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In this week's issue... Emmis' double-reverse-backflip NYC station swap - Granite (mostly) exits TV - Snow collapses studio roof - Two exit Boston's WCVB - LPFM goes full-power - WBAI mess remains messy

By SCOTT FYBUSH

*We're not much in the habit of making prognostications here about what lies ahead in each new year of covering the radio and TV industry. And it's a good thing we're not in the prediction business, because if we were, there's no way we'd have pegged the start of 2014 as a time of record prices for big-market radio stations.

The WQHT/WBLS-WLIB lobby, 2013
The WQHT/WBLS-WLIB lobby, 2013

That surprise came to us from NEW YORK City, where Emmis' $133 million deal to buy WBLS (107.5) and WLIB (1190) from YMF Media closes the circle on one of the oddest - and ultimately most profitable - ownership transfers in pretty much the entire history of American radio.

Before we dig into the backstory of what makes this deal unusual, here are the basics: by adding WBLS, in particular, to its existing WQHT (97.1), Emmis will create a one-two punch of urban FM that will give it a dominant position with that chunk of the New York audience, competing only against Clear Channel's WWPR (105.1) on the younger end and with essentially no competition for older African-American listeners.

Even if that demographic is becoming a smaller part of New York's radio landscape - and it is - the size of this deal shows that it's still a valuable market segment. Consider, by way of comparison, the last two class B FM stations to change hands in the city: CBS paid $75 million in 2012 for what's now WFAN-FM (101.9), while Cumulus paid $40 million for the somewhat lesser signal of what's now WNSH (94.7 Newark). Those, of course, were stick-value deals, where the buyer was picking up only the license and transmitter, not an ongoing format or advertiser list. And so we have to go back one sale further to find a comparison, which brings us right back to Emmis and to the reasons this WBLS deal is so, so very interesting:

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From the NERW Archives

Yup, we’ve been doing this a long time now, and so we’re digging back into the vaults for a look at what NERW was covering one, five, ten and - where available - fifteen years ago this week, or thereabouts.

Note that the column appeared on an erratic schedule in its earliest years as "New England Radio Watch,” and didn’t go to a regular weekly schedule until 1997.

One Year Ago: February 18, 2013

*Glenn Ordway was part of Boston’s WEEI before the station was even doing all-sports, and he survived multiple owners and three incarnations (590, 850 and 93.7) – but the veteran sports talker’s long run at WEEI came to an abrupt end late last week when he became the biggest name in a big week of talent shuffles in eastern MASSACHUSETTS.

Glenn Ordway (photo: WEEI)Glenn Ordway (photo: WEEI)

Perhaps with an eye toward Ordway’s remarkable 27-year run at the station (where he started doing Celtics games in 1987, was one of the charter crew of talk hosts during WEEI’s 1991 flip from all-news to sports and even spent a few years as PD in the mid-1990s), Entercom gave Ordway the chance to say goodbye on the air, announcing his dismissal Wednesday but keeping him on the afternoon “Big Show” through Friday.

Why is Entercom parting ways with someone they valued highly enough to give a reported five-year, million-dollar-a-year contract as recently as 2009? The company’s not saying, but the immediate reasons are pretty obvious. When Ordway re-upped in 2009, CBS Radio was still months away from launching its rival “Sports Hub” (WBZ-FM 98.5), which quickly turned out to be a much more potent threat to WEEI’s sports dominance than most observers had expected. Had WEEI quickly shifted gears to FM itself, it might have staved off “Sports Hub,” but instead Entercom held its fire and remained on the AM dial for two long years – which also, unfortunately for WEEI, turned out also to coincide with a downward slide for its bread and butter, the Red Sox.

Chained to a painfully expensive Red Sox rights deal, that appears to have left Entercom with little choice but to cut costs where it can – and while it can’t easily get out of its Sox contract, WEEI did apparently have a ratings-target clause that gave it an out from Ordway’s five-year deal.(The Globe reports that Ordway’s salary was already cut in half in 2011 when his show failed to hit its ratings goal, but even $500,000 a year is a lot to be spending on talent in 2013.)

