In Memoriam: FM News 2011-2012

FM News 101.1 Chicago 101.9 New York Merlin Media Randy Michaels Walter SaboWith their format changes this week Merlin Media’s “FM News” 101.1 WIQI Chicago and 101.9 WEMP New York just missed out on reaching their first birthdays. With a 0.6 share in New York and 0.3 in Chicago, the stations simply had nobody listening. But what caused these stations to be unmitigated failures?

Let’s go back to when Merlin first took control of the stations. Both dropped their Alternative Rock formats on July 18, 2011 and began stunting with a Classic Rock tinged AC placeholder format branded as “FM New“. This move flushed the frequencies of their previous listeners ensuring that none of them would be around for the full launch. Over the next few weeks the stations would gradually add the “FM News” elements.

On July 29, 101.1 in Chicago fully made the shift to News in order to beat CBS’ WBBM to the FM band. On July 14 in order to protect its heritage AM All-Newser in Chicago, CBS had announced that a simulcast of 780 WBBM on 105.9 WCFS would begin on August 1. 101.9 in New York would make its News debut a couple weeks later.

In its first incarnation, “FM News” was primarily targeting 25-54 Women as opposed to the older men that make the bulk of AM Newsradio’s audiences. Business and Sports news were non-existant, while extra emphasis was placed on entertainment news, shopping tips, and family features. Also non-existant in the first few months of the station was any form of outside marketing of the station.

By October, the station’s began retooling more towards a more traditional news format. Despite the lack of marketing until January when the New York station began airing some TV spots, this was already after many people had given the original iteration a shot and left with no intent of coming back.

It didn’t help that the stations had a new focus every few months. Merlin Chief Operating Officer and developer of the original iterations of the format Walter Sabo departed in December. VP/New York Programming Liz Aiello followed in February.

By the end of its run, 101.1 Chicago was experimenting with Talk blocks branded as “Expanded News Coverage” while Merlin’s acquisition of 106.9 in Philadelphia went to a mainly syndicated Talk format as opposed to becoming the next “FM News”. But in retrospect the death note for the format was written with the quick success out of the block for the relaunch of WKQX’ Alternative Rock format on “Q87.7” as it reached a 1.9 share by its second month on the air with its signal coming from a low-powered television frequency.

Since Merlin’s launch of “FM News”, three other markets have seen additional All-News outlets launched on FM. CBS debuted 99.1 WNEW in Washington, DC as a competitor to Hubbard’s 103.5 WTOP, Radio-One launched “News 92” KROI Houston, and Cumulus followed with “All News 106.7” WYAY Atlanta. Those stations have learned some lessons from Merlin’s failures. Both WNEW and KROI pushed back their debuts in order to make sure all things were running smoothly as opposed to how Merlin gradually phased in the elements fairly quickly.

Merlin Media launched with grand plans for spoken word programming on FM. Economic and ratings realities led to a shift in direction after a year. Should that prevent every other operator to forget about the natural evolution of traditional AM programming to FM or to take chances that otherwise wouldn’t be done? Hopefully not. Radio needs innovation to continue to thrive. Even in Merlin’s failure other operators have learned from their mistakes.

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