WGN’s new FM: Let ‘The Game’ begin

THE GAME LOGO  (STIFF TICKET)A combination of seasoned veterans, promising young talent and a few players to be named later are teaming up as Tribune Broadcasting's WGN AM 720 expands its franchise to a brand-new sports/talk station on 87.7 FM.

They’re calling it “The Game.”

David Kaplan

David Kaplan

At 1:02 p.m. Monday, WGN will kick off The Game under terms of a local marketing agreement with Venture Technologies Group, owner of the low-power station’s license. As first reported here Friday, Tribune Broadcasting is leasing the signal of WKQX LP 87.7 through September 2015. The call letters are expected to be changed to WGWG by midweek, pending government approval.

“We’re going after a young, more educated sports audience,” Jimmy deCastro, president and general manager of news/talk WGN, said of the new addition. “We want this to be young and hip and fun.”

With two other full-time sports/talk stations entrenched in the market — CBS Radio’s WSCR AM 670 and ABC/ESPN’s WMVP AM 1000 — The Game is counting on its unique positioning on FM and what it hopes will be a more entertaining approach to sports in order to gain a foothold.

“For everything the FM band is different. That’s why people went to it,” said deCastro, who turned WLUP FM 97.9 into a powerhouse of the ’80s and '90s. “It’s our belief that sports in Chicago is now analogous with pop culture — and that includes music and entertainment and movies. Like we have at WGN, we’re hiring smart spoken-word people who, in this case, are able to talk about sports.”

Mornings will lead off with Jonathon Brandmeier (who’ll also continue to be heard online on the virtual station wgn.fm). The rest of the day will be sports-oriented, starting with veteran WGN sports host David Kaplan and Chicago Tribune sports columnist David Haugh in middays. WGN’s Alex Quigley and Big Ten Network’s Howard Griffith will host early afternoons, followed by the duo of Harry Teinowitz and Spike Manton in late afternoons. WGN’s Mark Carman will be on in evenings, followed by overnight programming from NBC Sports Radio. WGN’s Jordan Bernfield will be a full-time sports reporter.

Pete McMurray

Pete McMurray

Todd Manley, vice president of creative content at WGN, said a number of other significant hires — including at least two women — will be announced as those deals are finalized.

With Kaplan shifting to 87.7 FM (along with cohorts Carman and Bernfield), he’ll relinquish his long-running evening sports talk show on 720 AM, Manley said. To accommodate the move, WGN late-night host Pete McMurray will be promoted to an earlier shift — from 7 to 11 p.m. Monday through Friday.

Look for more adjustments to WGN's lineup in the coming weeks. "People think we're done at WGN," deCastro said of his rebuilding effort. "We're not even half-way through."

Although deCastro acknowledged that it might be “a little challenging” to draw listeners down to the far end of the dial at 87.7 FM, he has 18 months to perfect the new format and prove its viability before the FCC pulls the plug on the low-power channel. By that time, Tribune Co. likely no longer would be restricted from buying a full-time FM station in Chicago to which The Game and its audience could migrate.

Jimmy deCastro

Jimmy deCastro

This isn’t the first time deCastro has put a sports/talk station on the air in Chicago. As president of Evergreen Media Corp., he transformed the former WLUP AM 1000 into WMVP (for “Most Valuable Player”) in September 1993. Since the Score was still only a daytime station at the time, deCastro billed his upstart competitor as “Chicago’s first 24-hour sports and personality station.”

The initial sports/talk format lasted only three years before the company reverted to a simulcast of the Loop. Then in 1998, ABC Radio bought WMVP AM 1000 and flipped it back to sports as the network flagship station for ESPN Radio.

“It’s changed a lot of times since it was [the original] ’MVP,” deCastro said of his earlier effort. “Yes, we launched that format. But what we’re doing now is a whole new show.”