Twenty-five years ago, the undisputed golden boy of Chicago media was Jonathon Brandmeier, known to legions of adoring fans — and everyone else in town — as Johnny B.
From skyrocketing ratings for his WLUP FM 97.9 morning show to box-office records set by his Johnny and the Leisure Suits band, it all seemed to click for the multi-talented hyperkinetic kid from Fond du Lac, Wisconsin.
A January 1990 TV Guide cover story on “The Top Stars of the ’90s,” singled out Brandmeier, then 33, as “simmering just under the surface” of national television stardom. A few months earlier, he’d signed an exclusive talent development deal with NBC, encompassing everything from his own comedy-talk-music-variety show to late-night and prime-time specials, guest appearances on network series, and roles in made-for-TV movies.
What came out of the deal was one late-night special, a part in the forgettable TV movie “Thanksgiving Day,” and one week of guest-hosting on “Late Night With Bob Costas.” Following that was the colossally bad “Johnny B. On The Loose” a daily, half-hour comedy show produced by Brandmeier, Fred Silverman, NBC and Viacom and syndicated to 114 cities. It bombed in all of them — including Chicago — and was gone within five weeks.
Although Brandmeier eventually moved to the West Coast and lived in a six-bedroom, 6,000-square-foot ocean-view mansion in Malibu, the big-time show-biz success that once seemed inevitable never materialized. It’s been a rocky road ever since.
Even his once-enormous fan base here dwindled. A 2005 comeback at the Loop ended four years later when station owners dropped his show. A subsequent mismatch at WGN AM 720 proved a bigger flop. After 20 months in the morning slot once occupied by Wally Phillips, Bob Collins and Spike O’Dell, Brandmeier was relegated to an Internet platform at WGN.fm and a low-power sports/talk station at 87.7 FM.
Citing inadequate ratings and insufficient advertising revenue, Tribune Media last month pulled the plug on both ventures — dropping Brandmeier from the payroll and effectively severing ties with him. He’s been off the air and on vacation since December 17.
So what’s next for Johnny B.?
If he does return this Monday, as his small coterie of co-workers was led to believe, it would be strictly via online streaming at The Jonathon Brandmeier Channel 24/7 on TuneIn.com. But without Tribune Media or any other broadcast group paying the bills, it’s not clear how such a venture would be profitable.
Brandmeier did not respond to repeated requests for comment. He has posted nothing on his Facebook page or website since December 18, when he told fans to stay tuned for “the latest updates on our future plans.”
His former bosses said they offered to lease Brandmeier studio space at WGN in Tribune Tower if he wanted to continue to produce a show there, but so far they’ve made no deal. “We still don’t know the status of JB’s plan for 2015,” Todd Manley, vice president of content and programming at WGN, said in an email Wednesday.
At this point, apparently, neither does anyone else.