New WLS morning star Big John Howell has country in mind

Big John Howell

Big John Howell

When Big John Howell starts Monday at WLS AM 890, he’ll have more on his agenda than hosting a morning show on the news/talk station.

As part of his agreement with Cumulus Media, the veteran Chicago radio personality is expected to double as host and producer of a nationally distributed country music show, which could be launched as early as this spring.

Before he shifted to talk radio at Salem Communications WIND AM 560 in 2006, Howell, 54, spent 17 years spinning country music at CBS Radio WUSN FM 99.5. From 1999 to 2006, he hosted “Country Gold,” a live, five-hour weekly request show syndicated by Westwood One to 125 stations nationwide.

“Part of what made the WLS offer attractive to John was the opportunity to create long-form country content,” said a source familiar with the Cumulus Media deal. “No matter how much Salem wanted to keep him, that wasn’t something they could ever match.”

Details are sketchy about the program, but it likely would draw on Howell’s archive of artist interviews from his “Country Gold” tenure. A solid platform to launch the show would be the 70 Cumulus Media stations currently branded with the company’s Nash country music format. Chicago is not among them, raising the possibility that the show could be offered to US 99.5 or iHeartMedia WEBG FM 95.5, which recently switched to country as Big 95.5.

For now, the focus is on Howell settling in from 5 to 9 a.m. Monday through Friday on WLS. Joining him will be two holdovers from the previous morning show — news anchor John Dempsey and producer Pete Zimmerman. Don’t be surprised if veteran City Hall reporter Bill Cameron and sportscaster Chet Coppock turn up more than occasionally as guests.

Jen DeSalvo

Jen DeSalvo

New to the show will be traffic reporter Jen DeSalvo, who most recently was traffic reporter and unbilled co-host of Robert Murphy’s afternoon show on Cumulus Media classic hits WLS FM 94.7. She succeeds the ousted Kelli Walker. Before joining Murphy in 2013, DeSalvo had been a news and traffic reporter at Total Traffic. She also heads her own media and marketing communications firm.

Starting Monday, JoAnn Genette will be filling in alongside Murphy until a permanent replacement for DeSalvo is named. Prior to joining Cumulus Media as part-time news anchor last May, Genette had been co-host of Scott Mackay’s morning show on Digity’s WERV FM 95.9. The move reunites Genette and Murphy, who first worked together in 1999 on WXXY under Big City Radio ownership.

Howell inherits a morning show that ranks 17th with a 2.2 percent share and cumulative weekly audience of 193,000, according to the latest Nielsen Audio figures. Among listeners between 25 and 54, WLS is tied for 25th in mornings with a 1.6 share and 74,000 cume.

Bruce Wolf signed off Friday after a little more than two years in the WLS morning slot, calling it “the best thing that I have ever done professionally, the culmination of everything that I have done before it, including being Steve Dahl’s partner 20 years ago and doing that sweet little show ‘Barely Today’ on Channel 5 a few years ago.” He thanked his former partner, Dan Proft, their producers and Cumulus Media “for the opportunity to do this show.”

Cumulus Media officials did not respond to inquiries about Wolf’s status with the company.

Here is Wolf’s farewell from the morning show: