Hear the news? Chicago’s No. 1 station ‘finally getting its props’
The hottest radio station in Chicago never plays any music. It boasts no wacky disc jockeys, no larger-than-life personalities, and no incendiary talk show hosts. It generally steers clear of hype, controversy or drama. In fact, it’s been churning out the same type of programming day in and day out — delivered by some of the same voices — for more than 40 years.
And yet as measured by both ratings and revenue, the undisputed No. 1 radio station in town is WBBM-AM (780), the CBS Radio all-news outlet. While that may come as a surprise to some, it’s been the case for quite a while. It just hasn’t been widely acknowledged until now.
Newsradio 780, as it’s known, is in its third year as the consistently top-rated station among all listeners age 12 and older, according to Arbitron Co. And in revenue figures for 2010 recently published by media analysts BIA/Kelsey, WBBM led the market (and ranked seventh in the country) with $42.5 million. With rare exception, it’s been the top biller locally since 2003. No other Chicago station finished among the top ten nationally last year.
“It’s been a great station for a long time,” said Rod Zimmerman, senior vice president and general manager of the 50,000-watt AM powerhouse, and chief of CBS Radio’s seven-station Chicago cluster. “It’s nice to know it’s finally getting its props.”
With veteran news anchors Felicia Middlebrooks and Pat Cassidy (pictured above) solidly entrenched in morning drive, Newsradio 780 boasts a lineup of experienced professionals. Matching their longevity is that of their bosses: Zimmerman first made his mark as a sales account executive at the station in 1978. Ron Gleason, director of news and programming, began his initial run there as a sports anchor in 1985.
In some ways, CBS Radio is reaping the benefits of seeds that were sown a decade ago. In 2000, Newsradio 780 regained the rights to Bears football broadcasts in a move that coincided with the demise of sister station WMAQ and its competing news/talk format. One year later, 9/11 put all-news front and center.
“With 9/11 there was such an infusion of new listeners to this station — right around the time we put the Bears on and ’MAQ went away — that many people, especially younger people, were hearing it for the first time,” Zimmerman said. “Every news and news/talk station experienced a similar infusion, but we’ve managed to hold onto those listeners better than anybody. And I think because of the value proposition of the format, and the quality and consistency of the product, we’ve done it better than any other all-news station around the country.”
As other big AM stations have declined in recent years, WBBM actually benefitted from the Portable People Meter ratings system that replaced Arbitron’s paper diary method in 2008.
“We certainly believe PPM is more accurate in any given moment than the recall system that diaries represented,” Gleason said. “We are able to see major spikes [in listenership] from major events, and can see how people use the radio and use Newsradio 780 in a way that the diary didn’t let you see.”
While he regards every other station — as well as the Internet — as a potential competitor, Gleason emphasizes the uniqueness of his station and its format: “We’re a very different radio station than anybody else in Chicago. We only do one thing. Well, we do two things if you add in the Bears. But in reality, most of the year, seven days a week, 24 hours a day, we’re all news. People know how to get what they want from us. We talk, but we’re not a ‘talk station.’ We’re not about opinions. We’re not about trying to share our values with others. We’re just about telling people what’s happening, what they need to know, and what they want to know.”
If Newsradio 780 comes off as a detached, sterile — some might even say robotic — utility, that’s pretty much by design, too: “Traffic and weather together on the eights!”
“We’re never going to have the same emotional attachment for a listener that a particular genre of music or an argumentative conversation on the radio will have,” Gleason said. “But the kind of stories we tell on the air and the news that we’re imparting to people can evoke a visceral response. A perfect example was the horrific aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan and the Pacific. You can’t hear that story and not go, ‘Oh my god’ when it first happens. Well, we’re the ones telling people about it first. So there is that emotional response to what we do.
“Our job is to tell people what matters, and then they respond in their own personal way. We’re just disseminating the information. I think that’s very different from a talk radio station, where they’re trying to sway opinion and get people on edge. We don’t ever try to get people on edge. We try to let them know what may be important or what may be interesting. You always know what you’re going to get from us.”