Afternoons adrift as WGN rearranges deck chairs

Afternoons adrift as WGN rearranges deck chairs

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Garry Meier

Facing fortified competition in the afternoon from rival news/talk WLS-AM (890) — and hoping for a boost from Cubs baseball broadcasts — WGN-AM (720) announced yet another lineup change Thursday at the Tribune Co.-owned news/talk station.

Effective Friday, Steve Cochran and Garry Meier will trade places, with Cochran losing an hour and airing from 1 to 3 p.m., and Meier airing from 3 to 7 p.m. weekdays. It’s the latest setback for Cochran, a 10-year veteran of WGN who once seemed certain to inherit the morning drive slot after Spike O’Dell stepped down at the end of 2008. But having fallen out of favor with the station’s current management regime, Cochran is now working under a contract extension that runs through the end of June.

For Meier, who joined WGN last spring, the move sets up a classic grudge match with Roe Conn, who’d been his partner at WLS for eight years, and Richard Roeper, the Sun-Times columnist and nationally known movie critic, whom WGN had tried to hire as host of his own weekday show. Reconstituted as “The Roe Conn Show with Richard Roeper,” it kicks off Monday (airing from 2 to 6 p.m.) on the Citadel Broadcasting station.

In a related maneuver that could turn out to be his lifeline out of WGN, 13-year veteran John Williams will begin hosting a 1-to-3 p.m. show for his former station, CBS Radio’s WCCO-AM in Minneapolis, starting Tuesday. It will originate from studios in Tribune Tower immediately following Williams’ WGN show, which airs from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. How long he’ll continue the double duty is unknown.

WGN’s afternoon shuffle comes just days after its cancellation of “Sports Central,” the long-running 7-to-9 p.m. sports gabfest hosted by David Kaplan. Replacing it (and adding an extra hour from 9 to 10 p.m.) is a “current events talk show” fronted by convicted felon and radio rookie Jim Laski, the former city clerk of Chicago who served 11 months in prison for accepting bribes. As a result, Milt Rosenberg’s “Extension 720” will air one hour later — from 10 p.m. to midnight. That, in turn will trim one hour from Steve King and Johnnie Putman’s overnight show, which will air from midnight to 5 a.m.‚ Under program director Kevin “Pig Virus” Metheny, the station already has overhauled its morning, midday and weekend lineups.

Many if not all of Metheny’s moves appear designed to anger and alienate WGN’s traditional listeners and break the bonds of trust between the station and its audience that date back more than 80 years. (“Truthfulness is only an added benefit when it happens to drop into your lap,” Metheny once informed his staff.) By that measure, he seems to be succeeding brilliantly.

In a statement released Thursday announcing the latest changes, Metheny said:

“Response to Garry’s early afternoon show has been great, and we want more people to know he’s on WGN Radio. This schedule adjustment gets Garry more starts in front of more listeners, often following the powerful audience magnet of the Chicago Cubs.”

In the latest Arbitron Portable People Meter survey, WGN tied for eighth place in afternoon drive (from 3 to 7 p.m.) with a 3.7 percent audience share overall. Among listeners in the demographically desirable 25-to-54 age range, it ranked 24th‚ with a 2.1 share. The survey period preceded the start of Cubs broadcasts.