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October 24, 2005

A WILD Shift For Radio One/Boston

*Back in the earliest days of this column, a decade or so ago, one of the popular parlor games in eastern MASSACHUSETTS was to speculate on when, and how, Boston's WILD (1090) would find a way to move its heritage callsign and urban format to an FM signal.

It almost happened in the mid-90s, on what eventually became (and still remains) WXRV (92.5 Haverhill), and there were some pretty intense rumors that it was going to happen again in 1998, when the signal that's now WMKK (93.7 Lawrence) came on the market. In 2000, Radio One's purchase of WILD put the station under common ownership with an FM (WBOT 97.7 Brockton) for the first time, and again the rumors of "WILD-FM" swirled.

Instead, WBOT remained "Hot 97-7," with a hip-hop format, while WILD's classic R&B format remained in place on the daytime AM signal - until last week, when Radio One finally moved the WILD identity to the FM signal.

The new "Wild 97.7," which will soon bear the WILD-FM calls, picks up the Tom Joyner morning show that had been heard on 1090 (replacing the syndicated Russ Parr show), and it'll pick up the rest of the AM's local programming as well. After 6 PM, WILD-FM will begin aiming at a younger demographic, as it edges from R&B oldies back to hip-hop for the evening hours.

WILD(AM), meanwhile, flips to black gospel as "Praise 1090, Boston's Inspiration Station"; it's not clear whether new calls will be on the way there or not.

And it's worth noting that the new WILD-FM is poised to improve its Boston signal even beyond the considerable boost it received when it moved its transmitter to Great Blue Hill in Milton a few months ago. The move to Milton from Abington came with a directional notch to the northwest, protecting co-channel WOQL (97.7 Winchendon), but now Radio One and WOQL owner Saga have reached a deal to take WILD-FM nondirectional, while installing a directional antenna at WOQL. (Radio One will pay Saga $500,000, plus expenses, to take WOQL directional.) The applications for both stations were filed a few weeks ago at the FCC, and we'll be watching as they work their way through the process there.

*Speaking of the FCC and its processes, the past week brought a lot of attention to the plight of WAVM (91.7 Maynard), which is fighting for its life after losing its latest bid to upgrade from its present 10-watt class D status.

Over the last few days, the story's been covered everywhere from the Maynard Beacon Villager to the Boston Herald to MSNBC's "Countdown," where Keith Olbermann (currently our favorite cable-TV news anchor, at least outside the "fake news" arena) even named the California religious broadcaster that won out over WAVM as one of his "Worst People in the World" for the night.

Of course, it was no surprise at all to find that much of that coverage didn't accurately reflect the facts of this complicated and long-running story, so with that in mind we offer a refresher on what exactly is at stake here:

What's the problem? The problem, just as with other high-profile "endangered" high school FMs in recent years (WHHS in Pennsylvania, KMIH in Seattle and so on), stems from the FCC's decision in the late seventies to stop licensing new class D FMs and to leave any remaining class Ds unprotected from interference.

At first, that wasn't such a big deal - the FM dial in 1980 was still relatively empty, after all, and there weren't many broadcasters clamoring for space on the noncommercial end of the band. It must not have seemed like a big deal in 1982 when WAVM allowed a construction permit that would have upgraded the station to protected class A status to expire unbuilt - and indeed, in 1982 it wasn't a very big deal.

Nor is it true, as many of the media reports have claimed, that WAVM somehow sealed its own fate by applying for a new class A upgrade a few years ago. That upgrade application did end up as part of a "mutually exclusive" group with three applications for new signals on 91.7 (CSN International, in Lexington; UMass Boston, in Stow; and the eventual winner, Living Proof, in Lunenburg) - but it's important to note that because of WAVM's unprotected class D status, those applications could have been (and no doubt would have been) filed regardless of whether WAVM had also filed for an upgrade.

So how did the Lunenburg Living Proof application end up winning the "tentative preference" to be granted over the others? It's here that we run up against the unusual way in which the FCC has more or less been backed into dealing with such contested situations.

At one time, the FCC would have held comparative hearings to determine which application would best have served the public interest, and there's little doubt that the WAVM application, with its enormous base of community support, would have been an easy winner. With the coming of deregulation in the eighties and nineties, the FCC wanted out of the comparative-hearing business, and today commercial stations are granted through an auction system. The FCC would have been more than happy to auction off the noncommercial spectrum, too, but after many years of legal battles it was forced to adopt a different procedure - albeit one with no happier an ending for WAVM.

