Learning the Lessons of FM News 101.1

With the demise of Merlin Media’s FM News 101.1 fresh in the minds of those in and around the Chicago market, it’s worth taking a little time to reflect on the causes of the failure of the station and, perhaps, to grasp some takeaway lessons.

Over the last year, a lot of people have pointed fingers at a variety of targets when it came to explaining the inability of FM News to gain traction in Chicago. Out of the gate, a lot of those fingers pointed at Randy Michaels. During his tenure at the Tribube and WGN, Michaels made many moves that were scrutinized — and criticized — and it was no surprise when Michaels’ Merlin Media drew the ire of many who watched him closely at WGN. Whether Michaels is ultimately responsible for the damage done at WGN or for the debacle at FM News, only time will tell, but there are a number of other factors that led to the failure of FM News.

1. Lack of a Viable Brand Proposition. When FM News launched, it was positioned as a female-targeted news station. The idea was to focus less on hard news and more on lifestyle and entertainment. The delivery was supposed to be more chatty and less formal. The goal seemed to be to bring the thread that runs through a variety of other platforms — blogs, women’s magazines, morning TV news shows, and Facebook — and weave it into a classic news wheel. Reportedly, this notion was the brainchild of Wally Sabo. The major flaw with this idea rested on the simple fact that women don’t use radio to get their news, even if it’s the kind of news they might be interested in. Increasingly, women are using digital platforms and social media to get their news, while radio is used for music, when it’s used at all. Women simply aren’t sitting through news blocks and stopsets to hear their news.

It didn’t take Merlin Media too long to figure this out. Within a matter of months, the station morphed into a more traditional all-news format, with familiar extended news blocks and reliable service elements. The writing remained less formal and a little punchier, but at the end of the day, it didn’t seem like a much  different approach than WBBM-AM, which has being doing the format better, longer.

Then, at some point, it was decided that FM News would pioneer non-linear news production. Basically, this consisted of writers, producers, and editors creating news content, recording it, and then another staffer would arrange the stories for playback on the automation system. Randy Michals, the same man who pioneered the practice of voicetracking music while at Clear Channel, had now managed to implement the same practice at a news operation. The result was a wildly uneven, disjointed presentation that lacked any flow or personality. Stories ran, one after the other, without any real transitions or context. Hard news and fluff pieces would run side-by-side with virtually the same delivery because they were recorded as standalone pieces. Instead of relying on a strong anchor to bind stories together, the station became a news jukebox, void of any semblance of direction.

Then, in the station’s final weeks, the station seemed to stumble into a heavier talk direction, with, “expanded news coverage,” which worked well when news pros like Greg Jarrett were behind the mic. Unfortunately, the other candidates lacked credibility, experience in the format, or both.

At the end of the day, FM News didn’t know what it wanted to be. It lacked a sense of the competitive landscape in Chicago, which is already awash in spoken word formats.Could FM News survived as a male-targeted talker, ala the old Loop or, more recently, WCKG? That was the direction some were hoping it would go. Now, we’ll never know.

2. First Impressions Matter. When Merlin took over last summer, they quickly put the gears in motion to get their new format on the air. They began test-driving the news product on the air, even though the staff and the infrastructure weren’t ready yet. As a result, the product sounded amateurish. Anyone who was sampling quickly realized that the station wasn’t quite ready for prime time. Unfortunately, in our media-saturated world, you only get one chance to make a first impression. We live in the world of the infinite dial. If FM News didn’t sound just right in those first critical months, then listeners were quick to go elsewhere. Many of the issues during those first few months were resolved, and the product improved. But it was too little, too late. The damage to the brand had been done. I’m not entirely sure why the rush to get the product on the air. Perhaps the investors were itching to see and hear a return on their investment. Maybe Randy Michaels’ ego was writing checks that his staff couldn’t cash. Whatever the reason, there’s no doubt that FM News could have greatly benefited from three more months of preparation before the launch. Too many of the employees simply weren’t prepared for the task. That’s not really their fault. They were handed a playbook that was missing most of the pages. In some cases, these were recent college grads who couldn’t be expected to operate at a major market level in such a short amount of time. In other cases, market vets didn’t have the direction or support they needed to hit the ground running. In both cases, Merlin management did a huge disservice to its employees and to the long-term success of the product by rushing it on the air before it was ready.

3. Forgetting What Business You’re In. Merlin Media prided itself on being at the forefront of the media business. While at the Tribune, Michaels and others like Lee Abrams loved to pontificate about the future of journalism and the media. They took joy in deriding traditional journalists and the old school ink-on-the-fingers approach to newspapers. Plenty of good people were swept out during this purge, in the name of doing things a “new” way. Well, with FM News, Merlin had the chance to build a new media operation from the ground up. There was no old guard standing in the way. Instead of showing the critics what a twenty-first century, multi-platform convergent media operation looks like, Merlin built … a radio station. In some respects, they leveraged new technology, but when it came down to it, FM News was a radio station, nothing more. It didn’t sound much different than a station launched a decade earlier — before Facebook, before Twitter, before the iPhone.

Merlin forgot that it’s not in the radio business. It’s in the business of creating content-based relationships across multiple platforms … or at least that’s the business it SHOULD be in. Merlin built a mediocre radio station. Their website lacked anything useful or relevant. Their presence on Facebook and Twitter seemed anemic, at best. Rather than viewing these digital platforms as methods of engaging the audience, they were treated as afterthoughts. What about video? What about a mobile app? I know that there was some lip service paid to these platforms and some early efforts, but it didn’t ever seem to materialize in any meaningful way.

What if, instead of launching a radio station last summer, FM News launched first on-line, with a website, a Facebook page, and a Twitter account. Focus on solid original reporting, news aggregating, and content curation. Don’t even crack a mic for six to eight weeks. Then, launch the station as a mobile app, exclusively. You can test drive the sound of the station as a web stream while also delivering news, traffic, and weather via the app. Build an audience based on your content on platforms that have relatively low barriers to entry, where success can be more easily measured. This would also allow the staff to hone their skills without the constant glare of the spotlight that comes with a full-market FM signal. I guarantee that three months of generating content for digital platforms would have taught a lot of valuable lessons that would have made the on-air launch a lot smoother. The newsroom would have been humming along nicely, without the fits and starts associated with trying to read news copy in a closet while board ops learn the new automation system. In the meantime, you’re creating a buzz — a demand — for your product. It’s a story your sales team can take to the street and get potential clients interested in something new and different that’s already starting to percolate. They can sell the promise of something special, not the promise of something lackluster. And when you finally flip the switch on the terrestrial signal, you’ve already got an audience that knows you, interacts with you, trusts you, and will want to listen to your content on an FM radio signal. FM News never really invested in building relationships with listeners. Merlin forgot was business it was in.

There’s a lot more that can — and will be — said about the brief but spectacular lifespan of FM News. I look forward to the books that will inevitably be written about the experiences of the many talented and dedicated staffers that, in many cases, walked away from other jobs to chase the promises made by Merlin. We certainly haven’t heard the last from Randy Michaels. At this moment, he’s undoubtedly tucked away in an office, plotting his next move, scheming over the details of his next project. That next project may even be successful, but only if he’s learned the lessons of the failure of FM News in Chicago.

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