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In this week's issue... Cornell's WVBR dedicates new studios - Salk out at WEEI - Noncomm group challenges MA station to share time - New Upper Valley AAA - Frequency change in NYC?

By SCOTT FYBUSH

*It's easy to be down on radio these days. Voicetracking here, layoffs there, competition from streaming audio all over the place. There are entire trade newsletters, it seems, devoting themselves to doom-and-gloom pronouncements about the death of the medium we all love (or at least once loved.)

This week, at least, this trade publication isn't one of those. It's not just that a story about a radio station is the top trending item on all of Facebook as we write this on Sunday night. (That would be Univision's KVVF/KVVZ in San Jose, where a simple stunt that's looping Nelly's "Hot in Herre" has the whole Bay Area chattering; more on that over at RadioInsight if you're interested.)

What has us especially excited at the moment, though, is the time we spent over the weekend at WVBR (93.5), the commercial rock station in Ithaca, NEW YORK that's run by Cornell University students and owned by the nonprofit Cornell Media Guild.

For 14 years now, ever since its longtime home on Linden Avenue in the Collegetown neighborhood was condemned by the city, WVBR has been squatting in "temporary" quarters lovingly known as the "Cow Palace," sharing a cramped office building with the New York Holstein Association. Not only were those Mitchell Street digs too small and poorly laid out (business office and air studio upstairs, production room and record library down a steep flight of stairs in the basement), they were also in a semi-rural area a couple of miles away from a campus where few students own a car. Ever-creative, the WVBR business office worked out a trade with a local taxi company to haul student DJs back and forth from campus, but the Cow Palace just wasn't a space amenable to the usual camaraderie of college radio, even so.

WVBR's new building
WVBR's new building

Before: the "Cow Palace" studio
Before: the "Cow Palace" studio

But here's the thing about the Cornell Radio Guild: its board is made up of alumni, and because Cornell's not really a broadcasting school (that would be crosstown Ithaca College), many of its alumni have a way of going into better-paying fields than radio. (Many of WVBR's alumni do make it into broadcasting, too, in fairness, with a particular geographic clustering in and around New York City.) So when some of those alumni started working with WVBR's current students on a capital campaign to move the station back to Collegetown, the results were little short of spectacular.

Some of the credit, of course, belongs to one particular WVBR alumnus who both went into radio (and then TV) and actually made it big. That would be Keith Olbermann '79, who came through with the big check that bought a former campus ministry building, an old house at the edge of Collegetown that was formally dedicated Saturday as the "Olbermann-Corneliess Studio."

After: the new Studio A
After: the new Air One studio

The upstairs lounge area
The upstairs lounge area

We'll feature the entire facility soon in a Site of the Week segment, but suffice it to say it's a mammoth improvement over the old Cow Palace. Six studios, including a big new air studio and several production rooms, are outfitted with state-of-the-art Axia digital consoles and networking. There's a big lounge area upstairs, doubling as a record library and newsroom, and it connects to a new studio for the "CornellRadio.com" freeform stream on one side and a production area on the other. Back downstairs, the huge two-story room that might once have been a chapel is now "Studio A," lined with WVBR's vinyl collection on two sides and a production area on the third that can control live performances or meetings in this space.

On Friday, WVBR's engineering team (including student chief engineer Kevin Boyle and contract engineer Mark Humphrey) worked up to the last minute to get the new studio ready for the handoff from Mitchell Street. It was a group of alumni who got the honor of playing the first song from the new digs, and their pick was perfect: CSNY's "Our House," followed by a student selection, Pink Floyd's "Wish You Were Here," picked by incoming WVBR GM Matt Harkins)

Saturday morning brought the start of WVBR's annual symposium, connecting current students with alumni who can talk about the state of the industry today. (How many college stations do something like that - and how many of them should?)  And then, at noontime, everyone gathered at the new building for the big event. Studio A was lined wall-to-wall with alumni, current students and Cornell VIPs, while an even bigger crowd listened from adjoining rooms and just outside on the pleasant shaded porch that looks out on Collegetown's brick-paved streets. Amidst a group that included such well-known WVBR alumni as CNBC radio anchor Peter Schacknow (the chair of the capital campaign) and his wife Peri, as well as Coleman Insights head Warren Kurtzman and other alumni going right back to the start of WVBR on FM in 1958, about the only prominent name missing was Olbermann himself. A bad case of shingles forced him to stay home in New York and appear by telephone at the opening ceremony for the new studios. ("All these years later and I'm still doing phoners for 'VBR," Olbermann cracked as Schacknow put his phone call on the speakers in the room.)

