Local News Close-Up: Chicago Is the City of Big Stories

WLS Chicago anchors Terrell Brown and Tanja Babich
Anchors Terrell Brown and Tanja Babich serve up news to Chicago on WLS, the ABC-owned local ratings powerhouse. (Image credit: WLS)

Of all the attributes that make an esteemed anchor or reporter, one of the most important, at least in Chicago, is having local roots. Chicago viewers have a level of trust in an anchor who speaks their language, and knows their neighborhood, that they might not have in an anchor from another market. 

“People from Chicago, people who grew up here, tell the stories that people want to hear,” said Matthew Piacente, VP and news director, WFLD-WPWR Chicago. 

General managers say there are some 77 distinct neighborhoods in Chicago, from River North to Pilsen to Bronzeville, and it helps to have reporters — not to mention producers, news directors and general managers — who know the market’s political layout, weather and customs. “We want to make sure we get those stories told correctly,” said Kevin Cross, WMAQ-WSNS president and general manager. “It’s a complicated story. Chicago is a complicated story.”

Also Read: Check Out Our Local News Close-Up Profiles on Dozens of U.S. Markets

There is never a shortage of stories, complicated or other, in DMA No. 3. NASCAR held a street race in Chicago for the first time in early July. Days before that, the air quality was just about the worst in the world due to the Canadian wildfires. Days after that, on July 2, some parts of the market got close to 9 inches of rain. 

It was a year before that seven were murdered, and dozens more wounded, when a mass shooting occurred at a July 4 parade in Highland Park. 

“News still matters in Chicago,” WLS president and general manager John Idler said. “It’s a great news town.”

As befits the No. 3 DMA, the networks own the major stations in Chicago. ABC has WLS. Fox owns WFLD-WPWR, a Fox-MyNetworkTV duopoly. NBCUniversal holds WMAQ-WSNS, an NBC-Telemundo pair. CBS has WBBM. Nexstar Media Group owns independent WGN. Weigel Broadcasting has The CW station WCIU. Univision owns WGBO and Window to the World Communications owns PBS station WTTW. 

Comcast is Chicago’s major pay TV operator. 

WLS is a Nielsen ratings powerhouse, with a stiff battle from WGN. The ABC station won a close 6 a.m. household race in June, while WGN took a narrow win in viewers 25-54. WLS won 5 and 6 p.m. in both races, and averaged a 4.86 household score at 10 p.m., ahead of WMAQ’s 2.81, WGN’s 2.08, WBBM’s 1.49, WGBO’s 1.16 and WSNS’s 0.64. (WFLD has Modern Family on at 10.)  In the 10 p.m. demo, WLS had a 1.66 and WMAQ a 0.80. WGBO had a 0.78, WGN a 0.77, WSNS a 0.47 and WBBM a 0.24, per figures supplied by one of the stations.  

WGN Morning News team

Independent station WGN’s morning news team (Image credit: WGN)

WLS is expanding its news presence. Early in 2022, ABC7 added streaming newscasts at 7-8 a.m and 7-8 p.m. on weekdays. Idler mentions a “think like an insurgent” mindset, where staffers are trained to hustle to take down the top dog every day, ignoring that WLS is that dog. “We never take it for granted,” Idler said. “We are always innovating with our storytelling.”

Main anchor Alan Kreshesky retired in November, but the anchor teams, including Rob Elgas or Ravi Baichwal anchoring with Cheryl Burton and Judy Hsu, is humming along. “We’re very pleased with the growth in that area,” said Idler. 

WLS takes pride in covering the parades that make Chicago Chicago — whether it’s the Chicago Pride Parade, the Bud Billiken Parade that celebrates Black culture, the St. Patrick’s Day Parade or others. The station also does quarterly specials, such as ones tied to Asian Heritage Month, Hispanic Heritage Month and Juneteenth. They often stream on Hulu

“We put a lot of work into these, and it’s great to have the local team get national exposure and recognition,” Idler said. 

An independent since it split with The CW in 2016, WGN celebrated 75 years on the air in April. Two-hour special WGN TV Celebrates 75 Years, highlighting milestone stories the station has covered, and the talent that covered them over the decades, aired in prime April 5.  

“It was a really fun opportunity to share it with employees as well as sharing it with viewers,” said Paul Rennie, WGN VP and general manager.

WGN launched lifestyle show Daytime Chicago at 10 a.m. in the fall of 2021, and debuts entertainment-themed Spotlight Chicago at 3 p.m. in September. 

In terms of prime, a double run of Last Man Standing is on weekdays at 8-9 p.m., local news is on at 10 p.m. and a sports program airs at 10:30. 

About WGN’s Chicago’s Very Own branding, “every day we work to back up that brand and make sure we’re delivering,” Rennie said. 

WGN content started on YouTube TV in late June, and launches on Hulu in late July. “It’s another vehicle that we can connect with the people of Chicago on,” Rennie said. “As the world continues to change, we do as well.”

WGN has a key asset in Chicago meteorologist Tom Skilling, who joined the station back in 1978. Rennie called him “a rock star in this town.”

Dan Roan retired as WGN sports anchor after 38 years, but the morning team, Larry Potash, Robin Baumgarten and Paul Konrad, has 27 years together, Rennie said. 

