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Posted by WMAQ on July 08, 2011 at 13:41:30:

As Chicago’s one and only all-news station, WBBM-AM (780) billed $42.5 million for CBS Radio last year — more than any other radio outlet in town and up from $40 million the previous year.

That’s really all you need to you know to understand why Newsradio 780 soon may be facing competition from a reformatted WKQX-FM (101.1), courtesy of Randy Michaels and his merry band of mirthmakers at Merlin Media.

Whether Chicago radio needs another purveyor of traffic and weather every 10 minutes (or whatever gets thrown into the mix) is beside the point. As long as Newsradio 780 has stood out as the top-billing and top-rated station in the market, it’s been ripe for an FM challenger to come along. Enter Q101.

Granted having Bears football broadcasts for the past decade has enhanced the CBS station’s bottom line significantly. But its format exclusivity undoubtedly remains its strongest suit. “It’s been a great station for a long time,” Rod Zimmerman, senior vice president and general manager of the 50,000-watt powerhouse, told me recently. “I think because of the value proposition of the format, and the quality and consistency of the product, we’ve done it better than any other all-news station around the country.”

Why the rush for Merlin Media to switch to news at Q101 and at its new station in New York? According to one of radio’s most respected observers, it may be to cash in on some of the billions about to be spent on political advertising for the 2012 election cycle. “News stations could be expected to get more than their fair share of political dollars, because they presumably reach Americans who are more likely to vote,” Tom Taylor, executive news editor of Radio-Info.com, wrote Thursday. “If Merlin Media can get credible news operations up and running soon, it could harvest some of the political ad-spend — or at least that’s the theory.”

The last time anyone mounted a serious challenge to WBBM was in 1988 when Group W spent millions to convert WMAQ into an all-news operation. (Its unforgettable marketing mantra: “You give us 22 minutes, we’ll give you the world.”) The man in charge of the newsroom then was a brilliant tactician named Scott Herman. Today he’s executive vice president of operations for CBS Radio and one of the key players who’ll decide whether to simulcast Newsradio 780 on the FM.

WMAQ proved to be a smart, aggressive competitor that kept WBBM on its toes and made local radio news better for everyone. But all that ended when CBS acquired Group W in 1995, sapped the life out of WMAQ, and eliminated the station and its format entirely five years later. Ironically, the man who pulled the plug on WMAQ was Dan Mason, who’s now president of CBS Radio and another key player who’ll decide whether to simulcast Newsradio 780.

Veteran analyst Jerry Del Colliano, who’s been tracking Randy Michaels longer than anyone in the business, sees the upcoming confrontation as one that could have been avoided if only CBS had expanded its franchise much sooner. “In this news battle, Randy has caught CBS with their FM down,” Del Colliano wrote in his Inside Music Media blog the other day.

“Randy and Merlin Media will not spend the kind of money CBS lays out to run all-news,” he predicted. “In fact, you can expect less expensive ‘top 40 news’ because [Merlin CEO] Walter Sabo, the father of ‘top 40 news’ on FM, is running the show for Michaels. That means compared to CBS, Merlin will run news and news/talk on the cheap and still get ratings. CBS will have to maintain its expensive format — this is no time to cut people and resources when you’re under attack. Randy’s loving this already.”

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