WGN puts Payne to the test with series of make-believe newscasts

Seriously, can the Allison Payne story get any weirder?

In this week’s installment of the real-life soap opera, our troubled heroine shows up for work Monday after more than a month away and goes through the motions of anchoring a newscast on the set of WGN-Channel 9, more or less as she has for the past 21 years.

But in this case, it’s all just pretend — to see if Payne can make it though 20 minutes on camera without losing her voice or having some other sort of meltdown. Two more make-believe newscasts are scheduled for today and Wednesday at the Tribune Co.-owned station.

Staffers who thought they’d seen it all were surprised to find management staging the elaborate run-through, engaging the full midday news crew (including audio, cameras, producers and directors on overtime) for Payne’s benefit. Also participating in the mock newscast was Robert Jordan, who filled in Monday for Payne’s midday anchor partner, Steve Sanders.

WGN news director Greg Caputo confirmed that Payne passed the first test, and he expressed hope that she could resume her anchor duties by the end of the week. “We’ll do a couple more run-throughs to make sure her voice can hold up before going back on the air,” he said.

Even if she does succeed in all three planned trials, it's not clear whether Payne's raspy, smoker's voice will last for the full two hours of the newscast she co-anchors with Sanders, airing from 11am to 1pm weekdays. Payne’s agent, attorney Steve Zucker, said he knew nothing about the test Monday and declined to comment on her condition.

Earlier, Payne had attributed her latest absence to trouble with her vocal cords, telling friends on her blog: “As you all know, I can’t read the news without a voice. The doctor says only time will heal it. I hope to be back with you all soon!”

For Payne, 47, the vocal cord problem is the most recent in a long list of ailments she has cited for numerous absences and strange incidents on and off the air. Over the years she also has acknowledged a battle with alcohol, the lingering effects of a series of mini-strokes, treatment for depression and other personal issues.

Although she famously declared “I was not drunk” after one particularly bizarre performance, she repeatedly has turned up on newscasts with glazed eyes and slurred speech. Her habit of making inappropriate comments has become legendary. In an interview with former NHL player Theo Fleury last year, she blurted out the name of their Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor. During a cooking segment last October, when a chef mentioned that she had studied in France, Payne asked if she’d really gone to France “to take a lover.” In December, Payne could barely hold herself together while covering the funeral of Cubs legend Ron Santo.

Questionable behavior has not been limited to her performance on the news. While covering the 2008 Democratic convention, Payne was seen cheering for presidential nominee Barack Obama from her seat with the Illinois delegation. During an interview on WTTW-Channel 11’s Chicago Tonight, she pulled out a check and handed it to the stunned host as a donation to the public television station. After acknowledging that she’d used the Rev. Jesse Jackson's clout to get preferential treatment from the Mayo Clinic, she filed a series of glowing reports for WGN newscasts about Jackson’s subsequent visit to Ivory Coast in West Africa.

It all suggests that Payne’s best days as a news anchor are behind her, and that her bosses are doing her no favors by continuing to make excuses and forcing co-workers to cover for her. If she’s no longer capable of performing her job fully and professionally, as events of the past few years indicate, it behooves her bosses to take appropriate steps.

Assuming they want to keep her on the payroll, the solution is obvious: The retirement of Merri Dee in 2008 after nearly 40 years at WGN left an ideal position for Payne to assume — as director of community relations. It's perfect for her. So what are they waiting for?



1.Alice in Pain

February 15, 2011 at 1:41 am 

 This is why I don’t like “preferential treatment” no matter what color or gender. They’re propping her up like this is “Weekend At Bernie’s 3: Weekdays At Allison’s”


2.Sherry Baby

February 15, 2011 at 7:43 am 

 I think Rob doesn’t like A.P. too much…can a blogger put her out to pasture? I hope she comes back..I like insane tv.


3.locally and lively

February 15, 2011 at 8:29 am 

 dont mind mr feder ms payne….good luck and cant wait to see you on tv again…we’ve all had “questionable behavior”….that’s no reason to be pulled from air…especially tv newscasts….


