Radio Wars

Chicago’s morning rock-radio wars are something of a yawn. The new guy in town is Mancow Muller, who rules the roost from an AOR outlet that’s as undistinguished as its marketing name: Rock 103.5, WRCX. Muller has a flair for getting 13-year-old boys all excited, and by consequence is number one in the key ratings category. Howard–What was his name? Oh yes–Stern is back in Chicago. His syndicated show, so popular across the country, is now on classic-rock station WCKG, but few seem to have noticed. Alternative rock Q-101 boasts Lance and Stoley, a pair of farting youths with split-second attention spans. And over at the Loop, Kevin Matthews’s trusteeship of the morning slot the station has traditionally dominated has been deemed a failure: he’s moving back to the midday slot where just a few years ago he blew away all comers. His replacement: yawn, Johnny B, back to claim his crown. Is he serious? You bet: Loop head honcho Larry Wert says Brandmeier, who’s been doing his midday shows from LA without telling listeners, has even deigned to move back to Chicago.

But wait, you say: you still like rock, you want to listen to radio in the morning, but you’ve completed puberty? Tune in ‘XRT’s Lin Brehmer and leave the rest of us alone.

Stern originally came to Chicago via the Loop three years ago. Craftily, the station set him up against Steve Dahl on the Loop’s AM outlet, figuring the fireworks of their natural antagonism would benefit both stars. Localites, preferring a Chicago-based clown to an out-of-town one, went with Dahl. After Stern received ten months of dud ratings–during which he rolled up three quarters of a million dollars in FCC indecency fines–the Loop canned him. Stern vowed to exact commercial and legal revenge. His court case against the station hasn’t been decided. On the commercial front, he came back to town on ‘CKG six months ago, but his boy-man audience has eyes only for Mancow. (To make matters worse, ‘RCX is a sister station of the Loop.) The latest Arbitron ratings ranked Stern 16th in the market overall. Among the much-coveted 18-to-34 age group he did significantly better, coming in 7th. But this is still a dismal showing for a star who’s number-one in so many other markets across the country. And he attracts less than half the number of listeners that his nemesis Muller does.

In Stern’s worldview, his failure on the Loop was the result of a conspiracy on the part of the station to vaccinate itself, so to speak, from the potent Stern strain. With Stern discredited in the market, the Loop could bring its own tired shock jock to its sister station in the form of Muller. If this indeed was Wert’s plan, it has succeeded nicely.

Stern’s current position in town–basically that of a comic dying onstage, flop-sweat kicking in, eyes darting about desperately for salvation–undoubtedly produced his latest outrage, an on-air outburst directed at Loop general manager Wert: “I hope he gets the deadly AIDS virus and gives it to his whole family–like he bleeds into their food, and they all die.”

“I think the remarks speak for themselves,” says Wert. “I believe in free speech, so he has a right to say them, but I think they’re incredibly irresponsible and in poor taste.” Wert says the only familial repercussion was that his eight-year-old daughter heard about Stern’s remarks at camp. “She came home and asked if daddy was going to die. And that’s just plain wrong.”

The comments have set off a tizzy behind the scenes at the stations involved. Bigsby & Kruthers prez Gene Silverberg, a friend of Wert’s, sent out a letter asking businesses to stop advertising on ‘CKG. That unusual move has now been trumped by a missive from ‘CKG general manager Mike Disney. The three-page letter, supposedly sent to 500 people, is an extravagant defense of Stern’s remarks. Disney asks why Stern is being condemned while a lot of the antics emanating from the Loop and Mancow are tolerated. Such is the state of Chicago radio these days that he has a point. (What’s worse: Stern’s AIDS remarks or a Muller myrmidon showing up at ‘CKG with doughnuts ringing his dick for delivery to Disney? And what about Muller’s comment, for which he was ultimately forced to apologize, that new daddy and former coke fiend Danny Bonaduce had a crack baby on his hands?)

“It would appear that when Evergreen management dishes it out…they’re perfectly content,” Disney wrote. “[But] when the tables are reversed…they seem to discover a newfound sense of values and moral high ground.” Hitsville believes he speaks for many when he wishes a pox on all their houses.


Readers of the above should take into account the fact that I do a talk show on Q-101 and used to do one on the Loop….Speaking of radio, WXRT’s $60 million sale to Group W still hasn’t closed. Why? Turns out that the buyer demanded the purchase price be renegotiated if the station’s receipts decreased. The station intelligently got a provision saying it could do the same should the reverse happen–which did. Look for that $60 million figure to go up….Latest news from the Tower Records buyout of Rose is that only the flagship Wabash Rose will become a Tower. The remaining Roses–the Hyde Park, west Loop, and Ashland outlets–will simply close.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Randy Tunnell.