Clear Channel dims Lite FM luster by outsourcing talent

September 29, 2010

Kevin Gossett

For a good part of the '90s, a crown jewel of Chicago radio was WLIT-FM (93.9). The adult-contemporary station known as Lite FM not only dominated the ratings among adult listeners, but did so with quality, consistency and class.

It took a savvy program director named Mark Edwards seven years to turn the soft and sleepy station he inherited from a 14th‚ place also-ran in its target 25-to-54 demographic into the No. 1 music powerhouse in the market. Everything about the joint -- from its personalities to its playlist to its promotions -- sounded just right. And it didn't hurt that Edwards' bosses spent a ton on advertising and marketing the station throughout that time. (Remember those incessant "Turn on the Lite" television commercials?) It was the station on in every office.

But then came the sale of Lite FM in 1997 by Viacom Inc. to Evergreen Media Corp., which begat Chancellor Media Corp., which begat AMFM Inc., which begat Clear Channel Communications. A series of horrendous management decisions followed (including the incomprehensible ouster of Edwards), resulting in the decline of what long had been a ratings and advertising juggernaut.

Today, under Clear Channel ownership --  and in the new world of consolidation and Portable People Meter ratings -- Lite FM is far from the blue chip brand it used to be. Barely hitting the Top 10 in the 25-to-54 demo, it's known more now for its annual Christmas music stunting (which seems to run practically from Halloween to Groundhog Day) than for anything else.

What brings this to mind is the latest talent change at the station. After almost two years as afternoon personality, Kevin Gossett signed off from Lite FM Tuesday to devote full-time to his job in Phoenix as digital program director for the eight Clear Channel stations there while continuing to host afternoons at KESZ-FM. Chicago, you see, was nothing more than a spot on the map where Gossett sent his recorded voice tracks each day.

That's also the case in mornings, when Lite FM imports the voice of some guy named Sean Valentine from Los Angeles. And at night, too, when that strange Delilah woman comes to us from who knows where.

At least Gossett used to work in Chicago when he hosted mornings for five years on the former WNND. So whenever he'd mention something about the Water Tower or Walter Jacobson, he wasn't just reading off a liner card. But starting today, his replacement is expected to be Chris Davis, who'll phone it in from WNCI-FM in Columbus, Ohio. According to his station's website,‚ Davis also voice-tracks for Clear Channel stations in Philadelphia, Tampa Bay and Anchorage.

I'm not saying you have to be born and raised in Chicago in order to talk on the radio here. It's true that many of our greatest broadcast legends came from somewhere else. But unlike the current crop of carpetbaggers at a certain news/talk station in town, they all paid their dues, learned about the market, and got to know the audience before stepping into the most lofty positions.

It's no accident that the top-rated adult stations here these days are all owned by Bonneville International and all have live local personalities from morning to night.

In the case of Lite FM, Clear Channel doesn't even require most of its hosts to set foot in Chicago -- ever. The company pats itself on the back for its "local spirit" with a self-serving "Clear Choice" public service campaign, but can't see fit to staff all of its stations in the third largest market in America with real live human beings.

What's good for Anchorage, you might say, is good for Chicago.

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