Editors’ note: Since the publication of this article the smooth jazz format has returned to the Chicago airwaves. Read this December 31, 2014 update for more details.
In a move whose logic I honestly don’t understand, Randy Michael’s Merlin Media has entered into a local marketing agreement with Venture Technologies Group, which owns the low-power TV channel 6 WLFM-LP in Chicago. Venture has operated the station as Smooth 87.7 with a smooth jazz format, taking advantage of what I call the “back door” to the FM dial enjoyed by the last few analog channel 6 stations whose audio can be heard at the far left end of it.
The agreement becomes effective today, April 29, and as of 6 PM Central Time the station is still playing smooth jazz, airing the last edition of the local Chicago music program, but with top of the hour news headlines provided by Merlin Media’s FM news station 101.1. Ironically, Merlin Media plans to bring alternative rock to WLFM, the very format that Merlin killed on 101.1 FM when it started News 101.1 last year. Previously the station was known as Q101, and was the pioneering commercial alt rock station in Chicago for almost 20 years.
All the more ironically Merlin Media plans to brand the station as Q87.7 using the old Q101 call letters WKQX, obviously trying to capitalize on the old station’s caché, if somewhat belatedly.
The reason why I’m puzzled by the deal is that the analog audio signal of channel 6 TV stations is going away by September 1, 2015, when the FCC requires all remaining low-power TV stations to convert to digital. Now, I can understand why Venture would want to find someone to lease the signal for its last three years, bringing in some rent with minimal investment. I have a harder time understanding why Merlin Media would want to lease a signal that has only three years left to live.
As Time Out Chicago’s Robert Feder points out, Smooth 87.7 was doing pretty well in the ratings for a fringe quasi-FM signal, beating out plenty of true-blooded commercial FM stations–including News 101.1–to rank 24th in the market. I’m guessing that Merlin must be getting a pretty good deal on the LMA compared to a real FM station with comparable ratings. But what good will that be when the signal goes silent on Aug. 31, 2015? Perhaps Merlin will treat 87.7 as a test signal to see if it might be worth bringing commercial alternative to more expensive real FM signal, or even bring it back to its old home at 101.1.
On the Smooth 87.7 website, GM Pat Kelley has posted a farewell message in which he acknowledges that the decision to lease out the station and end the smooth jazz format
is due primarily because the current FCC has refused to provide assurance that WLFM can continue to broadcast on 87.7 FM in September 2015. In a strange twist, the FCC of the current Administration has killed Smooth Jazz in Chicago by failing to act on our requests to secure the audio future of 87.7 FM.
He promises that they “are still fighting” and calls on listeners to contact Illinois Senator Dick Durbin and FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn to help the fight.
Blaming the FCC for killing smooth jazz in Chicago is kind of stretch, given that Clear Channel did the job first when it flipped the former smooth jazz stalwart WNUA to Spanish-language in 2009. On top of that, TV channel 6 was never intended to be an FM radio service, and analog low-power TV was intended to provide video service, not only audio. Finally, once the digital TV transition had been set in motion only a fool would have bet that low-power TV stations would not eventually be required to make the transition. In fact, I consider WLFM to be lucky for being able to hang on as long as it has.
It’s reasonable and obvious to say that if you want to operate a radio station, then you’re best off buying an actual radio station. I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect the FCC hold open a loophole that was never designed to exist in the first place.
UPDATE: After reading all the comments to this post, I’ve written a follow-up guide to finding jazz on the Chicago radio dial. Yes, there is still jazz on Chicago radio!