IQ 106.9 wants to be the next big talker on local news radio

Al Gardner, right, and former television anchor Larry Mendte, second from right, who co-anchor the morning news radio show on IQ 106.9 FM talk with morning editor Mitch Merman, left, and producer Larry Mathlage, center, at their office in Philadelphia, Pa. on June 6, 2012. (DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer )
Al Gardner, right, and former television anchor Larry Mendte, second from right, who co-anchor the morning news radio show on IQ 106.9 FM talk with morning editor Mitch Merman, left, and producer Larry Mathlage, center, at their office in Philadelphia, Pa. on June 6, 2012. (DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer )
Posted: June 13, 2012

IN THE SUMMER of 1776, a small band of determined underdogs gathered at a fortress of freedom called Independence Hall and challenged an entrenched, seemingly invulnerable power.

Two-hundred-and-thirty-six years later, just a short ride from that hallowed spot, an equally challenged band of insurrectionists from its "Fishtown fortress of freedom" is taking on a seemingly insurmountable foe.

Earlier this spring, WWIQ-FM, a/k/a IQ 106.9, went on the air with a single mission: To pry listeners and ad revenue from two AM radio stations that have dominated the nonsports "spoken word" realm in the Philadelphia market for decades: all-news behemoth KYW (1060) and talk outlet WPHT (1210), both owned and operated by CBS media.

Operating from inside a new office building on the grounds of an abandoned Delaware Avenue Peco station, WWIQ is out to win the hearts and ears of Delaware Valley residents with a blend of in-depth morning news (5 to 9 a.m.) and a talk lineup featuring the three heaviest hitters in conservative punditry: Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh (who, beginning June 25, will be heard in his familiar noon-to-3 p.m. spot) and Sean Hannity.

WWIQ's corporate parent, Chicago-based Merlin Media LLC, purchased the station — known for decades as Camden-licensed WKDN-FM — last December from evangelical broadcaster Harold Camping, who famously predicted the end of the world would occur May 21, 2011.

WPHT and especially KYW are long-entrenched operations in a market known for its resistance to change. And like other media, the radio industry has seen declining advertising revenue since the Wall Street meltdown of a few years ago. That makes a venture like IQ 106.9 seem dicey at best, illogical at worst. But station brass sees it differently.

According to Merlin's vice president of programming, Al Gardner, company CEO Randy Michaels "observed that as music seems to be moving to the iPod, spoken word was moving to the FM. He deduced the smartest thing he could do would be to put spoken-word programming on FM because it sounds better."

Gardner is a Levittown native whose younger brother, Andre, is a longtime WMGK-FM (102.9) DJ. Along with former local TV news anchor Larry Mendte, he co-hosts the a.m. drive-time block dubbed "Philly's Morning News." He suggested that CBS' presence here is an inviting target. "Since CBS owns and operates a radio news station, a talk station, sports station [the simulcast WIP AM and FM], and a TV station [CBS 3], we felt it would be great for Philadelphia to have more than just one spoken-word philosophy on radio," he said.

"Even WPHT, a competent talk product, would acknowledge that their news, weather, and traffic commitments are very limited," Gardner added. "KYW is iconic in its ability to be perceived as a utility, but to an extent is a victim of its own success. [Its formula] is story, story, repetition, and they must deliver on that. IQ 106.9 can and does go in-depth to spotlight stories and to offer opinion."

Despite the on-air roster's rightward bent, Gardner warned it would be a mistake to assume that Mendte is in lockstep with Limbaugh et al. "Larry was brought in to have a strong agenda," Gardner said. "He is there to give a commentary, but he'll surprise the heck out of you on some of the positions he'll take on issues. Break up the banks? You may argue that's a left-of-center position. Obama is an idiot? That is more of a conservative position. I never know what he's gonna say."

Though he didn't come out and say it, Gardner's words during a recent interview suggested he believes that WPHT is the more vulnerable of his two foes. "KYW is an icon," he offered. "We have a lot of fun at their expense, but I would never publicly trash them because they are so well-respected. The reality is they're beloved."

On the other hand, 'PHT is fair game. He and Mendte both took potshots at the station that was, in the 1920s, the seed from which the CBS empire grew. And it's not just via station commercials and media interviews that Gardner and his minions are attacking.

Beck, Hannity and Limbaugh were once carried by WPHT. The first two were 86ed when the outlet decided to program more locally focused and produced shows. Limbaugh — who for the next couple of weeks remains on the station — was told he was being let go not long after he called a young women who had advocated government-subsidized contraception a "slut."