4.Downer D

February 15, 2011 at 8:32 am 

 We know why WGN wont just show her to the door.. because they know that “no job” Jesse will show up with pickets in hand and demand her reinstatement. The noon show has been so much better with Dina Bair anchoring. WGN stop making excuses for the train wreck that is Allison Payne in the ass… or don’t you have the integrity to stand up to Jackson?


5.Andrew Hayes

February 15, 2011 at 8:36 am 

 Rob, I’ve been a longtime follower of yours but today had to write. 

 I’m not addressing Payne’s issues, but I am addressing your suggestion at close.

 To suggest that someone who can’t get thru a 2-hour newscast could take on the role that Merri Dee served is insane. I held a similar post at a competing station in town, and know first-hand that the position sees more 16 hour days than it does two hour ones. In addition to the 8-10 hours of office time there are constant events, meetings, and community/philanthropic outings. I also know that Merri served the station admirably and heroically for many years – from heading up the company’s children’s foundation, ongoing high level meetings with city and state leaders, and community groups. And the creation and implementation of win-win partnerships that served both station and public interest. A retraction is due.


6.Please No

February 15, 2011 at 8:38 am 

 Looks like it’s time to watch channel 7 news again.



February 15, 2011 at 8:49 am 

 I like raspy smoker voices to read me the news… but not at lunch time… perhaps they can start a 2am newcast for her… I know there are men out there (and a few women as well) who’d tune in…. it’s a news market that hasn’t been tapped yet.


8.Patricia Arnold

February 15, 2011 at 8:50 am 

 I totally agree with Andrew Hayes. For someone with 28 years of experience covering this beat, it’s unfathomable that you haven’t the slightest idea what the job of Community Relations Director entails, and how tirelessly Merri Dee filled that position. Human Resources obviously isn’t your forte. And after years of reading your negative columns, bashing black women in the media, I’m beginning to wonder what is.


9.Robert Feder

February 15, 2011 at 8:59 am 

 If community relations director is such a vital, indispensable position, why has it been vacant at WGN since 2008? And why did Tribune Co. eliminate it from all of its stations? I agree: Allison Payne is no Merri Dee. But at least the move would get her off the air.


10.Patricia Arnold

February 15, 2011 at 9:11 am 

 The issue here is not whether the Tribune Company felt that the position was indispensable. Companywide, there are other community relations directors. Citywide, other stations have someone in that position. We don’t know if the local budgeting priorities dictated the Tribune Co.’s decision. You are aware that they are in deep financial trouble, yet you seized this as an opportunity to trivialize the importance of the role.

 I can’t imagine how difficult it would be to find someone to fill Merri Dee’s shoes here in Chicago. However, the goodwill that she garnered for the station during three decades continues to serve them well.



February 15, 2011 at 9:14 am 




February 15, 2011 at 9:46 am 

 @Patricia – your white man are racists comments are more than welcome at tonight’s Patricia Van Pelt Watkins for mayor rally, but not here.


13.Johnny Erp

February 15, 2011 at 9:48 am 

 Hey, it’s not like she keyed a car at the auto show or something like that.

 And, besides, who wouldn’t want to hand over a check to smug Channel 11 right on the air? Who wouldn’t want to see someone get all weepy at the funeral of that loveable nutball Ron Santo? Wouldn’t Howard Stern have asked the chef about getting a lover in France? Cheer for Obama? Like 90% of the Chicago broadcast media doesn’t find a subtler way to do it. Yes, affirmative action gone wild has resulted in Allison Payne making Felicia Middlebrooks seem like Bernie Tafoya, and Allison does have severe problems. So did that mentally challenged guy in “Revolutionary Road.” But he spoke the truth.



February 15, 2011 at 9:51 am 

 The pretend newscasts are the station’s way of setting up her removal.

 It’s obvious that WGN management is sending Payne, her agent & lawyer a message.

 The only question is will any of them heed it?



February 15, 2011 at 9:55 am 

 Dina Baer is better? Oh, c’mon. I just can’t get past her appearance. Her choice of clothes needs to be evaluated. That red dress yesterday was horrible and not appropriate for TV. Her hair is ratty and she needs some professional working on it. She doesn’t look like she stepped out of Macy’s window, looks like she stepped thru it.

 She and Sarah Schulte need some counseling in appearance. Look at Allison Rosatti, Kathy Brock and Cheryl Burton and get a clue.


