Game over: Jimmy de Castro deserves to be fired

Jimmy de Castro

The fun and games are over. Jimmy de Castro deserves to be fired.

By most of the accounts I’ve heard, I reckon that Jimmy de Castro, president and general manager of Tribune Media’s WGN-AM 720 and The Game/WGWG-LP 87.7, is one of the better people in radio to work for. I would dare guess that with what was set to transpire today, he probably went the last few nights without much sleep.

That said, I can’t help but think that he deserves to be fired. I understand that calling for someone might be rather extreme, but under these circumstances, I don’t see how he deserves to keep his job.

News that Chicago’s third all-sports station, The Game, will be dismantled at the end of the year, in-conjunction with the news that personalities Jonathan Brandmeier and Garry Meier are also out, should not have been much of a surprise. And yet, the mid-afternoon breaking news by Robert Feder certainly pulled the rug from beneath my feet, as well as staffers at the all-sports station.

With The Game’s literal lack of ratings being common knowledge, lumped with the apparent high number of people on air and behind the scenes working there, it didn’t take a rocket scientist to conclude that the station was in the red. Commonsense would suggest that The Game would naturally have a short shelf life.

On the contrary, The Game was either orchestrated or at the very least approved by de Castro, the messiah that was going to save WGN. Commonsense aside, I held belief that de Castro must know what he’s doing and that he had a long-term plan. Surely, such a start-up venture will be given an appropriate amount of time to be nurtured and grow.  Then, the Garry Meier/WGN.FM fiasco happened, the addition of more junk programing on WGN.FM happened, The Game’s rating’s needle never moved while WGN-AM’s ratings needle moved downwards.

The pedestal that de Castro was previously hoisted onto had tumbled.

I feel bad for The Game’s staffers who will be losing their jobs at the end of the year. I feel bad for someone like Ben Finer, who became aware of his station’s fate while his show was on the air.

Garry MeierFrom a personal standpoint, I’m extremely angry about the Garry Meier (pictured, right) situation. While we don’t know the full story, there should be zero doubt that his initial removal from the AM 720 airwaves and to the WGN.FM online-only stream in May was political. Management attempted to explain Meier’s re-assignment by declaring that online streaming is the future of radio and that WGN needs a radio heavyweight like Meier to help anchor such a new and bold venture.

Some bold venture that turned out to be. Not only did Meier’s WGN.FM show receive zero promotion on AM 720, the company cancelled already scheduled remotes that he was supposed to be part of and phased out his segments with WGN-TV Ch. 9’s Tom Skilling amongst other acts that suggested he had descended far below second-class there.

Asides from anger about the way Garry Meier has been screwed by Jimmy de Castro, I am just beyond bummed out. This really does suck.

How does Jimmy de Castro explain the cancellation of Meier’s online-only show while Meier will continue to be the highest paid talent through October, 2015? If Meier’s treatment wasn’t political, his online show could rightfully continue even with the dismantling of the “WGN.FM” brand. There’s no reason Meier can’t be a featured online show and podcasted on WGN’s main website, while branding it as an added supplement to everything else that’s offered on AM 720. Such a novel idea that de Castro told the Chicago Tribune’s Robert Channick that that’s what he wants to do in 2015, while offering no explanation as to why that couldn’t be implemented by continuing to air Meier’s online show (who again, will remain their highest paid talent through October, 2015).

As for Brandmeier, he has not been under contract so the company loses nothing by cutting him lose. By saving the expenses of operating Brandmeier’s show as well as The Game, that money just might offset the remaining money owed to Meier until the expiration of his contract.

Amidst today’s news, there are still some lingering questions, mixed in with some other random thoughts or rhetorical questions I have.

  • Brandmeier via social media has stated he will be on the air tomorrow. Will tomorrow be his last day or will he be allowed to continue for a while longer or up through the end of the year?
  • While The Game’s “Kaplan & Haugh” show will likely continue to operate as a television show on Comcast SportsNet, how does today’s news affect Kaplan’s overall employment with Tribune Media, who has been a long-time WGN guy?
  • As the winter holidays got closer, I was hoping that sports radio heavyweight Dan McNeil may resurface to fill-in on a few shows. While I suppose that could still happen, what would be the point?
  • I don’t have much of a problem with how Alex Quigley and Ben Finfer ripped their bosses on the air for finding out the fate of the station via Robert Feder as opposed from their actual bosses. I don’t like the idea of them or update anchor Julie DiCaro ripping Feder for reporting the news though. He got the scoop and he went with it. That’s the media business for you, as cruel as that is.
  • Speaking of Quigley, he is also the operations director at WGN and The Game. The way he has been talking on social media, you’d think he too will be out of work. Will he still be the operations director at WGN come January 2015 or will he too be completely out the door?

