Randy rocks Chicago again: Merlin conjures up new alternative

Nine months after Merlin Media turned legendary alternative rocker Q101 into FM News 101.1, it’s bringing back the format on a smaller station at the far, far end of the dial.

Effective this Monday, sources said, low-power WLFM-LP (87.7) will jettison the smooth jazz music it has featured since 2009 as Chicago’s Smooth 87.7 and become an alternative rock station with a revival of the call letters WKQX.

The new format is expected to originate from the same Merchandise Mart studios occupied by Merlin Media’s two Chicago stations, all-news WIQI-FM (101.1) and classic rock WLUP-FM (97.9). Headed by Randy Michaels, the former Tribune Co. CEO, Merlin Media acquired the two stations from Emmis Communications (along with a third one in New York) and launched the new company last summer.

Under a local marketing agreement announced Tuesday, Merlin Media will assume full control over programming, sales and operations of 87.7 FM, although current owner Venture Technologies Group LLC, will retain its license.

There’s still a possibility smooth jazz might show up on one of Merlin’s HD digital channels. But for all practical purposes, the maneuver takes smooth jazz off terrestrial radio in Chicago for the second time in three years. Smooth 87.7 was launched in the wake of Clear Channel’s decision to pull the plug on smooth jazz after 22 years on WNUA-FM (95.5), which switched to a Spanish-language music format in 2009.

Despite the challenges of an obscure signal at the end of the dial and little promotion, Smooth 87.7 drew more respectable ratings than many other well-established stations in the market. In the latest Arbitron quarterly survey, it attracted a cumulative weekly audience of nearly 500,000, and ranked 26th with a 1.2 percent share of adults between 25 and 54.

What made the station vulnerable was the unusual nature of its signal and the uncertain status of its license. All along, in fact, it was a low-power television station masquerading as a radio station. Without assurances from the Federal Communications Commission that it can continue to operate after 2015, its current ownership group opted to cash out.

"The business dedication was made in large part by the regulatory uncertainty of the analog TV Channel 6/87.7FM dial position in the long term," said Paul Koplin, CEO of Venture Technologies Group. "The success of 87.7 to this point is validated by the fact that Merlin Media, led by Randy Michaels, wants to partner with us."

Terms of the local marketing agreement were not disclosed, nor was it clear under what circumstances Merlin Media might assume ownership of the station.

The decision to revive alternative rock — the very same format Merlin Media abandoned when it dumped Q101 — is intended to attract younger listeners who presumably are more willing to seek out a station at the end of the dial than “older people who have no clue that it’s there,” an insider said. The key to profitability will be to sell advertising on the new WKQX in combination with The Loop, which has been enjoying higher ratings than it did under Emmis Communications ownership.

The company continues to struggle with its flagship property, FM News 101.1, which still languishes near rock bottom after more than nine months on air. Within hours of Tuesday’s announcement, Merlin Media began airing one-minute newscasts on 87.7 twice each hour, provided by FM News 101.1.

The impending demise of Smooth 87.7 prompted a gracious message of thanks to listeners from WLFM program director and midday personality Rick O’Dell, Chicago’s longtime ambassador of smooth jazz.

“I speak for everyone at 87.7 when I say it was a wonderful, exciting three years as Chicago’s smooth choice,” O’Dell wrote on the station’s website. “We are grateful to have had your support. Everyone on the WLFM staff will miss the incredible relationship we've had with you. There's been nothing like it in my career — I can tell you that. . . . And who knows what might be down the road? I like to be an optimist in these kinds of situations.”

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Laura Baginski, Editor (@TimeOutChicago)