In 2008, my friend Kipper McGee was the Program Director of talk radio station “The Big 89” WLS-AM/Chicago. I had known Kipper when he’d spent a year or two in the same position at KTRS/St. Louis while I was its midday host. We stayed in touch after he moved on, first to WDBO/Orlando, and then to the gig in the Windy City. He was a visionary who understood very well how WLS could super-serve its faithful audience while attracting new listeners in large numbers.
By that year, I was no longer doing a daily local show of my own, but was freelancing as a fill-in host for stations in about ten cities (including Seattle, Louisville, and Charlotte), all from the studio I’d set up in my home office. At some point, Kipper called and asked if I’d like to drive up to Chicago for a couple of days to fill in for Don and Roma, the married couple whose WLS morning show (5-9am) had a pretty big audience. I would have preferred to do it from home, but I’d liked Chicago on my visits over the years, and since he was going to put me up in a nice hotel near the station, I agreed.
Thanks to the terrific support team that helped keep that show running smoothly, the experience went well enough that Kipper invited me to do it again a few months later, and had me also take over a few times for the 9-11am host whenever my schedule permitted. By the fall, he’d offered me the opportunity to do my own early morning slot (5-8am) on Saturdays, which, thankfully, he said I could do from here in St. Louis. I agreed, and continued to get up far too early on a weekend morning to do that show for two years. I was proud of my association with WLS, and of Kipper, as he steered it to the top of the ratings.
That’s when the station got a new General Manager, a move that often means other changes are to come. Sure enough, he soon gave Kipper his walking papers, telling him, “We’ve decided to move in a different direction.” At that point, WLS was the #1 radio station in Chicago, so the only other direction was down. The new PD wasn’t fond of what I was doing, so I lost my Saturday show and was never again asked to fill in for Don and Roma or anyone else on WLS. He also monkeyed around with other dayparts and, sure enough, the station did start moving in a new direction, sliding down in the ratings.
Kipper moved on to write a book about marketing and branding, “Brandwidth” and launch his own consultancy whose clients now include both radio stations, podcasters, and some Fortune 500 companies. He even hired me again at one point to host “America Weekend,” a syndicated radio show he conceived. Meanwhile, I continued with my freelance work until I decided to retire from the business completely in 2018.
I’m telling you this story because a friend just sent me a Robert Feder piece on the recently released August radio ratings for Chicago. The top station, with a 7.3 share, was WBBM, an all-news AM/FM combo that always sounded great and deserves its success. Meanwhile, WLS-AM had a 1.9 share, tying it with Mexican regional station WLEY-FM for 22nd place overall. Feder also listed the top ten stations in each weekday daypart — morning, midday, afternoon, and evening — but the call letters WLS-AM were nowhere to be found.
In the decade since Kipper ran it (and I played a very small part), that radio station has undergone several ownership, management, and staff changes. I have no idea how it sounds these days, or even who’s on the air (I’m going to guess the lineup is full of right-wing blowhards), but I do know it has never returned to its spot at the top of the ratings.
So, that whole “new direction” mission has been fully accomplished.