The system the FCC uses now is based on the "hands-off" approach the Commission takes to pretty much all programming issues. By avoiding any consideration of programming, treating any noncommercial service as equal to any other, the FCC can look strictly at signal reach, and that's what happened here. Of the four proposals that were mutually exclusive, only Living Proof's Lunenburg application promised to bring a city-grade noncommercial signal to any listeners who didn't currently receive one, and thus it was that application that received an almost automatic "tentative preference."

(Alert regulatory minds will note at this point that the FCC's system all but guarantees that an application for a relatively sparsely populated area like Lunenburg will win out over a dense area like Maynard, which is likely to already be blanketed by multiple noncommercial signals.)

What happens to WAVM now? It's not correct, as some of our journalistic colleagues have implied, to suggest that the grant of the Living Proof construction permit will mean the immediate silencing of WAVM. In fact, it's not immediately obvious to us that the new Lunenburg signal, with 630 watts and a very directional antenna, would suffer enough interference from WAVM to force WAVM off the air at all.

Even if the conclusion is that a class D WAVM can't coexist with the new Lunenburg station, it's not out of the question that WAVM could find a new frequency somewhere else on the dial. The FCC has shown a willingness in recent years (especially in the WHHS case) to show the remaining class D signals some leniency when it comes to interference waivers that allow them to squeeze into what few niches remain on the ever-more-crowded FM dial, and we're hopeful that the bigger guns in the New England broadcasting community would be willing to grant the needed waivers to keep WAVM alive elsewhere on the FM band.

And it's important to point out that the grant to Living Proof is, so far, only a "tentative preference," subject to further review by the Commission. While there don't appear to be any valid technical grounds on which WAVM could appeal the decision (and we'd note here that we're not lawyers), the FCC is a political body, too, and it's clear that WAVM is mustering the PR and political support that most stations in a situation like this can only dream of. It's not hard to imagine any number of ways in which the formal grant to Living Proof could be delayed for several years as WAVM makes its political case, buying some time for the station to regroup, if nothing else.

It's also not at all out of the question that the legislative maneuvers aimed at protecting the remaining class D FMs (spearheaded by Senator Maria Cantwell of Washington and our own local Congresswoman Louise Slaughter of New York) will bear fruit in the meantime, requiring the FCC to give additional protection to stations like WAVM.

Whatever happens, we'll be following the story closely, just as we've been doing since it first began developing way back in 2000.

A NERW Mini-Rant: If you'll allow us to step on the editorial soapbox for a minute here as well, we'd point out that WAVM is indeed a special station. Take a quick visit to their website (wavm.org) and you'll see that this isn't just a handful of misfit kids playing Nine Inch Nails for a couple of hours after school each weekday (when they don't have something better to do.)

For more than 30 years, WAVM has provided a serious training program in both radio and television. It's also the only local broadcast medium for Maynard, a city of some 10,000 people that sits among some of the wealthiest suburbs in America. Maynard is most emphatically not one of "those" suburbs, though - it's an old mill town that's still something of a blue collar island in a sea of McMansions.

Ironically, if the FCC were considering proposals for a new commercial class A allocation, Maynard would win out over Lunenburg, hands down - Lunenburg has only about 1700 people, and it could arguably be considered part of the larger Fitchburg urban area, which is already well served by local broadcasters.

In any practical sense, there's really no point considering "service" to Lunenburg from the Living Proof application, anyway; if it's granted, there would be at most a sham of a "local studio," with programming originating from Living Proof's headquarters way across the country in Bishop, California. (And having lived in the Bishop area some years ago, we can say with great certainty that even if Living Proof's programming somehow reflected the local concerns of Bishop, which it doesn't, there are probably no two parts of the country less similar in any respect than Lunenburg, Massachusetts and Bishop, California.)

Yes, rules are rules, especially where the FCC is concerned, and nobody can claim that Living Proof (or CSN, or UMass) has failed to play by the rules in filing these applications.

What's unfortunate, though, is that the narrowness of the standard being applied here by the FCC - looking purely at numbers of population and the numbers of stations servicing them with signal - manages, in the end, to work against what should be the greater public good of continuing to provide the 10,000-plus people of Maynard with the only broadcast service they've had.