A capacity crowd...and then some
A capacity crowd...and then some, packing studio A for the dedication ceremony

Cutting the ribbon
Peter Schacknow, far left; Olbermann's sister, Jenna, and Corneliess' widow, Kathy, cutting the ribbon

It was an emotional ceremony, in no small part because the new building's namesakes weren't able to be there. The "Olbermann" in the name isn't Keith but his father, Ted, who died in 2010; the "Corneliess" is Keith's classmate Glenn Corneliess, who was WVBR's program director in the late 1970s when it rounded the corner from progressive freeform to album rock and who died in 1996 at age 39, leaving three young children. Two of them were on hand for the ceremony, as was Corneliess' widow, Kathy, who spoke of her husband's passionate love of radio from childhood. By phone, Olbermann shared more stories of Corneliess and of his father; he also explained that the order of the names has less to do with ego and more to do with his desire to ensure "that nobody ever thinks there was once a man named Corneliess Olbermann."

(Watch a video of Olbermann's address to the crowd, below)

As of Sunday, the capital campaign still had some work to do: of a $935,000 goal, it's raised just under $687,000 from 273 donors. But the takeaway here is less about money than about enthusiasm: for all the passion WVBR's alumni brought to bear on the project (including many who returned to do "alumni takeover" shows on the 93.5 airwaves while in town), the people who made all the work happen locally were current WVBR students.

It's a pleasure, then, to be able to report that today's WVBR student staff and management, led by president Drew Endick '14, is every bit as enthusiastic about good old college radio as so many of us were decades ago. True, the former "Cornell Radio Guild" has morphed into today's "Cornell Media Guild," charged not only with broadcasting but with streaming, podcasting and producing video - but the impressive crew of neatly-dressed students who guided visitors around their new digs at 604 East Buffalo Street had no lack of enthusiasm for the continued potential of the radio medium.

Here's hoping they're not alone, and that they have many good years ahead in their new digs. (And, perhaps, that you can now start your week just a little more upbeat about the future of radio!)

*Back to the world of big-ticket radio: In New York City, Ebro Darden is just two weeks away from reality-TV stardom, with the debut of VH1's new show about his station, WQHT (Hot 97). But with all his responsibilities as morning host at the Emmis station, Darden is giving up his duties as PD. That means a search is underway for that prominent post. Whoever gets the job will be working with Hot's new management team, led by former YMF market chief Deon Levingston, who's now overseeing the merged Emmis/YMF cluster in New York. 

wbaiWho's overseeing WBAI (99.5) parent Pacifica? Not Summer Reese - after five troubled months at the helm of the national Pacifica Foundation, Reese was ousted last week by board members amidst the usual internal squabbles that have become, sadly, entirely par for the course at Pacifica. Reese's dismissal as executive director came in a conference call, with no indication of what will become of the three-year contract she signed in November or the more than $300,000 she's apparently still owed. Locally in New York, WBAI says it's now fulfilled its commitment to make severance payments to the 19 employees who were let go as the station tried to balance its books last year.

Reese's ouster isn't going to help Pacifica make its case for the kind of funding it needs (from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and elsewhere) to stabilize not only WBAI but also Washington's WPFW and Los Angeles' KPFK. Reese, for her part, tells the Times, "A unique, progressive and radical outlet for information is being undermined and damaged by people who are making decisions for its destruction without any legitimate reason or stated purpose," which sounds like a decent one-sentence summary of the last couple of decades at WBAI and Pacifica at this point.

*After vacating its expensive rented studio space on Wall Street last year, WBAI took up temporary residence way uptown at City College of New York in Harlem, borrowing studios from WHCR (90.3). That little station may soon be on the move itself, if it gets its way - not physically, but a few notches up the dial. After squeezing its way on to the dial in the early 1980s as one of the last new class D signals ever licensed, WHCR has been beset by incoming interference from other co-channel stations, most notably WHPC (90.3 Garden City) from Nassau Community College.

whcrNow the 8-watt signal is applying to move to

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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: March 18, 2013

*When Stephen Mindich sold off the license to his last remaining radio property, WFNX (101.7 Lynn), nearly a year ago, the expectation was that he'd use the $14 million proceeds to bolster the rest of his alternative-media empire in and around eastern MASSACHUSETTS. That included Mindich”s flagship, the Boston Phoenix, as well as a new streaming incarnation of WFNX that relaunched last October.

wfnxBut that cash infusion apparently went only so far: on Thursday afternoon, the Boston media scene was rocked by the very sudden news that Mindich was pulling the plug on the Phoenix, effective immediately. Like its radio/webcast sister, the print weekly had been through a big year of transition, merging last summer with sister publication Stuff and swapping newsprint for a glossier look. That wasn”t enough to keep it from continuing to lose money in an environment where so many of the functions it once provided, from entertainment listings to political commentary to personal ads, had been usurped by the internet – and so Mindich shut down the Boston paper (but not its surviving Phoenix sisters in Providence and Portland) in the most abrupt way possible, sending its staff packing without severance and without the chance to put out a farewell issue.