It bears repeating how bad I do feel for the folks at The Game. I didn’t listen to it a whole lot, so it would be inappropriate for me to fully judge it’s overall quality as a sports station. That said, I was a fan of the “Quiqs & Finfer” show, as well as the “Night Game.” There are a lot of talented voices there and I do hope they get new opportunities elsewhere soon.

I must also give high kudos to Larz at Chicagoland Radio & Media. I absolutely loved his full narration of what transpired today. I especially loved his breakdown of questionable decisions and the ramifications that have taken place since de Castro’s been at WGN. Larz concluded his report by calling into question de Castro’s long-standing reputation.

Despite the mismanagement led by de Castro, I can’t dismiss the simple fact that whether one likes or dislikes today’s WGN, that station is still primarily an all-live and all-local station. What other talk radio station in the country can claim that? Since de Castro’s been at WGN, he’s been allowed to spend a lot of money in hopes of proving that live and local talk radio still has some life yet. I still think it does. I only wish that the money was spent by someone else, with more smarts and less ego (Tom Langmyer!). It’s such a shame that such a golden opportunity was wasted by de Castro.

Feedback may be emailed to blowtorchpress [at] gmail.com.

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Blowtorch Bytes: Roe Conn’s countdown, NFC & AFC announcers…

- While WGN-AM 720 was knocked off the air this morning due to a burst water pipe, there was an excess amount of hot air on Chicago’s other iconic news/talker, WLS-AM 890. The morning show’s co-host Bruce Wolf got into an interesting exchange about race relations and education with traffic reporter Keli Walker. Unfortunately, I did not hear it but Robert Feder provided the must-read transcript on his website.

– Meanwhile, former WLS afternoon host Roe Conn is revamping his website. The under constructed site now features a countdown, that as of this writing, would strike zero on Sunday, Nov. 30. Not sure what might be so significant about that day, nor do I understand the point in having a countdown to a mere website re-launch. Will be interesting to see what is unveiled that day or if the countdown is simply arbitrary.

RoeConn.com New Website Countdown

– During Sunday’s Bears & Vikings game, a few astute folks commented on Twitter how odd it was that CBS was airing a all NFC game. The airing was somewhat out of bounds considering that CBS typically airs AFC games, while NFC games are televised by Fox. A change in the NFL television rights deal allows games to be “cross-flexed” between networks, explains Ed Sherman in the Chicago Tribune.

All in all, I didn’t think Sunday’s Bears game airing locally on CBS 2/WBBM-TV was a big deal at all. The Bears are typically on CBS once or twice a year when playing an AFC team on their home field. What I found further puzzling while scouring Twitter was the classifying, by some, on the difference between NFC announcers and AFC announcers . The AFC and the NFC are in the same league(!)… it’s not like you had a NCAA Division 2 or a CFL broadcaster calling a NFL game for the first time.

– As a fan of Barry Rozner, I’m always pleased whenever he surfaces as a co-host on The Score/WSCR-AM 670. I’ve been especially pleased of late to be hearing him more on weekend afternoons while solo. Rozner sounds good on his own, and comes across naturally while driving a show. He’s going to make it harder and harder for Mitch Rosen, the Score’s newly titled Operations Director (previously Program Director), to pass him by the next time there is an opening in it’s Monday through Friday lineup.

– According to a Los Angeles Times report, CBS may potentially be blacked out by Dish Network as early as this Thursday. As a Dish subscriber, I’ve been deprived of a handful of networks, including CNN (and on election night!). I can’t imagine how fun it would be to be a Dish customer service representative as soon as their customers are unable to watch the “Big Bang Theory” or Sunday NFL games.

– Speaking of the Los Angeles Times, their hideous website works just as poorly on mobile devices as their sister publication, the Chicago Tribune’s. Politico’s new site, revamped just last week, is another cluster on my Nexus 7 tablet.

– I was sorry to hear over the weekend that Wiegel Broadcasting’s “First Business News” will cease production at the end of the year (the news was confirmed by Robert Feder yesterday). Bill Moller, one of the show’s co-anchors is a friend and while I am saddened by this news, I hope that this may broaden his opportunity for greater television exposure in 2015. Moller will continue to serve as a guest host on CLTV’s “Politics Tonight” while holding down the fort on his Saturday 12 p.m. to 3 p.m. show on WGN-AM 720 (when not pre-empted by sports).

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Phoning it in: Cochran should be on time to his own show

A burst water pipe in the Tribune Tower resulted in both WGN-AM 720 and The Game/WGWG-LP 88.7 being off the air for a few minutes this morning. Kudos to the Chicagoland Radio & Media message board user Larry London for what he posted this morning:

I heard WGN AM was off the air for 20 minutes this morning due to a water main break. Steve Cochran never sounded better and you can fill in your own jokes about the station’s ratings being under water.

