The axe swings on FM News in Chicago, New York

Welcome, i101 overlords.

It’s safe to say this now: FM News 101.1 is the biggest bomb in the history of Chicago radio.

But you knew that already, right?

Merlin Media pulled the plug on its all-news stations Tuesday at WIQI-FM (101.1) here in Chicago and WEMP-FM (101.9) in New York City, nearly a year after their underwhelming debuts, which saw them still stalled at the starting gate.

At 9 a.m, WIQI dropped the all-news format for Adult Hits and the i101 slogan (the first song played was a N’SYNC tune), while at the same time – 10 a.m. ET – WEMP returned to the Alternative format it abandoned a year ago as WRXP (first song was one from hometown artist The Beastie Boys.) In fact, WEMP was playing this like waking up and finding Patrick Duffy in the shower:

27 people were laid off from WIQI with the format change, according to Chicagoland Radio & Media, with more likely laid off in a few weeks. Among those let go include Charlie Meyerson, Sam Sylk, Lisa Dominique, and Greg Jarrett, who joined WIQI just three weeks ago. Meanwhile, WEMP laid off its entire news department.

WKQX-FM (Q 87.7) Operations Manager Jim Richards will now oversee WEMP and WIQI.

Both stations were acquired by Merlin last year from Emmis with the latter company keeping a minority stake. At first, the stations were prepped for a news/lifestyle format targeted to women, but eventually settled on an all-news format to take on CBS’ heritage stations (in fact, CBS Radio began simulcasting WBBM-AM on WCFS on August 1 to counter Merlin Media’s new station, which launched a day earlier.)

Initially, the call letters were switched from WKQX to WWWN, as yours truly suggested they had a connection with Charlie Sheen, who made the “winning” his catchphrase after he was fired from Two And A Half Men and mockingly called it “winning radio” (and its clear neither he or WWWN/WIQI have been “winning” in the last few weeks as Sheen new Anger Management sitcom is tanking in the ratings and WIQI continued to struggle.)

Numerous missteps – from an unimpressive on-air news presentation to holding off marketing WIQI until March  – with a critically panned billboard campaign featuring former governor Rod Blagojevich. When the attorney of the now-imprisoned Blagojevich complained about the billboards, Merlin stuck a yellow smiley face over his image, making the billboards look even more ridiculous.

In the June PPM period, WIQI finished with a lowly 0.3 overall rating, down from the 0.5 rating it debuted with last September. New York’s WEMP fared a little better with a 0.6 rating in the last rating period. WIQI was the least-listened to FM station in Chicago, falling even behind suburban rimshot radio stations. Neither WIQI or WEMP earned above a 1 during their entire time on the air.

Hell, a radio station playing an endless loop of The Brady Bunch singing It’s A Sunshine Day would’ve done better in the ratings.

In recent weeks, WIQI tweaked its format, adding “expanded news coverage”, which is a fancy way to say we’re adding some talk and opinion to the mix. Rob Hart and John Czahor were given their own shows (albeit for two hours) and added Jarrett in the mornings, and tried out a list of Chicago radio has-beens, including Mancow Mueller and the duo of Mike North and Dan Jiggetts.

On Monday, Merlin Media CEO Randy Michaels called for an all-staff meeting at WIQI for Tuesday morning – but did not show up to give the bad news. Instead, the dirty deed was delivered by Merlin CIO Jerry Kresting. So in essence, The Court Jester didn’t want to face his employees, but told someone else to do it instead.

The Court Jester did issue a prepared statement though – here it is, directly from the press release: “Effective immediately, Alternative is back on the air in New York as New Rock 101.9 and Adult Hits are on the air in Chicago as i101. It was a difficult decision to make, but after a year of minimal audience engagement, coupled with the format’s inherent expense, I felt it was time to make a change. I’d like to thank the people who poured their heart and soul into the effort and I wish them all the best.”

Yeah, that “effort” was a complete waste of time and money. Especially money. And what does Merlin Media has to show for it after 50 weeks? The biggest blunder in Chicago radio history, killing the original Q101 for this mess. This ranks right up there with NBC moving Jay Leno to primetime in 2009, ABC cancelling All My Children and One Life To Live, and WBBM-TV’s Monsters and Money In The Morning, with North and Jiggetts.

And don’t forget all those people who left good paying jobs at other radio stations – with some of them moving clear across the country to join The Court Jester in this ill-fated venture – now find themselves out of work.

And now, Merlin Media – which had already took over the old WLFM and launched an Alternative format as Q87.7 – has launched an Adult Hits format on 101.1, which judging by the songs they played today, looks absolutely lost.

It just goes to show you how this business rewards failure (I suppose next, Disney will ask The Court Jester to join Jeff Zucker and Katie Couric – two others who got rewarded for their failures – to join them in launching her talk show in the coming weeks.) Michaels all but destroyed the Tribune Co. and here, he got another opportunity and succeeded to fail here too, overestimating the demand of spoken-word formats on the FM dial – at a time when ratings for most AM stations in Chicago- many of which have news/talk formats – have declined. In fact, wasn’t FM News supposed to be the centerpiece for this company?

So, how soon before Merlin Media puts itself on the block?

Biggest Blunders in Media since 2006 (courtesy of The T Dog Media TV Hall Of Shame)

A brief roundup of the most spectacular media failures – in television and in radio – in the last six years of The T Dog Media Blog:

– Nine FM (2005-09). Even though this pre-dates the blog, its still worth noting since We Play Anything never fulfilled its potential and became what it was supposed to be against – bland corporate radio.

Cavemen (ABC, 2007). Based on a line of unfunny ads from an auto insurance company came a sitcom that was even unfunnier.

Viva Laughlin (CBS, 2007) Musicals just don’t cut it on network TV. Lasted just four episodes.

– Fresh 105.9 (WCFS-FM, 2007-11) A lousy station with a lousy format with lousy ratings. A lousy hat trick! How did this last nearly four years is a mystery.

– Mancow Mueller and Pat Cassidy (WLS-AM, 2008-10) This mismatched pair was like The Odd Couple – only without the laughs or intelligence – particularly on Mancow’s side.

– Rosie Live! (NBC, 2008) A Thanksgiving-eve special with Rosie O’Donnell that never should have seen the light of day.

– Osbournes: Reloaded (Fox, 2009) Originally ordered as a six-episode series, this was cut to just one 35-minute special featuring Ozzy Osbourne and his family. Been there, done that.

– The Jay Leno Show (NBC, 2009-10) Moving Jay Leno into prime-time as a five-night-a-week-strip was the biggest blunder in TV history, one NBC is still trying to recover from.

– Secret Girlfriend (Comedy Central, 2009) How about a guys-getting-laid (or not) sitcom told from “your” point of view? Did Randy Michaels come up with this inane idea, too?

Monsters and Money In The Morning (WBBM-TV, 2010) Nearly identical format as North and Jiggetts’ Monsters In The Morning on CSN, with same rating results.

– ABC cancels All My Children and One Life To Live for “infotainment” shows. And one of them (The Revolution) is already gone.

– Allen Gregory (Fox, 2011) Hands down the worst sitcom of all time, animated or live-action – even worse than My Mother The Car.

– FM News (2011-12) The biggest blunder in radio history, helmed by who else? Randy Michaels.


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