Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson and the Power of AM Radio


(By Lainie Petersen) Chicago’s WCPT is a local and national rarity: a full-power, commercial AM station with a progressive talk format that has thrived for close to twenty years, largely due to actively nurturing connections between the station and the communities it serves. One such connection is between its listeners and long-time Sunday Morning host Brandon Johnson, who became Chicago’s 57th mayor.


WCPT is one of four brokered stations owned by Fred Eychaner’s Newsweb Radio Company. Its current format dates back to 2005 when Eychaner made WAIT-AM an affiliate of the nascent Air America network, changing the station’s call letters and eventually moving it from 850 AM to 820 AM, giving it a stronger signal.

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Chicago Mayoral Debates (Courtesy of WCPT, photograph by George Burns)

Despite the collapse of Air America in 2010, WCPT stayed on the air. Nationally syndicated shows, such as The Thom Hartmann Show and Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now!, have their place on WCPT’s schedule. In 2021, Newsweb also created its own digital newsroom, Heartland Signal, that provides news to the community through WCPT’s broadcasts, the station’s website, and social media feeds.

Still, the station prioritizes local hosts and content, consistent with Newsweb’s emphasis on local programming (several hosts on its multilingual stations, including WSBC, WNDZ, and WCPY, have been producing their shows for decades). WCPT’s current roster includes Santita Jackson, daughter of civil rights leader Reverend Jessie Jackson, and local news veterans Patti Vasquez and Joan Esposito.


The station is always looking for new talent, seeing itself as an “incubator” for new radio talent. Station management pays close attention to tips from listeners who recommend favorite podcasters or community activists who they think might be a good fit.

One such talent was found in Brandon Johnson, an educator, union organizer, and community activist. Johnson’s community-focused talk show began in 2017 and developed a loyal following. He also regularly sat in for Santita Jackson when she was out of the studio. (Johnson entered politics in 2018 when he was elected to the Cook County Board of Commissioners.)

Newsweb General Manager Mark Pinski remarked:

“Brandon’s on-air tone was soothing, his ad-lib ability sensational, his attitude refreshing, he was great with all of his callers, and his new ideas gave people hope. . . he brought tremendous knowledge to his radio program and a sense of humor. Beyond that, everyone who turned into his [shows] could tell he loved doing his radio program on WCPT, and he loved the City of Chicago.”

In 2022, Johnson departed WCPT to run for mayor of Chicago, entering an already crowded field of candidates. (Pinski notes that Johnson did not appear on WCPT 60 days before the general election. Johnson did participate in the station’s mayoral candidate forum, along with several other candidates, including the incumbent mayor, Lori Lightfoot.)

During Johnson’s candidacy and after his election, WCPT received numerous calls and emails from Chicagoans who had regularly tuned in to Sunday Mornings with Brandon Johnson.

Tim Hogan, Heartland Signal’s Executive Editor, noted, “He built a presence here. He built an audience here…I think when he spoke on our station, a lot of people identified with that.”


Heartland Signal’s Executive Editor Tim Hogan in the station’s newsroom.

WCPT continues its commitment to local journalism by expanding its digital footprint through streaming, podcasts, and social media. According to Hogan, Heartland Media registered 50+ million digital impressions of its work:

“Whether that’s a listener tuning in to a program, someone reading an article on our website, or a follower seeing or engaging our content on social media, we’ve seen exponential growth in our total audience.”

Still, Hogan and the station’s management understand that digital options are no substitute for broadcast radio, particularly in areas outside urban centers like Chicago. WCPT supports the campaign to keep AM radio in car dashboards, noting that it is “really dangerous” to cut people off from getting news and information during emergencies.

Hogan also expressed a deeper commitment to the medium:

“I think that was a big part of the pushback, too, is this [radio] is still a place where people get news, not just about politics, but about weather and what’s happening in their town. And while there may be some scattered smaller stations across the country, those stations are really important to the way that people live their lives.”

Lainie Petersen is the Print Editor of Radio Ink magazine. She can be reached at [email protected].


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