16.Dance Music Authority

February 15, 2011 at 10:01 am 

 Love this blog!

 This is way overblown and we wish her well. If anyone wants to dissect newscasts, I have countless video files of anchors, yawning, frowning or generally looking robotic and disengaged.

 How about the robotic, cameras “gone wild” at another local station in town? Did that DEVALUE the newscast? The glitch lasted for months. Special treatment? Nothing is perfect.



February 15, 2011 at 10:09 am 

 I don’t watch WGN and have no real opinion about Allison Payne one way or another…but, at this point, it does seem like you’re just piling on. You’ve made your feelings about her very clear in past columns — how about just letting her succeed or fail now without hurling another nasty column at her. People like Randy Michaels deserve all of your venom…I’m not sure that Allison Payne does.


18.Dan Mathews

February 15, 2011 at 10:21 am 

 Hey! Lighten up on the smokers, Rob. “Raspy smoker’s voice”. You and I both know people in this town who have been smoking for years and if anything, it’s been a help.



February 15, 2011 at 10:33 am 

 Years ago, I thought Allison Payne did a great job anchoring the news. She was vibrant and seemed in control. Now, I don’t think she does very well, regardless of whatever caused the change in her performance. I don’t mean to offend, but she seems like she would get confused easily or might have trouble thinking on her feet. The best solution would be to move Allison to a reporter role, doing human interest stories a couple days a week. She would get to keep a job, and the viewers would get a higher-quality newscast with a new anchor. Whether or not her contract would allow for a change in role and pay, I don’t know, but something needs to be done.


20.James T. McAllister

February 15, 2011 at 10:35 am 


 You’re absolutely correct. We’re headed for a complete breakdown on

 the air. WGN Management will be held accountable.



February 15, 2011 at 10:39 am 

 First, my best wishes to Allison Payne; I hope she recovers as best she can, whether she continues at WGN News or not.

 And secondly, of course Merri Dee was not replaced. The CRD job at a TV station is obviously dispensible. At many stations it has been dispensed with, and the public hasn’t noticed. Or noticed, but didn’t care. It’s gone the way of locally-produced public affairs programming. We apparently would rather watch ‘infomercials’.



February 15, 2011 at 10:39 am 

 Hi Rob, I enjoy your column and look forward to it every morning…I’ve been reading for at least 10 years now, but I have to agree with Steve (#17). We all know how you feel and now its starting to get a bit out of control. Almost bully-ish. Everyone is aware of Allison’s health problems. Now that she’s back, how about toning it down a bit and like Steve said, “let her succeed or fail now without hurling another nasty column at her.”


23.Brad Nailer

February 15, 2011 at 10:44 am 

 The raspy voice is a distraction, plain and simple. If it is something that can be recovered from, than it’s good to wait. As a WGN employee she’s entitled to leave time. Beyond that, and in the absence of improvement, you couldn’t blame ‘GN for letting her go.



February 15, 2011 at 10:47 am 

 Along with public affairs, Merri Dee did lots of voiceovers for WGN and has one of the best voices in the business. Allison Payne does not.


25.CHI girl in LA

February 15, 2011 at 10:55 am 

 Dina Bair is great, but if they are going to use her, someone needs to speak to her about her severe look. Tango is wonderful, but does she have to look like she is going to break out into a milonga at noon?


26.T Dog

February 15, 2011 at 11:22 am 

 @Patricia Arnold: So bashing a black woman makes a person racist? I’ve been bashing (and hating on) Tyra Banks, NeNe Leakes from “Real Housewives”, and NaOnka (the quitter) from the last edition of “Survivor” because they are disgusting human beings – and I’m African-American. So, what is your logic? Does that make me a racist, too? Maybe you should go on Twitter sometime and see how many black people bash black celebrities, including Carol Moseley Braun. But according to you, black folks are not allowed to make fun or criticize other black folk. Okay, then. Having fun rooting for NeNe on “Celebrity Apprentice”, you’re just as disgusting as she is.



February 15, 2011 at 11:27 am 

 I honestly cannot say I would miss her if she left. I wish the best for her as she is a fine person. I do think she is past her anchor prime and she should definitely continue working an other position in the business. As far as Dina goes I think she is lovely the way she is and others who judge her hair and clothes are just mean spirited and shallow.


