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FM News 101.1 Ends; Flips To Adult Hits I101

After not even a year as a news format, Merlin Media has abandoned the news/commentary format known as FM News 101.1 and flipped the station to a new female-friendly, Adult Hits "Jack"-like format, branded as I101. The change happened right at 9:00am, as Merlin Media was starting a staff meeting for WIQI-FM and New York's WEMP-FM simultaneously.

Most of the news staffers from WIQI-FM were dismissed today at that meeting, with a handful of board operators sparred. The only on-air people still with the station are Rob Hart and Mary Ellen Geist, largely due to their current contracts, although their future roles with the station and company remain unclear. John Czahor, who had an on-air role with the station, also remains, but in an off-air role.

The same is true with New York sister-station WEMP-FM. Most of the entire NY news staff was let go this morning. WEMP-FM has flipped to an Alternative format, much like Merlin's WKQX-LP/Q87.7 here in Chicago. That station has been branded "New Rock 101.9." Jim Richards, the Operations Manager for Q87.7 takes over as OM for WEMP-FM, as well, at least for the time being.

Jim Richards also now assumes control of WIQI-FM, and now oversees all music stations in the Merlin Media company -- Chicago's three stations and New York's one station.

The new I101 will remain jockless for now, but will eventually add voice-trackers without set shifts, used in the same way they are used between songs at WLUP-FM and WKQX-LP. The music format is "on shuffle" (a term used for a while on the old Q101), playing largely hits from the late 1980s through the early 2000s, or newer songs from artists made famous from that era. The target audience for the station is Women 25-54 and Adults 25-54.

Chicago staffers told yesterday of this morning's meeting were informed that Merlin Media CEO Randy Michaels wished to speak to them at this event. However, Michaels never showed up. Instead, a different representative from the company, Jerry Kersting, informed everybody there of the NY & Chicago stations' flips and of their own fate. CRM is told of plenty of hurt feelings, tears, hugs and goodbyes at the Chicago meeting. Program Director Andy Friedman, who was himself blindsided by the news and released today, thanked everybody for their professionalism and hard work in trying to make the station a success.

The official tally of Chicago employees released today is 27, although that number is being disputed and it may be lower than the true amount of employees gone from there this month. 16 staffers were asked to stay on, but most don't feel they will be there much longer and see it as a temporary respite from the unemployment line. Before the dust settles on this format flip, there could be well over 40 Chicago staffers gone from the radio jobs they held at the start of this month.

While Michaels was afraid to deliver the news face-to-face with his employees, he was able to issue a statement to the press shortly afterward. In it he said: "Effective immediately, Alternative is back on the air in New York as New Rock 101.9 and Adult Hits are on the air in Chicago as i101. It was a difficult decision to make, but after a year of minimal audience engagement, coupled with the format's inherent expense, I felt it was time to make a change. I'd like to thank the people who poured their heart and soul into the effort and I wish them all the best."

In the same statement, Jim Richards said: Chicago's current competitive market matrix creates an incredible opportunity for Adult Hits and i101 is the ideal weapon for the battle."

WIQI-FM/FM News 101.1 launched in late July 2011. After toiling at the bottom of the ratings since its debut the end of last summer, largely due to the station's ownership refusing to advertise or publicize the station to the general public, and a constantly changing direction, it appears that the investors behind the company gave up waiting for positive results. Sadly, the station had just begun to catch on in the last three weeks, led by strong morning ratings by newly-hired host Greg Jarrett. Plans were in place to slowly change the station to a News/Talk format and the station was said to be in negotiations with a few Chicago radio stars to come aboard. The successes and the plans came too late. All of the Merlin-owned stations were said to be losing multi-millions of dollars each month, due to high expenses and low revenue. Today's changes are being seen as "quickie fixes" to that situation.

The new I101 has a new website set up at I101FM.com, which currently is nothing more than a single page with the station's logo. It also has set up social media pages with a Facebook fan page and a Twitter account.

Updated at 4:00pm with additional information.

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