Steve Cochran & WGN Radio Under WaterWhile I am a fan of Steve Cochran, I can’t help appreciate the humor in that message. As for Cochran, I wasn’t always a fan of his, but I have enjoyed his presence on WGN since taking over the morning show in September, 2013.

What I am not a fan of is Cochran’s physical absence during his show’s 5 a.m. hour. Originally, when his show was extended from 9 to 10 a.m. earlier this year, he explained that the first hour would be more news centric, and that he would take more of a backseat role to Andrea Darlas, Orion Samuelson and the rest of the show’s crew. Perhaps, I just failed to read between the lines, but at the time, I figured he would at least be there with the occasional chime in.

Now, it’s obvious he isn’t there at all that first hour, as evidenced by his routine of calling in by cell phone near the end of the hour while still on his way to the studio. By the way, calling in by cell phone doesn’t make up for his not being there. In my opinion, it makes the situation appear worse.

Again, I am a fan Cochran’s show, so I’m not looking for reasons to pick on him. I should also clarify that this rant isn’t because I dislike the 5 a.m. hour with Darlas and Samuelson. However, with Cochran as the face of the station – or at the very least one the faces – he is the guy who shouldn’t make it appear like he’s coasting along as he pleases.

Cochran is the one, upon his return to the station last year, who told listeners that the WGN of old was back and that WGN is the people’s station. Yet, there remains a community of angry listeners who believe Cochran is in “cahoots” with a station management team that seemingly has a real disconnect with the audience. Whether fair or not, Cochran’s critics – highly visible on Facebook, the Chicagoland Radio & Media message board and in the comments section of Robert Feder’s blog – believe he had a hand in the demotion of popular afternoon host Garry Meier (I honestly have no idea whether such assessment is fair or not).

I understand that Cochran showing up for his own show on time isn’t going to suddenly drown the anger of his vocal critics. However, his first hour absence does further the allusion that Cochran can pretty much do whatever he wants since he is tight with his bosses.

The easy fix would be to simply change the name of the 5 a.m. hour to a more generic name not featuring Steve Cochran. Or officially extend Digilio’s show an extra hour while he interacts with Darlas and Samuelson until 6 a.m. Either way, the 5 a.m. hour shouldn’t be billed as the “Steve Cochran show” when the man himself isn’t actually present.

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Roe Conn on WGN seems most logical, if not obvious

Roe ConnWhile Steve Dahl was debuting his new WLS-AM 890 afternoon show yesterday, Roe Conn, the former occupant of that spot, wrote a heartfelt note to his followers on Facebook.

Thanks again to everyone for your incredibly kind words. It has been the honor of my life to a part of your lives for the past two and a hallf decades. Like all transitions, this one has its challenges, but please know, I’ve been able to read all of your comments and will answer as many as a I can.

I’m not able to answer the most dominant question, “what’s next,” quite yet. But I promise, you will be the first to know when that decision is finally made. I plan on being back in your ears soon, but in the meantime you can catch me mornings on Windy City Live on ABC7 and tomorrrow night I’ll be on Fox32’s election night coverage. Fasten your seatbelts, I have a lot to say!

Conn has been mostly quiet on the social media front since his final show at WLS, October 7. Asides from a thank you note to his fans the following day, much of his social media activity has taken place at 5 p.m. on Fridays, with references to the canarble wagon segment, an iconic mainstay of his show each Friday afternoon. While off the radio airwaves, Conn’s kept busy with his regular appearances on ABC 7/WLS-TV’s “Windy City Live.” Conn will also appear tonight on Fox 32/WFLD-TV’s special election coverage.

It should also be worth noting that since Conn’s departure from WLS, all content has been removed from his website (which hadn’t been updated since 2012). There is now a note staying that a new website is coming soon.

New Roe Conn Website Coming Soon

As for what is next for Conn, the most logical, if not obvious, spot for him to re-surface is down the dial on WGN-AM 720. However, as we all have become accustomed to, what appears to be the most logical or obvious doesn’t usually happen in radio these days.

Robert Feder wrote yesterday on his blog that his sources at WGN have said there’s been no job offer made so far. One of the many reasons Conn’s arrival at WGN would seem to be imminent is because he and WGN’s President and General Manager, Jimmy de Castro, are in fact friends. I’ll also point out that in a Aug. 20, 2013 Robert Feder post hyping de Castro’s re-launch of WGN, Conn was specifically mentioned as being on the general manager’s wish list. And for the record, also on that list was John Williams and Steve Dahl.

Having listened to enough of Conn through the years, I get the sense that he would absolutely love the more relaxed talk format at WGN, where he would presumably not be forced to keep the conversation as news and politics heavy as he was at WLS. Ironically, it was Conn’s WLS replacement, Dahl, who once complained on his own podcast how former WLS program director Drew Hayes was annoyingly adamant about keeping the non-heavyweight news and political talk to a minimum (back when Dahl regularly filled in for Conn’s co-host, Richard Roeper).

Personally, I do hope Conn lands at WGN. In my opinion, Conn is a genuine talk radio heavyweight that would be a valuable asset there. One of Feder’s readers commented on yesterday’s blog post saying “if it is happening in Chicago, Roe is the person you want to listen to and find out what is really going on.” That, I agree with 100%.

If Conn does land at WGN, the obvious question is where and at the expense of who? Below is the lineup I would schedule if it were up to me. This is NOT a prediction of what I think would happen.

  • Steve Cochran, 5 a.m. – 9 a.m.
    Cochran in studio and ready to work by 5.
  • Bill Leff & Wendy Snyder, 9 a.m. to 12 p.m.
    I agree with the sentiment that their style of show sounds better at this time of day as opposed to late afternoons.
  • John Williams, 12 p.m. to 1 p.m.
    Williams’ ratings have never been outstanding, but he has a tremendous amount of goodwill will with listeners and advertisers. I have wondered if his being in Minnesota has posed any hindrance on that though. To make room in the lineup, I’d schedule Williams for just the one hour, having him anchor the “Business Lunch” format. A more business themed format would also be a good opportunity to have him correspond more with Orion Samuelson, which always makes for great radio.
  • Garry Meier, 1 p.m. to 3 p.m.
    Meier sounded good while holding down the 1-4 p.m. slot when first hired at WGN. Move him off WGN.FM and put him back on the mainstream blowtorch. An absolute no-brainer.
  • Roe Conn, 3 p.m. to 7 p.m.
    His WLS audience shrunk in afternoons, but I believe that was due to excessive commercial and traffic interruptions; not helping was severely weak programming in the morning. While commercials and the length of news is still a problem at WGN, I think Conn would benefit with their looser clock,  having more freedom to talk about non-news heavy topics while being surrounded by new people (i.e. Steve Bertrand and Leslie Keiling).
  • Pete McMurray, 7 p.m. to 11 p.m.
    While I’m not a huge fan of McMurray, he brings a  younger and fresher voice, providing a much needed contrast to WGN’s other long-standing and iconic talent. He lands big name guests and seemingly fits in well when filling in during other dayparts. In all reality, McMurray is being underutilized in the evening. I’m sure even his bosses would agree. There simply hasn’t been enough hours in the day to yet allow him to move up. Then again, having a talented voice in the evening slot should in theory make the overall station stronger.

The removal of Bob Sirott and Marianne Murciano from WGN’s lineup, in my opinion, should have been made yesterday. While I don’t necessarily dislike their program, I think it is the least exciting and stimulating show in their daytime lineup.

Roe Conn and Garry MeierOne should-be obvious show idea missing from my above lineup is a reunited Conn and Meier. I would love nothing more than for a second run of “Roe and Garry,” but I just don’t think there is any chance of that happening. Meier has specifically stated on multiple occasions that he has zero interest in working with a partner. Also, it’s not like Meier is the type of person who easily forgives and forgets. Even if the money and opportunity for success was right, I’m not sure Meier would cave on this.

Though never declared publically, it would not shock me at all if de Castro – who likely knew Conn would be a free agent by the start of 2015 – had already broached the idea to Meier, and didn’t get the answer he wanted. Meier’s likely unwillingness to work with Conn, or any other partner, might very well be why he was banished to the garbage dump that is WGN.FM.

That said, I think both Meier and Conn are professional enough to be willing to work separate shows back-to-back of each other. If not, they could at least work their individual shows and if necessary, borrow Jonathon Brandmeier’s black curtain to make sure neither makes eye contact with the other.

While Conn going to WGN is not yet a slam dunk, it is seemingly the most likely place for him to re-surface at in 2015. That is until the radio gods once again remind us to never bet on anything that half-way resembles logic.

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Been here, done that: Dull-sounding WLS banks on Dahl encore

Steve Dahl Show

It’s showtime for Steve Dahl, who returns to terrestrial radio today as the new WLS-AM 890 afternoon host. It will be interesting to see if Dahl can give WLS the steady boost that it badly needs, and how his ratings compare to his predecessors, Roe Conn and Richard Roeper.

I expect Dahl will boost afternoons for the station, at least in the beginning. Eliminating traffic and weather updates every 10 minutes to minimize interruptions is a nice start. Another problem that plagued the “Roe & Roeper” show was excessive commercials. If that isn’t addressed, Dahl’s numbers will eventually drop.

