Cumulus takes over Merlin Media’s remaining stations

CumulusThe reign and terror of Randy “Court Jester” Michaels in radio has finally come to an end.

In a blockbuster move, Cumulus announced Friday morning it was taking over operations of Merlin Media’s two remaining stations immediately: classic rocker WLUP-FM (97.9) and Variety Hits WIQI-FM (101.1), which was once home to the failed “FM News” experiment. The deal also gives Cumulus the intellectual rights to WKQX-LP (87.7), whose frequency is owned by Los Angeles-based Venture Technologies Group.

Cumulus – already owner of news/talk WLS-AM and Classic Hits WLS-FM, is operating the two under a local marketing agreement with an option to buy – a very likely scenario given Cumulus wants to expand its Chicago portfolio beyond WLS.

Cumulus COO Lew Dickey said WLUP would retain its format, while the alternative rock format now on WKQX would return to the 101.1 frequency, with both stations simulcasting each other for a month through a local marketing agreement, starting on Monday. It is not known what format would be programmed on 87.7 after alternative leaves the frequency – the decision would be left up to its L.A.-based owner. In reality, the frequency is an analog low-power TV station on Channel 6, which the FCC is shuttering in 2015.

Dickey also shot down rumors regarding the possibility of NASH-FM, Cumulus’ national country format, coming to Chicago, saying “they’re not taking NASH-FM to Chicago at this time.”

The return of alternative rock to the 101.1 frequency in the nation’s third-largest market after 2 1/2 years is a victory for the format and its fans. On Wednesday, a Cleveland station (using the same 87.7 frequency WKQX uses) dropped alternative for a Spanish format known as “La Mega”. But don’t look for the return of the “Q101” branding, as the intellectual rights to the name were sold to a company owned by Matt DuBiel, who operates WCKG-AM in west suburban Elmhurst, a talk station targeting listeners in DuPage County.

With Merlin Media selling its stations in New York and Philadelphia, speculation centered on who would get its Chicago stations. Tribune was considered a frontrunner, given its interest in acquiring an FM to place its planned WGN.FM station, which is now an internet stream.

The sale closes the book on Merlin Media as a company, and likely the radio career of former Tribune and Clear Channel executive Randy Michaels, who founded Merlin and was funded by private-investment firm GTCR. In July 2011, Merlin acquired a controlling interest in three Emmis stations – WLUP, WKQX, and WRXP in New York with the main purpose to launch an all-news station on an FM outlet in both cities. For good measure, Merlin also bought a Philadelphia station.

Merlin even briefly changed the original WKQX calls to WWWN, which yours truly christened “Winning Radio”, connecting it to Charlie Sheen’s “winning” catch phrase.

One failed FM News marketing ploy: this billboard featuring former Ill. Gov. Rod Blagoveich.
One failed FM News marketing campaign: this billboard featuring former Ill. Gov. Rod Blagoveich to promote the station. Merlin later had to stick a yellow smiley face over his image to avoid a lawsuit.

But the “FM News” experiment was anything but winning – it was a critical, marketing, and ratings disaster, with the plug being pulled in July 2012 after barely a year on the air. Yours truly dubbed the FM News experiment over WIQI as “the biggest bomb in the history of Chicago radio”. WIQI returned to music programming, but has gone through a huge number of format adjustments since.

The New York station returned to alternative rock but was sold in October 2012 to CBS Corp. and flipped to a simulcast of all-sports talk WFAN. Last August, its Philadelphia station was sold to an Educational Media foundation and flipped to a Christian Music format.

For more on The Many Misadventures of Merlin Media (sounds like some Saturday morning cartoon show), click on the Merlin Media tag below this article.


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