Brandmeier on WGN: ‘This is the perfect home for me’
Will Johnny B. change WGN — or will WGN change Johnny B.?
On that question hinges the future of the Chicago Tribune’s 87-year-old radio flagship and millions of dollars in advertising revenue. Ready or not, after a courtship that began more than 20 years ago in a secret meeting at the Fairmont Hotel, Jonathon Brandmeier and news/talk WGN-AM (720) finally consummated the deal that few believed would ever get done.
When he steps into the Michigan Avenue showcase studio and cracks open the microphone Friday, the 55-year-old Chicago radio icon and pride of Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, will become WGN’s fourth morning personality in three years, following Greg Jarrett (who was fired), John Williams (who moved to middays) and Spike O’Dell (who retired).
But in substance and spirit, Johnny B. has more in common with their two predecessors — the late Radio Hall of Famers Wally Phillips and Bob Collins, whose immense talents and double-digit audience shares defined WGN and dominated morning radio in Chicago for decades. Both no doubt would be proud to share their mantle with Brandmeier.
“This is the perfect home for me,” he says on the eve of his 5:30-to-9am weekday show’s debut. “It was one of the first things in my life that I didn’t have to overthink.”
Unlike the lengthy and meticulous preparations that preceded his earlier jobs — including two stints at the Loop and one at the former WCKG — this time Johnny B. is hanging loose. As of Sunday, he still hadn’t signed his contract. He still hadn’t met everyone he’ll be working with (although he did manage to bring back his old audio producer, Hector Soriano). And he still hadn’t settled on a million other details. But none of that seems to faze him. “All I’m focused on is the product — talking into the mic and taking calls and getting a kick out of it,” he says. “Sometimes you just have to strip it down so you can get back to where you were. That’s how I started, and that’s what I do.”
Such is the urgency to set things straight at WGN after years of decline and decay that his new bosses insisted Brandmeier start at once and work it out on the fly. “When you’re talking about an opportunity like this, if you waver on it, they will move on you. They’re not fooling around. They have a business. They’re not going to wait around.”
Even as they hustled Jarrett and morning show producer Jim Wiser out the door, WGN bosses refused to confirm another major realignment — the ouster of husband-and-wife overnight hosts Steve King and Johnnie Putman after more than 26 years. Preferring to let Steve & Johnnie announce their departure on the air, the station stonewalled inquiries on the promotion of Bill Leff, who takes over from midnight to 5:30am weekdays on December 12. ("We're more than OK with the way things have worked out," King said, kicking off a week of farewell shows Monday.)
WGN general manager Tom Langmyer and program director Bill White basked in Brandmeier’s hiring last week, but credit for the deal belongs to Sean Compton, president of programming for parent company Tribune Broadcasting. Working with Brandmeier’s attorney, Scott Zolke, who also happens to be a longtime friend of Compton’s, he hammered out the two-year agreement and personally shepherded it through the bureaucratic maze of the bankruptcy-gripped Tribune Co.
When Compton called Brandmeier about the job on September 26, it was hardly the first time he’d been approached by an emissary of WGN. As far back as 1990, he’d met secretly in a suite at the Fairmont Hotel with general manager Dan Fabian and program director Lorna Gladstone, who offered him virtually a blank check to join WGN. And as recently as last year, serious talks ensued with program director Kevin Metheny under the regime of former Tribune Co. CEO Randy Michaels. But nothing ever materialized.
So when Compton reached out this time, Brandmeier naturally was skeptical: “I said with all due respect, I’d heard it all before. I’ll believe it when I see it. I was like Hyman Roth in The Godfather: ‘I’m going to go take a nap. When I wake up, if there’s money on the table, I know we have a deal. If not, I go forward.’ And he said OK, let’s go. Let’s do it. And he made it all happen — boom, boom, boom.”
The deal they made covers only radio, although Brandmeier is eager to pursue television, too. Brandmeier, his freewheeling weekly variety/talk show on NBC 5 and the NBC Chicago NonStop digital channel, concludes December 16, and he’s in talks with station president Larry Wert on a renewal. But Brandmeier says he’d also be “wide open” to a deal on the WGN America superstation or elsewhere. “I’m definitely not going to choose to do just radio. Definitely not.”
At WGN, Brandmeier inherits a daypart that currently ranks 16th among listeners in the money demo (between the ages of 25 and 54) with a 2.6 percent share, according to Arbitron. Though higher than the station's overall standing in 22nd place with a 2.1 share, it's a long way from the top ratings Johnny B. enjoyed in his heyday at the Loop.
In a candid conversation Sunday, Brandmeier shared his hopes and expectations for the new morning show:
Q. Can you describe what it will be like?
A. It’s the Today show on the radio. Just think of it that way. There’s Matt Lauer interviewing somebody who killed Moammar Gadhafi and next thing you know he’s outside of the studio in a Halloween costume. That’s how I envision the radio show.
Q. Will you be expected to maintain the rigid format with traffic every 10 minutes and all that?
A. No, they’re going to free it up a lot more. My understanding is there’ll be three breaks [an hour]. And that’s it. What Sean [Compton] said to me, which really convinced me that they were serious, was that you’re going to be the catalyst that changes the station. That sounds arrogant, but he said, if we put you into place, and we have Garry [Meier] in the afternoon, then we start to loosen it up. That’s the understanding. We’ll see. If it doesn’t turn out that way, there should be some interesting listening.
Q. Do you feel capable of handling serious, breaking news when it happens?
A. Absolutely, positively. I just absolutely can do it. I always consider myself a journalist. Ron Magers used to say, “Brandmeier will take a story and peck it apart like a chicken until he gets every feather off of it.” I feel like that’s what I do. They’ll have me and the great resources of the Tribune Company. These guys know what they’re talking about. Believe me, I know what I’m doing.
Q. But can you do it the WGN way?
A. I don’t look at it as WGN. I look at it as this is who I am, wherever I am. I have great respect for the call letters, but I am what I am. You’re always going to hear the essence of me. You can’t hide it, mask it or format it. The essence of me is about fun. Curious, opinionated fun. I don’t take life too seriously.
Q. Tell the truth. Is there anything you’re nervous about?
A. No, except my equipment. I’m excited like crazy. I’m like a child. I just want to go to work. I saw the showcase studio and I was like a 5-year-old, just looking around. When I walked into that room, it was the same feeling I had when I saw KFIZ in Fond du Lac: “Look at the mics over here! This is unbelievable!”
Q. Think you’ll be able to get along with everyone there?
A. You’re talking to a guy who’s worked with every one of those guys. I’ve been through every incarnation of personalities you can imagine. It doesn’t faze me. I just go to work.
Q. How will you measure your success?
A. I don’t know. Somebody’s going to tell me like always. I just know. I know in my head. Because if I get off the air and I had fun, that’s it. . . . I always tell my staff, “Let’s find some meat. Let’s put some meat in the cooler. Meat.”
Q. Anything else we should know?
A. When people are driving around, if they’re talking about Jay Cutler and his thumb, or they’re talking about his wedding, or the city blows up, I want them to know they can turn in to me on ’GN, and they’re gonna get it. But they’re also gonna get an opinion. That’s the beauty of it. They don’t just have to listen to the news, they can call right in, throw their opinions in. I love that! 591-7200. Oh, man, that’s awesome. Who doesn’t know that phone number?