The station also had a ready replacement waiting in the wings, at least if “the wings” are 3,000 miles to the west at sister station KIRO (710) in Seattle. That’s where Boston native Mike Salk has been working since 2009, and where he’s now packing his boxes to move back home as Ordway’s replacement alongside Michael Holley on “The Big Show.” Salk has prior Boston radio experience at the old “ESPN 890″ (WAMG) and at WWZN (1510), but the WEEI gig will put him in a much bigger spotlight as Entercom tries to attract the same younger listeners who’ve been moving to the Sports Hub’s afternoon show with Mike Felger and Tony Massarotti. (They, in turn, spent part of their Thursday show praising Ordway, who gave them prominent exposure as guest hosts on the “Big Show” earlier in their own careers.)

*Ordway’s departure from WEEI was just one of many talent shifts in the market in a very busy week. Right there at WEEI, Kevin Winter was cut from his gig doing sports updates on the Dennis and Callahan morning show after just two months on the job. But the bigger noise came in the top-40 arena, with big additions at two of the three clusters now fighting for dominance in that format.

hot969-wtkkAt Greater Media’s rhythmic WTKK (Hot 96.9), the 13,000-song commercial-free music sweep that started with the station’s launch in early January came to a close at 10 AM on Thursday, when the station segued into regular programming with the first of its air talent. We knew that former WJMN (94.5) morning producer Melissa would become WTKK’s midday jock, but we’d thought former WJMN morning co-host Pebbles was coming to “Hot” to do mornings there. Instead, at least initially, Pebbles signed on at “Hot” doing the 3 PM shift with mornings remaining jockless. (Out in Sacramento, meanwhile, CBS Radio’s KZZO has posted an opening for a new morning host, which is relevant here because that gig’s current occupant is former WJMN morning co-host Baltazar…could he be Boston-bound to reunite with Pebbles?)

WTKK also made a prominent behind-the-scenes hire, adding Jill Strada as assistant PD/digital brand manager. Strada had been in Miami as PD of Beasley’s “Power 96.5,” WPOW, and before that was PD at New York’s WRKS (98.7) and APD at WQHT (97.1).

*Across town at CBS Radio’s WODS (AMP 103.3), PD Dan Mason is filling out his airstaff. Joining AMP in April will be morning host T.J. Taormina, who’s moving north from Clear Channel’s Elvis Duran morning show at New York’s Z100. That’s where Taormina has spent his entire career so far, working his way up from answering phones to being Duran’s co-host. AMP also recently added a live night host, Dustin Carlson, who’s on air as “Slater” from 7 PM-midnight. He most recently worked at CBS sister station KXTE in Las Vegas, and has also worked in Denver, Milwaukee and his native central Washington state. In addition to nights, “Slater” is also handling the station’s imaging, replacing previous imaging director Doug MacAskill.

Benzaquin at WEEIBenzaquin at WEEI

*Amidst all the arrivals, Boston radio veterans are mourning a prominent departure. Paul Benzaquin was one of the city’s talk radio pioneers, moving into talk in 1963, three years after starting at CBS-owned WEEI (590) as a newsman. Already well-known in town as a columnist for the Globe and Herald in the 1950s, Benzaquin became an even bigger star as a talk host. After a year in Chicago in 1970, Benzaquin came home to Boston in 1971, doing a morning talk show on WNAC-TV (Channel 7) and afternoons on WEEI through the middle of the decade. Benzaquin later worked at WBZ (1030), WITS (1510), WHDH (850) and ended his career in the early 1990s at WRKO (680). Benzaquin was inducted into the Massachusetts Broadcasters Hall of Fame in 2007. He died Wednesday (Feb. 13) at age 90.

*Another of the week’s big headlines came from southern CONNECTICUT, where Cox Media Group found a buyer for the last remaining stations in its Milford-based cluster. Over the last few years, Cox has been tightly focusing itself on markets where it can own dominant combinations of radio, TV and often print as well (think Atlanta, where the company owns WSB-TV, a five-station radio cluster including WSB radio, and the Journal-Constitution) and seeking to exit markets where it doesn’t see a path to that sort of dominance.

