The Media Notepad: Ben Shapiro joins WLS-AM’s afternoon lineup

Plus: Classic Hip-Hop loses ground as Soft AC makes a comeback; Tribune Media bidding heats up; another cable channel is in the works

In a move widely anticipated, conservative talk show host and podcaster Ben Shapiro is joining WLS-AM’s weekday afternoon lineup. Beginning January 7, Shapiro has been slotted in the 2 to 5 p.m. slot replacing Steve Dahl, who is exiting the station December 21. The plan is to air an hour on Shapiro’s podcast from 2-3 p.m. followed by his two-hour syndicated show.

The 34-year old syndicated host was born in Los Angeles, but his parents are native South Side Chicagoans. Shapiro is also editor-in-chief for the conservative website Daily Wire, and his podcast airs on WLS weeknights from 9-10 p.m.

“I couldn’t be more excited to join the WLS lineup for three hours per day,” said Shapiro in a press release. “My parents grew up in Chicago; I’m personally a diehard White Sox fan (sorry, Cubbies!). The eyes of the nation are constantly on Chicago, and for good reason. I can’t wait to bring conservatism to the Windy City.”

Shapiro’s show is syndicated by Cumulus-owned Westwood One, who also owns WLS-AM.

The move signals changes ahead at The Big 89. Erich “Mancow” Muller is being considered for a morning drive slot, though it is not clear if Muller is still under contract with Cumulus, given he was morning personality at WLUP before Merlin Media sold the station to the Education Media Foundation in March. Cumulus operated Merlin’s stations through a local marketing agreement but was dissolved when Cumulus filed for bankruptcy.

Mancow had a stint at WLS from 2008-10 with Pat Cassidy, who since returned to WBBM-AM. The current morning show with Ramblin’ Ray Stevens and Big John Howell is expected to end.

WLS – who a few years ago modified its lineup to attract non-political listeners to compete with WGN-AM, is shifting back toward conservative talk with WIND-AM now as its main competitor. But whether this will be a success in a deep-blue market like Chicago (even far-flung suburban areas are becoming more so) remains to be seen: WLS is currently tied 23rd overall in the Chicago market.

Is classic hip-hop losing steam? Two stations have given up on the format as a Cumulus station in Minneapolis and iHeartMedia’s WISX-FM in Philadelphia were the latest to dump it last week for Soft AC. Branded as Real 106.1, WISX created a stir in July 2017 as host Chio Acosta took a shot at Taylor Swift and tossed the station’s Hot AC format in the trash as a stunt as the station subsequently launched a classic hip-hop format.

But despite improved ratings (WISX ranekd 13th in the Philly market), the plug was pulled. After stunting with Christmas music, WISX launched “106.1 The Breeze” under the slogan “Philly’s Relaxing favorites”. Core artists include Hall & Oates, Chicago, and Anita Baker.

Of note in the WISX format change is former WUSN-FM personality Shila Nathan is out, in addition to Acosta. The change took place November 9 – a date which resonates with Philly radio fans as several format changes have taken place on that date including 1987, where TWO stations flipped on the same day.

“The Breeze” has also blown into several markets in the last few weeks. In Detroit, The Breeze replaced a Top 40 station last week, and the Soft AC format has also launched in Sacramento and Wilmington, N.C., representing what could be the next big radio trend. The move is reminiscent of the early 1990s when many stations were flipping from contemporary hit radio to adult contemporary when CHR became inundated with hip-hop records. Obviously, The success of MeTV FM here in Chicago (who finished 11th in the last Nielsen report) kicked off the trend.

The move raises questions about WBMX-FM (104.3 Jams), who launched a classic hip-hop format approximately a year ago as the format has already gone bust in a few cities such as Dallas, Houston, and Indianapolis. Despite decent ratings after a hot start (WBMX ranked — in the last ratings report), the speculation on how long the format can survive here continues to grow as it has not been able to put a ratings dent into iHeartMedia’s WVAZ-FM or WGCI. With seven radio stations already targeting a declining African-American audience base (including the newly launched 95.1 Clubsteppin’ from Lamont Watts), the “first one out” could indeed be 104.3 Jams.

With Tribune Media back up for sale after its planned merger with Sinclair Broadcasting collapsed, some interesting names have popped up in the bidding. Among them: former Real People correspondent and comedian Byron Allen, who currently runs Entertainment Studios and stunned the media world by purchasing the Weather Channel last year.

It’s a long shot, but if he can pull it off, it could provide a potential home for some on his TV shows, including Funny You Should Ask and Comics Unleashed.

Another potential suitor is Ion Media, who also stations in the top twenty markets, including WCPX in Chicago. The network – which mainly specializes in marathoning procedural dramas such as Law & Order and Criminal Minds on its daily schedule, could pair Tribune’s stations in duopolies in large markets such as New York and Los Angeles. Here, WGN-TV could become a sister station to WCPX.

Other bidders include Cerebus management, Nexstar, and Tom Hicks, who was part of the original Chancellor Media, Inc., one-time owners of WLUP-FM.

As viewers continue to slim down on cable packages, new cable networks still being created. Consider the latest proposal: a channel run by Chip and Joanna Gaines, of HGTV’s Fixer Upper fame. According to Broadcasting & Cable, the couple appeared last Friday night on The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon and announced the new channel out of the blue.

Discovery Communications, who successfully launched OWN with Oprah Winfrey in 2009, would be behind the new effort. HGTV went into Discovery’s portfolio when it acquired Scripps Networks in August 2017.

A lot of details would have to be worked out, but some of the programming would be produced in their hometown of Waco, Tex, the 89th-largest television market. Fixer Upper was also taped in the city.

“Discovery is thrilled to confirm that we are in exclusive talks with Chip and Joanna Gaines,” according to a Discovery PR release. “The Gaineses are exceptional people, true authentic storytellers and creative visionaries who will nourish millions of people with quality, family-friendly programming accessible on a 24/7 network and across all screens,” Discovery said. “Stay tuned…working out the final details…more to come soon!”

It is not yet known if the new Chip and Joanna Gaines channel would be created from scratch, or replace another one. As reported here last year, a few cable channels are closing or are being shut down due to low viewer totals and customers are shredding mega-cable channels for slimmer packages, offered by the likes of stream-based services such as YouTubeTV, Hulu, and PlaystationVue.

While Chip and Joanna Gaines – the latter who bares an uncanny resemblance to Baby Phat creator and former business mogul Kimora Lee Simmons – has a strong following, it is enough to abstain a entire cable channel at a time viewers are getting rid of such packages? The only way this would work is to create this channel as an over-the-top offering (such as the WWE Network, CBSN, and the Urban Movie Channel). Going the cable route is a huge risk. After all, Chip and Joanna Gaines aren’tt Oprah.


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