Jimmy deCastro leaving WGN Radio: ‘I’ve done everything I can’

Jimmy deCastro (Photo: Glenn Kaupert)

Jimmy deCastro (Photo: Glenn Kaupert)

Jimmy deCastro, the charismatic radio showman who brought familiar voices and profitability back to WGN AM 720, is stepping down after three and a half years as president and general manager of the Tribune Broadcasting news/talk station.

The veteran media executive said he plans to leave WGN at the end of the month to focus on The Content Factory, his Evanston-based national syndication and new media company, and to expand into the area of sports representation.

“I’ve done everything I can to respect and build on the legacy of this amazing place, and I believe I accomplished everything I set out to do,” deCastro told me. “It’s been great fun to work with the incredibly talented people here. Now the time is right for me to go back and build something new.”

Larry Wert, president of broadcast media for Tribune Broadcasting, praised his longtime friend: “Jimmy brought his unique leadership, experience and passion to the job every single day, and it made WGN a better, more focused radio station both on and off the air," he said. "I am eternally grateful to him professionally and personally."

Wert said he has not decided whether to name a successor to deCastro at WGN. Until then, sales and programming operations will report directly to Wert.

DeCastro surprised the industry in 2013 when he took charge of the stand-alone AM radio station. He hardly needed the job. The impresario of WLUP FM 97.9 during the golden age of The Loop had made a fortune transforming parent company Evergreen Media, which he co-founded in 1988, into AMFM, Inc., the nation’s largest radio owner at the time, encompassing 465 stations. In 2000 deCastro cashed out of AMFM (a forerunner of iHeartMedia) and later became a consultant to America Online and president of AOL Interactive Services.

What motivated him, he said, was the opportunity to work again with Wert, his onetime protege at Evergreen Media, and the challenge of reviving WGN. The legendary brand had lost its luster under former Tribune Co. CEO Randy Michaels. Together with program director Kevin Metheny, Michaels made numerous programming and personnel blunders that alienated listeners, demoralized staff and tarnished a great heritage. One seasoned media buyer called it “a case study of how to dismantle a radio station.”

Reflecting on his decision to step in, deCastro said last week: “It wasn’t an economic thing for me at all. It was all about coming in here, doing something that was hard to do, and having the confidence to make tough decisions because of the experience I already had.”

In short order, deCastro hired back notable personalities who’d left WGN, including Steve Cochran (who was named morning host), Kathy O’Malley, Judy Markey, John Williams and Rick Kogan, and parted company with several who “didn’t fit with what we were doing,” he said, including Jonathon Brandmeier, Garry Meier and Mike McConnell. Along with programming and content chief Todd Manley, deCastro fortified the weekday roster with Chicagoans Roe Conn, Anna Davlantes, Bill Leff, Wendy Snyder, Justin Kaufmann and Patti Vasquez, among others. Bob Sirott and Marianne Murciano also came and went.

To commemorate the station’s 90th anniversary in 2014, deCastro established the WGN Radio Walk of Fame, honoring legendary performers and other luminaries with individual markers embedded in the pavement outside Tribune Tower studios on Michigan Avenue. His mission became to “honor the past, fix the present, build the future,” and he even appropriated the slogan of sister station WGN-Channel 9, calling the radio station “Chicago’s Very Own.”

While he renewed multiyear agreements for Chicago Blackhawks hockey and Northwestern University football and basketball, deCastro’s most controversial move at WGN was severing historic ties with the Chicago Cubs. Relinquishing the station’s unprofitable rights agreement paved the way for CBS Radio to pick up the Cubs just as the team’s fortunes were improving dramatically. Nevertheless, deCastro said the move instantly improved WGN’s bottom line, turning the station “from losing substantial money to substantial profitability.”

DeCastro’s other big gamble was launching a full-time sports/talk format on 87.7 FM, a leased signal at the far end of the dial on a low-power VHF television channel. The ambitious but unprofitable venture lasted only nine months. WGN also pulled the plug on its streaming online radio station, wgn.fm.

“If you don’t make mistakes, you can’t have successes,” he said. “But you’ve got to have the nerve to try things.”

Nevertheless deCastro remains a believer in the format he championed: “I still think there’s going to be a spoken-word FM. Absolutely no question. Somebody just has to have the [fortitude] to put something great on and support it.”

In the latest Nielsen Audio quarterly survey, WGN ranked seventh overall with a 3.8 percent share and cumulative weekly audience of 647,800. Cochran’s morning show on WGN ranked third with a 6.4 share and 335,400 weekly cume.

In 2015, WGN was the market’s third highest-billing station with total revenue exceeding $24.5 million, according to industry reports.

Here is the text of Wert’s email to WGN staff:

Today we will be announcing Jimmy De Castro has decided to step down from his position as President & General Manager of WGN-AM Radio. 
In the three years Jimmy (and those were Jimmy years . . . see Webster “opposite of dog years”) was at the helm of WGN Radio, he was able to stabilize the station, making it stronger and more focused, both on and off the air. He measurably led it to an improved business model, and he made the 7th floor a much happier place to work. He also had a positive influence on the relationships between WGN AM, WGN 9 and our entire organization.
He did this by bringing his unique leadership, experience and relentless passion to WGN and Tribune. He is a tenacious competitor and he raises the game for everyone around him.

As you're aware, Jimmy and I have a long history together, and I am eternally grateful to him both professionally and personally. I have never known or observed anyone that could fill a room or change a culture like he does. I have learned a great deal from him, and I am hopeful we will find another project together in our future.

Jimmy will stay on board through the business plan and most of October. In his absence, Todd Manley and Jeff Hill will oversee the operations of the station, reporting to me.