The sure thing is that Dahl can’t save WLS by himself. The morning situation there really ought to be addressed, though there is no guarantee with the notoriously cheap station owner, Cumulus Media. If they do decide to make a change, for example, to their morning drive program, there are a few routes they can go down.

They can attempt to stick with the conservative format, but instead go with more lively, interesting and less partisan personalities. Other options could be going with a more general news/talk type of show, with someone like a Rob Hart, who is already employed at sister station, The Loop/WLUP-FM 97.9. Pair him with a female co-host and you might have something a bit different from the morning programs on either WBBM-AM 780 or WGN-AM 720. A third option might be leaning more towards a lighter entertainment based talk format.  J.C. Corcoran, who grew up in the Chicago area and spent most of his professional radio career in St. Louis, is one possible name who could fill that role. Corcoran isn’t at all timid to muse on current news and and politics when he sees fit. I’m not saying Corcoran should get the job. He is the example I went with because I am a fan of his and because he has been one of the fill-in hosts for various WLS shows of late.

As for Dahl’s afternoon spot, not everyone is happy that he’s coming back. The obvious unhappy bunch would be many of the displaced “Roe & Roeper” fans. Another group of people unhappy are the Dahl haters. A third group, consisting of his fans and his haters are those who understand that hiring him is just one more example of how poorly talk radio has developed fresh and younger voices. That, I can agree with, which brings me to the image at the top of this post, which I think appropriately reflects what WLS hiring Steve Dahl signifies.

“Been here. Done that.”

By the way, that graphic wasn’t made by either myself or anyone from the Dahl hater’s club. It was an actual image slider that rotated on the old WCKG-FM 105.9 website dating back to 2008, where Dahl last worked afternoon drive. Though I didn’t know why then, I knew use of that graphic seemed out of place.

Saving it for 2014 would have been much more appropriate.

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The best thing I’ve read today: The media’s fear virus

St. Louis radio personality Paul Harris regularly shares via his blog and Twitter specific items that he considers to be important or fascinating reads. He dubs them “the best thing I’ve read today.”

Today’s blog by Paul Harris will without a doubt be the best thing I’ll read today. Paul takes the news media to task for their coverage of the Ebola virus, as if it has already become a plague in the United States (it hasn’t). Harris specifically goes after “Meet the Press” moderator Chuck Todd, in response to one of Todd’s tweets.

Yes, Chuck, that’s because you and your colleagues across the media spectrum keep playing it up like there’s an Ebola plague in the US when there isn’t! While thousands of Africans have died and will continue to die from the disease (a story that you’ve been abandoned because the victims are on another continent), Ebola has killed exactly one person here, out of a population of some 320 million. Meanwhile, thirty thousand more Americans will be killed by guns this year than by Ebola, not to mention cigarette smoking, unsafe sex, and salmonella — but where’s that wall-to-wall coverage?

Read Paul’s entire post:  “The Fear Virus Strikes Again”

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Chuck Todd should be seated at the head of table: And other random “Meet the Press” musings

Meet the Press Set

New “Meet the Press Set” – Photo courtesy, NewsCastStudio.com.

Six weeks and five episodes into Chuck Todd’s run as moderator of “Meet the Press,” now seems like a good time to dish out some pent-up thoughts pertaining to NBC’s venerable television franchise.

I’ve been watching “Meet the Press” semi-regularly since 2007. I regret that I had not begun watching it sooner, having missed out on much of Tim Russert’s run as moderator.

I’ve agreed with the general sentiment towards David Gregory and that the show had appeared to operate off a paint  by numbers formula. The public’s reaction to the news in late August that NBC’s Chuck Todd would take over as the show’s moderator was a mixed bag, and for a variety of reasons.

While it would be hard to find anyone from within the news media who doubt that Todd is as affluent in politics as it comes, some people hesitate that he just doesn’t have the demeanor or looks to hold down such a prominent television hosting role. The more general sentiment is that the Sunday morning talk show routine has run its course and that Todd represents more of the status quo.

The digital age and 24/7 news media has certainly lessened the overall impact of the Sunday morning talk shows.  While the Sunday talk shows continue to skew towards an older audience, shows like the “Daily Show,” “The Colbert Report,” and “Last Week Tonight,” deliver fresh and exciting content on a subject that often leaves people angry and frustrated — and they skew younger.

Prior to the anointing of Todd as the new “Meet the Press” moderator, there were suggestions that NBC News was leaning towards, or at the very least exploring, radically different means to help differentiate the show from its Sunday morning competitors.

