News goes from bad to worse for Merlin Media

If Mancow Muller is the answer, then the problems with FM News 101.1 are even worse than I thought.

Sometime after 10am Thursday, the former million-dollar shock jock will step into the Merchandise Mart studios of WIQI-FM (101.1), open a microphone and rant about whatever’s on his mind. It will mark his third unheralded appearance on the Merlin Media station in the last eight days.

This is worth noting for two reasons: One, because it’s a return to the same studio and the same frequency from which Mancow’s Morning Madhouse emanated for 12 years before Muller was fired by former Q101 owner Emmis Communications in 2006. And two, because his deployment, however long it lasts, is the clearest sign yet that Merlin Media bossman Randy Michaels has no idea of how to fix his station.

At this point, I think we can all agree that FM News 101.1 has been an abject failure. Even the biggest apologists and ass kissers who insisted there was nothing wrong with the product that a little promotion and a few billboards couldn’t fix have finally come to their senses. Any chance of the station succeeding as a legitimate, credible and listenable news outlet seems more remote than ever.

I still find it hard to listen to FM News 101.1 for more than five minutes without getting annoyed or disgusted. The writing and editing are subpar, reporting is often amateurish, subjects are sometimes misidentified or not identified at all, stories of little or no consequence are given equal play with those that demand greater clarity or depth, and what passes for commentary is often puerile. At any given moment, I’m not even sure when the news I’m hearing is live or recorded, or whether it’s being read by someone here or in New York or who-knows-where.

Maybe we’ve been spoiled, but Chicago news consumers have come to expect a level of polish and intelligence from the likes of CBS’s Newsradio 780 and Chicago Public Media's WBEZ over the years. There’s very little of that caliber heard on FM News 101.1.

Walter Sabo, the architect of the station’s original format (a flawed but defensible concept of tailoring news to a younger, female demographic), is long gone, having quit or been forced out in a corporate power struggle. That left former Tribune Co. CEO Michaels free to run amok and bring on discredited characters like Jim Laski, the former city clerk convicted of taking bribes, who failed miserably as a talk show host at WGN-AM (720) when Michaels was running the show. Michaels also hired another convicted felon, ex-Chicago newsman Larry Mendte, to host mornings at Merlin’s Philadelphia station. Michaels is becoming something of a one-man parole board.

On FM News 101.1, they’re calling the latest gimmick “expanded news coverage,” which consists of two or more anchors (or outsiders like Mancow) killing an hour or two spouting opinions about whatever’s in the news. It’s misleading to call it “coverage,” since it’s really nothing more than talk radio on the fly. On Sunday, anchor Rob Hart mistakenly labeled it “extended news coverage,” and then laughed at his unintentional double entendre.

Michaels, who’s always behaved as if he thinks that any kind of controversy is good when it comes to radio, doesn’t realize the effect it has on something as fragile as credibility. How else to explain those ridiculous billboards for FM News 101.1 that exploited disgraced and imprisoned former Governor Rod Blagojevich (with the tagline “He Never Listens”)? Despite the manufactured controversy that ensued — Michaels’ stock in trade — the station couldn’t get anyone else to listen, either.

After almost a year on the air, WIQI still languishes at the bottom of the market — right between WZVN-FM (107.1) in Lowell, Indiana, and WCCQ-FM (98.3) in Crest Hill, Illinois. Latest Arbitron figures show FM News 101.1 tied for 38th place with a 0.4 percent share of all listeners (and a 0.4 share in the 25-to-54 demo). If this doesn’t go down as the worst product launch in the history of Chicago radio, nothing will.

By contrast, after just one month on the air — over a low-power station barely audible in much of the market — Merlin’s alternative rock WKQX-LP (87.7) debuted in 27th place with a 1.0 share. Somehow they managed to do that even without Blago billboards.


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Laura Baginski, Editor (@TimeOutChicago)