Michaels' is the first name to surface as Zell begins assembling his management team. A company source said Michaels would probably focus on Tribune's broadcast and interactive businesses.
Most recently, Michaels has been chief executive of Local TV, a chain of nine mid-size Midwestern television stations acquired in May with the backing of Oak Hill Capital, a private equity firm run by Fort Worth investor Robert Bass. Under Michaels, the chain has emphasized live local newscasts as audience builders.
Indications of Michaels' new role at Tribune came as Dennis FitzSimons confirmed Wednesday that he would step down as the company's chairman and chief executive immediately after the completion of its going-private transaction, which is expected as early as today. His plan to resign was first reported by The Times on Wednesday.
In an interview Wednesday, FitzSimons said his decision came in the last six to eight weeks during talks with Zell.
"Sam is making a significant investment in our company and wants a significant hands-on role," he said.
He said Tribune already had begun a transformation, including significant new investment in its Internet sites, and "that process is going to continue outside the glare of the public markets" under Zell. He added that he would continue as chairman of the McCormick Tribune Foundation in Chicago.
Michaels, 55, last worked for Zell at Jacor Communications Inc., a radio chain Zell bought in 1993 and sold at a huge profit in 1998 to Clear Channel Communications Inc.
Zell and Michaels have kept in close touch since then. Zell told The Times in an interview this year that he would not consider making a media investment without first asking Michaels' advice.
"I think Sam and Randy are kindred spirits," said Jeff Smulyan, chairman and chief executive of Indianapolis-based radio and television company Emmis Communications, who knows both men. "They're two very, very creative thinkers who can look at a problem differently from other men. And it's impossible to be in any form of traditional media today without thinking differently."
Michaels has several personality traits that plainly appeal to his once and possibly future boss: He is outspoken, adopts an informal style and thrives in an atmosphere of change.
"He'll stumble on some things and succeed on others," said Elliot Evers, managing director of San Francisco broadcast property broker Media Venture Partners. "He's willing to take risks and do things that other people haven't."
At one radio convention reported on by the Wall Street Journal in 2002, Michaels appeared on the podium in a ruffled shirt and fright wig to proclaim that "change is inevitable" in the radio industry.
By that point, he had helped build Clear Channel into a network of 1,200 stations coast to coast. But he had also alienated record companies by exploiting the company's market strength to build its concert business, forcing the industry to do business with both units. Critics also blamed him for homogenizing local radio, a reference to Clear Channel's use of disc jockeys operating out of a centralized location but projecting the impression that they were locally based. Although Michaels helped implement the policy at Clear Channel, it is not certain he originated it.
In 2002, Michaels was removed as chief executive of the radio chain and assigned to head a new interactive division at family-controlled Clear Channel -- a demotion that was variously ascribed to his deteriorating relations with music labels, his role as a family outsider and his brash high profile.
Michaels had joined Clear Channel when it acquired Jacor. At Jacor, Michaels aggressively took advantage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which relaxed constraints on station ownership, by expanding the chain to 230 stations from 26. Clear Channel acquired the company for $4.4 billion in 1998.
Michaels had a reputation for attention-grabbing promotional stunts. In 1983, for example, he pretended to puree a live frog -- a rival station's mascot -- in a blender while asking over the air, "What's green and goes 100 miles an hour?"
His iconoclastic touch is visible at Local TV, which acquired its nine stations this year for $575 million from New York Times Co. The company's website lists Michaels and two other executives, one of whom is a woman, under three digitally altered versions of the same photograph. Local TV, the website says, is owned by "Oak Hill Capital Partners, management and a consortium of bankers and high-yield lenders who drank the Kool-Aid and are as enthusiastic about our future as we are."