There is much being written about Chris Licht being kicked out of his job as CEO of CNN after roughly a year. You can go elsewhere for analysis by reporters and columnists on the media and business beats. But here’s an angle I’m intimately knowledgeable about: never take a job in which you’re replacing a legend who’s had many years of success.
Licht’s predecessor, Jeff Zucker, ran the “Today” show for 11 years of ratings dominance, then became CEO of NBC Universal for 13 years of major profits. He ran CNN for 9 years before being ousted in 2022 for not reporting an ongoing relationship with an underling. Whatever you may think of how well he did those jobs, there’s no doubt he left a major imprint and was thus a tough person to replace.
I have some experience with following someone who’s been in a job for a long time — and being the one who had to be replaced.
In 1986, I was hired to replace John Harvey as morning man by new management at WIOQ/Philadelphia. I don’t know if there was bad blood in the building or he wanted too much money in a new contract. All I know is that, from Day One, it was apparent he’d had a loyal audience that viewed me as responsible for his ouster.
This came to a head one night when WIOQ broadcast a Bruce Hornsby concert live from the Chestnut Cabaret. After his first song, the crowd burst into a chant of “Harvey! Harvey! Harvey!” My wife and I were listening at home. She turned to me and said, “Uh oh.” I gulped nervously.
After the second song, the same thing happened. I knew WIOQ couldn’t do anything about it. They weren’t going to pull the plug on the live broadcast we’d hyped for weeks. Under no circumstances could anyone go onstage and tell the audience to knock it off. The concert continued and the chanting eventually subsided, but I was not in a good mood when I went to work the next morning.
Not long after, Infinity decided to syndicate Howard Stern’s show from WXRK/New York on its sister station, WYSP/Philadelphia. In response, because his was essentially a talk show, WIOQ management decreed that I should just play a lot of music and keep my comments to a bare minimum. Not being able to do the kind of show I knew could be successful meant I had to get out of there.
I immediately made plans to get work elsewhere, and found interest from WCXR/Washington (I told that story here). I got out of my WIOQ contract within a few weeks and made the move to DC, where I had great success. Five and a half years later, I was seduced away by a big money offer from another station in town, which I ended up accepting.
My departure left WCXR with a major hole in its lineup. Its management tried various other personalities to replace me, but never found the right one. Finally, after 18 months of much lower ratings, the station dumped the entire format and switched to smooth jazz.
There have been lots of similar “don’t follow a legend” situations in radio and TV.
When Jack Buck hung up his headphones after decades as the voice of the St. Louis Cardinals, Wayne Hagin was doomed to fail as the next man behind the mike. The audience just wasn’t ready for someone new (and Mike Shannon essentially shunned him in the booth, sealing his doom). Hagin was gone after a single season.
When Stern left terrestrial radio for SiriusXM, the Infinity stations had no idea what to do in morning drive — and David Lee Roth was certainly the wrong choice. Same thing for Rush Limbaugh affiliates when he died. ABC didn’t even try putting someone new into Paul Harvey’s slot when the time came.
When Jane Pauley left “Today” to do a daytime talk show, Deborah Norville replaced her, but lasted only a year. Then Katie Couric took over and had a long run until she, too, left to do a daytime show (overseen by Jeff Zucker). Meredith Vieira followed with five successful years, but when she departed, Ann Curry lasted only a year before being kicked to the curb in favor of Savannah Guthrie, who’s still there.
“Don’t follow a legend” applies in many non-media positions, too.
We all know someone in the private sector whose beloved boss has left, died, or been fired, only to find the successor was a pain-in-the-ass megalomaniac who instituted ridiculous rules just to prove they were the boss. My wife had experience with one newly installed supervisor who changed systems that were not broken. When she dared ask why, the reply was, “Because this is the way I want things to be. It’s my way or the highway.”
Bottom line: instead of being the one who replaces a legend, it’s better to be the one who replaces the replacement.