Chicago: Slipping away?

220px-Eisenhower_ExpresswayThe state of the Chicago market: population loss may effect media properties 

If last week’s bad census news is any indication, Chicago may be in for a rough few years.

And the local media scene could be affected.

Figures released by the Census Bureau last week showed the Chicago market losing more residents over the last decade than any other metropolitan market.

According to the Bureau, 6,263 Chicagoans headed for the exits last year and lost 80,000 residents from the metro area in total. New birth and immigrants moving in were not enough to offset the losses.

Signs of this were coming. Last August, Nielsen reported the Chicago area slipped to fourth place in the total number of African-American TV homes from second place nearly ten years ago, losing 3,640 homes – falling behind even Washington D.C. There is a possibility Chicago could even fall behind Philadelphia next season, as the city of Brotherly Love only trailed by 340 homes. In the last fifteen years, the Chicago area has lost more than 200,000 African-American residents – more than any market in the country.

The market’s black population is shrinking due to numerous factors – lack of job opportunities, rising gun violence (especially on the South Side), plunging home values (especially in the South Suburbs), and declining services.

Others are leaving as well – in addition to the above, many are citing high taxes, high unemployment, weather, pitiful schools (especially in Chicago), a pension crisis, and politicians indifferent to their constituents’ needs. The combination of these issues is affecting everything from attracting businesses to even recruiting (Illinois schools – both public and private – are having difficulty attracting top football/basketball prospects.) In addition, Chicago has made national headlines for all the wrong reasons in recent years, from a spectacular Olympic-bid flop in 2009 to the never-ending gun violence plaguing the area, having a huge effect on tourism and on how others view the city.

Chicago’s violence has even become a pop-culture turning point, thanks to Spike Lee’s movie Chiraq and numerous songs about the subject, yet another headache.

The loss of residents will have an impact – less residents means less spending, which translates into less revenue for media outlets – and it could lead to more layoffs locally at cash-strapped/debt-ridden companies.

For example, Chicago-based media buying agency Starcom Mediavest laid off 80 people earlier this month as the downturn at media agencies continues.

With less population, Chicago radio stations are unlikely return to the days (before the 2007 recession) when the money was flowing freely. Revenue in 2015 was flat from 2014, and was down 10 percent from 2013 as radio behemoths iHeart Media and Cumulus are on the verge of bankruptcy, and CBS Radio has put itself up for sale.

Both of these stations could lose revenue if Chicago’s African-American populations continues to leave.

And it’s a double-whammy for African-American targeted stations owned by iHeartMedia as a declining black population means less revenue and ratings for WVAZ-FM, WGCI-FM, and WGRB-AM, and for Crawford’s WPWX-FM and WSRB-FM.

Plus, Chicago radio hasn’t given its listeners any reason to tune in. Aside from the usual complaints (too many commercials, repetitive playlists, etc.), old stalwarts Steve Dahl and Jonathan Brandmeier are not attracting newer, younger fans. As yours truly said last year, Chicago radio has become a nursing home for broken-down talent who refuse to leave the stage.

Meanwhile, imbeciles like Rep. Joe Walsh of WIND-AM and Mancow Mueller of WLUP-FM continue to be employed despite ratings failures. The fraudulent “morning show contest” held last year by “The Loop” hurt Chicago’s image among a few radio insiders, adding to a town known for corruption. Idiotic mismanagement is to blame for Chicago’s radio woes from Jimmy DeCastro at WGN-AM to Jan Jeffries. No wonder yours truly declared Chicago radio “the worst in the country” last year.

To paraphrase, those who run Chicago’s radio stations are no different from our local and state politicians.

Both Chicago newspapers continue to slump as former Sun-Times CEO Michael Ferro jumped to a similar position at Tribune Publishing recently as much of their content is not worth talking about. And while better off, local TV is getting hit with audience erosion from other technologies, despite expansion of local newscasts.

A battered national image doesn’t help a market’s revenue. St. Louis’ television revenue is being outpaced by Charlotte and San Antonio according to BIA/Kesley’s 2009 figures, the latest year publicly available. Adding to St. Louis’ media woes is the departure of the NFL’s Rams back to Los Angeles, an always racially-tense atmosphere, and a radio industry that’s just as bad as Chicago’s – if not even worse.

And then there’s Detroit. The market has lost millions in ad revenue due to the same problems Chicago is having and saw its market rank drop from 7th in 1989 to 13th today. In the late 1980’s, revenue was outpaced by then-smaller markets Atlanta and Washington. Other seeing huge drops in market rank in the last 25 years include Cleveland and Milwaukee.

Will Chicago lose it’s ranking as the third-largest media market in the country? Not likely anytime soon. But the giant is wounded, and it may take a lot of cooperation among those who have a stake in our metropolitan area’s future to get things back on track.

And if not? Well, here’s something you should think about: Dallas-Ft. Worth could become the third-largest market in the country someday, while Chicago falls to fifth. With every nugget of bad news this area is cranking out on a seemingly daily basis, it may not be out of the realm of possibility.