After 90 years as the radio flagship of the “World’s Greatest Newspaper,” WGN AM 720 is about to raise its voice and expand its reach to the FM band.
Although blocked by federal regulations from owning an FM signal in Chicago, bosses of the Tribune Broadcasting news/talk station have made a deal to lease the frequency of 87.7 FM through September 2015. It's a potential game changer for the market.
Under terms of a local marketing agreement with Venture Technologies Group, which holds the license for the low-power station, Tribune Broadcasting will take over programming, sales and marketing for WKQX LP 87.7. It is expected to unveil a new identity for the station at 1:02 p.m. Monday — one minute after Cumulus Media drops its alternative rock simulcast with WKQX FM 101.1.
“We’re outgrowing WGN with great talent,” Jimmy deCastro, president and general manager of WGN, told me. “Everything we have said we wanted to do is based on the strength of WGN and our personalities. It’s all about getting the best spoken-word talent and getting more bandwidth.”
Overseeing programming for the new outlet will be Todd Manley, vice president of creative content at WGN. As of Friday, he and deCastro were still putting the final touches on a lineup that will lead off with morning personality Jonathon Brandmeier. Since September, the Chicago radio veteran has been heard on WGN.fm, a “free form” virtual station, where he’ll also continue to appear.
Together with Larry Wert, president of Tribune Broadcast Media, deCastro first had to negotiate a side deal with Merlin Media, which has had a local marketing agreement for 87.7 FM since 2012. Next came the deal with Venture Technologies. Terms were not disclosed.
Technically considered low-power television channel 6, the frequency has been functioning as a radio station since 2009 when Venture Technologies first signed on with a country format and soon after switched to smooth jazz. That ran until Merlin Media took over, eventually settling on an alternative rock format.
The future of all low-power television stations on channel 6 to operate as FM radio stations is in serious doubt after September 2015 when the FCC has ordered their conversion from analog to digital signals. By then, more options may open up for Tribune Co., which has been blocked as long as it also owns the Chicago Tribune. The newspaper unit is expected to be spun off later this year.
While he’s made no secret of his desire to acquire an FM outlet, deCastro has been keeping the market guessing for weeks about his plans. Shortly after Cumulus Media snatched up Merlin Media’s two full-power FM stations — WLUP FM 97.9 and WIQI (now WKQX) FM 101.1 — Crain’s Chicago Business declared that WGN was “facing increasingly bleak prospects” to fortify its arsenal. As he has throughout his charmed career, deCastro shrugged off the naysayers.
It’s been more than 60 years since WGN operated its own FM sister station. In 1953, the Chicago Tribune turned back the license of its underutilized WGNB FM 98.7 to the FCC. It was a colossally short-sighted decision that would haunt the company to this day.