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Bill Cunningham Turns Down WGN-AM

What a month June has been for WGN-AM. The month started with leaked news that the station was planning on hiring two ex-Jacor radio personalities, former co-workers and still friends of Tribune CEO Randy Michaels: Bill Cunningham & Mike McConnell. (See CRM's initial report on this HERE.) That was followed up by denials and then admission of the plan by Tribune executives. This also led to Bill Cunningham and Mike McConnell being removed from the airwaves from their current radio home, Cincinnati's WLW-AM - a Clear Channel station. McConnell admitted to his desire to join WGN and was permanently removed from all WLW websites & emails and also told he was being removed from his Clear Channel-owned syndicated weekend show. Cunningham, who first wanted the job, seemed unwilling to now commit. That situation has been taken care of for now.

Earlier today, Bill Cunningham re-signed with Clear Channel & WLW-AM. The contract terms are not being publicly disclosed, but reportedly, it was for a longer term and for a much higher dollar amount than WGN could possibly offer. The contract also supposedly makes Cunningham not only the the highest paid employee at WLW, but now among the highest paid terrestrial radio personalities in the country (assuming the incentives within the contract are met).

Why would Clear Channel seemingly over-pay a radio personality, especially in an era of radio revenues lessening and radio salaries trending downward? There are three reasons. First, the #1 rated WLW may not have survived the loss of two top daytime radio personalities at the same time. This would probably have driven listeners to another station -- listeners who may have ever returned. Cunningham beats Rush Limbaugh in the ratings. A new host may have lost to Limbaugh's show. Second, WLW was caught flat-footed by Cunningham & McConnell's desire to leave. They had no replacements lined up in case this would have happened. Both were long time WLW radio hosts (over 25 years each) and both seemed happy there. The third reason has to do with Randy Michaels. Clear Channel Radio has developed a deep dislike for Michaels since he was forced out of the company many years ago, and especially since he took over at the Tribune Company. Michaels has raided Clear Channel of its top corporate and radio talent for the last few years to bring these people into his Tribune reign. CC has even triggered lawsuits and injunctions against Tribune and won, even though it still lost these employees to Michaels eventually. By going out of their way to entice Cunningham to stay working on WLW's airwaves full-time, they have thwarted a long-time plan of Michaels and his loyal soldier, WGN-AM Program Director Kevin Metheny. Frustrating Michaels had a great value to Clear Channel. They did all they could to ensure this happened in these last couple of weeks.

Clear Channel could not stop McConnell from exiting to WGN -- nor did it appear they tried that hard -- but they succeeded with Cunningham, who still has deep ties to Cincinnati, including his law license, his sports bars/restaurants and his wife's government job there. Cunningham will still be spending half his week in Chicago starting in September, as Michaels was able to convince Cunningham to host "Willie," a new television show that could begin airing as soon as October or as late as January. An initial few shows were taped in Chicago just this past weekend. Tribune executives called these tapings a success. Some other observers were disgusted with what they observed, as "Willie" is a Jerry Springer/Mort Downey type of program that showcases the worst sides of low class/low moral Americans and then degrades these people even farther for the twisted amusement of the host.

Randy Michaels may have been frustrated with his plans to reshape WGN into a WLW clone, but did try to paint a rosier picture in a quote he gave out today. Michaels said, "By now you know that he has a new deal with WLW radio which leaves him free to do the TV show, and whatever he wants outside of Cincinnati. What we wanted was to get him on TV. We have no problem with Willie figuring out how to get more money in radio. He's making more in Cincinnati that we would have paid him in Chicago to do radio. Good for him."

Michaels quote also suggests that Cunningham may be free to do "whatever he wants outside of Cincinnati," which could possibly include some radio time in Chicago. This also gives Michaels and his cohorts time to work on Cunningham to reconsider Chicago as a new home or as a secondary radio home, since he will often be here working on the "Willie" show and also doing his WLW radio show from a WGN studio at times, since the TV show taping dates often fall on weekdays.

The "Will Willie join WGN or not?" soap opera did cause one loss for him. Bill Cunningham's syndicated radio show, "Live On Sunday Night, It's Bill Cunningham," has been dropped by it's Chicago outlet. The program was carried in Chicago on WLS-AM, but replaced last week, presumably due to Cunningham's joining WGN-TV and (then probable) joining WGN-AM, WLS' chief rival.

In the meantime, it is back to the drawing board for Randy Michaels & Kevin Metheny. They have already set the wheels in motion to remove both John Williams and Steve Cochran from their weekday lineup. Cochran will be gone before this month is out and Williams gone before the summer is out. Mike McConnell, who was hired to do a 9:00am-Noon slot -- the same time slot he held down for years at WLW -- but that was when they figured they had Bill Cunningham set to follow him for a Noon-3:00 show -- the same time slot Cunningham is used to. This may very well force WGN to place McDonnell in a Noon-3:00 or 1:00-3:00 show -- even if only temporarily -- until the station can figure out just who they will offer the job to next.

Bill Cunningham's rejection of WGN-AM's offer makes him him the third high profile name personality to turn down the station in 2010 so far. Chicago radio superstar Jonathon Brandmeier and Chicago Sun-Times columnist Richard Roeper both did so just a few months earlier.

As wild of a month June has been for WGN-AM, the month is still far from over. More than that, this wild ride is expected to continue on all summer long, with two veteran station hosts being forced out the door and at least one new host unknown to Chicago audiences being forced in over the coming weeks. With all of the extreme highs & lows/ups & downs/dips & turns/shocks & surprises that seem to come from WGN lately, one would almost think that the station had been taken over by former Six Flags employees, not former Clear Channel employees. Hold on to the safety bar WGN fans...

Bill Cunningham sends a classy message:

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