Fox Valley radio stations thrive on local, niche markets
By Steve Lord and Mike Danahey firstname.lastname@example.org email@example.com August 11, 2012 7:52PM
Radio station owners Jenny Beckman (left), Doug Nelson and their father Larry sit in the one of the studios with WSPY morning host Chris Schwemlein at the Nelson Multimedia, Inc. headquarters in Plano on Thursday, August 9, 2012. | Steven Buyansky~Sun-Times Media
Updated: September 13, 2012 6:16AM
Chuck Schwemlein has been twirling the sponsor wheel for a long time now.
As the morning man at WSPY radio, AM and FM, based in Plano, he has done it so often he has become familiar with the contestants.
“I’ve gotten to know one woman, she lives in Millbrook,” says Schwemlein. “She has a pet bird named Chipper, and I usually can hear it in the background. So, I ask, well, how’s Chipper today?”
Mike Hunziker, operations manager at WRMN-AM radio in Elgin and also the morning guy there, hosts a show called “Your Turn” once a week, where he lets listeners talk about almost anything they want.
On a recent Monday, callers included a man with a corny joke about artichokes, another man who claimed President Obama is not a Marxist but a Fabian socialist, and a woman who read from a book written in the 1970s about this country’s agricultural policies.
Hunziker said he lets people speak their minds, “as long as they stay within FCC guidelines.” And he pretty much remains silent, most of the time.
“If it’s a slow day,” he adds, “I will egg people on just to get the ball rolling.”
Anna Kopsky, a broadcast communication major at North Central College and an on-air personality with WONC-FM, the Naperville school’s station, had friends take internships at big city radio stations. But all they were, she says, “were glorified coffee-getters.”
The internships she’s taken with smaller radio stations have allowed her to do almost everything there — from running the board to being on the air.
“I got to do hands-on work,” the Bolingbrook native says. “It was great experience, and it’s at the kinds of stations I might end up working when I graduate.”
Such is life at small radio stations, which in some ways operate throughout the suburbs in the shadow of their big city counterparts. Chicago is identified by its WGNs and WBBMs, and its WXRTs and WTMXs, and their millions of listeners and signals that boom through the entire Chicago area and beyond.
So many people aren’t aware of the WSPYs, WBIGs, WERVs and WONCs that only send their signals to part of the suburban area, and have maybe thousands of listeners.
But those listeners are hard-core, loyal and active. They support their local radio stations with everything from sales and ads to news tips and on-air calls. And in many ways, those small stations already are practicing, by necessity, what might be the future of radio everywhere — niche markets and local programming.
“There was always a saying in real estate about location, location, location,” says John Modormo, who oversees North Central College’s broadcast radio program and its station. “In small market radio, it’s local, local, local.”
Larry Nelson, co-owner of Nelson Multimedia Inc., which includes WSPY FM and AM in Plano, considers a local radio station a key component to a community, “like a city park or the local YMCA, one of those pieces that give people a sense of community.”
“The whole localism thing is what makes us unique,” says Nelson. “That is, in effect, our niche.”
Local radio has a long tradition in the area.
WBIG-AM, in Aurora, has been around for more than 30 years. But before that, it was WMRO, which dates back even further than the days the station had to stop the live broadcasts of City Council meetings in the 1950s because of the liberal use of swear words by then-Mayor Paul Egan.
WBIG now is owned by partners Steve Marten and Rick Jackle, who also co-own WRMN in Elgin. The two stations share similar programming, but with individual staffs that put together individual programs for part of the day.
The big show for both stations, which Marten calls the “mothership,” is the Radio Shopping Show. This program has been on more than 30 years, has had more than 50,000 households participating and takes up 44 hours of broadcast time on the two stations each week.
The show runs for eight hours, in two-hour segments, Monday through Friday, and four hours on Saturday. Businesses, many of which are station advertisers, offer deals and the public can call in and purchase the bargains.
“It’s marrying businesses and listeners,” Marten says. The interactive nature of the show lets those listeners and on-air personalities interact. And people have to come to the station to get their certificates, which means personal contact is made.
Modormo calls this an example of the stark contrast between local stations and their city counterparts.
“The bigger stations, they don’t want you to come down there, to their doors,” he says. “The smaller stations want you to know where they are, who they are. They have visibility in the community.”
Visibility is a key for WERV-FM, based in Aurora, which is better known as The River. With its high-quality FM signal, the pop and rock station conducts a series of live remotes and appearances throughout the area. Not only are they out live at festivals and other events, residents might pass by them in front of a drug store or supermarket one day, and inside a restaurant another.
“We pride ourselves on being part of the local community, and getting out, reaching more people,” says Scott Kosak, station manager.
The station has more than 400,000 listeners each week, all in Chicago’s western suburbs, because that’s where their broadcasts are aimed. Those listeners come from DuPage, Kane, northern Kendall and northern Will counties.
The River is one of nine stations owned by Next Media. All the stations are aimed to specific areas throughout the suburbs. When combined, they form a ring around the only place they don’t serve — the city of Chicago.
“Everything for us is focused in the western suburbs,” Kosak says. “That’s what makes The River different.”
Larry Nelson came out to the area in 1974 from WLS-AM in Chicago, where he was an engineer. He worked at WLS in one of its heydays as a rock station, when the likes of Larry Lujack, Bob Sirott and Tommy Edwards ruled the airwaves. In 1976, he built One Broadcast Center out on Frazier Road, near Plano, and “just slowly expanded from there,” he says.
The station now has a 500-foot tower and this past year, doubled its power.
WSPY has its own version of the Home Shopping Show, called the Trading Post. Nelson said it “serves a need” for people and is one of the shows that draws people close to the station.
WSPY is one part of Nelson Multimedia, which has eight radio stations in Plano, Morris, DeKalb and Peoria, WSPY Television in Plano, and other holdings. While the station is generally the opposite of the big city stations, when WGN dropped its long-standing Noon Show, which served farmers with market reports, farm news, weather and features throughout the state, Nelson’s station swooped in.
They now provide, with all their stations, coverage of the very things that used to make the Noon Show a staple.
“At 12:30, we look more like a WGN,” Nelson says. “We cover most of Northern Illinois.”
In an age where computers and the Internet process data far faster than the human brain can, local radio continues to function by ignoring much of that data, and reporting to a smaller market.
Robert Feder, a long-time local media critic who writes for Time Out Chicago, says consolidation and deregulation “stripped major market stations of their connections to the citizens they’re licensed to serve.”
But suburban radio continues to thrive , he says.
“The very best among them are those with live, local personalities rather than syndicated, automated or voice-tracked hosts emanating from who-knows-where,” he says.
Feder points out that suburban stations tend not to rely on ratings to determine advertising rates — in fact, it’s sometimes impossible to find a smaller station with a copy of the recent Arbitron book.
“With the loss of so many community newspapers and cutbacks in other media in recent years, suburban stations that have survived are more important than ever as sources of local news, information, opinion and public service, as well as outlets for local commerce,” he says. “All of which suggests a bright future for those stations that remain tied to their communities and responsive to the needs of their listeners and advertisers.”
That doesn’t mean radio people aren’t concerned about the future. They are just as apprehensive as newspaper people about what will happen to their voices as more media consolidation continues and the Internet grows.
But it might just be the small stations that have the upper hand.
“Radio isn’t going to be as mainstream as it has been,” says Hunziker. “It’s going to be really niched.”