Without some guiding stars, radio is sure to lose its way

December 21, 2009

In both cases, their high salaries and diminished ratings could have been used to justify firing them. So how come Jonathon Brandmeier was dumped while Roe Conn was extended for two more years? The answer could be that one company knows what it's doing, and the other does not.

roe conn

Emmis Communications, parent of classic rock WLUP-FM (97.9), chose to cut its million-dollar morning star after four years because the Loop's shrinking revenues could no longer support Brandmeier's high price. "Now the suits say it's cheaper to play music," an angry Johnny B. sang in his score-settling music video. "Hey, monkey, push a button and play another song. Talent on the radio just doesn't belong."

While the same tack could have been taken by Citadel Broadcasting, parent of news/talk WLS-AM (890), the company instead chose to restructure Conn's deal as afternoon personality and offer him greater security in exchange for financial concessions. A similar scenario has been proposed for WLS morning hosts Don and Roma Wade. And just such a move happened earlier this year when Bonneville International renegotiated its contract with morning franchise Eric Ferguson, who agreed to pare back his salary (although it's still believed to be a seven-figure deal) for a longer guaranteed term.

To my way of thinking, that makes Citadel (even as it filed for bankruptcy protection Sunday) and Bonneville smarter operators than Emmis or CBS Radio or Clear Channel Radio or Tribune Co., all of whom recently have forced out top Chicago talent and squandered years of equity for short-term budget gains. What they've lost in the process is the only thing that can keep local radio viable in the long run --  established personalities uniquely connected to the market. Otherwise, their stations really are no better than a thousand satellite music channels, your personal iPod or those button-pushing monkeys.

"This is the craziest moment our business has ever gone through," Conn said Sunday. "I think the audiences are looking for some stability. They're getting rocked as the people they've been listening to for years or decades just disappear without rhyme or reason. I'm very happy that I'm able to transition smoothly through this time."

Mike Fowler, president and general manager of WLS, recognized problems with Conn's afternoon show as currently constituted, but wisely concluded that you don't sacrifice a 20-year investment over a few months of rocky ratings. "Roe is extremely talented and has been such a huge part of the success of WLS," Fowler said. "I am thrilled that he remains a major player for us going forward."

The most conspicuous enhancement to Conn's show will be the addition of Cisco Cotto, who returns to WLS after three years as morning co-host on Salem Communications news/talk WIND-AM (560). As first reported here Friday, Cotto's two-year deal, negotiated by agent Eliot Ephraim, could have Cotto on the air with Conn by Jan. 4.

"I feel like I'm back home after a really fun three-year vacation," Cotto said. "Roe and I have been friends for a decade so I think I know how to handle that hypochondriac.‚ Watching him flinch every time I cough will be such fun!"

As for his former partner at WIND, Cotto called Big John Howell "the consummate pro," adding: "It was my honor to work with him.‚ It's not often that two people have solid chemistry on the radio, so that made me wrestle a little with leaving. He has been very gracious with this switch, and I will never forget that." Howell, reached while en route to Michigan over the weekend, declined to comment on Cotto's departure.

Conn said he welcomed the prospect of teaming with Cotto, noting: "I think I work best with a partner, whether it was Garry [Meier] or Bill [Leff] or anybody else I can bounce off of and react to." Added Conn:

"I love Cisco. He's one of those guys who's just an innate broadcaster. He wants to tell a story. He does it well. He's passionate about his beliefs. And he's a very fun talk show host, who doesn't have to do it in a mean way. I don't necessarily eviscerate people or groups, which happens in a lot of spoken word radio. I like to do it more with a sense of humor than with a sense of anger. Cisco also knows how to say what he wants to say without being hurtful or mean."

Elsewhere on the media beat:

  • As if we needed further proof that Chicago is the biggest small town in America, consider this heartwarming holiday story: Frank Sennett, editor in chief of Time Out Chicago, was taking the Red Line downtown the day before Thanksgiving when he found a 30 GB iPod at the Sheridan L station. He posted a lost-and-found notice on Craigslist, but received no response. When Sennett plugged in the iPod to his computer, he discovered it belonged to a "JHendrix." A bit more detective work revealed the owner to be Justin "Jimi" Hendrix, promotions director at WLUP. On Sunday, owner and iPod were reunited. "He told me it was a great holiday surprise to get the unit back," Sennett said.
  • Cisco Cotto would bring to six the number of alumni from the former all-news WMAQ who are working on the air at WLS. WMAQ ceased operations after 78 years in 2000. Cotto joins an illustrious club that already includes Bill Cameron, Pat Cassidy, Roe Conn, John Dempsey and Maura Myles.
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