28.Say It Isn't So

February 15, 2011 at 11:35 am 

 Susan – you blogged about Dina Bair in another story. Get a grip. Dina is not bad at all. I would love to see your picture. Common bloggers, let’s see a picture of Susan. BARF!



February 15, 2011 at 11:40 am 

 Merri Dee is a true Chicago icon and legend. She has helped to raise tens of millions of dollars at Easter Seals, UNCF, and the like. Over 40 years in the business, she has positively impacted the lives of millions of people 

 Alison Payne is neither icon nor legend. 

 All I will say about what is happening to Allison today goes back to a proverb in King James Bible: “whatsoever a man soweth, that he shall also reap.” In other words, YOU (ALLISON) REAP WHAT YOU SOW.” End of story.


30.Mike D

February 15, 2011 at 11:41 am 

 Allison Payne was great for a number of years but I agree with Robert Feder. It’s time for her to step down and go in another direction. She will always be talented but bow gracefully. Also, to Say It Isn’t So, Bravo. Susan, sounds so jealous because either she or he, can’t fathom the thought of someone talented as Dina Bair; I also think Dina is not bad Susan. JEALOUS, JEALOUS, JEALOUS.


31.The Black Knight

February 15, 2011 at 12:21 pm 

 1. Allison Rosati may dress well, but she needs a nose job.

 2. Agree on Dina Bair.

 3. Maybe Allison Payne could read the lottery numbers, that’s less than five minutes a day.


32.Patricia Arnold

February 15, 2011 at 12:52 pm 

 @xwiseguyx Does your computer add words that aren’t there? NOWHERE did I say that white men are racist. Park your paranoia.


33.Patricia Arnold

February 15, 2011 at 12:58 pm 

 @T Dog: It appears that your computer is playing the same trick as @xwiseguyx”s. WHERE did I use the word racist? You guys seem awfully hypersensitive to me. *smh*



February 15, 2011 at 1:27 pm 

 I really don’t think Allison Rosati needs a nose job. I hope Allison Payne finds out what her medical issues are and gets some help.



February 15, 2011 at 1:40 pm 

 Has anyone checked the ratings? I bet they are up with Dina Bair doing the show. She is great. As far as WGN management having the integrity to stand up to Jackson, Why would they when they don’t have the integrity to help a sick person like Allison get the help she needs. They know the truth and all they do is enable her. She needs help and WGN should come clean.



February 15, 2011 at 2:07 pm 

 Allison Payne is in one of those challenging periods that life sometimes arranges for us. Whether she’ll remain an anchor will be decided by station management and the viewers. Thankfully she has people that love and support her–both personally and professionally. It doesn’t take much to beat someone down who’s clearly facing a major challenge. There world is full of bitter people that do this everyday.

 I agree with the other posters that said enough already, move on. Unless this is just your way of dealing with your own personal challenges whatever they may be. And good for you, we have no way of knowing what those challenges might be. Perhaps its a reproductive issue, job loss or diseased follicles, who knows? But one things for sure, should you ever face a major health crisis, loss of a loved one or any other major curve ball that life sometimes throws, let’s hope that there won’t be some bitter little man (or woman) bitching about you when you’re down.


37.Dance Music Authority

February 15, 2011 at 3:20 pm 

 They shouldn’t have had to pay a penny of overtime, regardless of the personnel or gear involved. That was a horrible call and makes one question the competency of management. Seriously.


38.Perry's Wife

February 15, 2011 at 8:07 pm 

 1. Allison Rosati is mentioned in the Eagles “Dirty Laundry”

 2. Dina Bair is a fox

 3. Allison Payne has the voice of an angel compared to my mother-in-law


39.Yo No Comprendo

February 15, 2011 at 10:13 pm 

 See how Felicia Middlebrooks is now tainted since she “got her job” through Jesse Jackson? Why even bother with him? Now we all know it wasn’t her talent that kept her job – so please, don’t do the same, Alison!



February 15, 2011 at 11:30 pm 

 The Black Knight said: “Maybe Allison Payne could read the lottery numbers, that’s less than five minutes a day.”