In Fairfield County, there’s no TV to own at all, so Cox has been making a gradual exit, spinning off WKHL (now WKLV-FM) to EMF and the AM duo of WSTC/WNLK to Sacred Heart University in recent years. With a big splash last week, Cox announced two deals to unload many of its remaining radio-only clusters, with a management-led group (doing business as Summit Media) acquiring clusters from Birmingham to Honolulu – and the Connecticut stations going to Jeff Warshaw’s Connoisseur Media for  $40 million.

*In RHODE ISLAND, veteran broadcaster Ron St. Pierre is gone from WPRO (630)/WEAN-FM (99.7), and rather abruptly at that. St. Pierre came to WPRO in 1988 as program director, moving over from competitor WHJJ (920) to help transition the station all the way to talk. He went on the air in 2001 as morning host (while also serving as operations director), and has moved around the schedule in the ensuing decade, co-hosting middays with Buddy Cianci and then doing afternoons with Cianci.

Five Years Ago: February 16, 2009

Once upon a time - say, two weeks ago - it all seemed so simple: on one coordinated date, publicized several years in advance with wall-to-wall announcements, every full-power TV station in the U.S. would shut off its analog transmitter, allowing every full-power TV station in the U.S. to maximize its digital signal on its final allocation, and more or less forcing procrastinating viewers (of whom there are many out there!) to pay attention to the transition and take whatever steps they need to take to continue to watch TV. Then Congress showed up to help...and now that massively-publicized "February 17, 2009" analog-shutoff date has become one big "never mind" for viewers in most markets around the country, leaving them free to conclude that the new "absolutely final" date of June 12 will probably slip, too - and leaving thousands of stations on the hook for unbudgeted analog power bills and scheduled tower crews that won't be able to move antennas to maximize digital service as planned.

Even the markets that took Congress at its word about the new June 12 date being optional found out the hard way that the FCC, at the direction of Capitol Hill, wasn't looking kindly at any plans that would have left entire markets digital-only come Wednesday morning. In all, 491 stations nationwide notified the FCC that they intended to stick to the February 17 shutoff date, and the Commission flagged 123 of those stations for further scrutiny, at which point 43 of those stations decided to stay on after all, while 10 more were placed under further review. (Keep in mind that the FCC didn't finalize that list until late Friday night, just four days before the original Feb. 17 deadline, and that today is a federal holiday when Commission offices are supposed to be closed...)

The result was plenty of confusion, not only for viewers but even for those in the industry, who were having a hard time making sense of the welter of last-minute FCC releases and the often-contradictory announcements coming from stations themselves, where a "February 17" announcement was often likely to be followed by another with "June 12," and where individual stations' decisions were likely as not to be trumped by group-wide decisions to stay in analog (Hearst-Argyle, for instance) or to go digital-only (Sinclair), or to change at the last moment based on what everyone else in the market decided to do.

One of the most challenging tower-site construction projects in the country is finally nearing completion in eastern MASSACHUSETTS, where Beasley's WRCA (1330 Watertown) and Clear Channel's WKOX (1200 Newton) have filed for licenses to cover their new signals from the site in Newton's Oak Hill neighborhood that they share with Champion Broadcasting's WUNR (1600 Brookline). It's been more than eight years since the planning began to replace WUNR's old two-tower array with five shorter towers to be shared by the three stations, and almost three years since the stations overcame massive neighborhood NIMBY objections and began construction on the site. Now the work is substantially complete, and for the last few months WKOX and WRCA have been operating from the Oak Hill site with the same power levels (10 kW/1 kW and 5 kW, respectively) that they were using from their old sites in Framingham and Waltham. Within days, they're expected to power up to their new levels of 50 kW fulltime (WKOX) and 25 kW/17 kW (WRCA), and WUNR should soon follow suit with a power increase from 5 kW to 20 kW.

