Allstate pays premium for WGN studio naming rights

There’s no use getting upset about WGN-AM (720) selling the naming rights to its Michigan Avenue Showcase Studio after more than 25 years in operation, but still . . .

When the street-level broadcast center at the southwest corner of Tribune Tower officially becomes known as the Allstate Showcase Studio on May 1, it will mark one more encroachment of commerce on a familiar Chicago fixture.

“It was important for us to find the right partner for this iconic part of Chicago’s landscape,” Tom Langmyer, vice president and general manager of the Tribune Co.-owned news/talk station, told staffers in a memo. “We’re thrilled to have a respected Chicagoland-headquartered institution to share in our commitment to our hometown.”

What’s more thrilling for WGN has to be the revenue (as yet undisclosed) attached to the multiyear sponsorship deal. The station is coming off another tough year — 2011 billing was down more than $3 million — and its parent company is still mired in the longest-running bankruptcy on record. So a little extra cash comes in handy.

Radio has been in especially good hands with Allstate Insurance Co., which more than doubled its ad spending last year to $138 million, according to Inside Radio. In addition to securing naming rights to the studios of WGN and sports/talk WFAN-AM in New York, the company also replaced Jewel-Osco as exclusive sponsor of WGN’s Hometown Voices Tour of suburban remote broadcasts.

It’s not clear how much signage will be visible to passersby at 435 North Michigan Avenue, since the station says only that the sponsorship will include “an interior studio wrap featuring WGN Radio and Allstate graphics and on-air naming recognition.” Because Tribune Tower is an official city landmark, any changes to the building’s exterior would require review by the city’s landmarks commission. For now, the only comparable site is ESPN Chicago’s Cadillac State Street Studio, which opened last fall at 190 North State Street. And there’s nothing subtle about it.

Oddly silent about the new arrangement has been the Chicago Tribune, whose writers and critics usually are the first to rise up in ferocious indignation whenever a civic treasure appears threatened with defilement.

Last November, when the city permitted Bank of America to plaster some signs over the Wabash Avenue Bridge (just a block west of Tribune Tower), Blair Kamin, the Tribune’s eminent architecture critic, called it “a grotesque cheapening of the public realm,” adding: “Sticking a corporate name on a beautiful object disparages both the object and the company whose name goes on it.” Although the signs were up for only a month, Kamin warned that for a cash-strapped city desperate for revenue, they offered a “nightmarish hint” of more horrors to come.

When I asked Kamin what he thought of the Allstate Showcase Studio that’s about to be unveiled at Tribune Tower, he declined to comment.

More than a quarter-century after the studio opened, the name change is coming just as the Michigan Avenue fishbowl is about to lose its most prominent occupant: Morning personality Jonathon Brandmeier, who never really enjoyed being “the boy in the bubble,” is moving to a new state-of-the-art studio being built for him on the seventh floor of Tribune Tower. The rest of WGN’s first-floor space will be converted to a restaurant, set to open in 2013 and front on Pioneer Court.

Like I said, there’s no use getting upset about this. In fact, when it comes to naming rights, why stop with just one studio? Surely there must be plenty of opportunities for WGN to squeeze more bucks out of its assets. Any takers for Tom Skilling’s weather map?

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Laura Baginski, Editor (@TimeOutChicago)