Seasoned programmer takes on 'Fresh' challenge

April 14, 2010

Jim Ryan

To hear Rod Zimmerman tell it, he's just hired "The Michael Jordan of Adult Contemporary Radio" as program director of WCFS-FM (105.9), the struggling CBS Radio station known as "Fresh 105.9."‚  Hyperbole aside, he's not far off the mark.

Of the seven CBS Radio stations Zimmerman oversees in Chicago, none could use a superstar programmer more than "Fresh 105.9," which has been something of a stinker ever since it replaced ill-fated FM talker WCKG in November 2007. It's currently languishing in 24th‚ place overall and in seventh place among women between the ages of 25 and 54 (the station's target audience), according to Arbitron's Portable People Meters. In other words, it's out of the money.

Taking on what could be the challenge of the year is Jim Ryan, who Monday was named program director of WCFS as well as New York "Fresh" sister station WFFS. (To sweeten the deal, Ryan also was named vice president of adult contemporary programming for all 14 CBS Radio stations in the format nationwide.) Though based in New York, Ryan will spend one or two days of every week in Chicago with hands-on control over the station's programming. "With today's technology, having one person overseeing two stations in two different markets is no big deal --  especially in this format," Zimmerman said. "It's about the music. It's about the listeners. Not a problem."

The move not only underscores CBS Radio's commitment to the "Fresh" format, but it squelches persistent rumors of a switch to an FM sports/talk format --  similar to that on the company's WSCR-AM (670) --  for the foreseeable future. Said Zimmerman:

"We've gone out and hired the best AC [adult contemporary] programmer on the planet. We're not going to hire this guy and then turn around and flip formats. We're really committed to 'Fresh,' we think it's a great format, and it really balances our cluster [demographically]. We're absolutely serious about making this work."

Ryan made his reputation as an innovative, successful programmer during nearly 12 years at New York's adult contemporary WLTW, which he transformed into the highest rated and top-billing station in the country. He rose to senior vice president of adult contemporary programming at Clear Channel Radio before stepping down in 2008 to head his own consulting company.

He's not quite a stranger to Chicago, having overseen programming at adult-contemporary WLIT-FM (93.9) for nine months in 1999 after the highly regarded Mark Edwards was forced out. In one of those odd radio coincidences, Tony Coles, who now calls the shots at "Lite FM" as vice president of programming and operations for Clear Channel in Chicago, was Ryan's longtime assistant program director at WLTW.

Ryan's hiring goes a long way toward explaining the firing of Bill Gamble, who was blown out two weeks ago after only eight months as program director of WCFS and country sister station WUSN-FM (99.5). At the time, it was assumed Gamble's ouster was strictly related to the departure of Dave Robbins, the general manager who'd hired him before being transferred by CBS Radio to Orlando, Fla. But it's now clear the prospect of luring Ryan was a more significant factor in the move. A full-time program director for US 99.5 is expected to be named within a few weeks. Of his new role, Ryan said in a statement:

"CBS Radio is known for being a destination where the industry's strongest programmers grow and thrive. It is with great anticipation that I become a member of this elite team, and I am truly honored to be working with such leaders in the industry. I look forward to raising the profile of CBS Radio's already distinguished AC stations, and working with the company's immensely talented programming teams to reinforce and grow these notable assets."
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