The solution, it seems to us, is not all that complicated: it's time for the remaining class D signals, few as they are, to get at least minimal protection for the service they've offered their communities, in some cases for half a century or more. That need not be the full protection that a class A signal would have had, especially in the many cases where a class D signal voluntarily passed up the chance to become a class A back when such a move would have been simple. It should, however, at the very least include priority over translators, priority over new LPFMs and, I would argue, a presumptive preference over new entrants in a mutually-exclusive case like WAVM's.

With any luck, the political pressure that the FCC's been receiving from several directions on the class D issue will lead to such a solution.

*In other news from western MASSACHUSETTS, Citadel's WMAS (1450 Springfield) has moved from talk to ABC's True Oldies format, displacing hosts such as Neal Boortz, Stephanie Miller, Ed Schultz and Randi Rhodes.

And on the TV side of things, Meredith launched local news on WSHM-LP (Channel 67) October 13, from studios at Monarch Place in downtown Springfield.

News director Doug Lezette is anchoring the 6 and 11 PM broadcasts on "CBS 3," along with Lindsay Liepman, Curtis Grevenitz doing weather and Scott Harris on sports.

The newscast reaches viewers in Springfield and the Pioneer Valley over the LPTV signal and, mostly, over cable. (WSHM replaced Hartford's WFSB, a Meredith sister station, on Massachusetts cable systems a few years back; it's also available to Connecticut viewers on a subchannel of WFSB-DT.)

*Up in NEW HAMPSHIRE, WSMN (1590 Nashua) returned to the air last week. It's simulcasting sister station WSNH (900)'s ESPN Radio programming, and it's apparently operating from a very low-power STA on the WSNH tower while it tries to find a replacement for the soon-to-be-demolished three-tower array on Hollis Street that it used for 45 years before going dark this past spring.

Talk host Arnie Arnesen is looking for a new radio home in the Upper Valley; she's no longer on the schedule at Bob Vinikoor's WNTK-FM (99.7 New London)/WUVR (1490) - and speaking of Bob, he reports that the normally dry land around his WNTK (1010 Newport) site looked like "waterfront property" last week amidst all the flooding up there.

*In MAINE, Clear Channel has found an unusual solution for Portland-area fans of WTOS (105.1 Skowhegan) whose listening has been interrupted by the newish LPFM, WJZP-LP, on 105.1 in Portland. WTOS's morning show is now being simulcast on Clear Channel talker WCME (96.7 Boothbay Harbor), which had been simulcasting the morning show from Bangor-market WVOM (103.9 Howland).

*The floodwaters have receded in RHODE ISLAND, allowing WDDZ (550 Pawtucket) to get back on the air last Monday. No permanent damage was reported from the storm - just the inconvenience of having water up above the base insulators on the towers. (And we enjoyed hearing from Les Brown, who worked at the station back in its WXTR days, and who shared with us the tale of the morning in March 1968 when he came in to find the towers flooded - and went out in a rowboat to string up a longwire antenna to get the station back on the air! Compare that with the photo from last week - and note that those posts just barely poking up above the water are seven feet above the ground, which is itself four feet above the usual level of the Cumberland River.)

You've no doubt heard by now of the suicide last week of former Saturday Night Live star Charles Rocket - but did you know that before his career in comedy took off, he worked for a few years as a reporter for WPRI (Channel 12), under his real name of Charles Claverie? From Providence, Rocket moved to Colorado Springs as an anchor - and it was just a few years later that he was sitting next to Jane Curtin on the "Weekend Update" set. Rocket, who died October 7, was 56.

*Sorry to report the passing of one of CONNECTICUT's best-known sportscasters. Dick Galiette was the voice of Yale University football from 1963-1987 and again beginning in 1997. He was also a sportscaster on WNHC-TV (later WTNH) in New Haven, from 1964-1981, and then on ESPN a few years later. In addition to his Yale play-by-play duties (he was last heard just last weekend, when Yale lost to Lehigh), he also served as executive director of the National High School Athletic Coaches Association. Galiette died Friday (Oct. 21); he was 72.

*We'll begin our NEW YORK report way upstate, where WKYJ (88.7 Rouses Point) has signed on with EMF's "K-Love" contemporary Christian music.

EMF is adding another upstate outlet as well. The company is paying Liberty Communications Family Broadcasting Network $300,000 for WWJS (90.1 Watertown), which will flip to "K-Love" any day now.

North of Albany, WHAZ-FM (97.5 Hoosick Falls) is back on the air, temporarily simulcasting WHAZ (1330 Troy) until a new "gospel gold" format is ready to debut.

