It's a good thing Bill Zwecker likes "American Idol." As the new entertainment contributor to WFLD-Channel 32, he'll be the designated point man for the prime-time franchise that all Fox-owned stations are required by law to flog endlessly on their newscasts.
The veteran celebrity columnist and show business reporter debuted Wednesday on Channel 32's 9 p.m. newscast with a piece about Elvis Presley, pegged to what would have been his 75th‚ birthday tomorrow. But if there were any doubt that "Idol" will be Zwecker's bread and butter, his new bosses couldn't have been more explicit. In a statement announcing the hiring, Mike Renda, vice president and general manager of Channel 32, said:
"We're thrilled to have Bill as part of the Fox Chicago News team. He will be an asset as we head in to a new season of shows, such as "ËœAmerican Idol,' providing viewers with an inside look at the latest news, information and behind the scenes action."
Zwecker is expected to deliver entertainment reports three or four times a week on Channel 32's 9 p.m. newscast, but he also will appear occasionally on its "Good Day Chicago" morning show.
It's a return to Channel 32 for the Chicago native, who worked there from 2000 to 2003 -- after a seven-year stint at NBC-owned WMAQ-Channel 5 and before a six-year stint at CBS-owned WBBM-Channel 2. He's been off the airwaves since last April when Channel 2 eliminated his position in a wave of stationwide cutbacks. Channel 32 has been without a show biz gabber since November, when David Viggiano's contract was not renewed.
Zwecker, 61, a high-profile Sun-Times columnist since 1992, will become even more visible in the coming months. Next week he'll launch a new website at billzwecker.com, incorporating columns, reviews, interviews and other material (including, eventually, a blog). His agent, Steve Mandell, also is busy lining up a radio gig and pitching a book deal for Zwecker.
"I feel very, very lucky," Zwecker said of his new job at Channel 32 Wednesday. "It was a combination of circumstances that worked out really nicely." As for immersing himself in "American Idol," which kicks off its ninth season Tuesday, he insists he's raring to go:
"I realize how important it is to the station and to the network. For the next three months that will be a very big part of my reporting responsibilities. I've been a fan of the show since I was at Fox during the first two seasons of "ËœAmerican Idol,' and I've continued to follow it and maintain relationships with sources who work on the show. I'm excited about Ellen DeGeneres joining the scenario this season, which I think will make it very interesting. I'm just hopeful we have a good crop of talented people on this year."
Elsewhere on the media beat:
- It's been seven weeks since a crazy woman hurled a brick through the showcase studio window of Tribune Co.-owned news/talk WGN-AM (720). But believe it or not, they still haven't gotten around to replacing the glass. In a metaphor for the troubled radio station and its parent company, the gaping hole remains boarded up, marring the Michigan Avenue facade of Tribune Tower. If any other local architectural icon were so shamefully neglected, you can bet there'd be a story and photo of it plastered on the front page of the Chicago Tribune.
- Libby Collins has been forced out after seven years as morning personality and program director at Waukegan-based news/talk WKRS-AM (1220). The move came two weeks after parent company NextMedia Group filed for bankruptcy protection. "It's been a tremendous pleasure serving the audience in Lake County on WKRS -- and before that throughout the northwest suburbs on WAIT," Collins said, noting the Silver Dome Award for Station of the Year she won from the Illinois Broadcasters Association in 2008. "It was an honor to be able to receive statewide recognition for what we accomplished at a 1,000-watt radio station broadcasting in the shadow of Chicago."
- Jen Patterson won't be joining Mike North when he debuts his "Monsters and Money in the Morning" show Feb. 2 on Channel 2. She's been hired by Comcast SportsNet to coordinate guest bookings, produce feature segments and make on-air appearances. Patterson, who holds the distinction of being the very first intern at Comcast SportsNet, most recently worked there as associate producer and"¨ weather/traffic/sports update anchor for North's "Monsters in"¨ the Morning." She previously was executive producer of North's morning show at CBS sports/talk WSCR-AM (670).
- Charles Thomas, political reporter for ABC-owned WLS-Channel 7, will moderate a debate tonight among Democratic candidates for Cook County Board president, including incumbent Todd Stroger and Dorothy Brown, Terrence O'Brien and Toni Preckwinkle. Starting at 7 p.m., it will air live on HD Channel 7.2 (Comcast Channel 217, Wide Open West 219 and RCN 618) and stream live on abc7chicago.com. Channel 7 will rebroadcast it at 10:30 a.m. Sunday. The first of six debates on Channel 7 leading up to the Feb. 2 primary, it's an excellent use of the station's digital technology and multiple platforms.