While the social media universe was aflutter over the end of the Phoenix itself, the demise of the paper also meant the demise of WFNX.com”s latest incarnation. Much of its thunder was stolen by the Boston Globe's Boston.com, which signed on its RadioBDC.com last August, just a few weeks after the end of WFNX on 101.7 and two months before the new WFNX.com. And while RadioBDC boasts a lineup of longtime WFNX veterans, the revived WFNX.com was staffed mostly by younger newcomers working alongside one WFNX vet, Kurt St. Thomas.

fnxdotcomAnd what happens when a bunch of young newcomers pour their hearts into creating an underdog of a station, only to find out on a Thursday afternoon that it's all over? It's a good thing WFNX.com is a webcast and not an FCC-licensed broadcast, because things got pretty FCC-unfriendly for a little while during what amounted to an on-air wake for WFNX around 4:00 on Thursday. It's not often that you hear DJs openly admitting they're not only getting drunk but also stoned in the studio (which led one local wag to quip that WFNX.com was “going out with a bong”), but it's also hard to fault the FNX crew for their on-air disappointment at the end of what had been sounding like a pretty promising new venture. (It's hard, too, to fault management for apparently cutting off the live jocks not long afterward.)

*Meanwhile, back on today's FM dial, there”s a new signal coming to a prominent downtown Boston perch where the old WFNX once had a translator.

Over the last few years, we've chronicled the moves of W279BQ (103.7) as the translator has slowly migrated southward from its original home in Gloucester to Manchester to Beverly to Salem to its current perch on the south side of Saugus. That, as it turns out, was the next-to-last step on the way to what”s apparently the place where Horizon Christian Fellowship intends to permanently locate the translator: smack in the middle of the Back Bay, high atop the “new” John Hancock Tower.

Horizon's application characterizes this, once again, as a “minor” move – which it is, on paper, since the 60 dBu contour of the proposed 10-watt Hancock signal on 103.7 will overlap a piece of the existing 60 dBu contour from Saugus. Horizon also makes a somewhat more subjective (and, to our eyes, less plausible) claim: that its series of moves since 2007 don”t constitute “translator-hopping,” the practice of repeated signal moves into an urban area that the FCC has been trying to halt.

In its current incarnation, W279BQ relays the religious programming of WRYP (90.1 Wellfleet), allegedly via off-air pickup, and the Hancock application continues to specify WRYP as the primary station. Will that continue to be the case – or will Horizon's next move be a sale of what would now become a much more valuable signal, presumably to a commercial operator? It's easy to imagine a translator broadcasting from Boston”s tallest rooftop being an attractive proposition for a broadcaster such as Clear Channel, which has been aggressively adding new formats on FM via HD2-on-translator. (2014 update: Still in Horizon's hands.)

*What's happening “Now” in NEW YORK“s Southern Tier? A new set of call letters and a new slogan for Clear Channel”s Binghamton top-40 outlet. The Endicott-licensed station long known as WMRV (for long-ago owner Merv Griffin) had been burying that callsign in recent years in favor of the “Star 105.7″ slogan. That slogan, in turn, came from the hot AC format that gave way to a return to top-40 last year. And “Now” – well, as of last Wednesday, anyway – “WMRV” and “Star” have both been retired in favor of a new identity as WBNW-FM, “Now 105.7.”

There”s no change to the lineup at 105.7, which still leads off with New York-based Elvis Duran and then turns mostly to Clear Channel”s Premiere Choice jocks, with Matt Gapske handling afternoons locally.

Five Years Ago: March 16, 2009

There's a good old-fashioned top-40 war underway in NEW YORK for the first time in many years - or at least a good new-fashioned top-40 war, the kind with a bare minimum of air personalities and a distinct lack of street promotions.

In one corner, of course, is veteran Clear Channel outlet WHTZ (100.3 Newark) - and its upstart competitor, CBS Radio's WXRK (92.3 New York) didn't miss a chance to emphasize Z100's 26-year history in the format as it relaunched itself last Wednesday at 5 PM as "92.3 Now." Just as CBS hot AC station WWFS (Fresh 102.7) built much of its initial imaging around the idea that Clear Channel's WLTW (106.7 Lite FM) was "old," the opening montage on "Now" was heavy on the idea that Z100 was a force to be reckoned with - back in the eighties, that is, when laser sound effects were all the rage. The attempt to pick a fight with Z100 continued on Friday afternoon, when the first "Now" air talent debuted. Afternoon jock Tic Tak comes to New York from Detroit's WKQI, and before that at Philadelphia's WIOQ (Q102), and he cracked the mike for the first time in New York by calling on Z100 operations manager Tom Poleman to, er, "resign."

