Confounding critics, 'Roe & Roeper' top all radio talkers

September 14, 2010

Last fall Roe Conn was being given up for dead.‚  Ratings for his weekday afternoon show on Citadel Broadcasting news/talk WLS-AM (890) were so low that some critics were confidently predicting his imminent demise.

The Sun-Times' Lewis Lazare cited unnamed "observers in the local radio market" who asserted that "the high-priced WLS talent might not be able to hold on at the station much longer," while ChicagolandRadioandMedia.com went even further, flatly declaring it "the end of the line for Roe Conn at WLS," and identifying three potential replacements for him.

Now, just 10 months after those dire words were written, Conn is presiding over the top-rated talk show of any kind --  at any hour --  among adults between the ages of 25 and 54, according to Arbitron Portable People Meter figures released last Friday. He even outperforms syndicated behemoth Rush Limbaugh on his own station -- to say nothing of the competition on Tribune Co.-owned news/talk WGN-AM (720). I can't recall a more dramatic turnaround for any Chicago radio show in the last 30 years.

In hindsight, it's clear that Conn's worst enemies last year weren't his competitors or his critics but his own bosses, who'd made so many hasty and ill-advised changes to the show that listeners were bailing out in droves. It just wasn't fun anymore. "

In all of my years at WLS, I've never had one as crazy as 2009," recalled Conn, a 21-year veteran of the station. "Managers throughout the market were making dramatic changes reacting to the twin perils of a weak economy and the unpredictability of a new rating system. Those running WLS were no different. They literally dismantled the show."

The promotion in January of Michael Damsky to president and general manager of WLS -- followed almost immediately by the return of Drew Hayes as operations director -- began the process of turning everything around. "We all understood that when you remove popular members of an ensemble, the audience is going to get mad and disoriented," Conn said. So they moved quickly to bring Chicago's preeminent anchorman, Ron Magers, back as a daily contributor to Conn's show, and they restored Christina Filiaggi to her former role as traffic reporter and female foil. Other improvements followed.

But perhaps the biggest factor in the show's resurgence was the arrival in April of Richard Roeper, star columnist for the Sun-Times and nationally known movie critic, as Conn's full-fledged partner. It proved to be a masterstroke. "He added a dimension the show had never had before," Conn said. "I've been blessed to have had some really talented and funny partners, but I've never had one like Richard, who combines a scathing wit with the voracious curiosity and experience of a veteran reporter. He can dive into any topic or situation and know how and when to make it funny or compelling."

In deciding to return to the station where he'd first honed his radio skills in the early '90s, Roeper turned down a solid offer from WGN and interest from others. Said Roeper:

"After Day One on the air with Roe, I knew I'd made the right choice. Having been friends with him for 20 years and having been a guest on his show many times, I knew we'd have a good on-air rapport, but I was amazed at how quickly everything jelled. I've worked with a lot of first-rate radio talents, but I've never seen someone as brilliant and versatile as Roe. Even the guests who come in marvel at his ability to do four things at once while making it sound as if we're having a great conversation that just happens to be in front of a bunch of microphones."

The high point for "Roe & Roeper" so far may have been the afternoon of Aug. 17 when the verdict was announced in the trial of Rod Blagojevich. During the 4 p.m. hour that day, according to Arbitron, WLS attracted a 6.2 percent share of adult listeners -- second only to CBS Radio all-news WBBM-AM (780) with a 7.4. WGN and all others lagged far behind.

"This station could not 'own' the big story a year ago at this time," Damsky said. "They didn't even try. Now people turn to Roe for news and especially for perspective. He had all his sources working and did an amazing job on Blagojevich. It was pure Roe Conn at his best, with Richard Roeper making a tremendously strong contribution."

What's next for the show? If its ratings continue to grow, some say national syndication could be in the offing. Damsky discourages such talk, however, stressing the importance of keeping "Roe & Roeper" locally focused -- particularly with a mayoral election and another Blagojevich trial looming in the year ahead.

For his part, Conn cryptically says there are "some very exciting things on the horizon," adding: "There's clearly a buzz, because we've been presented with some pretty interesting opportunities. We're hoping to be able to make an announcement about one of them by the end of the month." In other words, stay tuned for more.

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