Sep 12, 2023 - News

Chicago's WLS-AM to double down on conservative format

Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

A recent cancellation of a longtime WLS-AM show suggests the Chicago radio station is looking to carry more conservative programming, sources tell Axios.

Why it matters: Since the death of Rush Limbaugh, media observers speculated that WLS may go back to live and local. Instead, this move would show it is sticking with the content that made Limbaugh famous.

Driving the news: WLS-AM announced last week that talk show host Big John Howell was no longer with the station.

  • Howell helmed the afternoons for "The Big 89," which once dominated Chicago radio with personalities including Larry Lujack, Bob Sirott, John "Records" Landecker and Steve Dahl.

Between the lines: Political content played a part in the move, per Howell and a second person familiar with the station's decision-making, who asked to remain anonymous because they weren't authorized to discuss the plans.

What they're saying: "They told me that they intend to be the most conservative radio station in America," Howell tells Axios.

  • "I just didn't fit the bill anymore."

WLS and its parent company, Cumulus Media, declined to comment.

Context: Howell came to Chicago in 1989 and has been broadcasting for over 40 years. He doesn't consider himself liberal or conservative, instead opting for a down-the-middle approach to conversations about news and politics.

  • Meanwhile, Cumulus Media is the third-largest owner and operator of AM and FM radio stations in the U.S. It runs several conservative talk radio stations, including KABC in Los Angeles and WMAL in Washington, D.C.
  • WLS-AM reaches beyond Chicagoland to listeners in Wisconsin, Indiana, Iowa and Missouri.

The intrigue: WLS already runs syndicated conservative programming. After all, it carried Rush Limbaugh and now Ben Shapiro. But the station has always mixed in local on-air personalities who were less partisan, like Howell, Don Wade and Roma, Roe Conn and Richard Roeper and, currently, Steve Cochran.

  • According to WLS manager Marv Nyren, the station will shift Mark Levin's widely syndicated afternoon show earlier to cover part of Howell's timeslot.

The move comes as the 2024 election gears up, suggesting that WLS may be tweaking its format to target Trump supporters and hard-right listeners.

  • "Nobody broadcasts anymore," Howell says. "Everybody narrowcasts."

Reality check: Chicago is a liberal town, which may have something to do with WLS' consistently poor ratings.

  • The last book put them way out of the top 20 with a 1.5 share.
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