). The sooner the better—'cause, folks, there's a mayoral election on the horizon.  v


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