By Michael Miner
Steve Dahl's Bootleg: The Tale of the Tape
Radio is tricky to write about because it's so loosely linked to reality. Names don't come with faces, and you can't always believe the names. Steve Dahl, to his credit, has a first name and a last, but the other key players in this drama are known to Chicago as Shemp, Pugs, and Kelly.
Then there's the noisy chorus that comments on the action. God knows who those people are.
The curtain went up last Thursday on a strangely deferential Robert Feder column in the Sun-Times. Without so much as raising an eyebrow, Feder allowed Dahl to explain away behavior that a more judgmental writer would have pilloried.
Feder asked Dahl to talk about some tapes of chortling colleagues he'd been playing on the air. In one of the snatches of conversation Dahl shared with his WCKG audience, a male voice could be heard exclaiming, "The guy [Dahl] lives in a visual fantasy world!" A female voice responded, "Yeah, you know, it's like, yeah, sure, sooner or later we're going to be out to get him. But not right now. We're not in any position to right now. We're not stupid."
The next voice was Dahl's, live on the air. "That's funny," he said. "That makes me laugh."
Feder reported that the tapes captured two part-time radio hosts Dahl already suspected of ripping him behind his back. They were soon fired by the station at Dahl's urging. But Feder didn't tell their side of the story. He didn't even identify them (they were Pugs and Kelly). And he didn't say that taping a private conversation and putting it on the air might be ethically and legally problematic. "I really tried to be neutral," Feder tells me. "I had every intention of following the story as it develops, and I highly doubt that this is the last that I'll be reporting on it."
Dahl told Feder the taping had been done with cameras and audio equipment already installed in a WCKG studio for security purposes. Dahl said, "I have never played those tapes for management. I merely used them for my own edification so I could feel confident that I had done the right thing. It was a personal matter." He'd taped "to confirm my suspicions. This was in a studio filled with microphones and cameras. Legally, I don't feel they had any expectation of privacy in that case."
Feder told enough of the story that bright readers could figure out the rest. Dahl had taped and aired two people's private conversation; then, arguably motivated by what he heard on that tape, he got WCKG to take their jobs.
"He just put it out there as it is and let the chips fall where they may," says a radio executive who admires Feder's craft. "The best way is to let somebody hang himself."
Pugs and Kelly began hearing from attorneys who'd sized up the conceivable damages and wanted a slice of that sizzling bacon. All they were asking Pugs and Kelly to do was sue Dahl and WCKG, which is owned by Infinity Broadcasting, which is controlled by CBS. And after the dust settled they'd have a lifetime of fun looking for another job in radio.
Pugs and Kelly, who hosted a Saturday night show on WCKG and filled in at other times, are actually John Myron and Kelly Mohr. Kelly is married to Shemp, actually Mark DeYoung, who'd been Dahl's producer until Dahl fired him in August. Expecting a second child and trying to close on a house, Kelly was in no position to quit in protest when Dahl booted her husband.
Understandably, Kelly and Shemp aren't saying much. "I was thinking about a quote for you," said Kelly earlier this week, trying to be helpful. "If he thinks people talk badly about him in the studio, he should take a walk down to the sales department."
Dahl tried to call me during a commercial and missed me. So he told Ali, his personal assistant, to give me a message. The message was: "Those people are all idiots, and they don't know what they're talking about."
For messages by the carload, the place to go is Crowbar--"CROW" stands for Chicago Radio Online Watch--a board launched two and a half years ago by Zecom Communications. It's no place for the faint of heart, and nothing posted there can be taken at face value.
"You have three types of people, especially in the case of a Steve Dahl," explains Zecom president Marty Zivin, who can tell pretty well who Crowbar visitors are. There's a silent majority that laps up the action from the sidelines. Then there's the 10 percent who are "Dahl haters" and can't get enough of him. "Every time he burps on the air they write," says Zivin. And 15 percent are radio insiders "doing smash mouth. It's common knowledge that over the years Steve Dahl's burned a lot of bridges."
Between the haters and the smash mouthers, Dahl has been annihilated daily, as debate rages among monikers such as Dulls Bitch, Are You Goofy?, LawZilla, Jubilation T. Cornhole, What a Crock!!!!, and Still a Fan. Fortunately an occasional posting rings of sober authority. For example, police sergeant Alan Hurlbut, star 3109, coolly dissected the matter and reported, "I ran this by my assistant state's attorney at coffee this morning and he was of the opinion that the state code violation on eavesdropping was clearly violated. He also indicated that there would probably be civil recovery if the victims had a good attorney." And a Northwestern law school instructor with communications law as a specialty wrote in to predict that "the victims can recover damages in at least six figures" and that if they took the matter to state or federal prosecutors they could have Dahl arrested.
Sadly, the Chicago Police Department tells me that Sergeant Hurlbut, star 3109, doesn't exist. My research persuades me the Northwestern instructor doesn't exist either. Someone wise in the ways of Chicago radio warns me that both these postings--and many others--are probably the work of a certain famous local radio personality who hates Dahl and wants to put him away. The radio personality denies this.
After wandering for days in a culture characterized by extravagant noms de plume, endless and unusable off-the-record conversations, and unattributable fear and loathing, I was astonished to receive E-mail from "John Myron AKA Pugs." "I haven't really been speaking to anyone on this subject," said Pugs, "but I think it's time I start."
