What’s Old is New: Jimmy de Castro hire puts WGN through the ‘Loop’

The Tribune Company dropped a bombshell this morning by announcing the hiring of Jimmy de Castro as the new president and general manager of WGN-AM 720 in Chicago. He starts June 3.

De Castro’s vast radio and digital media background makes this a monumental move for the Tribune-owned news/talk station. The added element of awesomeness is that de Castro reunites with Tribune Broadcasting President Larry Wert — the two of them were instrumental in the operations of WLUP-FM/97.9 The Loop during the mid 1990’s. While Wert’s primary priorities are involved with the Tribune’s various television stations throughout the country, de Castro will be in charge of the day-to-day operations at WGN Radio.

De Castro also has history with current WGN morning host Jonathon Brandmeier and WGN afternoon host Garry Meier from their days at WLUP, further solidifying the Loop reunion tour. How long before someone on a message board or on Twitter insists that de Castro hiring Steve Dahl is all but imminent?

Until today, the short-term future of the station has been murky. Tribune executives, including Larry Wert himself, have carefully been vague whenever referencing WGN’s future. The de Castro hire seems to suggest there is some type of commitment from Tribune towards rebuilding the station, as opposed to immediately selling it.

That is a stark contrast from the end of last year when the company was in the final stages of its four-year bankruptcy. It was highly believed that the aggressive expense cutting then taking place at WGN was in anticipation of an eventual sale of the station. The departure of long-time Vice President and General Manager Tom Langmyer, the firing of the highly rated Milt Rosenberg, splitting the poorly rated Mike McConnell into two midday shifts and the hiring of two inexpensive talents Carol Roth and Turi Ryder were interpreted as the beginning of dark days for the station (also not helping was the departure of John Williams, who has publically stated that the decision to leave was his).

Until recently, WGN was a leading source of revenue for Tribune, even while the station struggled with internal turmoil during the Randy Michaels and Kevin Metheny era. Though station revenue has nosedived of late, hiring a radio pro like de Castro is a sure indicator that the company thinks it can turn things around.

While it remains possible that the company’s long-term plan is to rebuild the station and then sell it for top dollar, such a strategy may be risky. The purchase of the iconic New York news/talk WOR-AM last summer by Clear Channel was reportedly for $30 million.  While $30 million certainly isn’t chump change, it’s a low number compared to previous trends where such stations would have likely sold for a higher amount.

There are no guarantees when approximating the future value of WGN or any radio station. Concerning WGN, the expenses invested in rebuilding the station, whether that rebuild works or not, the downward ratings trend of the news/talk format in general, and the continued advancement of technology all make it risky to not go for the fast grab of cash now, as opposed to maybe three to five years from now.

If WGN went up for sale tomorrow, they would likely have a decent list of potential suitors – Clear Channel, Cumulus Media and/or Hubbard Broadcasting might all possibly be on that list.

I have no doubt Clear Channel would love to have a strong Chicago outlet on the AM band. At present, Clear Channel/Premiere Radio syndicated programming airs up the dial on Cumulus-owned WLS-AM 890, which is believed to soon drop all Premiere programming (i.e. Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity) in place of their own syndicated programming (i.e. Mike Huckabee, Michael Savage or Geraldo Rivera). There is very little reason why Clear Channel would not want to have WGN as an option to either carry their syndicated shows or make money off some type of local talk format.

Last year, it was rumored that Cumulus was interested in purchasing WGN. That certainly was a rumor that made me shutter (concerning WGN, I’d take my chances with Clear Channel as opposed to Cumulus).

As a WGN fan, I’m excited. I hope today’s hiring is the beginning of better days. de Castro certainly will have his work cut out for him. Though I do not expect him to make any quick changes, I do hope one of his first priorities is to address the awkward midday schedule — the current schedule with Mike McConnell working the 10am-12pm and 1pm-3pm shifts must change. An upgrade to Carol Roth, now hosting the “Noon Show,” is badly needed.

The station needs to figure out what it wants to be. Right now, middays (with McConnell and Roth) is more or less a current events format, while the morning and afternoon shows are more “loose” or free spirited entertainment. WGN needs to pick a lane and implement a daytime schedule that is consistent with the format. It’s somewhat okay to break format during evenings and on weekends, but the daypart format must be consistent.

WGN Radio was given a second chance in late 2010 following the removal of Randy Michaels and Kevin Metheny. Tom Langmyer and Program Director Bill White did the absolute best they could at undoing most of the damage done by Michaels and Metheny (even with some hurdles leftover, such as McConnell’s long and expensive contract, or Sean Compton’s hiring of Brandmeier). The hard work by Langmyer and White sadly came crashing down at the end of 2012.

With Wert and de Castro now overseeing things, WGN appears to have been granted a third chance. Let’s hope the third time’s the charm.

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