Merlin Media Updates on a Very Short Schedule
On July 31, 2011, a format switch was thrown in Chicago when WKQX became WWWN News 101.1. The all-news FM station took to the air after a fast 35-day countdown to convert the operation from a rock format to the news format, which included a fully staffed newsroom.
The format swap was the result of the station changing hands from Emmis Communications to Merlin Media. Merlin itself made headlines with the return of Randy Michaels to radio. Merlin bought three stations from Emmis, with WLUP-FM Chicago and WRXP-FM New York being the other two. Two weeks after WKQX became WNNN, WRXP became WEMP-FM News 101.9. This article focuses on the work at the Chicago station, but much of the efforts were repeated in New York as well.
Converting an existing music format station to all news isn’t a simple matter of putting a new air staff in place. The two stations needed to build complete news operations. The process began when Randy Michaels tapped Mark Olkowski to be the technical consultant for Merlin Media. Olkowski then contacted Dan Braverman at Radio Systems. Olkowski has several years of experience with news radio, having been the engineering manager at CBS New York overseeing WCBS-AM (among other stations). Radio Systems worked with Olkowski at WCBS, which also led to work at KYW-AM Philadelphia, so Radio Systems, too, had experience with news radio operations. Chicago Director of Engineering Patrick Berger also had some experience with news radio from his days of working at a Milwaukee news station.
The marching orders were simple: Get the two stations ready for an all-news format. The caveat was that the project had to be done in weeks, not months. Braverman described the integration of a format change in an existing space with continuing live operations and using legacy equipment as the perfect storm of complexity.
The Chicago stations are housed in the Chicago Merchandise Mart, which is the second largest building by area in the United States (behind the Pentagon). Its 25 floors span two city blocks and have 4.2 million square feet of space, which includes business offices, retail shopping, scores of luxury boutiques and several restaurants. The studios on the second floor were built in 2000, and WLUP moved in to the space in 2005. At that time, digital routing systems were not widely deployed, so the analog systems were kept in place. That infrastructure still works fine today, and coupled with the short time frame, a complete system replacement was not part of the plan.
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