Can Chicago's greatest radio showman pull off a miracle? We're about to find out.
Three months after Jimmy deCastro took over as president and general manager of a moribund WGN AM 720, the veteran broadcasting executive and media mogul is about to raise the curtain on his intended revival for the Tribune Broadcasting station. Plans include not only a new roster of familiar faces and voices on the legendary 50,000-watt powerhouse, but a robust presence online and — sometime down the road — an additional programming venue on an FM frequency.
For now, the most significant move will happen Sept. 3 when Steve Cochran replaces Jonathon Brandmeier as morning personality from 5 to 9 a.m. weekdays. Cochran, once seen as heir apparent to former morning star Spike O'Dell, rejoined WGN amid much fanfare last month following three years in exile. Brandmeier, whose final morning show on the station could air this Friday, is expected to reappear after a break on a live streaming webcast and eventually may turn up on the proposed FM signal.
Mike McConnell, the Cincinnati import who'd been hosting middays since 2010, already has shifted to daily podcasting while deCastro seeks to negotiate a settlement on the remaining two years of McConnell's $500,000-a-year contract (a vestige of the Randy Michaels era at Tribune Co.).
Make no mistake: These moves and more to follow are being orchestrated personally by deCastro, the charismatic former impresario of Chicago's Loop in the 1980s and key architect of what would become the largest radio group in the country before he stepped out of the limelight in 2000. Now at WGN, he's doubling as de facto program director, a position that's been vacant since Bill White tendered his resignation on deCastro's first day on the job. Working most closely with deCastro on programming strategy are Todd Manley, who recently rejoined the station as vice president of creative content, and Cochran, a longtime friend and confidante.
When the dust settles in the coming weeks, middays are expected to feature the husband-and-wife team of Bob Sirott and Marianne Murciano occupying one three-hour shift and current overnight host Bill Leff occupying another. Garry Meier will be kept in afternoons for now, though eventually he may be teamed with a partner. David Kaplan will continue to talk sports in evenings. Nick Digilio and Pete McMurray are expected to figure in some combination of late-night and overnight shifts.
Weekends also are getting makeovers with deCastro zeroing in on former WGN midday stars Kathy O'Malley and Judy Markey for a late Saturday morning show and former "Sunday Papers" host Rick Kogan for a late Sunday night show. Tribune political writer Rick Pearson is slated to host a Sunday morning show, leading into later hours for Dean Richards.
Others said to be on deCastro's "wish list" include such big names as Steve Dahl, Roe Conn and John Williams. Stay tuned for more.
In the latest Arbitron survey, WGN ranked fifth overall with a 4.6 percent audience share. Among listeners between 25 and 54, WGN was tied for 21st place with a 1.9 share. For the second consecutive year, revenue at the station dropped more than 10 percent in 2012 to just over $30 million.