Although Limbaugh's termination appeared to be related to "Slutgate," several industry insiders confirmed the timing was coincidental. Limbaugh's contract with 'PHT was set to expire at the end of this month, and his syndicator, Premiere Radio Networks, wanted to package him, Beck and Hannity on a single station.

That left WPHT with a local lineup that doesn't impress Mendte, who has his first local job since being convicted in late 2008 of illegally accessing the email of his then-Channel 3 news co-anchor, Alycia Lane, and sentenced to six months of house arrest. Lane's civil suit against Mendte is still being litigated.

"They hired a morning guy [Chris Stigall] from Kansas City," said Mendte. "That doesn't make any sense whatsoever. I heard he's a great guy, but it really makes no sense to say you're gonna go all-Philly and bring in a guy from Kansas City who talks about Kansas City all the time. I don't need to know about the Chiefs' [rookie] draft."

Mendte saved his harshest shots for 'PHT's biggest name, afternoon host Michael Smerconish. He suggested the moderate local Republican cut his own throat by backing Sen. Barack Obama as the Democratic presidential candidate in 2008. "When he came out and endorsed President Obama in the last election, that was monumental to his listeners," said Mendte. "It was so divergent from what he [had been] talking about. He came out as soulless. He came out as someone who really didn't believe what he was talking about all this time, and that kills you, if people think that you really don't mean what you're saying."

Mendte also charged Smerconish — a regular cable news guest commentator — with using his 'PHT-based syndicated radio show as a springboard to a full-time TV gig. "All he wants to do," insisted Mendte, "is to be on TV. He dreams of being on MSNBC."

If Smerconish is smarting from Mendte's verbal beat-down, he didn't cop to it in an email. "The last time a local media personality became the object of Mendte's obsession," he wrote, "it didn't end well for Larry. It's probably best for his rehabilitation that I not comment further."

Some may wonder why a talk outlet in one of the most overwhelmingly Democratic cities in the nation would bank so heavily on a lineup that leans so far to the right. But Mendte insisted the region is not as blue as it may appear. "I would say the area is more right-of-center than it is liberal," he said. "I would argue if you take all the suburbs, you take South Jersey and Philadelphia, we are probably just a little right-of-center. “But it doesn't really matter. When you're talking about a population of [five million] people, and let's just say it's 30 percent who are conservative and will listen to conservative talk; I'll take a 30 [ratings share]."

WPHT operations manager Andy Bloom, who just hired writer Buzz Bissenger to take over Smerconish's old time slot, appeared unconcerned about his nascent competition. "Who? What?" was all he would say when asked to comment.

Mendte certainly believes the future is rosy, and he points to 97.5 The Fanatic as a good reason why. When the all-sports station began challenging WIP-AM (in late 2005) solely on 950-AM, its ratings barely registered in the Arbitron surveys that help determine ad rates. But when it added its programming to the FM dial in 2009, things began to change.

In the April 2012 ratings, WIP, which last fall migrated to 94.1- FM presumably as a response to The Fanatic, still holds an almost 2-1 lead (2.9 to 1.5 among all listeners). But The Fanatic has scored its victories, most notably when afternoon drive-timer Mike Missanelli overtook then-WIP host Howard Eskin in their shared time slot. And recently, The Fanatic lured both Flyers and 76ers games away from WIP. "One thing [The Fanatic] did was they got a local name," said Mendte, referring to Missanelli. "He was their first breakthrough.

“The second thing they did was get some great syndication, ESPN and ‘Mike [Golic] & Mike [Greenberg]' in the morning. We're getting local names here, so it's really following — even though I don't think it was planned out — the same formula. And that is a recipe for success."

Radio analyst Tom Taylor isn't quite as optimistic as Mendte, but neither did he dismiss 'WIQ. According to Taylor, who covers the industry for Radio-Info.com, Merlin Media made a shrewd decision in not duplicating the 24/ 7 news operation it has conjured for recently purchased stations in Chicago and New York. "They saw it differently [in Philly]. They were willing to be flexible. They saw the opportunity to get three syndicated [superstars]."

Taylor suggested IQ 106.9's biggest battle may not be with other radio stations, but with history. "It's always been a very difficult market for syndication. For instance, this was the last market to [broadcast] Rush Limbaugh."

Taylor added that the local radio market is also different because of the presence of a popular noncommercial station, WHYY-FM (90.9), which has a "a pretty sizable percentage of the [local] talk audience." The bottom line, Taylor noted, is that WWIQ "has to … prove bringing on Rush and bringing on Hannity and Beck will be magnets for bringing listeners." n

Contact Chuck Darrow at 215-313-3134 or darrowc@phillynews.com. Read his blog at www.philly.com/philly/blogs/casinotes/ and follow him on Twitter @chuckdarrow.

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