By Michael Miner

Spy vs. Spy

An anonymous stranger called and said he had something I needed to see. Later the doorbell rang. The mysterious courier had vanished before I could open the front door, but a manila envelope now stood in the mailbox. Journalists, needless to say, live for moments like this.

The envelope contained a videotape, a note, and a Sun-Times clipping. Journalism during election campaigns can be compared to a line of teapots, each of which whistles tempestuously for a day. “Nonqualified white boys” made for one big, noisy teapot. What the Sun-Times had to say in this February 24 article was a squeaky little whistle.

There’s been trouble in the Ninth Congressional District, reported Susan Dodge and Fran Spielman. Allegations of pilfered campaign signs were flying. “The Schakowsky campaign said a field coordinator videotaped a city transportation employee last week walking away from a business in the 1400 block of West Devon Avenue carrying Schakowsky signs,” they wrote. Jerry Morrison, campaign manager for Janice Schakowsky, told the Sun-Times that more than 800 Schakowsky signs had been removed.

The note that fell out of the envelope advised, “One look at the videotape and this was not a story.”

I viewed the tape. I studied it frame by frame. The camera had captured a burly man in a light blue jacket carrying a campaign sign to a parked car and placing it in the trunk. I called Morrison. Yes, he said, “city workers on city time” in league with opposing candidate Howard Carroll have been swiping Schakowsky signs. One operative, he said, has boldly talked his way into houses and snatched signs out of windows. “It’s about how brass your balls are,” Morrison told me.

Sources that include the anonymous caller say the Sun-Times reporters never actually looked at the videotape mentioned in the article. Perhaps not–Dodge, the principal reporter, didn’t return my calls. At any rate, Dodge passed along her tape to Walter Jacobson’s investigative unit at WFLD TV. Associate producer Kathy Minnis did view the tape and immediately lost interest in the story. “It doesn’t look at any point like a sign-stealing thing,” she told me.

We compared notes to make sure my tape was a duplicate of hers. Yes, we’d both seen a man carry a sign to a car. We’d each squeezed the freeze-frame button when the name on the sign could be read. The sign said “Pappas.”

I called Morrison a second time to let him know there was a problem with his smoking gun. “Oh, was that a Pappas sign?” he said blithely. “I’ve moved beyond that. The signs are the least of my problems.”

BEZ’s Numbers Racket

“People who listen to Car Talk are by and large not people who listen to Whad’Ya Know?,” Torey Malatia had told me.

The station manager of WBEZ was defending his notorious Saturday-morning programming change. He’d slipped the dubious new comedy news quiz Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me in between Car Talk and Whad’Ya Know?, thus pushing Whad’Ya Know? back an hour and exiling it to tape delay. Malatia’s critics railed that he’d trampled out a noble stand of live radio and planted mediocrity.

Malatia shrugged. “Live radio served audiences well in a bygone era,” he’d said. But times change. “I’m not sure the fact something is broadcast live carries with it the kind of potency it carried in the past.”

Malatia’s explanations and reflections appeared in the February 20 Hot Type and were read by the folks at Whad’Ya Know? Soon producer Chris Bannon and I were talking by telephone. He read to me from a 1995 report. “In other words,” said the “audience crossover analysis” prepared for Public Radio International by the Radio Research Consortium, “Car Talk listeners are more likely to listen to Whad’Ya Know? than average listeners to stations that carry WYK. The two programs work well together.”

The consortium was measuring that lovely quality the radio biz calls “loyalty.” And its study of ten public radio stations across America told it that among what’s called the “core audience,” 78 percent of Car Talk’s listeners were loyal to Whad’Ya Know? as well. The “percent loyalty” within WBEZ’s core audience was even higher–80 percent.

“We’ve been kind of hitchhiking on their coattails around the country,” Whad’Ya Know? host Michael Feldman told me. “It seems to work pretty well.” Bannon added, “From our standpoint WBEZ is the single largest supplier of audience to Whad’Ya Know? in the country. It’s the number-one audience and an audience Michael cares deeply about. So this has been a disappointment.”

A long New York Times article recently examined the competition between National Public Radio and Public Radio International. Malatia was quoted. “I sometimes think that each wishes they were the other,” he said, “because there is such a desire to replicate what they see as being successful by the competition–which is the worst way to operate on earth.”

Stupid it might be, but that’s how they act. Feldman told me that NPR asked him to leave PRI “and do the same show over there as part of a weekend package that would use Car Talk as a tent pole.” When Feldman decided to stay put at PRI, “they told me they would do a quiz show of their own. One way or the other, NPR would like to rule the weekends.”

Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me is an NPR creation. But WBEZ signed on as coproducer, and the show originates in Chicago. WBEZ has a vested interest in the show’s success, and it’s no surprise that Malatia can trot out a set of numbers that contradicts Bannon’s.

“Both are correct,” said Malatia gallantly. However, in his view his numbers bespeak a deeper truth. “He’s looking at one type of audience,” said Malatia, “and I’m looking at both types of audience, actually, in my analysis.”

Type A is the core audience, and here Malatia conceded that there’s “a simpatico relationship between the Car Talk listener and the Feldman listener.” But then there’s type B, the idle weekend dial twisters. “There the loyalty factor is much lower,” said Malatia, and he had last fall’s Arbitron numbers to prove it.

“Right after Car Talk 60 percent of the audience leaves WBEZ; 40 percent remains. The characteristic of the bulk of the 60 percent who go away is they tend to be weekend listeners. The characteristic of the 40 percent is they’re seven-day-a-week listeners.” In other words, the faithful Car Talk audience is also, by and large, a faithful Whad’Ya Know? audience. But most of the Car Talk audience is casual and faithless, and when that show ends at 10 AM those listeners turn off WBEZ.

Which stands to reason. Ten o’clock Saturday morning is not the hour that finds the nation huddled around its Marconis. But while losing 60 percent of Car Talk’s audience, Whad’Ya Know? had picked up another–albeit smaller–audience of its own. Malatia told me that 25 percent of Feldman’s audience had just tuned in to WBEZ to hear his show. Malatia called this turnover “churn,” and in his view it demonstrated that the two shows weren’t joined at the hip, even though Whad’Ya Know? did inherit three quarters of its listeners from Car Talk. So he felt justified slipping Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me between them.

Said Bannon, “I think you could certainly go into the esoterics of radio numerology very carefully. But the overall impression our audience seems to have, and other people who program our show seem to have, is that it belongs next to Car Talk.”

If you hold to the conventional wisdom about statistics, you don’t trust them. In this instance your suspicions would be warranted. The numbers here aren’t so much false or misleading as irrelevant. There’s a reason Malatia replaced Whad’Ya Know? with Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me at ten o’clock that has nothing to do with anybody’s numbers. He had no choice. NPR wants its coproducer to air Wait, Wait at 10 AM, and WBEZ can’t say no. Bannon and Feldman told me this, and Malatia confirmed it.

“They wanted to see how well Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me would do around the country in this placement,” Malatia said. “They wanted to see how it would function right after Car Talk.” NPR engaged in the same kind of practical thinking that leads NBC to schedule the new sitcom it’s put the most chips on between Seinfeld and ER. When Malatia goes on loftily about the obsolescence of live radio in a digital age, he’s giving necessity the gloss of vision.

When can you move it? I asked.

“It certainly can’t be moved quickly,” Malatia said. “What we agreed to do is put it there and analyze it. All of this is going to be thoughtfully evaluated, but it’s not going to be quickly resolved.”

New Life Past Lives

Last autumn I wrote about the “reinvigorated staff” brought in to reinvent the Illinois Police and Sheriff’s News. That was the feisty biweekly of the Combined Counties Police Association whose credo, “Every good and excellent thing stands by the moment on the razor’s edge of danger and must be fought for,” is certainly something to think about.

But the fight’s over. Founder John Flood, who’s president of the CCPA, decided that the joys of fearless muckraking were costing his union more than it could afford. “I’ve gone up, I’ve gone down over the years,” he told me. “Right now I’m kind of reorganizing things. I’m gonna cut back a little.”

Flood turned the News into a quarterly, and his editorial staff bailed out. Editor Richard Lindberg landed at Screen magazine as an associate editor; Cicero reporter Ray Hanania is there too, as managing editor. Labor writer Joseph Longmeyer decided to go back to hypnosis.

Longmeyer told me peevishly that I hadn’t done him justice in the earlier article, which focused on his reform-school days with Tony Spilotro, the mob hit man who’d ended up planted in an Indiana cornfield. “There’s a whole lot more to me than I used to be a teenage buddy of Tony Spilotro, and one of the whole lot more things is that I’m a certified hypnotherapist. I have a specialty–past-life regression. As an example, someone, for instance, who is having a weight problem in this life may go to a previous life where they died of starvation. That’s almost a standard one. And then we run into all kinds of people who are husbands and wives who are having terrible kinds of pain and suffering in this life, and we find out in a past life they were enemies–soldiers in different armies.”

I asked Longmeyer if he’d had a chance to regress Spilotro, who led a life that could stand some explanation.

“No, I didn’t,” he said, “but in actual fact I have been regressed myself where Spilotro played a major, major role in a previous life of mine.” This happened to be the life of Irish landowner Roger O’Flaherty, a 19th-century adherent of the revolutionary Charles Stewart Parnell and therefore a traitor to his class.

Things didn’t go well for O’Flaherty. “His 24-year-old son was killed, murdered, drowned,” Longmeyer said, “and later O’Flaherty himself was killed in London, shot to death down the street from the British government. And the gunman in that instance was the soul who became Tony Spilotro.”

The last time the two Moses Montefiore Special School alumni ran into each other, Spilotro was passing out Teamsters handbills and Longmeyer was trying to lure Teamsters taxi drivers into the Seafarers union. Jimmy Hoffa offered Longmeyer a job with the Teamsters, Longmeyer turned him down, and a few months later a car blew up with Longmeyer in it. Longmeyer can’t prove anything, but he has his theories.

One of them is that people who can remember the past discover they’ve repeated it already. The former Parnellite said that with his journalism career in abeyance, he’ll soon be operating out of a weight-loss clinic in Lincoln Park.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration by Jim Flynn.