With FM news in play, WBEZ prepares to step up its game

After years as the only dedicated source for news and information on Chicago’s FM airwaves, Chicago Public Media WBEZ-FM (91.5) suddenly found itself with not one but two all-news competitors invading its space last week.

While the launch of Merlin Media’s all-news format on WWWN-FM (101.1) and the simulcast of CBS Radio’s all-news WBBM-AM (780) on WCFS-FM (105.9) didn’t come as a surprise to WBEZ, together they represented an unprecedented challenge to the station’s longtime programming franchise.

On Friday, Torey Malatia, president and CEO of Chicago Public Media, outlined plans to boost WBEZ’s output of local news during middays — in between the drive-time fixtures of National Public Radio’s Morning Edition and All Things Considered. He met with staffers to discuss the strategic plan he’d presented earlier to the board of Chicago Public Media.

“Over the next five years, we’re definitely committed to more local service and more local programming during prime audience time, which is daylight hours Monday through Friday,” Malatia told me. “Absolutely.” (Full disclosure: I worked for Chicago Public Media as a blogger in 2010.)

In addition to the local newsmagazine show Eight Forty-Eight and the international affairs talk show Worldview (both of which are produced by WBEZ), the station currently airs a variety of programs between 9am and 3pm that are acquired from outside sources. They include BBC Newshour, Here & Now and Fresh Air. “Some of those purchased programs would probably remain, but the weaker ones would go away,” Malatia said. “But we haven’t gotten as far as targeting any of them yet.”

One plan being considered involves splitting the production staff of Eight Forty-Eight and replacing the program with two new shows — one to air in the morning and the other in the afternoon. Allison Cuddy, current host of Eight Forty-Eight, would host one of them, and Steve Edwards, the founding host of Eight Forty-Eight who’s now working off the air as director of content development, would host the other, Malatia said.

But with money tight (and the station operating at public radio’s typical glacial pace), Malatia fears raising unrealistic expectations: “I just don’t want people holding their breath waiting for all this to happen,” he said, “because it’s going to take some time.”


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Laura Baginski, Editor (@TimeOutChicago)