 And replace a true lottery legend like Linda Kohlmeyer? Not on your life buddy. Her five minutes per day are the most exciting five minutes of television you’ll find anywhere on your dial icon_wink.gif ¬ 



February 15, 2011 at 11:32 pm 

 WGN has more than a few reporters that deserve a promotion. The station has made accommodations for Allison Payne for years…she’s done.



February 15, 2011 at 11:55 pm 

 Steve (#17) and Josh (#22) have got it right. Robert, enough of the bashing of Allison Payne. I thought you got it out of your system in the last bash fest but apparently not. Seriously, did she turn you down for a date or something? When did it become OK to ridicule someone with health issues? She seems to have the drive and desire to get back in the game. She should be applauded not pummeled. Apparently you’ve never had a personal issue and even if you did would anyone be reporting it? Give it a rest.



February 16, 2011 at 8:15 am 

 Robert has the guts to say the truth. Payne is not easy to watch and generally on television news the anchors are not riddled with problems. WGN has gone above and beyond for her to deal with her problems. The “political correctness” may be what is keeping her around.



February 16, 2011 at 8:44 am 

 @Patricia – one does not have to use the word racist to make a racist comment. I thought perhaps you were brighter than that… apparently I gave you too much credit, but when one states “And after years of reading your negative columns, bashing black women in the media,” do you really have to be that literal to interpret a racist comment? 

 On another note. I was watching RuPauls drag race the other day and all of the drag queens were putting on a news show. I think that would be a great replacement for the current noon newscast…



February 16, 2011 at 9:19 am 

 Nora – you are absolutely right!


46.Herman Glimpsher

February 16, 2011 at 9:40 am 

 I think WGN is just getting their ducks in a row so they can part ways with Allison Payne.

 They are worried about charges of racial discrimination so they are going through these make believe newscasts to cover all their tracks.

 Allison Payne has been at one station for 20 years. That is an eternity in the broadcast business.


February 16, 2011 at 10:54 am 
A lesser reporter probably would’ve listed a few examples of Payne’s odd behavior recently, but Mr. Feder takes the time to give solid examples going way back. That’s how you build a solid story. And that’s why Rob Feder’s reputation stays solid.


48.City News alum
February 16, 2011 at 1:42 pm 
Allison Rosati needs to eliminate those thick suits with big buttons. They do nothing for her.


February 16, 2011 at 2:26 pm 
Robert, I’d have to agree with you on Allison Payne. She used to do a 3 minute spot on a radio show that I listen to and listening to her was very painful and I wondered myself what was going on with her. Even the hosts were trying to work thru her spot with her but I could also tell that they were taken aback. I hate to see someone lose their job, but maybe she does need to go behind the “scenes”. I love you Robert and all of your followers! Everyone’s opinions are great whether I agree or not. Thanks for the reads guys…your posts make my afternoon. All are insightful and some are hilarious!


50.Allison Payne & Serene Branson
February 17, 2011 at 1:44 am 
I’ll watch the Noon News when it’s “Allison Payne & Serene Branson” (look her up)


February 17, 2011 at 8:22 am 
I am just a fan, not in any way related to any media position in Chicago. I love Allison Paynes newscasts in the afternoon. We all cried at Ron Santos funeral. I felt that as a Cubs fan and a citizen of this city, she was showing us her heart.

 I wish her the best of luck and hope to see her soon!


52.Herman Glimpsher
February 17, 2011 at 9:02 am 
In Stellla Foster’s column in the Sun-Times on February 17 she wrote that Allison Payne was “completely healed” of her vocal problems and will be back next week.

I guess we will soon find out if that is true.


March 1, 2011 at 10:17 am 
I am a physician. Stella Foster (03/01/2011 Sun Times) describes two very real, and potentially life threatening conditons which would be responsible for Allison’s health problems. I think it may be time for you to apologize to her for the tone in your past comments.


March 18, 2011 at 3:51 pm 
Remember a news clip when Ronald Reagan got that award at the National Assoc. of Broadcasters, and an intruder ran out on stage and smashed it on the floor? Reagan was unharmed, but stood looking especially gobsmacked. When they cut back to Allison, she could barely contain her laughter. I will always love her for that.



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