John 'Sly' Sylvester: 'All I can say is that they told us today that they were going to go in a different direction.'
Sly has left the building.
John Sylvester, known as "Sly" to radio listeners in Madison for over 25 years, was laid off Wednesday by Mid-West Family Broadcasting along with members of the WTDY news staff including Lindsay Adjavor, Amy Barrilleaux, Dylan Brogan, Crystal McKenzie, Shawn Prebil and Deanna Wright.
On Wednesday afternoon, Sly posted a Facebook note about the layoffs.
Message to everybody: I just want to inform you that today was my last day of employment at WTDY. After 15 years, I was told that my services were no longer needed. I would like to thank everybody that's supported my program. It's been a pleasure to share this wonderful experience with you. I need to take a big deep breath this weekend and figure out what my future plans are. But, old Winter Soldiers NEVER DIE, and I look forward to letting you know what lies ahead. Solidarity!
Prebil, who has served in several capacities at the station over the years, including as a frequent foil of Sly, posted a shorter message: "What you've heard is true."
"I was a little surprised," says Sly of the station's announcement. "The station overall may not have been highly ranked, and there are always concerns about revenue, but I've won a pretty loyal following over the years."
The correlation between ratings and layoffs is unclear.
Sly says that advertisers for his show, Sly in the Morning, "were getting good results" and that "the summer ratings were some of the best I've had in 10 years."
Sly got his first taste of broadcasting in 1979, while attending Madison Memorial High School, and has been a vocal presence in local radio ever since. He started working for WTDY in 1997.
"All I can say is that they told us today that they were going to go in a different direction," he says of the station's management.
According to Mid-West Family's station profile, WTDY has the "largest news staff in the market." The station touts both "liberal and conservative personalities and hosts" and says it covers both sides of topics.
The audience for the station skews male -- 64% male to 36% female -- and older. The median age of its listeners is 53. Most are college educated (76%) and employed (74%). Seventy percent of listeners have a household income of $50,000 or more.
Barrilleaux was the station's news director and host of Everything at 5. She says that Wednesday afternoon, she and others were told in a meeting that WTDY would be changing its format, and they were thanked for their work.
"All I can say is that it was the entire on-air news staff and Sly," she says. "Anybody affiliated with our news and local talk product."
Barrilleaux doesn't know what format the station is changing to, nor is there any indication on its website, which consists solely of a "Happy Holidays!" greeting with an email contact for Rick McCoy, the general manager for Mid-West Family Broadcasting. On Wednesday afternoon, the station was playing nonstop Christmas music.
Brogan, a WTDY news reporter, confirms that Mid-West Family management gave no indication as to the new format for the station, but says management gave the laid-off employees one clear directive.
"In order for anybody at WTDY to get severance, they cannot criticize or disparage the company in any way," Brogan says.
Brogan credits the company for its role in the local news and radio landscape during his time at the station.
"I worked there for five years," Brogan says. "I was always deeply appreciative that the company was committed to local talent and local reporting, and I am very saddened that this is no longer the case. WTDY has given me everything, and I owe them, even now, a sincere debt of gratitude for giving me a shot."
Barrilleaux expressed similar pride in the work she did at the station.
"I think it will be sad to see more local news product go away," Barrilleaux says. "I think we did a good job bringing local news to people, and I'm sure everyone at Mid-West Family Broadcasting would agree with that. I just think a decision was made to go in a different direction."
Tim Morrissey, who worked as an anchor and reporter in the news department at WTDY from 1988 until he was let go in November of 2008, says radio is becoming an unsustainable business model.
"When I came to this market in 1988, there was a seven- or eight-person news operation at WTSO, another one at WIBA and another one at Mid-West Family," Morrissey recalls. "WTSO has been folded into the WIBA stations, and now there's only one local radio group [Clear Channel Madison's WIBA] doing news. That's a loss. I have nothing bad to say about Robin Colbert and the folks at WIBA, but competition is a good thing. In some ways I'm shocked and sad that it came to this."
Brogan places the layoffs and format change in the broader context of how the radio industry has been consolidated and automated since the Telecommunications Act of 1996, with local news being one of its most significant casualties.
"I think it's sadly something that is not unique. Local radio is all but dead, and in Madison, we just moved one step closer to that," he says. "I also think this is not indicative of one company. Clear Channel has all but ruined broadcasting, and it's forcing other companies to make decisions they wouldn't normally make."
General manager Rick McCoy did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Sly spun classic rock in the morning drive slot at WIBA-FM in the late 1980s, but brought a political voice to his shows with a daily "Morning Dilemma" segment, where he allowed callers to debate each other and/or himself on the air. When he moved to the talk-only WTDY, he seemed to deliberately avoid being classified as a liberal or conservative. He publicly backed former U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold, but also famously (and crudely) disparaged former Madison mayors Sue Baumann and Dave Cieslewicz and raged against gun control.
When Gov. Scott Walker proposed Act 10 in February 2011, ending collective bargaining for most public employees in Wisconsin, his show found a new purpose and energy in addressing labor rights. The Capital Times' John Nichols became a daily guest, and Sly was a visible presence at state Capitol protests.
Morrissey, who appeared opposite Sly on WTDY's morning drive broadcasts for years, spoke with his former colleague after the layoffs were announced Wednesday afternoon.
"I told him that better days are ahead," says Morrissey. "He seemed to be in good spirits. I told him he's got a lot of opportunities because he's got a marketable name in the market, especially after the last couple years of talking about the Walker administration. I said, 'I don't think you'll be on the beach very long.'"
Brogan, who also performs as an improv comedian and appears in the Chad Vader video series, offers thanks to listeners and bemoans the loss of Sly's show.
"I'm mostly just sad that I don't get to listen to Sly anymore," he says. "I've been listening to him since I was 10 years old, and the fact that he's not going to be on the air is a loss for local broadcasting and the unique forum that local radio provides a community. It's all but extinct now."
Barrilleaux likewise emphasizes her positive experiences with the station.
"I'd just like to say that I really enjoyed my time at WTDY," she says. "I was treated very well by Mid-West Family, and I had a great time hosting the Everything at 5 show. I wish all my former coworkers all the best."
Sly echoes Barrilleaux's sentiments, adding that he "was always treated very fairly" by Mid-West Family.
"I just want to express my sincere gratitude to the people in Wisconsin who have supported me over the years," he says. "These are all difficult things, but it happens in radio. I've been extraordinarily lucky to have had a stable career -- until now."
[Editor's note: This story was updated with comments from John "Sly" Sylvester.]
Judith Davidoff, Jason Joyce, Kristian Knutsen and Jessica Steinhoff contributed to this report.