The Swanson Method

The No. 3 market may be the No. 1 test of the Swanson Method. Relying on big-name talent, big-time community outreach, and market-savvy executives, General Manager Joe Ahern is following Dennis Swanson's lead in reviving WBBM Chicago.

Ahern was station manager when then-GM Swanson revitalized ABC's WLS Chicago in the 1980s. Not surprisingly, Ahern, who succeeded Swanson and then headed market leader KGO San Francisco, was near the top of the list of executives Swanson recruited to Viacom. When Swanson ran WLS, he raided other stations and hired some of the city's best-known talent. Ahern is now trying to do the same.

A turnaround begins with closing the ratings gap. In Chicago, Ahern has placed his ratings bet on popular anchor Diann Burns, recently lured from WLS after her contract expired. In the first two weeks of the February sweeps, the bet paid off by substantially narrowing the gap in households with first-place WLS. Sweeps to date, WBBM was tracking in third place in late news vs. fifth place last year, according to the station's ratings data.

Community outreach at WBBM partly means media sponsorship for such events as the local Columbus Day and St. Patrick's Day parades, as well as the Chicago Marathon, the Tall Ships festival, and a 125-mile bike race featuring Lance Armstrong. When Swanson was general manager at WNBC New York, it seemed the station was a major sponsor of just about every major parade.

In 2002, the most recent year for which estimates are available, WBBM took in just $94 million in revenues, according to BIA Financial Network. By comparison, market leader WLS had $172 million, NBC's WMAQ $168.1 million, Tribune's WB affiliate WGN $135 million, and Fox's WFLD $126.4 million. WBBM was not only fifth in revenues but fifth in most ratings categories as well, Ahern said.

Some of WBBM's reclamation work was technical. When Ahern arrived, he and the station's engineers concluded that "26% of the people couldn't get a clear signal." (The CBS station in Philadelphia had a similar problem.) So one of his first priorities was a new antenna and transmitter. It was a multimillion-dollar fix.

With that expensive salvage job completed, Ahern is in the more difficult phase of the Swanson Method: taking an also-ran to the top and dominating for years, as Swanson did at WLS.

It would be a test result that shows up brightly on Viacom's bottom line.