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Numbers are wonderfully malleable things. My favorite mental game is 24, because it's so easy to play with Chicago's four-digit addresses and Illinois' four-digit license plates. Simply take any four-digit number you see (ignore the ones with zeros but not the ones with repeated digits), and using only the basic symbols of addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division, create an equation in which the digits equal 24. You usually can. For instance, the digits 1, 2, 3, and 4 can be made to equal 24 simply by doing this: 1 x 2 x 3 x 4. But as I said, numbers being malleable — or perhaps treacherous is a better word — they can also be manipulated to equal every number from zero up to 24 — and some numbers beyond it.
I'm digressing. 24 is on my mind because every fourth-grader should be taught it and few are. It's a game that makes arithmetic joyous.
Getting to the point, something odd has happened to the numbers that describe the radio audience of WGN. On December 13, media writer Lewis Lazare had a piece in the Sun-Times that discussed the wrenching impact that Arbitron's new Portable People Meters have had on radio ratings. "In little more than 12 months' time, the Chicago radio landscape has changed dramatically," Lazare wrote. Some stations discovered their top talent was drawing audiences far smaller than the stations had thought, and these announcers were getting the boot. Lazare listed the following "million-dollar mouths" that have retired or otherwise vanished from the local airwaves in the past 18 months: Spike O'Dell from WGN, Steve Dahl from WJMK, Mike North from WSCR, Eddie Volkman and Joe Bohannon from WBBM-AM, and Jonathon Brandmeier from WLUP.
One media-savvy reader told me he thought Lazare had missed the real story. Alongside his piece Lazare had listed Chicago's top ten stations based on Arbitron's November's ratings. And nowhere — not in the overall ratings, or in the ratings of either morning or afternoon drive time shows,, or midday shows, was WGN mentioned. And for decades WGN has dominated Chicago's airwaves. Had the PPMs caused this precipitous drop?
A few days later I was on Milt Rosenberg's show and I asked him what was behind the catastrophe. He wasn't aware there'd been one. So I called Lazare.
He pointed out that his predecessor, Rob Feder, had ranked stations according to their overall audiences, a category known as "12 plus." Lazare believed "adults 25 to 54" was the more important demographic, so it's the one he's switched to. And among the 25-to-54-year-old audience, WGN was 25th in November, Lazare told me. Among the 12-plus audience, it was third.
"What they have is a bunch of old people," said Lazare, who told me he didn't examine WGN's audience of codgers this time around because he'd written on the subject in the past.
The station's taking steps to attract a younger audience, said Lazare, such as hiring Garry Meier last April to sit behind a mike weekday afternoons from one to four. Of course, Meier broke into radio in 1973 and today must be close to 60.