Steve Dahl (1979) (Photo: Paul Natkin)
SOURCE: Chicago Tribune
Chicagoans who have their clock radios set to WLUP-FM 97.9 may be in for a rude awakening Saturday as songs like AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell” give way to “Jesus I Believe” by Big Daddy Weave, the top song this week on K-LOVE, the station’s new Christian pop format.
Welcome to the Chicago airwaves, circa 2018.
Hitting the snooze button won’t bring Styx, Van Halen or Led Zeppelin back to “The Loop,” which is ending a 40-year-run as an iconic classic rock station. On Tuesday, owner Merlin Media announced it is selling WLUP to Educational Media Foundation, a California-based religious broadcaster, for $21.5 million.
The foundation is taking over WLUP’s programming through an affiliation agreement while the sale awaits approval from the Federal Communications Commission.
The Loop provided the long-running soundtrack for a generation of Chicagoans. Its swan song represents the end of an era as traditional radio struggles to stay relevant — and in some cases solvent — in the face of digital competition.
Nearly a dozen Chicago radio stations are run by owners in or on the brink of bankruptcy as listeners and ad dollars migrate to streaming platforms like Pandora and Spotify.
“Radio’s product offering and business model is under attack,” said Larry Miller, a radio veteran and director of the Steinhardt Music Business Program at New York University. “It is facing very stiff competition from (digital services) that didn’t exist a decade ago.”
Miller wrote a recent report painting a bleak picture of radio’s future as the car dashboard — once the exclusive province of AM and FM stations — taps into a world of digital platforms.
Traditional radio, he said, is in danger of becoming irrelevant to a new generation of listeners.
“Listenership is declining and aging, a little bit every year,” Miller said. “Younger people are discovering and consuming music in other places.”
Those places include streaming services with customized playlists, podcasts, YouTube videos and Apple’s iTunes, all of which are integrated in the connected car through systems such as Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.
California-based Pandora rolled out its service in 2005, offering listeners a personalized digital radio experience over the internet. Last year, the publicly traded streaming service generated nearly $1.5 billion in revenue, with about 75 million active listeners, according to financial documents.
Spotify, based in Sweden, had 159 million active users and generated about $5 billion in revenue in 2017, according to a registration form filed last month with the Securities and Exchange Commission in advance of an initial public offering.
Both Pandora and Spotify offer free and subscription services. While neither company is profitable, they have taken a bite out of traditional radio revenue, which has been stagnant for several years.
Over-the-air radio revenue peaked at about $18 billion in 2006, but it fell precipitously during the Great Recession and has never really recovered. While the radio industry is seeing some growth in online advertising, over-the-air revenue remains flat, generating about $14.1 billion in 2016, according to media research firm BIA/Kelsey.
The challenging economics have left the nation’s two largest radio chains drowning in debt and facing financial reorganization.
Atlanta-based Cumulus Media, the nation’s second-largest radio chain in number of stations, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in November. In Chicago, Cumulus owns WLS-AM 890 and WLS-FM 94.7 and operates WKQX-FM 101.1 — and, until the end of Friday, WLUP — under a marketing agreement with owner Merlin Media.
Meanwhile, iHeartMedia, the nation’s largest radio chain, may declare bankruptcy as early as Monday after creditors this week extended the deadline for avoiding default. The Texas-based radio chain owns seven stations in the Chicago market, including WVAZ-FM 102.7 (“V103”), WLIT-FM 93.9 (“Lite FM”) and WKSC-FM 103.5 (“Kiss FM”).
Fred Jacobs, founder and president of Michigan-based Jacobs Media, the nation’s largest rock radio consulting firm, said the industry is still in pretty good shape, despite the high-profile bankruptcies and ongoing erosion from digital competition.
“People look at those two companies and say that’s the state of the radio industry,” Jacobs said. “But the reality is, in a market like Chicago, there’s a lot of other companies doing quite well.”
Jacobs pointed to his client, Hubbard Radio, whose Chicago stations include WTMX-FM 101.9 (“The Mix”) and WDRV-FM 97.1 (“The Drive”), as thriving in the current environment.
He said the emotion connected with The Loop’s demise contributes to the perception, particularly in Chicago, that the industry is in a downward spiral. Jacobs said the station that listeners are mourning went away a long time ago.
“Nostalgia is a powerful force, and The Loop had a lot of that going for it,” he said.
The FM frequency at 97.9 signed on in the 1950s as WEHS and morphed into rhythm and blues outlet WHFC in 1963 under Leonard Chess, the legendary Chicago record company executive. In a subsequent incarnation as WSDM, it shifted to jazz and rock, at one point featuring an all-female air staff.
WLUP launched in 1977, and the station quickly became the place “Where Chicago Rocks,” which was emblazoned on black Loop T-shirts worn by an army of passionate listeners.
While morning man Steve Dahl personified the irreverence that shattered the norms of Chicago radio, afternoon drive host Sky Daniels was all about the music.
“When I first got there, the whole idea was to bring a rock ’n’ roll attitude to the airwaves,” said Daniels, who now runs a noncommercial Los Angeles rock station. “They really encouraged us to go deep and to break rules. And we did.”
Daniels’ tenure at The Loop spanned 1979 to 1985, and he also served as assistant program director as the format took off. The Loop scored its highest ratings in the summer of 1979, with a 7.3 share, placing it third among all stations.
“The summer of ’79, everywhere we went, everything we did, there would be 5,000 people showing up,” Daniels said. “The station had a hold on that marketplace, particularly with 16- to 24-year-olds.”
The most notorious moment in station history came in July 1979, when fans stormed the field at Comiskey Park during Disco Demolition Night, a promotion where Dahl blew up disco records between games of a doubleheader with the Detroit Tigers, forcing the White Sox to forfeit the second game.
Nostalgia for The Loop was in full force Friday, as Dahl, who currently hosts afternoon drive on WLS-AM 890, simulcast his show on The Loop for a farewell broadcast. Meanwhile, the station had a run on black Loop T-shirts, selling 3,000 online at $20 a pop by Friday afternoon, said Marv Nyren, market manager for Cumulus Chicago.
Daniels said the new owners of WLUP may have a hard time inspiring listeners to the degree The Loop once did.
“The impact The Loop had on their sensibilities was profound,” Daniels said. “It really made them true believers in rock ’n’ roll. It really did create a generation of true believers.”