'Free-form' Johnny B. is on the loose

Jonathon Brandmeier

Jonathon Brandmeier

Three weeks after Jonathon Brandmeier signed off as morning personality at WGN AM 720, he's back behind a microphone — and out of control.

Starting today, Brandmeier will be heard live from 6 to 9 a.m. Monday through Friday online at WGN.fm, a virtual station being designed to incorporate audio, video and social media components. Today's show had been billed as a one-time test, but instead will air each weekday "for the foreseeable future," according to Jimmy deCastro, president and general manager of the Tribune Broadcasting news/talk station and related media ventures.

"Johnny doesn't want a lot of hoopla or a whole bunch of publicity," deCastro said. "He just wants to go on and do his show and connect with his audience."

In addition to debuting the new audio stream, today also marks the launch of a new website for WGN.fm, deCastro said, pointing out that the "fm" domain designation also stands for "free-form media." "It’s where audio will meet video and will meet social. That’s the excitement of what we’re building homegrown, internally."

Unlike the regimented format of WGN AM 720, which Brandmeier found too confining, his new home will allow him to do as he pleases. "The beauty of Johnny is really in being free-form, and it’s what the whole new world of media is about," deCastro said. "It’s audio and video and audience being able to participate and generate content. It'll be the typical Brandmeier morning show that you’re used to hearing, but you’ll hear it in free-form under Johnny’s 'clock,' so he won't have to cut in and out of bits."

Joining Brandmeier will be his longtime sidekick Buzz Kilman and several of the producers he worked with previously. It was uncertain Thursday whether he'd also be joined by Harry Teinowitz, former afternoon co-host of ESPN Radio sports/talk WMVP AM 1000, as Brandmeier had teased on Facebook. In what may be his only concession to formatics, Brandmeier will break for commercials three times an hour.

After its initial airing live each day, the show will be available to listeners in whole or in parts, as they choose. "You'll have the ability on every different software platform and format to listen to Johnny’s show in your car, on your computer, on your pad or on your phone," deCastro said. Eventually more programs will be added to WGN.fm, with the ultimate goal of migrating the format to an FM broadcast signal, if one can be acquired.

The new venture marks the reunion of a partnership that began in 1983, when deCastro, as president and general manager of WLUP FM 97.9, first brought Brandmeier to Chicago as a 26-year-old rising star. Brandmeier's initial success at the Loop became legendary — but impossible for him to duplicate in the decades that followed.

As ill-suited as Brandmeier proved to be on WGN AM 720 (where his morning show lasted 20 months and failed to make a dent in the ratings), his successor seems born to the job. Steve Cochran, who'd been at WGN for 10 years before he was exiled in 2010, appears to have settled in for a long and comfortable run. If ratings follow as hoped, his would be the real radio comeback of the year.