Here’s how Politico’s Dylan Byers narrated such possibilities in his Aug. 15 report:

In fact, even Todd’s bosses needed to be persuaded. Deborah Turness, the president of NBC News, was lukewarm on him, sources at the network said. Disappointed by the program’s poor ratings under host David Gregory, she had entertained all manner of revisions: Moving the show to New York and handing it over to a more affable, nonpolitical personality like Savannah Guthrie, the co-host of the “Today” show; changing the show’s name; perhaps even canceling it and starting over. That Turness was considering such diverse and radical options right up until the end — while Gregory was left to twist in the wind, enduring an onslaught of criticism and negative press — shows just how uncertain she was about the appropriate solution.

Just last week, word came out that NBC News offered the moderator chair to the “Daily Show’s” John Stewart(!).

Also, the fact that Deborah Turness might even for a second consider cancelling the show is just batshit crazy.

I just can’t shake the feeling that giving the job to Todd was a reluctant move by NBC. I hope I’m wrong, because even though the Sunday morning talk show formula may be incapable of living up to the relevance in had prior to the digital age and 24/7 news, I still find it to be an important cog in the overall political news media. Todd alone is a vast improvement over Gregory, and I like how has so far come across on the show.

Hopefully, the recently upgraded set is a vote of confidence in Todd by the NBC News brass. However, I question the necessity of a new set. The previous “Meet the Press” set was introduced in 2010 and was yet to come across as out of date. One thing I don’t like since Todd took over is the anchor desk he shares with his roundtable. Though it’s only a small caveat, I believe being moderator of “Meet the Press” is an esteemed honor, enough so that the host should rightfully be seated at the “head” of the desk, if you will, apart from the rest. Simply sitting in the middle doesn’t separate him enough, in my opinion. Todd either feels more comfortable being seated in the middle with the roundtable guests or NBC made that cosmetic decision for him.

For now, I’ll continue to enjoy “Meet the Press” for what it’s worth. A simple re-hash of the week’s most important news and political stories along with some debate that I may or may not enjoy, pending the guests. While I happen to like Todd’s attempt at a slightly more casual and viewer friendly program, I don’t know if that will be enough to lure people away from ABC’s “This Week” or CBS’s “Face the Nation.” If he can’t, I reckon his leash will be shorter than Gregory’s (six years).

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Unnecessary clutter: Programming excessive news and traffic around talk radio format

News 720 WGN Logo

Concerning radio formatting, there’s supposed to be a distinct difference between all-news and talk. I wish talk radio programmers understood that.

I have no problem with how smaller market talk stations program all-news during morning and/or afternoon drive. My problem is with talk stations that attempt to program excessive news and traffic updates around their regular talk programming. While attempting to offer the best of both worlds to listeners, such efforts often become a detriment to the overall talk format, at the expense of both the listening audience and the talk show hosts.

Listeners of Chicago’s two prominent talk stations, WGN-AM 720 and WLS-AM 890, should know full well how such detriment has affected their favorite talk shows. Both stations have made repeated attempts through the years to beef up their own news and traffic coverage in hopes of luring listeners away from the ratings and revenue all-news powerhouse WBBM-AM 780 (which simulcasts on WCFS FM 105.9 — which will soon have some real relevance for seemingly the first time ever). WGN’s traffic and weather on the seven’s severely impacted the overall quality of Spike O’Dell’s morning show and Steve Cochran’s afternoon show, while WLS’s traffic and weather on the fives was enough to hinder one of Chicago’s best talk personalities, Roe Conn.

While WLS is expected to lessen the amount of afternoon traffic updates once Steve Dahl makes his debut in November, WGN is aiming to make another lunge at WBBM. According to a Chicago Tribune piece last month, WGN is in the midst of tinkering with its overall news coverage in response to losing the Chicago Cubs to WBBM.  The hiring of longtime television anchor Anna Davlantes to report on trending stories along with the addition of “Business Lunch” to the 12 p.m. hour of Bob Sirott and Marianne Murciano’s afternoon show are two prime examples of how they are attempting to bolster it’s news presence. WGN is also aiming to expand their ability towards more original reporting. The ultimate end-game is to establish a more extensive news team that can potentially attract displaced news seekers once Cubs games pre-empt WBBM’s all-news format starting next spring.

At least such attempts are seemingly genuine, unlike the empty maneuver of re-branding the station as “News 720 WGN” back in 2010 under the volatile leadership of the late Kevin Metheny.

While I am not fully pleased with many of the past year’s programming changes made by WGN President and General Manager Jimmy de Castro, I have to give him credit for continuing to maintain a prominently all-live and all-local talk station. Even though I believe many of his programming choices (or choices that he ultimately approved of) have been absolutely mind-numbing, WGN is one of only a few unique talk stations in the country that have avoided much of the cutbacks, layoffs, syndication and brokered programming. The enhancing of its news department is one more example of WGN’s willingness to spend more money while every other station seemingly finds new ways to cut back.