It's not directly connected to WKOX's move, as best we can tell, but the "Rumba" Spanish tropical format that had been simulcast on WKOX and Clear Channel sister station WXKS (1430 Everett) is being heard only on WKOX for the next few weeks, while 1430's being leased out for an unusual sort of infomercial. What the heck is the "Automatic Radio" being heard on 1430 at the moment? It's a continuous loop of the new album "Low Expectations" by the local band Ernie and the Automatics - and it's appearing non-stop on 1430 because "Ernie" is none other than car dealer Ernie Boch, Jr., who may well be the single most prolific buyer of radio ad time in New England. (He's got legitimate musical chops, too - he graduated from Berklee College of Music, and his band includes two original members of the band Boston.)

Buffalo has always been a good town for radio news, and even if the news staffs are smaller these days, they still had a chance to shine Thursday night when that commuter plane slammed into a house in Clarence Center. It's a credit to the professionals there - and in the neighboring Rochester market, too - that they rose to the occasion, and then some. Entercom's WBEN (930) is the only commercial radio newsroom of any significant size in the Buffalo market, and its staffers stayed on the air with local news and information all night long on Thursday and all day on Friday, blowing out the station's syndicated programs to continue taking calls from listeners. Buffalo's two public newsrooms - WBFO (88.7) and WNED (970) - offered overnight updates and all-day coverage as well.

On TV, NBC affiliate WGRZ (Channel 2) and CBS affiliate WIVB (Channel 4) were largely up to the challenge, more so than at ABC affiliate WKBW (Channel 7), where a series of recent budget cuts left the station so understaffed that, in the words of one staffer, "we simply don't have the people to compete." WGRZ took particular advantage of its Gannett corporate connections to use extra staff from Cleveland's WKYC - and from the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle. In this brave new world of media convergence, the Rochester newspaper and the Buffalo TV station shared not only text on their websites, but also video. (Yes, it's still odd to see a "DemocratandChronicle.com" mike flag amidst the sea of TV and radio mikes on the table at news conferences.)

There's a new chapter in the long-running soap opera that is Hornell radio: Bilbat Radio LLC has filed an application with the FCC to sell WKPQ (105.3) to Phoenix Radio Group (PRG LLC) for $600,000. If you've been following this saga for the last few years, you'll note that one of PRG's owners is Terry Gilles, who bought the real property of WKPQ and sister station WHHO (1320) in a foreclosure sale in 2007 - and that PRG has been operating WKPQ and WHHO under an LMA with Bilbat, which has continued to hold the licenses and will apparently continue to hold the WHHO license for the moment.

Up in the Watertown market, "Real Rock" has a new address. Last Monday, Community Broadcasters moved the format from WOTT (100.7 Henderson) to the newly-debuted WEFX (94.1 Calcium), which has a better signal over Watertown - and then swapped calls, putting WEFX on 100.7, where it launched at noon Wednesday with classic hits as "The Fox."

Ten Years Ago: February 16, 2004

As NERW first reported three weeks ago, the fast-growing Nassau Broadcasting cluster in northern New England is adding yet another group of stations in NEW HAMPSHIRE. This time, it's the Vox cluster in Concord that's joining Nassau. No purchase price has been announced yet, but the deal will add classic hits WNHI (93.3 Belmont), country WOTX (102.3 Concord) and top 40 WJYY (105.5 Concord) to the stations Nassau is buying from Tele-Media (oldies WNNH 99.1 and, down in Nashua, WHOB 106.3.)

Vox also owns talk WTPL-FM (107.7 Hillsborough), which isn't part of the deal; it'll continue to be LMA'd to Embro Communications, which owns crosstown WKXL (1450 Concord) and will be pretty much the only local competition for Nassau in the Granite State capital.

In VERMONT, the folks at Radio Free Brattleboro (107.9) are bracing for another FCC visit, perhaps as early as this week. The Brattleboro Reformer reports that the unlicensed station's attorney has received a letter from the U.S. Attorney's office in Burlington rejecting several proposals that might have allowed the station to stay on the air; meanwhile, Brattleboro voters will cast ballots March 2 on a question asking whether they "grant permission" for RFB to broadcast.