And for 500 words Pugs went on about Steve Dahl. "Growing up he was my hero. Other kids had Ryne Sandberg or Walter Payton but I had Steve." However, "Steve Dahl has become an angry, bigoted egomaniac whose insecurities, jealousies and complete distrust of others has eroded his once rabidly loyal fan base....He attempted to publicly humiliate and professionally stigmatize me as someone that can't be trusted. Steve Dahl is a very influential man in Chicago radio and the blacklisting I fear this has caused will follow me throughout my career."
Pugs pointed out that Shemp had just been fired and Kelly was eight months pregnant when his chat with her occurred. "To say that Steve Dahl was on our shit list would be an understatement," he acknowledged. "Venting your frustrations to someone you trust in what you perceive to be private seems a fairly common form of workplace therapy."
And so it is.
Chicago's newest wire service has two clients. Better make that one. The client is Hollinger International, which just launched the Alliance News Service to cover the cops and courts for two Hollinger newspapers--the Sun-Times and the Daily Southtown. When City News Bureau shut down early this year, the Tribune moved the core of the operation into the Tower and renamed it New City News. Hollinger papers weren't invited to subscribe. Now Hollinger is trying to climb out of the hole with a wire of its own. Seems logical, but the Chicago Newspaper Guild suspects that Hollinger's virulently antiunion bosses have ulterior motives. What worries the guild is a burgeoning pool of nonunionized Hollinger reporters who would step in and put out the Sun-Times if management ever forces a strike there.
"I can tell you, I don't like it," says Jerry Minkkinen, executive director of CNG.
"I certainly don't want the highlight of my professional career to turn out to be that I'm a union buster," replies Lloyd Weston, Alliance's managing editor. He argues that Alliance News is much less threatening to the Sun-Times's union-shop newsroom than the far bigger City News Bureau used to be. "We, in fact, aren't covering a lot of things that had been covered by them, such as sports, politics, City Hall," Weston says. "I don't see us as any kind of a threat to the guild."
But the Sun-Times owned CNB jointly with the Tribune; it couldn't make the kind of proprietary claim on that wire's reporters that Hollinger can now impose on Alliance News's. Another difference is that the CNB report was treated as a tip sheet. Alliance reporters are consciously writing for publication--their bylines have already started appearing in the Daily Southtown.
Not in the Sun-Times, however. "We haven't sent them stories they'd have published anyway," Weston says. "We started out purposely small. Our main coverage is currently centered in the Markham and Bridgeview courthouses"--in suburbs only the Daily Southtown pays much attention to. Is that because the Sun-Times is putting off a confrontation with the guild? Not at all, Weston tells me. "Nigel is very, very anxious for us to start. Our plan is to cover things that the Sun-Times isn't covering at all. We will have a full-time person at the courthouse at California and 26th, which they do not have now. We will ultimately have full-time people at the courthouses in Skokie and Rolling Meadows, which they don't have now."
Nigel Wade, editor of the Sun-Times, originally called Weston to sound him out about his new job, though it was Hollinger that formally hired him. Weston's been an editor at various newspapers around Chicago and its suburbs since the 60s. He worked for the Sun-Times years ago and in recent years headed up special projects there as a freelancer. Now he's set up shop in the old Southtown building at 5959 S. Harlem, nobody's idea of central. But he has given his reporters laptops, modems, pagers, and cell phones, and they don't need to come in much anyway. They E-mail their stories to headquarters, and he edits them and E-mails them to the two papers.
"They gave me an approximate budget," says Weston. "I said, 'That'll take care of my salary. What about the others?'" There aren't many others. He's hired four full-time reporters and a half dozen stringers, and he has a salesman who's going to be targeting radio stations and the smaller TV stations as clients once Alliance News has enough of a track record to brag about. Weston's proud of the cunning he employed to arrive at a salary scale. He called Paul Zimbrakos, who runs New City News. "I didn't tell him who I was, and I asked him if he was hiring people. I asked him how much he was paying to start. I can tell you I'm paying higher. Not much higher."
So what are you paying?
Weston won't say.
Then what's Zimbrakos paying?
"He's starting at $19,000," says Weston.
"I do hope eventually I will see bigger figures," says Cyndi Schu, one of Weston's four reporters. She can get by because she has no one to support but herself. She graduated from UIC last May and sent the Sun-Times a job application. "The next thing I knew Lloyd was calling. He wanted me to come in for an interview."
Schu still wants to work for the Sun-Times, and she's glad to have a foothold in the corporation. "I'm hoping it leads to a more steady kind of position," she says. "This is full-time, but it's more--how do I explain it?--our stuff isn't printed." Her first Daily Southtown byline thrilled her, but she wants the Sun-Times to run her too. "They have their own staffers covering everything," she says, wildly overstating the extent of the Sun-Times's coverage. "We're kind of covering the cracks that they're missing."
The "most aggravating thing" about her new job, Schu says, is "covering stuff that won't be published." The Daily Southtown is interested only in its circulation area, she says, and the Sun-Times has a list of subjects it doesn't touch. Such as? "Sexual assaults and gruesome murders. I know in Chicago there's lots of that. The police blotter looks smaller and smaller when you take those things out."
The Chicago Headline Club is calling its annual conference November 6 in Streeterville "The Future of Journalism." Anyone who can resist the phrase "in the next millennium" deserves praise.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Mike Werner.