B96 reboots morning show after Julian jumps

For a guy who makes his living talking on the air, Julian Nieh was remarkably inarticulate Wednesday. It wasn’t easy to explain why he was walking away from one of the best gigs in radio — morning co-host on a heritage Top 40 station in Chicago — with no job in sight.

Fighting back tears, he told B96 listeners: “I’m going to be moving on. [Pause] From the show. [Pause] Pursuing other interests. [Pause] And, um. [Pause] It kills me. I don’t really know what to say. It kills me. God, I’ve been here close to seven years.”

If something about it seemed unreal to his audience, it did to Nieh, too. After rambling on about making changes and following his heart, he said: “Right now, as I’m talking, I’m like: ‘Is this happening?’ And then when we turn off the mic, I’ll be like: ‘Yo, did that whole break that we just said, did that really happen?’ Like this is it? You know what I mean? Is this like the ending to this story?”

Yes, like, it is.

Whether the decision to leave WBBM-FM (96.3) was indeed Nieh’s, his CBS Radio bosses did nothing to dissuade him. “Julian has decided that he wants to have his own show,” said program director Todd Cavanah. “We’ve granted him that wish.” After more than six years at the station — including the last four as morning co-host and sidekick to Jamar McNeil (known on the air as J Niice) — Nieh was finished. He’ll be paid through the end of the year when his contract expires.

Cavanah, who’s been calling the shots as program director for 19 of his 23 years at B96, couldn’t conceal his enthusiasm for what’s next: J Niice, who recently agreed to a multiyear contract renewal with the station, becomes solo host of a morning show built entirely around him and renamed The J Show. It debuts today.

“The goal of the show is to highlight J’s experiences and his life,” Cavanah explained. “He’s got so many interests and so much to offer that we think that the women will say: ‘I want my boyfriend — or I want my husband — to be just like J Niice.’ This is really going to give him an opportunity to shine and open up the show a little more.” A self-described "son of Jamaica" and former child actor who grew up in the Far Rockaway neighborhood of Queens, New York, he joined B96 in 2008 after working at two Clear Channel stations, WAKS-FM in Cleveland and WHYI-FM in Miami.

North Shore native and Medill journalism grad Michelle Menaker (aka Showbiz Shelly) will remain a key player on the show, with an expanded role planned for Gabriel Ramirez, the technical board operator known as Producer Gabe. “I think this is a great opportunity for everybody to kind of step up to our expectations and to actually grow in their character development,” Cavanah said. “I’m really excited.”

It’s all being watched closely at rival Top 40 Kiss FM, Clear Channel’s WKSC-FM (103.5). Morning duo Christopher Frederick (aka Brotha’ Fred) and Angi Taylor have been gaining on J Niice & Julian since Brotha’ Fred’s Neighborhood debuted two years ago. According to Arbitron ratings released Tuesday, the two morning shows are about as close as can be: Among listeners between 18 and 49, B96 ranks seventh and Kiss FM ranks eighth. Among listeners between 25 and 54, B96 ranks ninth and Kiss FM is tied for 10th.

Tony Coles, vice president of programming and operations for Clear Channel Chicago, points to another measure in Arbitron — cumulative weekly audience — noting that Kiss FM scored for the 11th straight time as “the most listened-to morning show in Chicago.” In the 18-to-49 demo, Kiss FM boasts a weekly cume of 432,400 to B96’s 429,400.

“We are very proud of the growth Fred and Angi have achieved in mornings,” Coles said. “And we have high expectations for their continued growth in 2013.”


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Laura Baginski, Editor (@TimeOutChicago)