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The sound of news is fading out on many FM stations
Charlie Meyerson sits at home in Oak Park these days, learning more about the Internet and waiting for the phone to ring.
Officially, the 43-year-old Meyerson is in-between jobs.Realistically, though, he's not sure whether his next job will be in radio.
As one of the most respected journalists to grace the airwaves on FM radio in Chicago over the past two decades, Meyerson, most recently news director at WNUA-FM 95.5, is the latest victim of what has been a growing movement by FM stations to cut back on news in the face of more talk or more music-- especially after morning drive.
Nothing personal, just the economics of the business, radio executives say. And it's a trend that shows no signs of changing anytime soon.
There are a few exceptions. Stations like WJMK-FM 104.3 and WNND-FM 100.3 have invested in their news departments over the past few years.
But the list of FM stations that have all but abandoned news or news departments in this city is as long as the road construction season in Chicago.
Bob Crawford, WBBM-AM 780's highly respected veteran City Hall reporter, remembers times, especially during the mayoral reigns of Harold Washington and Jane Byrne, when the City Hall press room was crawling with radio reporters, many from FM stations.
"It's somewhat troubling," said Crawford, who is now the lone radio reporter who works a full day out of City Hall. "But I understand what's going on. Staffs are shrinking, and you have to spread yourself thinner and thinner to cover everything."
Though AM remains the bastion of local and national news on the radio dial, the uniqueness of FM news--with the exception of public radio station WBEZ-FM 91.5--has virtually vanished.
In its heyday during the late 1970s and 1980s, FM news was competitive and geared to younger audiences. Longer in form than AM news, FM news stories tended to have bite and a perspective that was found in few other media.
Meyerson, who worked a total of 20 years at WNUA and before that at WXRT-FM 93.1, says he is looking at all options. And he still is clinging to the hope that FM news radio has a place.
"The cliche in radio is that news is a tune-out on music stations," he says. "My contention is that it's a tune-out because it hasn't been done right in so many places."
Indeed, Meyerson argues that even an all-news FM station could survive in Chicago, if the presentation was right.
"People are used to getting comment and commentary with their news," he says. "I think there is a real place on the FM dial for an all-news format station that presents a hipper, more intelligent, more innovative approach to news."
At WNUA, which wanted to go in the direction of more music in the morning at the expense of news, Meyerson says he had one guideline in the type of news that ran: "stories that affect people or stories that can affect."
"That ruled out a lot of gossip and almost all stories about the royal family," he says. And Meyerson credits WNUA until the end for giving the news department "complete freedom to do what it wanted."
But Meyerson, and other news junkies, are keenly aware of the business pressures on FM news right now. Station executives say that after morning drive time, many formats with news see declines in ratings.
"It's one of the reasons why news-talk has become more popular on AM," says Bill Gamble, program director at WXCD-FM 94.7.
"It's one of the greatest tragedies of our business," says Norm Winer, program director of WXRT, who remains a big believer in FM radio news, even as he has had to cut back on the amount of news XRT delivers during the day. "Unfortunately, Charlie was a victim of the economies of radio. Most broadcast companies are in the business to make money. News and news operations for a music station is not as profitable."
The trend has troubled many news veterans, who believe that listeners' interests in news haven't changed.
"Within certain demographics, I don't know if people have changed in their interests in news on the radio dial," says Neil Parker, former news director at WXRT who now is director of media practice at public relations giant Burson-Marsteller. "Unfortunately, I don't see any turning back."
For Meyerson, he's looking at his time off as a sabbatical. He's taking his time before deciding what his next move will be, and it may not be back to the radio airwaves. He says that whatever happens, the Internet is bound to create more opportunities for journalists who know how to make news compelling: "The one thing that won't change is the ability to tell a story, and tell it well."