Bulls and Bears

Kevin Cross became WMAQ-WSNS president/general manager two years ago. WMAQ also celebrates a 75th anniversary this year, in October, and will bring back past anchors and reporters to celebrate the event. “We’re proud of our history,” Cross said. “We want to look back, but we also want to make sure we let our audience know we’re here in the future. We have 75 years to go at the very least.”

Besides reaching Spanish-language viewers through the Telemundo station, NBCUniversal also has NBC Sports Chicago. Cross mentioned a “full-year commitment” with the sports network, including pro baseball, basketball and hockey. “We’re always in front of our audience, one way or the other,” he said. 

It also has a FAST channel, where docuseries such as The Lost Story of Emmett Till run. 

Chicago ‘Bear’ Plays Summer Season

Jeremy Allen White and Ayo Edebiri in FX’s ‘The Bear’

(Image credit: Chuck Hodes/FX)

Bears programming always plays well in Chicago, and so does Bear programming. Season two of The Bear, an FX scripted show about high-end chef Carmen “The Bear” Berzatto, who returns home to Chicago to take over his brother’s greasy sandwich place after his untimely death, debuted on Hulu June 22. 

The Bear features loads of footage of Chicago, both glittering shots of the skyline from above and grittier stuff from the street level. 

Matt Piacente, VP and news director, WFLD-WPWR, said there was a long chat about The Bear in the stations’ morning meeting that day. “I’ve never seen a show more truly Chicago,” he said. “All the nuances — it’s a wonderful show.”

Jeremy Allen White plays Carmy. White made his name in another Chicago series, playing Lip on Shameless. Ayo Edebiri portrays Sydney and Ebon Moss-Bachrach plays Carmen’s cousin Richie. 

Sandwich joint Mr. Beef, on North Orleans Street in the River North neighborhood, was the inspiration for the restaurant The Beef in the show. John Idler, WLS president and general manager, calls Mr. Beef “an iconic spot.”

The second season, which sees The Beef transformed into a white-tablecloth destination,  “really showcases Chicago in a big way,” said Idler. 

Alas, not all Chicago station chiefs watch The Bear. “I know it’s a big deal,” said Paul Rennie, WGN VP and general manager. “I just love watching the news on WGN TV.” — MM

Fox is looking for a new general manager for WFLD-WPWR, with Dennis Welsh retiring at the end of June. He spent a decade at Fox’s Chicago stations, and 26 years with Fox Television Stations. “He’s had a heckuva career,” Piacente said. 

WFLD political editor Mike Flannery retired that same day, and anchor Corey McPherrin retires in August. Scott Schneider, morning anchor, will move to evenings, and take over the political beat too. 

Reupping their partnership with the Chicago Bears, the Fox stations have a full lineup of Bears programming, including Friday Night Bears Unleashed. A new sports show is in the works for prime, and Piacente said entertainment editor Jake Hamilton may host a new show down the line too. 

“We want to do more special programming,” said Piacente, who is from Highland Park. He said weather, politics and sports are common themes for the special stuff. 

Emily Wahls is Fox 32’s chief meteorologist. “Weather is always a headline for us,” said Piacente. “Weather is something we have to own.”

Jennifer Lyons took over as WBBM president/general manager two years ago in August, after 27 years at WGN, where she was news director, and a stint at NewsNation. “We’ve been working very hard to refine who we are and what we’re about,” she said, noting the CBS2 “pillars” of breaking news, weather, community and investigative. 

A streaming newscast in the 7-9 a.m. weekday slot debuted on CBS News Chicago in January, with Brad Edwards hosting. “When it goes to network, we continue to do local coverage,” said Lyons, who grew up in the Chicago suburbs. “It’s an extension of our brand and it has done well for us.”

More streaming newscasts may follow. “It’s where the growth is and where the opportunity is,” she said. 

WCIU does not do news, but covers Chicago with the weekly newsmag On the Block, a year-old partnership with non-profit Block Club Chicago that airs at 6:30 p.m. Sundays. The station also has high school football and basketball, with broadcasts syndicated across the state. 

The pandemic saw WCIU launch Chicago Food to Go. “It was an effort for us to support the restaurant industry,” said Steve Farber, Weigel Broadcasting senior VP of operations. “We all root for the restaurant industry in Chicago to stay strong.”

Weigel is, of course, a diginet powerhouse, so WCIU enjoys the likes of MeTV, Heroes & Icons, Catchy Comedy and Story Television, among others, under the station banner. 

Second City, Third DMA

The general managers say the Chicago economy is running hot and cold, still finding its footing after the pandemic. Crime in Chicago is notorious, and continues to challenge lawmakers, residents and newsrooms. 

Newsroom insiders said working in Chicago offers perks that larger markets don’t have. New York and Los Angeles are bigger, but both have an abundance of movie and TV stars and other pop culture icons. Chicago has some of that, but standout anchors are stars too. “Viewers look at anchors, at people on screen, as important people in their lives,” said Lyons. “They take their news seriously, and it’s good to serve an audience that cares.”

And those Chicago roots always play well in the region. WMAQ-WSNS GM Kevin Cross, for one, comes from the South Side. “It’s more than just a job for me,” he said. “My mom lives here and she holds me accountable.”

Michael Malone

Michael Malone is content director at B+C and Multichannel News. He joined B+C in 2005 and has covered network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television, including writing the "Local News Close-Up" market profiles. He also hosted the podcasts "Busted Pilot" and "Series Business." His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The L.A. Times, The Boston Globe and New York magazine.