It’s official: CBS to expand Newsradio brand with FM simulcast
With the prospect of a news competitor mounting the first serious challenge on FM in more than 35 years, CBS Radio announced a bold step Thursday to protect WBBM-AM (780), its top-rated and top-billing all-news franchise.
Starting August 1, Newsradio 780 will begin a full-time simulcast on WCFS-FM (105.9). It will mark the end for Fresh FM, the underperforming adult-contemporary music format that took the place of FM talk on the former WCKG in 2007.
Plans to simulcast Newsradio 780 on an FM signal had been under consideration for years, despite misgivings by Rod Zimmerman, CBS Radio Chicago’s senior vice president and market manager, and others in the company. But when radio titan Randy Michaels’ newly formed Merlin Media agreed to acquire WKQX-FM (101.1) and WLUP-FM (97.9) from Emmis Communications last month — with the intention of switching Q101’s format from rock to all-news — Zimmerman became an advocate for the simulcast and ultimately sold his bosses on the plan.
Q101’s air personalities signed off for the last time Thursday (and Merlin Media sold Q101’s moniker and intellectual property to an online venture), but WKQX is expected to continue to air alternative rock music through Monday. Stunting will ensue after that, leading up to the launch of a news format in the coming weeks, according to knowledgeable sources.
This won’t be the first time Chicago’s 101.1 FM has competed against Newsradio 780. From 1975 to 1977, the station then known as WNIS experimented with FM news as part of NBC’s News and Information Service.
Leading the market with annual billing of $42.5 million last year and a current Arbitron share of 5.6 percent, Newsradio 780 boasts a cumulative weekly audience of 1,613,900. Fresh FM bows out in a tie for 20th place with a 1.9 share.
After announcing the FM simulcast in a staff meeting just before noon Thursday, Zimmerman (pictured below) filled in the blanks in a conversation with me:
A. We’ve been talking for a couple of years about extending the WBBM brand to FM like we already have on the stream and HD and with iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch and Android apps on radio.com. So it seemed like the right time — and the right time of year — to make this switch to extend the product to the FM side.
Q. How is the timing related to Merlin Media's plans to go all-news on Q101?
A. It’s more about the future of news radio and WBBM than any competitive issue we may have in the marketplace. Let’s face it: There are a lot of competitive products out there besides radio — in television, Internet, satellite, websites, digital. There are a lot of platforms for people to access news and information and entertainment and audio content. Our goal with all of our products — but especially with our No. 1 product, Newsradio 780 — is to get it out in as many platforms as possible, and this just seemed a natural extension.
Q. I don’t know if you recall, but when I asked you about simulcasting earlier this year, you were pretty discouraging.
A. I think at that time we didn’t have the information we have now. If you look at what’s happened in other markets with stations that have done this [in San Francisco, Atlanta, Washington, D.C., Seattle and Phoenix], it’s pretty compelling. It’s about protecting the franchise and extending it to as many platforms as possible. In our cluster, 105.9 made the most sense.
Q. If you’d begun simulcasting months ago, do you think Merlin would be going after you now?
A. Don’t know. And we still don’t know what they’re going to do for sure. But we just feel very good about our product and its success and the brand that we have in WBBM and that people will access it on FM once it’s available.
Q. When the simulcast starts, what are you doing with the WCFS call letters?
A. Keeping them the same. The call letters really aren’t an issue anymore in how the ratings are gathered. It’s all measured electronically now, so call letters don’t mean anything.
Q. How about the on-air slogan?
A. We will identify ourselves as “WBBM Newsradio 780 and now on 105.9 FM.” After a period of time, the “now on” will go away and it will just be: “WBBM Newsradio 780 and 105.9.”
Q. Why wait until August 1? Couldn't you flip the switch now?
A. There’s still some preparation that needs to take place in the next couple weeks from an administrative, contract and production standpoint. We want to be sure we’re 100 percent ready when we put it on the FM signal. Advertising and revenue always plays into the equation, too, so there’s a combination of factors. We just felt Monday, August 1st, is a clean date to make the flip.
Q. Are you planning any changes to the current on-air product?
A. It will be the WBBM Newsradio format everyone’s familiar with. No changes — other than we’re always looking to upgrade the sound and the production elements from a quality standpoint. Traffic and weather together on the eights, sports at :15 and :45, CBS News at the top of the hour, business at :25 and :55, will all remain the same.
Q. So it’ll be a 100 percent simulcast — even during Bears broadcasts?
A. One hundred percent. You have to do that to get single-line reporting in Arbitron, which is what we want.
Q. Will you be keeping any of the full-time air staff [Scotty Smith, Rebecca Ortiz, Brooke Hunter, Eric Austin] from Fresh FM?
A. Not at this time. If we have opportunities for them in the future, we certainly will give them a priority look.
Q. Was Fresh FM a colossal failure?
A. No. As a matter of fact, it was showing some real progress in the last six months. We were pretty happy with that. It was profitable and showing some real growth. So that made it kind of a difficult decision. But when we look at the big picture — and where we want the Newsradio brand to be in five years — this is the right decision at the right time.
Q. How do you benefit from a simulcast?
A. There’s a significant number of people that never turn on the AM dial. It’s been demonstrated in other markets that once a news format is on FM, a lot more people will listen to it. We expect our ratings to go up significantly on WBBM. We expect this to be very successful as it has been in other markets. We expect in a very short period of time for more people to access WBBM on FM 105.9.
Q. And you expect that to reflect in higher revenue?
A. We hope so. [Laughs.] You will be talking to another guy a year from now if it doesn’t. You won’t have to ask. You will know.