By Alan Pergament
A few weeks ago, I sat down with Channel 4 General Manager Chris Musial to interview him about the news department's fall from No.1 and his plans to take back the lead from Channel 2.
Like Buffalo Sabres GM Darcy Regier, Musial sounded like a guy ready to fix the problems created during his lengthy reign as GM.
That's what made the timing of the news Friday that Musial is retiring from the station at the end of the month so surprising.
I cited multiple station sources in Friday's blog about Musial's plans to retire. The story has now been confirmed by a letter that Musial wrote to the staff and an email sent to the staff by a member of management in LIN Media, the company that owns Channel 4.
Musial told some staffers individually about his plans before writing a lengthy letter that essentially said he was leaving to spend more time with his five children, his daughter-in-law and granddaughter. He also thanked staffers for their prayers and love during his late wife Michele's battle with cancer.
"Our industry has experienced many rapid changes and those changes were eased by the dedicated people here at News 4 and CW 23 and the folks in the trenches at our sister stations and HUBs," wrote Musial.
"Like our 'Wake-Up' promos say ... It's the start of a new day," he added before thanking staffers.
In his email, LIN Media executive Scott Blumenthal thanked Musial for his many years of service.
"He is a true leader, mentor and the consummate professional," added Blumenthal. "This is a challenging business to be in but with Chris at the helm, your stations have grown and achieved terrific success over the years."
I have no idea if Musial made the decision to leave or was pushed. Only Musial and his bosses know that. However, there are several signs that leaving a lucrative job wasn't his idea, including his interview with me a few weeks ago.
* He is believed to be only 55 years old, which is a little early to retire these days. ABC's Barbara Walters is reportedly announcing her retirement this morning and she is 83.
* The line that he is leaving to spend more time with his family is a cliche often used when people are pushed out. A public relations expert once told me that he counsels clients to avoid the "spend more time with the family" thing because it screams "I was fired!"
* The station's news decline, which follows years as No. 1 in Musial's reign.
* His declining to return numerous telephone calls asking for comment.
* The fact that he apparently doesn't have another job lined up and LIN hasn't named even an interim GM.
* The fact that LIN held focus groups in September because Channel 4 had some of the most unhappy staffers in its group.
Of course, there are also a few reasons to believe Musial's statement.
* He is a widower with five children and could use the time he now has to spend with them.
* LIN stock has tripled in the last six months, which would make it easier for Musial to leave, especially if he got some sort of golden parachute.
I'll repeat. I don't know whose call it was. But the consensus of many staffers is that he was persuaded to retire and I would bet that assessment is accurate. In fact, one industry watcher suggested I was being "too kind" to suggest otherwise, an accusation that I rarely have faced.
The big question now is what happens to News Director Joe Schlaerth, who got some of the roughest reviews in the focus group. Musial became GM after being the news director, but it is hard to believe that LIN would give Schlaerth the job after his focus group reviews.
If someone from out-of-town is brought in as GM, he or she might want to bring in a new news director just like GMs in pro sports want to hire new coaches.
You might be asking by now, "why should I care as a news viewer?"
If a new news director comes in with the new GM, all of Channel 4's veterans and younger reporters would get a fresh look by their new boss. If he or she is from out of town, it could take awhile to understand Buffalo, which can be an unusual TV market.
In other words, Musial's "retirement" could lead to many more changes in news personnel, which is always unsettling to employees and sometimes upsetting to viewers in a TV market that is often resistant to change.
It isn't "only a new day" for Musial, but possibly for everyone at Channel 4. Stay tuned.