When Jimmy deCastro took over as president and general manager of WGN AM 720 in June 2013, he promised to have an impact on the Tribune Broadcasting news/talk flagship. "My hope is to bring a new energy to a classic institution,” he told the Chicago Tribune.
By any measure, that’s just what he’s done.
Following his self-proclaimed mission to “honor the past, improve the present and build the future,” the veteran media executive and consummate showman revitalized the station on the eve of its 90th year with a new sense of purpose and ambitious plans for growth.
Working with Todd Manley, vice president of content and programming, deCastro rehired popular personalities Steve Cochran, Kathy O’Malley and Judy Markey, John Williams and Rick Kogan. In a bow to the station’s heritage, he unveiled the WGN Radio Walk of Fame, enshrining such legends as Wally Phillips, Jack Brickhouse, Bob Collins and Roy Leonard.
In February the company began leasing airtime on a low power station, WGWG LP 87.7, and launched a new sports/talk format billed as The Game 87.7 FM. Despite an all-pro lineup, including the midday team of David Kaplan and David Haugh, its ratings have been stagnant. In the latest Nielsen Audio survey, the fledgling station tied for 44th place overall with a 0.3 percent share and a cumulative weekly audience of 137,300. (In the same survey, WGN tied for 10th place with a 3.6 share and a weekly cume of 716,500.)
Among deCastro’s more controversial decisions were dropping WGN’s money-losing Cubs broadcasts after this season (ending a relationship that began in 1925), and reassigning Jonathon Brandmeier and Garry Meier from drive time shifts on WGN to WGN.fm, the “freeform media” online streaming portal (billed as a precursor to a full-fledged FM format at some future date).
Despite the challenges of declining revenues and unsteady ratings, deCastro remains as upbeat and optimistic as ever. Earlier this week, he shared a few thoughts with me about the busy year he’s had and what he sees ahead:
Q. You've been running WGN Radio for 14 months now. Still having fun?
A. Indeed! Still having fun. So great to be conspiring with [president of Tribune Broadcast Media] Larry Wert again, working with Todd Manley, Cochran and Kap, as well as the amazing staff the station has compiled in just one year! I am having a ball.
Q. Now that Tribune Co. has spun off publishing, what do you see as the prospects for acquiring a full-power FM signal?
A. I have my hands full at the moment with 720 AM, 87.7 FM (which by the way is a great signal), and WGN.FM.
I predict FM signals will be coming down in price. As the combined shareholders of both Tribune Broadcasting and Publishing changes, our opportunities will come in this area. It’s up to us to be successful enough to warrant future investment.
Q. What's been the general reaction to your parting with the Cubs?
A. Reaction was of course emotional for our listeners and for us, but in the end, the listeners and our business partners understood the economics and ratings behind the decision. It’s a big non-issue. We love the Cubs, wish them well, and plan to work with them on both WGN 720 and 87.7 FM The Game.
Q. Are you surprised or disappointed in ratings for The Game 87.7 so far?
A. Surprised more than anything. The meter world of Nielsen/Arbitron requires a certain scale to show growth. I feel like Bugsy Siegel in early Vegas, living proof that time, money and a little water can build something special.
Our vision of audio/video/mobile/social has started with the “Kap & Haugh Show,” the best sports talk show on in Chicago today! The baby’s not even six months old.
Q. Can you clarify your decision to move Garry Meier? Any second thoughts about it?
A. The fact is we thought long and hard about the decision before making it. Garry is a great talent and many listeners are enjoying the freedom his online show allows him, which we expected. With two legendary talents like Johnny Brandmeier and Garry Meier on the Internet, who knows what’s next?
Q. Speaking of what's next, what is next on your agenda for WGN?
A. The world is converting to audio/video/mobile/social. We just launched a new mobile app, are less than 30 days from a brand new website and features. We hired a three-person video department, a new social media star, and I can’t wait for tomorrow because we are getting better everyday!