Text and photos by SCOTT FYBUSH
We had some catching up to do this past summer in Chicago, where a lot of radio facilities had been on the move since we’d last seen them.
Take, for instance, what’s now the Cumulus cluster, which incorporates pieces of what had been the old ABC Radio stations, as well as another pair of FMs that came from Emmis by way of Merlin Media.
The last time we saw the former ABC stations – WLS (890) and WLS-FM (94.7) – they were still owned by ABC and were still tenants at ABC’s WLS-TV (Channel 7) facility at 190 North State Street. (Check out our 2003 visit to that facility in this archived Tower Site of the Week installment!)
In 2011, we dropped by what was then Merlin Media’s pair of stations, which were then rocker WLUP (97.9) and all-news WWWN (101.1), at their facility in the Merchandise Mart alongside the Chicago River – and you can see those studios, too, in an earlier Tower Site of the Week piece.
In 2014, Cumulus took over operation of WLUP and 101.1 (by then WIQI) from Merlin, and in early 2016 the stations all moved in together (briefly) at 190 North State before migrating to a new shared home later that summer.
That new home spans two floors of the NBC Tower, the landmark building hard by the Chicago River just a few blocks inland from Lake Michigan – and it brings with it no small amount of irony. That’s because these aren’t the first stations to move from the Merchandise Mart to the NBC Tower – it was built, after all, for NBC’s WMAQ-TV (Channel 5) when that station moved out of its longtime Merch Mart studios back in 1989.
101.1 had been in the Merchandise Mart its entire life, too, having started out as WMAQ-FM before NBC unloaded radio. And the old WMAQ(AM), which NBC sold to Westinghouse, also moved from the Mart to the NBC Tower, setting up shop as an all-news outlet in studios right here on the sixth floor.
Those studios and offices sat vacant for years after WMAQ became all-sports WSCR and moved out under eventual CBS Radio ownership, only to be gutted and rebuilt as Cumulus moved in two years ago. (And if you really want irony, consider that even WLS(AM) had Merchandise Mart roots, back when NBC owned two stations, Red Network outlet WMAQ and Blue Network outlet WENR, which shared time with WLS and eventually merged in with it…but we’re way deep into historical digression now, aren’t we?)
Back to 2018, then: ride up to the sixth floor and go in the relatively secluded doorway (the main lobby and business offices are on another floor), and then take a right turn to make your way down the U-shaped loop of studios here. Pass the rack room and the first cluster of studios is rather quiet on this August day, because this was where WLUP lived out its final days before its March sale to EMF Broadcasting.
When the rock stopped, 97.9 became a K-Love outlet under new calls WCKL, and while its programming was coming by satellite from California, it was still looping through this empty studio to maintain local EAS compliance. Just down the hallway, another big studio, equally empty, had been home to the WLUP morning show helmed by local radio legend Mancow Muller.
Across the hall, things were livelier: there are live performance studios all over the place these days, but WLUP and sister station WKQX were among the first to start the trend back at the Merchandise Mart. When they moved here, they got a much fancier “Sound Lounge” at the core of the studio complex, with lots of comfy seating, nice lighting and spiffy rugs on the floor, too.
There’s a green room right across from the old WLUP studio, with an oversized door that opens up as part of the stage backdrop to the adjoining Sound Lounge.
And while WLUP isn’t doing shows here anymore, its sister station on 101.1 is back to its heritage WKQX calls and modern rock format, now owned outright by Cumulus after buying out the LMA from Merlin in April.
WKQX’s studios is across the hall from the Sound Lounge, equipped like its sisters with Axia consoles and that nifty furniture with metal legs cut out with station logos and nicely backlit with color-changing LEDs.
From WKQX, we end up down at one corner of the “U,” where we find talk station WLS. Its Axia-equipped control room looks into a big corner talk studio, empty this afternoon because host Steve Dahl is away on a remote.
When you think “WLS,” of course, you think music as much as talk – and that part of WLS heritage lives on just down the hall at WLS-FM (94.7), which is on an upswing with a classic hits format that’s getting good numbers and bringing back some classic WLS personalities.
That “Dick Biondi Way” street sign over the studio door honors one of those classic voices, who recently retired – but through that door, we find our friend Ron Parker, now holding down afternoons and loving his new radio home. (How can you not love that view right over the Chicago River from his studio window?)
Continue down this arm of the “U,” along the south side of the building, and there’s a spacious lounge area, complete with artifacts from WLS history on the walls – as well as the audience entrance to the Sound Lounge, complete with a chalkboard wall where the next performers can be promoted.
Across the hall here, we find the WLS newsroom and traffic reporters – they anchor newscasts and deliver traffic from right at their desks – and another row of production rooms and studios that can be used for Cumulus’ Westwood One, visiting hosts, and, at least until it was cancelled back at the end of 2016, another veteran Chicago talent, Jonathan Brandmeier, who originated his WLS-based show from this studio near the end of the hallway.
Thanks to Ron Parker and Patrick Berger for the tour!
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Next week: WGN Radio’s New Chicago Home