All bets are off after belt-tightening at WGN Radio

January 26, 2010

If the idea of Jonathon Brandmeier joining news/talk WGN-AM (720) seemed too good to be true, that's just what it's turning out to be. A double-digit decline in advertising revenue along with substantially higher rights fees for Cubs baseball broadcasts have blown a massive hole in the Tribune Co.-owned station's budget, effectively scuttling talk of any big-ticket deals for the foreseeable future.


(photo by Aaron Altounian)

Speculation about Brandmeier was fueled after he was spotted touring the premises Jan. 16 with WGN program director Kevin "Pig Virus" Metheny. Last Friday's budget cuts, including the elimination of six full-time positions, were seen by some as a prelude to a contract for Johnny B., who's been a free agent since Emmis Communications chose not to renew his million-dollar deal at classic rock WLUP-FM (97.9). Despite Metheny's overture, an offer for Brandmeier seems unlikely now, according to informed insiders.

Efforts by Tribune Co. to emerge from bankruptcy in the coming months and revenue declines of more than 15 percent for Chicago radio overall have been common knowledge. But what wasn't previously known is that the shift in ownership of the Cubs from Tribune Co. to the Ricketts family resulted in a huge boost in broadcast rights fees. By one estimate, it will cost WGN 40 percent more than last season to continue carrying the games.

Friday's cuts combined with the savings realized by the departures of generously compensated morning host Spike O'Dell and midday hosts Kathy O'Malley and Judy Markey could restore an estimated $3 million to WGN's bottom line. To make those cuts stick, the station's lineup is expected to remain stable for now. The biggest uncertainty at the moment is whether afternoon host Steve Cochran will stay or go when his contract expires in March.

In a memo to staffers Friday (published on the blog of Tribune media columnist Phil Rosenthal), Tom Langmeyer, vice president and general manager of WGN, wrote:

"As we are all too well aware, we have been living through a fundamental shift in the entire economy. This seismic event extends well beyond WGN Radio, Tribune and all other media companies.‚ It has happened and it continues to challenge nearly every industry. In the past year, the media has experienced double-digit declines in revenue as part of a trend of decline that goes back several years. That does not make it any easier to say goodbye to people we appreciate and respect, but it is the truth. In these challenging times, we are responsible for sustaining and reinventing Tribune and WGN Radio, while doing everything in our power to do so with as much thought and respect possible. The changes we are making are necessary, difficult, and painful. No sugarcoating or rhetoric could ever hide that truth."

Even if Brandmeier won't be joining WGN soon, the station's latest realignment did bring good news to his longtime former producer at the Loop, Jimmy "Bud" Wiser. On Monday, Wiser was promoted to the new position of executive producer of WGN Radio. He'll also continue as producer of Greg Jarrett's morning show.

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