However, I have to think that such attempts to win over WBBM’s audience may potentially turn into a wasted effort. While the Cubs will pre-empt WBBM’s all-news format on AM 780, its FM 105.9 simulcast will continue airing all-news uninterrupted. I reckon the vast majority of WBBM’s listeners in the Chicago metro area will have no trouble switching to 105.9 on the FM band — especially since the simulcast has been inexistence since August, 2011. Any regular WBBM listener should at the very least be vaguely aware that a FM simulcast exists. WBBM has gone out of its way to include 105.9 in its overall branding.

Asides from those outside the FM 105.9 listening range or those unable to or unwilling to listen via online, how many displaced AM 780 listeners can WGN realistically expect to gain?

According to the same Tribune report, WGN President and General Manager Jimmy de Castro said that they’re “going to put more emphasis and energy into news, particular while [WBBM is] doing baseball.” To me, that sure sounds like longer news updates at the top and bottom of the hour, which in all honesty, is just what the station does not need.

WGN’s top of the hour newscast, especially during morning and afternoon drive, are already long enough. Even with an older skewing audience, I think WGN in 2015 can still function healthily without trying to be the all-service station. Between the amount of time dedicated to news and commercials, it can make listening to their programming difficult, which is painfully obvious in the morning during Steve Cochran’s show (the saving grace for WGN’s overload of commercials is that WLS is seemingly far worse).

Interruptions in the talk format, regardless of their merit, are mere distractions. WGN can’t have it both ways.

As it is, WGN is barely juggling their talk programming around news and commercials. Any further tinkering, especially if that actually does mean more news in hopes of attracting displaced WBBM listeners, will potentially displace WGN’s existing listeners — an audience that wants to listen to long-form talk.

WGN’s talk format is what makes it so unique. WGN should be utilizing its greatest strength, which is their full cast of friendly, live and local personalities (whether you like or dislike their current assemble of personalities is a separate conversation). Diluting them with more news and traffic interruptions would be counterintuitive.

Email: blowtorchpress [at] gmail.com | Twitter: @MartinHawr

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Steve Dahl to WLS afternoons: Full analysis with added perspective on how Cumulus shafted Roe Conn

Since posting this entry earlier this morning, the WLS-AM website has removed Roe & Roeper from their program schedule. Earlier this morning, Conn appeared on ABC 7/WLS-TV’s “Windy City Live,” confirming that yesterday was their final show. It appears that Conn’s career at WLS radio has come to an end.

In response to the news that Steve Dahl is returning to terrestrial radio at WLS-AM 890, veteran Chicago radio executive Michael Damsky wrote on Facebook, “this is the radio story of the year. Only Robert Feder gets this scoop.”

The news broken last night by Feder was so big and surprising, that my mother-in-law texted and called me to discuss it.

Steve Dahl - New WLS Afternoon Host

Steve Dahl, the soon to be WLS afternoon host.

It’s been known that the contracts for Roe Conn and Richard Roeper, the current afternoon hosts at WLS, were expiring towards the end of this year. There wasn’t much optimism that either would be back.

While the station has not officially announced Dahl’s hiring or any surrounding details, Feder did not specify whether Conn or Roeper will continue hosting until the change takes place. The WLS website is still promoting their Friday, Oct. 31 Roe & Roeper’s Nightmare on Clark Street” event. [Update: All references to Conn and Roeper, including the “Nightmare on Clark Street” event, have been removed from the WLS website.]

The contracts for Bruce Wolf and Dan Proft, the current morning hosts at WLS, are also believed to be expiring near the end of this year. Does the Cumulus-owned station plan to reinvent the rest of the daypart or are they content at sticking with the status-quo? It’s not like mornings at WLS are setting the world on fire. Does a scenario exist in which Conn, with or without Roeper, moves to morning drive? At the moment, my initial guess would be no.

Roe Conn

Roe Conn, the iconic. and now seemingly former, WLS afternoon host.

Even though I don’t think it will happen, I think it’s worth mentioning when considering that WLS is still reeling from the loss of their iconic morning duo, Don Wade and Roma. While Conn’s afternoon ratings haven’t been good, he too is an iconic personality there, having just celebrated his 25th anniversary. Reasonable executives might understand that outside of the afternoon show, the station is an utter mess.

Despite Conn’s swelled ego in recent years, along with his rampant stammering and stuttering, he provides a highly intelligent and reasonable perspective that is also entertaining while discussing the news of the day. Unfortunately, the excessive commercial time and the horrendous traffic and weather on the fives format have made his show practically unlistenable.

