Encore for icons: Chicago’s radio royalty adjusts to new reality
Eric Ferguson and Roe Conn
It’s hard to believe that only five years ago, the fraternity of million-dollar radio personalities in Chicago was still expanding. Yes, it was an all-boys club. But boy, were they making a lot of money.
With the signing of his final contract at WGN in November 2006, then-morning host Spike O’Dell became the last local radio star to move up to more than $1 million a year. Other seven-figure earners at the time included Joe Bohannon, Jonathon Brandmeier, Roe Conn, Steve Dahl, Eric Ferguson, Mike North and Ed Volkman. Mancow Muller was in the club until the previous July when his contract was not renewed at the former Q101.
That just counted those whose salaries topped $1 million. If you added in performance bonuses, commercial endorsements, deferred compensation and other sources of income, the millionaires’ list no doubt would have been longer.
And now? Ferguson, the morning personality on The Mix, is Chicago radio's only million-dollar mouth in 2011, with Conn, the afternoon personality on WLS, close behind him. Both are making less than they were under previous contracts, according to knowledgeable industry sources.
What happened to the others in the intervening five years has been well documented here and elsewhere. O’Dell chose to retire at the end of 2008 — a shrewd move considering the management and programming calamity that befell WGN under Randy Michaels and Kevin Metheny. The rest were victims of downsizing, due mainly to two factors: the introduction of Arbitron’s Portable People Meter audience-measurement system (which showed that most weren’t drawing the listenership they thought they were), and the economic downturn that adversely affected all advertiser-supported media and hit radio especially hard.
Most of the star performers disappeared for a while, sitting out the remaining months or years of their contracts or waiting for new opportunities to arise. In the process, they all came to realize that the good old days were over. If they wanted to get back on the air, they’d have to adapt, adjust, and accept a whole lot less money than before. So that’s just what they did.
Here’s how some of Chicago’s former radio royalty are making their way in the new reality:
- Joe Bohannon and Ed Volkman kept their partnership intact through a series of television commercials and as a weekend talk show duo on WLS before CBS Radio hired them back last March (at a fraction of their old salaries) to launch the rebranded K-Hits. In the Arbitron quarterly survey for summer, Eddie & Jobo ranked fourth in mornings with a 4.8 percent share of women between 25 and 54.
- Jonathon Brandmeier, whose second run as morning star on The Loop never matched the success of his first, was forced out at the end of 2009. Except for starring in a couple of YouTube videos, he’d been fairly invisible until late last month when he resurfaced as host of Brandmeier, a low-budget half-hour weekly talk show on NBC 5 and the Chicago NonStop digital sub-channel. “It’s a work in progress for all involved, but I’m thrilled to have the opportunity,” he said of the new venture.
- Steve Cochran was, by all accounts, O’Dell’s heir apparent at WGN — until he ran afoul of management, who never promoted him to mornings and chose not to renew his contract in June 2010 after 10 years at the station. Off the air here for more than a year, he returned last week as host of a two-hour afternoon show on WIND. At the moment, the station is tied for 36th place in afternoons with a 0.4 share of all listeners.
- Steve Dahl, while collecting his $2-million-a-year payout from CBS Radio, began podcasting from his home as a way to relieve boredom. By the time the contract was up last summer, he decided to continue the podcast but begin charging listeners $9.95 a month to hear it. Dahl won’t say how many subscribers he’s signed since August 1, but reports it’s “going really well.” He also turns up a couple of days a month on WLS as a fill-in for Roe Conn’s afternoon partner, Richard Roeper.
- Garry Meier hit it big as a second banana with two different partners — Dahl and Conn — and walked away from both of them. Though he forfeited the million-dollar deal he’d been offered at WLS in 2004, he eventually returned to radio as a solo act, first at the former WCKG and, since 2009, at WGN. Without the usual drama, Meier signed a multiyear renewal last week to continue hosting afternoons. Among adults between 25 and 54, WGN currently ranks 17th in afternoons with a 2.8 share.
- Mancow Muller, whose Morning Madhouse lost its lease at Q101 in 2006, briefly hosted middays with Pat Cassidy on WLS while continuing his syndicated morning show from Chicago. He finally landed a new local outlet last week when the show was picked up by west suburban WJJG. Its audience is too small to register in the ratings.
- Robert Murphy, best known for his 10-year run at Q101 in the 1980s and early ’90s, resurfaced there for a two-week stunt between formats over the summer. That led to his full-fledged comeback last month on Rewind 100.3, which currently ranks 20th in mornings with a 2.4 share of adults between 25 and 54.
- Mike North stumbled badly after he left The Score and partnered on an online sports/talk radio venture with David Hernandez, who turned out to be a con man and a crook. He’s since become a media entrepreneur himself, occupying a variety of platforms, including Fox Sports Radio, the Mike North Radio Network and daily features on WIND.