We reported it last November - and now the Taunton Gazette has taken notice of the possible shutdown of that southeastern Massachusetts community's only local radio station. WPEP (1570 Taunton) would go dark under a plan to boost the power of its former sister station, WNSH (1570 Beverly) - but it's not going down without a fight. We hear the station's current staffers are looking for other ways to keep WPEP alive...stay tuned.

Regent Communications is bowing out of the ownership scene in PENNSYLVANIA. It struck a deal last week to trade its properties in Erie and Reading to Citadel in exchange for a Citadel cluster in Bloomington, Illinois. The swap puts Citadel in Erie for the first time, where it will own standards WRIE (1260 Erie), country WXTA (97.9 Edinboro), AC WXKC (99.9 Erie) and classic rock WQHZ (102.3 Erie); it also adds country WIOV-FM (105.1 Ephrata) and sports WIOV (1240 Reading) to Citadel's large cluster of stations in eastern and central Pennsylvania.

And Citadel wasted no time at all making changes to that cluster as it prepares to bring the country giant that is "I105" into its fold. On Friday, the lagging 80s pop format at WRKZ (102.3 Carlisle) disappeared, replaced by country as "Red." That, in turn, means the imminent demise of another Citadel country property, "Cat Country" WCAT-FM (106.7 Hershey), where PD Sam McGuire departed last week. Cat afternooner Tag Martin is headed to "Red" for mornings, with Cat morning news guy Brad Flick heading for afternoons on Red. So with country on 105.1 for Reading and Lancaster and 102.3 for Harrisburg and York, what will become of 106.7's big central Pennsylvania signal? Stay tuned...

Fifteen Years Ago: February 12, 1999

Clear Channel's purchase of Jacor will bring the combined company into a new upstate NEW YORK market: Syracuse. The two companies had to spin off holdings in several markets that would have put them over the ownership limits, and so they engineered a three-way deal that gives Cox Broadcasting some of the "excess" stations in Tampa-St. Petersburg and Louisville. In exchange, Cox gives Clear Channel cash -- and its Syracuse radio group, the market's ratings and revenue leader.

The new Clear Channel Syracuse group includes news-talk WSYR (570), sports WHEN (620), AC WYYY (94.5), top-rated country WBBS (104.7 Fulton), and CHR WWHT (107.9). It also gives the combined Clear Channel-Jacor group strong positions in every market along I-90 from Syracuse through Utica and Albany to Springfield, Mass (assuming Clear Channel consummates its pending purchase of Dame Media, that is).

And we remember Dick Tobias, the curmudgeonly newsman and commentator who spent four decades in Rochester TV and radio, most notably at WBBF, WHAM, WVOR, and WHEC. Tobias died Thursday (2/11) of a heart attack. He was 71. Funeral plans had not been finalized at press time.

What format will end up on the newest FM signal in Worcester, MASSACHUSETTS? There's no way to tell from the six songs that have been repeating on WQVR (100.1 Southbridge) since it signed back on with higher power this week from its new transmitter site overlooking Worcester from the west -- unless someone can claim that Frank Sinatra and Will Smith both fit in one format!

The FCC is giving Edmund Dinis six more months to build WLAW (1270 North Dartmouth), much to the dismay of a competing Portuguese broadcaster in the area. Dinis owns WJFD (97.3 New Bedford), the dominant Portuguese-language station in the Southeastern Massachusetts market, and for years, he's been fighting James and Robert Karam, who own a Portuguese newspaper and two radio stations (English-language WSAR 1480 and Portuguese-language WHTB 1400) in Fall River. This week, the FCC dismissed the Karams' last-ditch attempt to stop Dinis from building four towers on Copicut Hill for WLAW. James Karam tells the Providence Journal-Bulletin that WLAW will "disrupt the patterns that are already here" by signing on (which is what NERW thought competition was supposed to do), while Dinis tells the paper that moving WJFD's programming from his class B FM to the new AM will somehow increase its audience from 200,000 to 3 million. Dinis also confirmed for the Journal-Bulletin the long-held speculation that WJFD will become an English-language soft rock station aimed at Providence once the AM signs on. For its part, NERW thinks Providence itself ought to have a Portuguese station again, something that's been missing since WRCP (1290) became public-radio WRNI last year. In the meantime, we'll sit back with a plate of linguica and enjoy the fight...

