WMAQ says so long

WMAQ(AM) is dead! Long live wmaq! Chicago's oldest radio station retired its call letters last Monday after more than 78 years, but its archives will live on at the Museum of Broadcast Communications in Chicago.

Wmaq owner Infinity Broadcasting Corp. had to sell an AM in Chicago to win federal approval of parent CBS Corp.'s recent merger into Viacom Inc. The natural target was WSCR(AM) at 1160 kHz, with its weak nighttime signal. But rather than sell off wscr completely, Infinity decided to move wscr's call letters and potentially popular sports talk format to its wmaq, which at 670 kHz has the strongest AM signal available. (Infinity is looking for a buyer for the 1160 frequency.)

Ratings also came into play in Infinity's decision: wmaq tied for 21st place in the spring Arbitron book. Although wscr was tied for 26th, Infinity is hoping to duplicate the success of its sports/talk WFAN(AM) New York. Wfan has been the top-billing radio station not just in New York but in the entire country since 1995, according to BIA Research.

While wmaq billed some $20 million in 1999, it "was not functioning as a successful station," CBS spokesman Gil Schwartz says. Meanwhile, the sports format is a "successful franchise," he continues, although wscr reportedly billed just $10 million last year.

Wmaq employees had a rough couple of weeks before the change, says Mike Krauser, formerly news director of wmaq and now news director of Infinity's all-news wbbm Chicago. About a dozen wmaq employees have moved to wbbm, the No. 6 station in the market; the other 40 or so are looking for jobs.

Wmaq, which went on the air on April 12, 1922, was the birthplace of radio's first serial, Amos 'n' Andy, in 1928, and originated "more soap operas than you can begin to name," Chicago broadcast historian Rich Samuels says. The station also hosted Fibber McGee & Molly and personalities including Red Skelton and Don Ameche. Wmaq also lays claim to the first play-by-play sports broadcast, in 1925, and the first transocean news broadcast, in 1928.

The station was started by the Chicago Daily News and a local department store, the Fair Store. NBC bought wmaq in 1931 and owned it until 1988, when the station was sold to Westinghouse Electric Co. Westinghouse bought Infinity in 1996, the year after it bought CBS.