It was the Friday before Christmas. Leigh Jacobs, the program director at IQ 106.9 and a good man whom I consider a friend, called me into his office and said, “We are going to let you go.” Until that moment, Leigh had been nothing but complimentary of my radio show and thrilled with its success. I felt bad for him that he was given this awful task and I could see in his eyes that this was harder on him than it was on me. It stands as amazing that in my 35 years in broadcasting I have not had such a face-to-face “Don’t let the door hit you” meeting until that moment. And with that, my fledgling career in talk radio hit an abrupt pause button. At least I hope it just a pause button.
The move will further fuel radio industry talk that the brand-new radio station is already for sale. Nothing else makes sense as I was their best-known local name, and my show from 8:30 to 10 a.m. regularly doubled the ratings of the morning show I followed. The show was, by every industry standard, a big success and helped move WWIQ to the #1 talk station in Philadelphia for November, beating NPR, WPHT, WIP, the Fanatic and a few others.
Still, I guess I should have seen it coming.
Like most others at the station, I was running down a dream while ignoring the stark reality that lined the path. Recently the station started shedding positions—both the business manager and the traffic manager (responsible for scheduling commercials) were sent packing. The station itself never seemed to unpack. Empty cardboard boxes and extra wires and equipment decorate the floor inside and outside empty cubicles and offices. There are no pictures on the walls, and the sign on the front door is a logo on sheet of paper copied on the station’s printer. IQ never promoted or marketed its existence. The most buzz ever created for the station was a YouTube video I put together to announce its debut. The phone system often shuts down, a crippling development for a station that depends on listener calls. Worse, the station often goes off the air for minutes and sometimes hours because the announced plans to replace the old transmitter tower in Camden with a new one atop Liberty One never happened.
The station’s current physical state is a sad testament to a once grand vision of Randy Michaels, CEO of Merlin Broadcasting, the company that owns and operates IQ 106.9. Randy’s vision was to accelerate the expected move of news radio from AM radio to FM. His idea attracted investors that allowed him to buy stations in New York, Chicago and last, but certainly not least, Philadelphia. The plan was to spawn a national network of FM news stations that would exist in a multi-city newsroom spread out across the country, all contributing content. It was well conceived but a couple of years ahead of its time and the investors didn’t have the patience for a couple of years. FM news died a quick death in New York and Chicago, and the Philadelphia station was forced to make other plans.
Michaels was handed a gift by CBS radio station WPHT, when “The Big Talker” ticked off the Premiere Network, the top radio syndicator in the country, by dropping Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity. That gave IQ 106.9 the opportunity to get the package of Beck, Hannity and Rush Limbaugh, the king of conservative talk radio. Michaels held on to his dream of FM news by starting the day with “The Morning News” to compete with KYW. The show also died a quick death as it never fit with the rest of the station. Sure, it’s still called The Morning News, but it’s not. It’s a talk show.
Merlin’s New York station has since been sold, and the Chicago stations are also reportedly up for sale. Soon Merlin may live up to the magical promise of its name and disappear. When I ventured into the station to clean out my office, I ran into a member of the sales staff who told me that he heard CBS had made an offer for the station that would bring a tidy profit. If that offer is real, it would be difficult for investors to turn it down. It would be ironic if CBS bought the station, since Randy took great pleasure in competitively tweaking the company’s nose with promotional spots that said things like “CBS stands for Can’t Be Smart.” More ironic still is the speculation that CBS will move KYW news radio to FM completing Randy Michael’s vision.
And me? I have no regrets, just pockets full of gratitude. Randy Michaels, one of the great talk radio hosts of all time, personally coached me. I was paid to go to a prestigious talk radio school, and I believe I graduated with honors. My show introduced the world to Samantha Pawlucy, the brave little girl who was harassed at school for wearing a Mitt Romney t-shirt. I pressed the city every day for two weeks to investigate irregularities at the election polling sites and collected stories from listeners; that investigation is now underway. I was growing as an important local voice of dissent in a city that is sorely lacking such a voice.
If the rumors of the impending 106.9 sale are true, I am only upset for the other employees who put heart and soul into the station’s success and the listeners who believed in the station and showed immense loyalty. I enjoyed getting to know them all, and I will miss our talks.
For now, my voice of dissent has been silenced on the radio, but it still exists here on The Philly Post and in my television commentaries that air on WPHL, channel 17’s morning show “Eye Opener,” in New York on WPIX, and on several TV stations across the country. I love radio and I am confident I will back on the air soon when we can continue our conversation.