When last we heard from Randy Michaels he was exiting the Tribune Tower in Chicago, resigning after news broke that he turned the company’s broadcast division into Animal House. While the architect of Clear Channel’s buy, consolidate and gut approach to broadcasting was busy allegedly throwing poker parties, he shuffled beloved hosts and drove down ratings at Tribune’s flagship station, WGN-AM. You’d think going home with a fat severance after his frat party at Tribune came to end would be enough for Michaels. But you’d be wrong.
Randy is back with a new company, Merlin Media LLC, and he’s busy buying up stations and flipping formats like it’s 1999. His newest innovation, if you will, is to bring news-talk radio to the FM dial. In Chicago the station is the former alternative rock station Q101 WKQX, and in New York it’s 101.9 FM WEMP, which also was airing alternative rock prior to the flip, but in a previous life had been home to smooth jazz for two decades.
WKQX stopped being alternative rock Q101 on July 15 and officially started as FM News 101.1 on July 29 with new call letters WWWN. Apparently to meet the new challenger head-on, CBS Broadcasting started an FM simulcast of its 24-hour AM news station WBBM, replacing an adult contemporary format known as “Fresh 105.9.” Previously WBBM-AM aired on the HD2 channel of that station. And, for what it’s worth, listening to the main analog channel FM simulcast of WBBM this past weekend I found the sound quality to be no better than the relatively mediocre quality I reported hearing on the HD2 channel last October.
Q101 was the first commercial alternative rock station in Chicago, going live with the format in 1992, the year after Nirvana broke and Generation X embraced the Alternative Nation. Even though the station sputtered with the format in the 2000s, it is fondly remembered by many listeners who first heard Seattle grunge bands like Nirvana and Soundgarden, along with Chicago’s own Smashing Pumpkins and Urge Overill on Q101. This week Time Out Chicago published a remembrance of the station, including staff recollections of the time when the station made the shift from playing Don Henley and John Mellencamp to the Cure and REM.
Time Out also features a less nostalgic look back by shock jock Mancow Mueller, who hosted his successful morning show on Q101 from 1998 to 2006. Mueller calls the celebration of the station “repulsive,” sour over the poor relationship he had with much of the station’s staff and perceived lack of recognition for the big ratings he scored there. These days Mancow isn’t even heard in Chicago, where he still produces his show, though he does do Sunday evening’s at New York City’s WABC-AM.
Randy’s New York FM newser went live on August 12. There haven’t been many heartfelt eulogies for the station’s previous format, since it was only a few years old, and the beloved smooth jazz format was killed off in 2005.
It’s anyone’s guess if FM listeners in Chicago and New York really need a news station on that dial. Listening to 101.1 in Chicago the station sounds unremarkable, with the typical big city weather and traffic every ten minutes (on the 1s, whereas WBBM is on the 8s), news headlines and lifestyle features. I’m not sure what service they’re getting their national and international stories from, they don’t announce any network affiliation. The lifestyle and entertainment stories do seem to be a bit more frequent than other news stations, along with more cheeky comments from anchors. Even two weeks in I’m still hearing flubs and missed cues more frequently than other stations.
I’m not really sure what FM News 101.1 offers that’s different from WBBM. They do make sure to remind listeners that “it’s not AM news on FM,” whatever that means. I also don’t konw why someone would tune in to FM News station instead of WBBM, which has a long lived legacy and brand in Chicago. For his part Michaels says that “as music moves to the iPod…it’s time for spoken word to move to FM.” Uh, sure, whatever you say, Randy.
No doubt, the nation’s biggest radio owners will be watching Randy’s little experiment closely. However, news radio can’t be cheaper to run than your typical voicetracked FM music station. So his FM News adventure will have to be wildly successful in order to encourage many followers. I also have little doubt that many, many folks in the business will not be disappointed if it turns out to be a failure.