In this week’s issue… Buckley exits Hartford – Ottawa’s “Bear” hibernates – Vermont FM seeks state-line hop – Mets add LI signals – Hot 97 on TV?
By SCOTT FYBUSH
*When Richard D. Buckley joined with John Jaeger in late June 1957 to pay $830,000 for WHIM (1110) in Providence, who could have imagined that it would inaugurate more than half a century of continuous family ownership in New England – or that by the time that family tradition came to an end, the Buckleys would be the last ones standing out of all of the family owners who built and grew the region’s broadcasting industry?
Two years after buying WHIM, Buckley-Jaeger Broadcasting paid $815,000 for WDRC (1360 Hartford), and by October 1959 it had built out the FM construction permit that came with the AM station – and for 55 years since then, the Buckley family has owned WDRC-FM (102.9) and WDRC(AM), along with three more simulcast AM stations that joined the cluster later on. Now that amazing stretch of family ownership is coming to an end with the announcement that Buckley Radio is selling the WDRC stations to Connoisseur Media for an as-yet-undisclosed price.
It’s no surprise that Buckley is winding down its ownership: after Richard D. Buckley’s death in 1972, his son, Richard D. Buckley, Jr. (“Rick”) took over the reins of the company, which had by then expanded to include stations in Seattle (KOL), San Francisco (KKHI), Los Angeles (KGIL), Philadelphia (WIBG) and Minneapolis (WWTC). Rick Buckley sold some of those stations and added a big one, New York City’s WOR (710). But with Rick Buckley’s death in 2011, the company’s growth years drew to a close. WOR, of course, was sold to Clear Channel at the end of 2012, and Buckley later sold one of its FM signals in Monterey, California.
That left a company stretched thinly across the country: CEO Joe Bilotta, who’s been with Buckley since the early 1970s, is based out in California, where he oversees Buckley Radio clusters in Bakersfield, Merced and Monterey/Salinas, while the Hartford stations became Buckley’s lone remaining East Coast outpost, overseen by Rick Buckley’s nephew, Eric Fahnoe.
“All businesses have lifecycles, and the radio industry certainly has seen its share of change in recent years,” Bilotta said in the announcement of the sale. That’s an understatement, really: when the senior Buckley bought WDRC 55 years ago, radio was a family business even in markets as large as Hartford. In the decades that followed, Buckley’s competitors transitioned from individuals like T. Mitchell Hastings and Scott Killgore (and the local behemoth, Travelers Insurance) to giant corporations such as Clear Channel and CBS Radio. But while those companies moved staff and changed formats with abandon, WDRC remained a stable, almost family atmosphere, retaining executives for decades at a stretch and staying put at the same Blue Hill Avenue address for the last four decades.
Since there’s no LMA before the sale (brokered by Richard Foreman), nothing will change until the deal closes, which is expected to happen in June. After that, we’d be surprised if Connoisseur makes many changes at WDRC-FM. “The Big D” has made a smooth transition in recent years from oldies to classic hits (with oldies surviving on HD2), carving out a comfortable slice of the market against CBS Radio’s AC WRCH (100.5) and Clear Channel’s classic hits WHCN (105.9).
Connoisseur, for its part, tends not to be overly quick about changing formats when it takes over. WDRC is right in the backyard of Connecticut-based CEO Jeff Warshaw, whose first purchase in his home state came a year ago when he acquired Cox’s WPLR (99.1 New Haven), WEZN (99.9 Bridgeport), WFOX-FM (95.9 Norwalk) and the LMA of Yale’s WYBC-FM (94.3 New Haven). Connoisseur hasn’t touched the formats at any of those stations since taking over, and the addition of WDRC-FM will mesh nicely with that Milford-based cluster, making Connoisseur the only owner that can offer advertisers anything close to full statewide reach in Connecticut, give or take the New London/Norwich market in the state’s southeastern corner and the Danbury market at the western edge.
What’s less clear is the future of WDRC’s AM stations. When Connoisseur bought the Cox cluster, Cox had already spun off WSTC (1400 Stamford) and WNLK (1350 Norwalk) to Sacred Heart University’s WSHU public radio operation. The Buckley AMs – WDRC (1360) in Hartford, WMMW (1470 Meriden) to the southeast, WWCO (1240 Waterbury) to the southwest and WSNG (610 Torrington) to the northwest – take up a lot of resources for little return. Three of the four stations have big directional arrays, none runs more than 5,000 watts, and their “Talk of Connecticut” simulcast has drawn combined ratings as low as a 0.1 in recent books. While Connoisseur has maintained legacy AMs at some of its clusters, including WHLI (1100) on Long Island and WJET (1400)/WFNN (1330) in Erie, Warshaw has been much more enthusiastic about building on the FM side. Will he want to keep WDRC’s network of small AMs, or might they be spun off?
If Warshaw seeks expansion in the Hartford market, he may have opportunities. CBS Radio has long been said to be interested in spinning off its cluster, which includes four FMs and the market’s big AM gun, WTIC (1080). Clear Channel is less likely to be a seller of its four FM/one AM cluster. And there are two independent operators still making a go of it with big FMs: John Fuller’s Red Wolf (WMRQ 104.1) and Marlin (WCCC-FM 106.9, as well as WCCC 1290).
We’ll be watching closely as Connoisseur takes over, and we’re sorry to see the end of the Buckley family’s long run as the last of the old-school ownership groups in the region. (Buckley senior’s ownership history actually went back even earlier than WHIM in 1957; the money for that purchase came from the profit he and Jaeger made from their brief ownership of New York’s WNEW in 1954-55 and its sale to what became Metromedia; Buckley was a top executive at WNEW and its sister TV station, WABD/WNEW-TV 5, even as he was building his station cluster.)
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