Supporters of legal LPFM will gather next weekend in Allston, as LPFM advocate Steven Provizer holds what he's calling a "town meeting" for LPFM proponents to work out a game plan to push their cause through the upcoming FCC deliberations (and past strong GOP opposition in the senate) and into reality. For what it's worth, the FCC's own studies say the Boston area could be home to anywhere from 0 to 4 LPFMs, depending on whether second- and third-adjacent channels are protected. Also unclear is whether class D stations on commercial frequencies, like Northeastern's WRBB (104.9 Boston) and Brandeis' WBRS (100.1 Waltham) would have protection from the LPFMs that would likely try to apply for those channels if allowed.

Up in Canada, the CRTC will open hearings next Monday on the future of 690 and 940 in Montreal. The former is already vacant, and the latter will go silent in March, as the CBC moves its programming to FM in Montreal. Applicants for the channels include existing stations CKVL (850, wants 690) and CIQC (600, wants 940); Hull-based Radio Nord, which wants to make both frequencies into country stations; and the CBC, which -- after telling the CRTC that nobody listens to AM anymore and it needed FM signals to be heard -- wants 690 back after all to start a new all-news service. NERW is enjoying that 690 frequency for the moment; we've heard WZAP Bristol VA, WNZK Westland MI, WOKV Jacksonville FL, and Radio Recuerdo from Bogotà, Colombia, just to name a few -- and another nearby DXer has reported hearing CBU Vancouver one recent night. With a local on 950 down the street, we're not expecting quite as much when 940 goes dark next month...and we're trying not to think about what we'll listen to on the way to work when CBL Toronto vacates 740 at year's end.

5 COMMENTS

  1. FWIW: The original WTVH building is still owned by Granite, but remains empty and listed for sale. That could wind up being a plus for Granite, if the eventual buyer of WTVH is not interested in (or not able to) get WTVH paired-up with another station in town. Yes, they’ll need to invest in all new equipment and rebuild the studio, but at least Granite can include the 980 James St building into the deal.

    • That’s true, Peter. It’s my understanding that everything inside the building was sold off after WTVH moved in with WSTM. By the time you refit everything in a 40+ year old building, is it worth the trouble for a new owner – or do you find smaller, cheaper space in the suburbs?

      (Or do you do a deal with Time Warner Cable/Comcast to pick up the fully-equipped ex-News 10 facility in the old bus station?)

  2. Re: the WGAL roof collapse – WGAL was not quick to get back on the air (and I’m not even sure if it was Friday night). Verizon FIOS in Harrisburg picked up the NBC network feed. Seems a little odd a “powerhouse” like Hearst-owned WGAL would not be able to switch master control quickly to WBAL (and vice versa). A Twitter message from an engineer said they were off the air because they couldn’t access the master control in the off-limits building. Kind of makes you wonder what they would do in a (heaven forbid) fire or other catastrophe? I don’t dispute the fortitude of the News8 staff to “make it happen”, but the “disaster recovery” seemed archaic. I hope they loosen the purse strings before next time to make the “back-up” a little more robust.

  3. For the record, WCVB’s Mike Dowling is not their sports director. That would be Mike Lynch who has been with the station since 1983. Dowling joined the station as principal sports reporter in 1985 after spending a few years as weekend sports anchor at WBZ-TV. I find it slightly difficult to believe that Dowling is leaving of his own accord. If so, Lynchie might be next out the door. Dowling’s retirement would leave just Mike Lynch and parttime sports anchor/sports reporter/news anchor Bob Halloran as the only two on-air sports reporters at the station.

Comments are closed.