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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