Today WGN 720-AM begins a new era in multimillion-dollar state-of-the-art studios on the 18th floor of 303 East Wacker Drive. But that doesn’t mean the Tribune Broadcasting news/talk station will be leaving all its old baggage behind.
In the face of WGN’s declining ratings, questionable programming moves and impending sale to Sinclair Broadcast Group, it’s a time of introspection, reaffirmation and some finger-pointing behind the scenes at “Chicago’s Very Own.”
I have obtained a series of internal emails written by on-air personalities at WGN and circulated among their colleagues on the eve of their departure from Tribune Tower and their move across the Chicago River.
The most encouraging words came from the station’s top drive-time stars — morning host Steve Cochran and afternoon host Roe Conn. Hailing “the continued greatness of WGN,” Conn wrote: “Our new studio assets will provide better, broader delivery of our content. 303 [East Wacker Drive] should not only be seen as a reawakening of the past but as a bold step into the future of radio.”
Cochran sought to reassure co-workers, too: “It's a very big city and everybody is not going to love us, BUT you should be proud that what you do on your shows everyday has actual lasting impact on people's lives. . . . Prep hard, work smart, have fun. The rest will take care of itself.”
In contrast was the critical tone of Lou Manfredini, host of the “Mr. Fix-It” home improvement show, who noted that WGN’s ratings “stink,” and wrote: “Moving to new studios is not going to magically change the perception currently being held by our listeners. In my opinion we all need to step away from so much political talk and try and be more friendly.”
Dean Richards, the station’s entertainment critic and weekend host, also contributed to the exchange: “For me, ONLY talking about recipes on the porch seems irresponsible while the world is burning. For me, it’s relevance, honesty and mostly, HOW I talk about provocative subjects that makes the difference.”
In the latest Nielsen Audio survey, WGN ranked 21st with a 2.2 percent audience share. One year ago the station was ninth with a 3.3 share. Two years ago it was seventh with a 4.3 share.
Here is the text of the email from Lou Manfredini:
Subject: We need to get back on the front porch with our listeners
Good morning all, I don't have everyones emails but I thought I would start with the ones I have. The Elephant in the room is that we all need to do better! While WGN Radio has never been a station that was built on our ratings, ours stink!
We were built on our relationship with our listeners and sponsors. Moving to new studios is not going to magically change the perception currently being held by our listeners. In my opinion we all need to step away from so much political talk and try and be more friendly. We are all inundated with the political news. Radio, TV, social and on and on. I find myself turning to music when in the car because it’s just too much. No matter what side of the political spectrum you are on, we need to blend in topics and conversations that can be controversial just not about politics.
A recent guest on the morning show said we are all becoming "tribal" and he is right. Taking a side politically is shooting us all in the foot. We are a commercial radio station and Republicans, Democrats, Independents all buy cars and homes, and need a knee injection and a My Pillow.
As we go to 303 let’s use that as an opportunity to redefine who we are as people and a station. These are my views as someone who has been here for over 23 years and have seen all sorts of ups and downs and those idiots that took us down, we rose from that and we can rise again. WGN Radio was built on being a friend, we need to get back to that.
Love you all! Have a terrific weekend!
Here is the text of the email from Dean Richards:
Wow . . . how to unplug toilets AND programming advice!! Who knew how multi-faceted the Fix-man is . . . ??
Nobody asked for my opinion, but in my 25 years here (and many, many more at other stations in the market), it’s been my experience that every show is different, every host is different and every quarter hour of every single day in the news cycle is different. For me, ONLY talking about recipes on the porch seems irresponsible while the world is burning. For me, it’s relevance, honesty and mostly, HOW I talk about provocative subjects that makes the difference.
Painting with a big brush here (available at Edgebrook Ace Hardware) may or may not make a difference. Aside from that, there are lots of other reasons that might be causing our current ratings dip.
We’ve had them before, we’ll have them again.
Here is the text of the email from Roe Conn:
I respect and appreciate your concern and passion for WGN, a brand you have have been instrumental in building and maintaining. But I’d like to respond — respectfully — to a few points.
WGN’s current over the air ratings problem, shared by all AM stand-alone signals is primarily due to a precipitous drop in listenership on the band itself. Listeners across the demographic spectrum are migrating to clearer digital platforms which are not currently or consistently surveyed by Nielsen.
In that regard, our combined “engagement” numbers are actually quite healthy. WGN is approaching 2,000,000 “starts” a month on the digital live stream and sees a per survey digital cume boost of close to 150,000 which is not accounted for by Nielsen.
In the issue of content, I agree WGN has never nor should ever play tribal politics. WGN survived and even thrived against a wave of radio competitors who — for the past 30 years — have used the tools of political aggression, misdirection and misinformation to gain cheap traction.
Before click bait there was diary bait in the lost age or Arbitron. I know, because I was there. Rush and I started the same week at WLS.
As a competitor and now as a contributor, I know that WGN’s greatest value is, indeed, companionship . . . informed companionship.
We have the most awarded newsroom in Chicago radio, perhaps in the country. We have a roster of legacy weekday personalities whose achievements in broadcasting, the arts, comedy, and entertainment are literally too numerous to mention. What is worth mentioning is that the current daytime lineup has been responsible for over half a billion dollars in billing over our careers at WGN and elsewhere.
We are the only major live and local 24/7 station in the country due in large part to you and the other really talented folks who make WGN shine and the cash register ring around the clock.
We are all living the story of our lives and WGN’s great pantheon of stars never shied away from taking on the news of the day from Vietnam Nam to Nixon to Clinton to 9/11.
I agree that tone, inclusion of dissenting voices and honesty are all important and things our audience expects and deserves. I hear our weekday hosts, contributors and producers upholding those values every day.
We are all excited about the move and know that our physical plant is only a part of the story. Our new studio assets will provide better, broader delivery of our content. 303 should not only be seen as a reawakening of the past but as a bold step into the future of radio.
Here’s to the continued greatness of WGN.
Here is the text of the email from Steve Cochran:
Sorry . . . didn't have opportunity to reply yesterday.
I agree 1000% with Roe and would only add that each host(s) are responsible for their own success or failure which includes material choices.
Todd [Manley] has said he sees no one not taking their jobs seriously and has confidence that we all are trying to be better than ever.
Personally, I have seen and felt more support and recognition for what we do now, than at any time since I came back in 2013.
It's a very big city and everybody is not going to love us, BUT you should be proud that what you do on your shows everyday has actual lasting impact on people's lives.
An important note. Having worked all over America I can tell you there is no management team more accessible than Todd, Stephanie [Menendez], and Paul Rennie too. Take your concerns to them. They will always listen.
Prep hard, work smart, have fun. The rest will take care of itself.
Friday’s comment of the day: Burt Levy: You had two very strong entertainment brands . . . to think that nobody at the Sun-Times could establish a revenue model that would benefit both the Sun-Times and Reader . . . that is simply amazing!