Honing the Local Edge at ‘Chicago’s Very Own’

Complete Coverage: Station Stars of 2017

When Jennifer Lyons of WGN-TV Chicago was named news director of the year by Broadcasting & Cable, her colleagues on the station’s raucous morning show decided to get her on the air. They called her office but got busy signals. While waiting, they showed funny pictures they claimed were of Lyons.

Just as they were starting to look silly, she joined the anchors on the set, where they did something pretty rare — they sang the praises of the executive in charge.

What made it more unusual was that while Lyons wanted to be in TV news as a kid in the Chicago suburb of Kildeer, she never yearned to be on camera. She would watch WGN’s noon newscast and search the credits to see who produced the show. She wound up sitting near that fellow in the newsroom and told him he had her dream job.

After attending Iowa State University and working at TV stations in Iowa, she decided to have kids and move back to Chicago, briefly working at CBS-owned WBBM-TV before getting a job at WGN as a part-time writer on the weekend night shift, which she felt was a good fit as she started her family.

Twenty-four years later, Lyons’ deep roots in her hometown and at the station make her a personification of WGN’s “Chicago’s Very Own” slogan.

That motto is a real thing, said Robert Feder, media maven and columnist for the Daily Herald. “There’s an unusual affinity that Chicagoans have for WGN,” he said. “That is something that resonates for those of us who have lived here all of our lives. WGN really was part of the DNA of Chicago for generations. That is not a marketing gimmick.”

Lyons rose through the ranks at the station, eventually becoming executive producer of the top-rated morning show, which Feder describes as WGN’s crown jewel.

Morning anchor Larry Potash recalled being surprised when Lyons came to his office and expressed interest in the wake-up show job.

“I remember thinking: You? Because the morning show is this edgy, alternative, fun kind of show and she was a serious news journalism person,” Potash said. “But she was a great person for the job because you need someone who makes sure things get done. We don’t need somebody writing knock-knock jokes. We need somebody who can manage the staff and get the news on the air.”

And as news director, Lyons puts people first, a rare quality in the TV news business, according to Potash. “Maybe some people think they’re going to get taken advantage of, but people don’t take advantage of her. It’s just the opposite. They work harder so that she will win. It’s just been great,” Potash said.

“She really has the confidence and the faith of all the people who work with her. And these are journalists. They’re as cynical as you and I are. And to a person they sing her praises,” Feder said. “It’s not coincidental that she also happens to have six children. She is so centered. She understands how important family is and being a decent human being can be, and yet she’s not a pushover.”

Model of Multitasking

Lyons said that with the characters she has in her newsroom, TV journalists are more challenging to manage than her children, who range in age from 13 to 26.

“My kids are great. My husband’s even better. And they get it. They get when Mom needs to go, she needs to go. And when she needs to pay attention to the news she does. I worked overnights when they were all babies and had many sleepless days, but at the same time, they understood and they were always accepting of my life as far as my career,” she said.

There’s been a lot of work to do at the station. When Lyons joined, WGN had newscasts at noon and 9 p.m. The station dropped its affiliation with The CW last year and now produces 70½ hours of news a week, taking on network-owned stations in most time slots. Lyons also oversees CLTV, a 24-hour local cable news channel.

“We don’t have a network. So when there’s something going on we get to cover it,” Lyons said. “We’ve really started to own breaking news and own just to get the viewers to know that when news is on and there’s a news break that they can turn to us and we’re going to be all over it.”

Paul Rennie, who joined WGN last year as general manager and oversaw continued news expansion at the station, said Lyons works well with all departments and is able to oversee both the station’s growing investigative team and its upcoming late-night comedy show, Man of the People, featuring WGN sportscaster Pat Tomosulo.

“We’ve been able to deliver the serious news of the day and Chicago can wake up and know what they need to get their day started and have some fun doing it as well. So she’s multi-talented,” Rennie said.

Under Lyons, the station has managed to retain its key talent over the years. “That speaks to her own personal relationship with a lot of the big talent that wants to stay and she’s actually able to pull people out of the other stations” as WGN expanded, said Bart Feder, senior VP of news at Tribune. “She tells it like it is to everybody and they’d follow her into a burning building.”

Lyons will soon have to replace one of the network’s main anchors, Mark Suppelsa, who has decided to leave the business. “We always strive to try to find someone from Chicago first and it makes a difference. You know how to pronounce the streets and the viewers expect that we know Chicago,” she said. “Mark Suppelsa is awesome and he’s going to be difficult to replace.”

WGN and the rest of Tribune Media are being acquired by Sinclair Broadcast Group, which has some staffers worried because Sinclair is known for ordering its stations to run conservative commentaries during their newscasts.

Lyons said she hasn’t spoken to Sinclair officials yet. “We’ll cross that bridge when we get there.”

Jon Lafayette

Jon has been business editor of Broadcasting+Cable since 2010. He focuses on revenue-generating activities, including advertising and distribution, as well as executive intrigue and merger and acquisition activity. Just about any story is fair game, if a dollar sign can make its way into the article. Before B+C, Jon covered the industry for TVWeek, Cable World, Electronic Media, Advertising Age and The New York Post. A native New Yorker, Jon is hiding in plain sight in the suburbs of Chicago.