Rewind goes forward: ‘Murphy in the Morning’ returns

Photograph: Max Herman

Robert Murphy, the former Chicago radio star whose recent comeback was supposed to be only a two-week stunt, is about to make it permanent: He’s just been hired as morning host at Hubbard Broadcasting’s WILV-FM (100.3).

Starting Thursday, he’ll be heard from 5:30 to 10am weekdays on the adult hits station known as Rewind 100.3.

Once among the highest-paid and most popular personalities on Chicago radio, Murphy put the former WKQX on the map as an adult-contemporary powerhouse in the 1980s. When new owners Merlin Media took over Q101 this summer and prepared to switch to all-news, they brought on Murphy to bridge a two-week gap between formats in July.

To the delight of his fans, Murphy, 60, didn’t miss a beat after 18 years away from Q101. Among those who liked what they heard were executives of Hubbard Broadcasting, including senior vice president of programming Greg Solk. An ideal spot for him, Solk figured, would be on a music-intensive station specializing in hits of the ’80s — the era in which Murphy dominated young adult female listenership.

“Greg and I are thrilled with the success of Rewind 100.3 but are always challenging ourselves to find compelling ways to take it to the next level for the listeners,” said Barry James, program director of Rewind 100.3. “Murphy’s personality and style are a perfect complement to a station designed to let the listener ‘feel good’ — and there’s never been a more important time to offer them this sort of escape.”

James said his vision for Murphy’s show was to be “real, warm and inclusive for the audience,” adding: “He’s always made the listener feel like they’re a friend. We think it will be an organic process with the simple goal of doing one thing better every day we’re on the air.”

Susan Wiencek will continue as morning news anchor after Murphy steps in. Under the station’s new lineup, Brian Peck moves from mornings to afternoons, Brian Middleton moves from afternoons to evenings, and David J moves from evenings to part-time/fill-in. Megan Reed continues to host middays.

Murphy’s hiring could pose an interesting dilemma for Hubbard, which also owns hot adult-contemporary WTMX-FM (101.9), home of Eric Ferguson and Kathy Hart’s top-rated morning show. The company is counting on Murphy to boost Rewind 100.3 — as long as that growth doesn’t come at the expense of Eric & Kathy’s ratings and revenues for The Mix.

In Arbitron figures released Tuesday, Rewind tied for 20th place in mornings with a 2.0 percent audience share. Among women between the ages of 25 and 54, the station ranked seventh in mornings with a 4.0 share.

Murphy, a native of Birmingham, Alabama, who came here via Charlotte, North Carolina, quit Q101 after 10 years in 1993 because he felt uncomfortable with the station’s shift to an alternative rock format. But he never gave up on Chicago — or Chicago radio, for that matter. Between on-air stints in West Palm Beach, Florida, he was back for a short time as a part of a “young talk” format on WLS-FM and an oldies format on WXXY. Through it all, he maintained his Gold Coast condo and his relationship with longtime girlfriend Cheryl Larsen.

What does Murphy make of his latest comeback? Here’s what he told me:

Q. Well, well, well. So we meet again.
A. Yes, just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!

Q. Tell me you weren’t planning this whole thing all along.
A. If you mean my recent stint at Q101, no, I had no mission and no plan. However, there is no denying that my little two-week gig led directly to my new morning slot at Rewind 100.3. I must give props to John Gehron and the gang at Merlin Media for providing me with the chance to be heard again. Obviously, people were listening — including the big suits at Hubbard Broadcasting.

Q. Seriously, did you ever envision returning to Chicago radio full time?
A. I envisioned it all the time! But I was frustrated by what I considered the lack of a station in the Chicago market where my talents would meld with the format for a successful morning radio show.

Q. Did other radio stations approach you? I have it on good authority that you heard from WGN and WLS-FM in the past.
A. I had informal contacts from several Chicago stations over the years, but nothing ever seemed like the right fit until this offer.

Q. What about outside of Chicago?
A. I never considered leaving Chicago again after my Palm Beach sojourn. I get homesick. I have discovered that many people in radio thought I now lived in Florida, Michigan, the Ukraine, Tierra del Fuego or God knows where. But I actually have been right here in Chicago most of the time.

Q. What will the new show be like?
A. Hubbard has had great success making Rewind a music-intensive station, and I will honor that tradition. So there will not be as much chatter as at some of my former stops up and down the dial. The goal here is to bring some presence to what is already a great station. We’re going to try to bring it more into the foreground.

Q. How do you think your audience has changed since you first started here?
A. Well, I’m going to take a wild guess and say that they are a little bit older. I know I am! But this show will appeal not only to those who listened to me back in the Q101 years, but a whole new audience as well.

Q. Wouldn’t it be ironic if your show were more successful than what they’re doing on 101.1 FM now?
A. I have nothing derogatory to say about my former radio home, and . . . wait a minute . . . what’s that? I’m being told that my new show is already more successful and I don’t even start until tomorrow.

Q. Anything else?
A. Only to say to my listeners how much I have missed interacting with the Chicago radio audience over the past several years — and how much I look forward to getting things started again.

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Laura Baginski, Editor (@TimeOutChicago)