Since we’re speaking of Cumulus, I suspect they have little care about station heritage or that their fingerprint smudges are largely responsible for Conn’s poor ratings performance. The notoriously cheap company will likely part ways with Conn, allowing him to resurface elsewhere, with WGN-AM 720 as the seemingly most obvious choice — which I would be more excited about if that were to happen without Roeper.

Putting the excessive commercial time and traffic and weather format aside, I haven’t been a huge fan of Roe Conn’s afternoon show since the arrival of Roeper as co-host. I don’t think he adds much as far as content to the overall show. Obviously, the loss of Garry Meier as co-host was significant, but I eventually became comfortable with the combination of Conn, Bill Leff, Jim Johnson, and to a lesser extent, Christina Filiaggi.

As for Steve Dahl, I’m not a fan. I don’t appreciate how unnecessarily vile he is when insulting someone — while the circumstances in which Dahl criticizes someone may be warranted, there is a fine line between constructive criticism and being excessively mean. His recent lashing at WGN and his choice words towards Leff and Wendy Snyder, the station’s afternoon hosts, are just recent examples.

I also don’t think that listening to Dalh talk to wife on the air or his personal musings to be of interest. As a previous paid subscriber of his podcast (which allowed me to better sample his product in hopes of finding an alternative to bad terrestrial radio), I was turned off at the excessive amount of such musings that dominate his show, drowning out some otherwise interesting content, such as discussion of a Blackhawks playoff game from the night before.

While I’m not a fan of Dahl, I of course will be listening to him on day one at WLS. And that is whole idea. Hiring Dahl will, at least at the beginning, re-energize the older radio audience, bringing in new listeners, whether they are a fan of his or not.

On the flip-side, such a hiring only reinforces just how damaged the radio industry is. Instead of grooming young radio personalities into superstars, radio companies every now and then resort to shelling out decent to big money towards such re-treads like Dahl.

A few added thoughts…

– For those criticizing Robert Feder for releasing this scoop on the first day that his blog is jettisoned behind a Chicago Tribune paywall, do you not have any idea how journalism works? The timing of specific news pieces happens all the time, whether you like it or not. I suspect that those criticizing Feder for releasing the WLS/Dahl news today are people who already have a beef against him.

– Feder is not perfect. I have previously criticized him for often making it too obvious who he’s friends or foe with in Chicago media — and how that has  shaped how he narrates certain stories (i.e. WGN’s mishandling of Garry Meier last spring) — also a common function in journalism. That said, such scoops such as Steve Dahl joining WLS is what makes him a must read if you have any care in the world for Chicago media. You just never know when Feder has an ace up his sleeve.

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Blowtorch Bytes: Jennifer Keiper back on WLS, local TV news…

- I’m happy to hear that Jennifer Keiper is returning to WLS-AM 890, where she will anchor the afternoon news during Roe Conn and Richard Roeper’s show. Keiper is a news pro and should make for a solid addition to the station’s overall news operations.

Keiper was one of a handful of WLS on air staffers who were let go on February 29, 2008, in what turned out to be an intense cost-cutting measure by then owner Citadel. Among other WLS staffers let go that day were Christina Filiaggi, Bill Camerson, David Jennings, Nate Clay and the late Jake Hartford.

Cameron was brought back several weeks later, while Filiaggi would return later that year before being bounced for a second time in 2009. Filiaggi returned again in March, 2010 and has stayed put since.

Terence Henderson analyzes a recent survey by TVNewsCheck in regards to Chicago’s declining evening newscasts. Asides from a quick glance at the top stories once in a while, or when seeking a particular story of interest, I try to avoid the local newscasts like the plague, for much of the very reasons cited by Terrence as to why Chicago’s newscasts are such a mess.

– While NBC’s “Meet the Press” continues to plummet, I was only able to stomach about 12 seconds this past Sunday with the ridiculous sense of urgency David Gregory brought to the immigration/border control crisis.

Yes, the problem is a crisis, but it isn’t exactly breaking news, even though it came across as so. Not how I want to start my Sunday morning during what is supposed to be a nice and relaxing holiday weekend.

– For those hoping that Dan McNeil returns sooner rather than later to the Chicago airwaves, you’ll have to wait another two weeks… at least. McNeil announced on Facebook over the weekend that he’ll be spending the next two weeks fishing in Ontario, Canada.

– Cincinnati’s favorite radio import and WGN outcast has been busy of late, filling in around the clock in recent weeks on WLW-AM 700 in Cincinnati. McConnell’s workload continues for the next two weeks as he fills in for the station’s morning host, Jim Scott.

– Eddie Volkman is a moron. With his tasteless comments regarding “Jobo,” perhaps Volkman is aiming to audition as a new sidekick for Mancow!

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