Sunrise Broadcasting has calls for its new 1200 construction permit in Highland, near Poughkeepsie, and they're awfully familiar: that permit now bears the same WJGK calls that were on the never-built 1200 CP in Kingston, which Sunrise surrendered in order to win the grant in Highland.

Speaking of heritage calls - albeit ones with a much more important pedigree - the WEAF calls that graced NBC's New York flagship station from 1922 until 1946 are being used again, for what we think is the first time since they gave way to WNBC on New York's 660 facility. The new WEAF is the 1130 in Camden, South Carolina that used to be WQIS.

Here in Rochester, WROC (950) has parted ways with morning host Allan Harris. Harris' 8-9 AM slot is now being filled with an hour of Air America's "Morning Sedition."

*A station sale in NEW JERSEY is taking Mega Communications completely out of the region, as it sheds its last remaining Northeast property, WEMG (1310 Camden), to the fast-growing Davidson group. Davidson, which also owns stations in Hartford and Providence, is paying $8.75 million for the Philadelphia-market AM.

We're hearing more about the changes at WTTM (1680 Princeton): the Multicultural Broadcasting station is getting ready to make its move to Lindenwold, in the Philadelphia market - and the initial reports that had it becoming an ESPN affiliate were apparently in error. It looks as though WTTM will have a new ethnic format when it makes the move south...stay tuned!

We have a winner in the competition for "first all-Christmas station of 2005" (and we bet you didn't even know it was a race, did you?): WTTH (96.1 Margate)/WDTH (93.1 Wildwood Crest) flipped from its "Touch" urban contemporary format to holiday tunes last week. No word yet on whether "Touch" will be back after Christmas.

*In PENNSYLVANIA, Nassau has signed an LMA deal to operate WBYN-FM (107.5 Boyertown), so it looks like only a matter of time before WBYN's religious format is heard only on WBYN (1160 Lehighton), with a signal reach considerably smaller than the big FM.

Meanwhile, we can put a purchase price on Access.1's acquisition of the rest of Nassau's stations in the Lehigh Valley and Poconos. The company's paying $62.8 million for the three FM/four AM group - and it's also hiring former Nassau executive Joan Gerberding as its director of radio operations.

PDs on the move: Chuck Tisa's out as PD of WRDW-FM (96.5 Philadelphia), with no replacement announced yet; meanwhile, across the state, Alex Tear arrives as the new PD of WKST-FM (96.1 Pittsburgh).

And we have a pair of call changes: public TV outlet WPSX (Channel 3) in Clearfield has officially changed to WPSU-TV, recognizing its ownership by Penn State University. The WPSX calls move to the former WPSB (90.1 Kane), which simulcasts with WPSU-FM (91.5 State College).

*An FM simulcast in CANADA is being rearranged a bit: Bea-Ver Communications has been granted permission to decrease the power of CKUE-FM (95.1 Chatham-Kent), dropping from 42 kW to 36.4 kW and lowering the antenna. The move allows Bea-Ver to increase the power at CKUE-FM-1 (95.1 Windsor), from 400 watts to 2870 watts, reflecting the increased importance of the Windsor half of the signal.

Up in Barrie, CFJB (95.7) has been granted a big transmitter move, relocating some 14 miles south to the big CKVR (Channel 3) tower and dropping power slightly (from 46 kW to 41 kW) to make up for its increased antenna height.

And the CRTC has granted two new DTV signals in Ottawa: CBOT-DT (Channel 25, 90.7 kW) and CBOFT-DT (Channel 22, 36.3 kW), both operating from the Camp Fortune master antenna site in Quebec.

*Tower Site Calendar 2006 is just back from the printer, and we've got to say, we're especially proud of the way this one turned out.

Once again, we bring you more than a dozen images from the fybush.com collection that have never seen print before, including that nifty nighttime view of New York's WMCA that graces the cover. You also get to see WSB, KTAR, Mount Wilson, CBV and many, many more, plus all those fun dates in radio and TV history, civil and religious holidays, a handy full-page 2007 calendar, and the always-popular hole for hanging.

And we do it all with no increase in price, for the fourth year running!

The calendars are shipping now, so there's no need to wait until the holidays to enjoy all that tall steel and all that broadcast history. Order now and beat the rush!

You can get one free with your 2006 subscription to NERW at the $60 level, or order the calendar (plus other goodies) at our brand new fybush.com Store! We think you'll like this one - and as always, we thank you for your support.

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