So far, only one other "Now" air talent has been announced: Lisa Paige, late of middays at Q102, moves up to New York to start her shift today. There's still no word on a morning show at "Now" - just the word that Chris Booker, who'd been rumored to be waiting for a flip to CHR while doing afternoons at WXRK in its "K-Rock" incarnation, wasn't kept on for "Now." Indeed, it appears that the entire K-Rock airstaff is out of work, though middayer Nik Carter already has a new fill-in gig at Emmis' WRXP (101.9 New York), where he'll reportedly be covering afternoons for a while, filling the slot left vacant by music director Bryan Schock's return to the west coast. Carter and former K-Rock afternooner Matt Schwenker visited with WRXP's Matt Pinfield Thursday morning to talk to listeners and to promote the Emmis rocker as an alternative to the now-defunct K-Rock. (Well, mostly defunct - the rock will live on, for now, as an automated HD2 subchannel on WXRK, displacing the "K-Rock2" automated modern rock that had been on 92.3-HD2.)

Oh, and as for those WXRK calls? Despite what you might read elsewhere, they're staying in place, at least for "now"...

Elsewhere on the New York dial, it was a busy week for noncommercial FM stations looking to relocate to Manhattan from the outer boroughs - or even across the Hudson, where WBGO (88.3 Newark NJ) is now eyeing a move to New York City. After nearly thirty years of operating from the National Newark Building, the tallest structure in downtown Newark, WBGO has applied to move its transmitter to the Trump World Tower apartment building just north of UN headquarters on Manhattan's east side. From there, WBGO would run 2500 watts/869', using a complex directional antenna to prevent any new interference, at least on paper, to adjacent-channel WXBA (88.1 Brentwood) on Long Island and WNJP (88.5 Sussex NJ). Will the Long Island station - which has long enjoyed a sort of artificial "terrain protection" from WBGO's Newark-based signal thanks to all those tall Manhattan skyscrapers in the way - object to the move? Stay tuned...

Meanwhile, city-owned WNYE (91.5 New York) has completed its move from its longtime (70 years!) home atop Brooklyn Technical High School to its new transmitter site at Four Times Square in Manhattan. From there, it's running 2 kW/922', providing somewhat less signal to Brooklyn than the old 18 kW/430' from Brooklyn Tech did, but with a much improved signal over Manhattan and the Bronx. The Brooklyn Tech site will be retained as an auxiliary transmitter location for WNYE.

In PENNSYLVANIA, the biggest media headline of the week comes from WBEB (101.1 Philadelphia), where owner Jerry Lee says he's pulling the plug on the station's streaming audio to protest the new music licensing fees from SoundExchange, which he says "no longer make streaming a viable option." By 2015, Lee says, nearly half the station's revenues from streaming audio would go straight to SoundExchange, destroying a potential "growth business opportunity" for both stations and musicians.

Ten Years Ago: March 15, 2004

Nassau has bought again in New England, and in a big way. For $22 million, Lou Mercatanti's group is picking up most of what's left of Vox: the Barre-Montpelier cluster of WSNO (1450 Barre VT), WWFY (100.9 Berlin VT) and WORK (107.1 Barre VT); the Upper Valley cluster of WNHV (910 White River Junction VT), WTSV (1230 Claremont NH), "Bob Country" WSSH (95.3 White River Junction VT)/WZSH (107.1 Bellows Falls VT), "Oldies 104" WXOD (104.3 Hartford VT)/WCFR (96.3 Walpole NH) and the big signal of WHDQ (106.1 Claremont NH). That leaves Vox with the stations it's upgrading in Albany NY and Springfield MA (below), as well as small clusters in Pittsfield/North Adams/Great Barrington MA and Jamestown/Olean NY and single stations in Rutland (WEXP 101.5 Brandon VT) and Bennington (WZEC 97.5 Hoosick Falls NY); we hear the ownership of those stations will be reorganized under Vox principals Bruce Danziger and Ken Barlow, with Jeff Shapiro exiting the group completely.
The bidding's all done, and western NEW YORK's FM sports station will soon have a new owner.

Amidst the debris of Adelphia's bankruptcy, WNSA (107.7 Wethersfield Township) and its translator W297AB (107.3 Williamsville) will go to Entercom for $9 million as soon as the courts approve. The purchase gives Entercom a signal that covers most of the Buffalo market - and neighboring Rochester, too - and it includes a newly-renovated transmitter plant and tall tower in Wyoming County. And it's already got the rumor mills flying about what comes next for 107.7.

Vox has some big plans to rearrange the high end of the FM dial in New York and nearby MASSACHUSETTS - and it plays out like this: WNYQ (105.7 Queensbury) is supposed to be moving south to Malta (in the Albany market) as a class A signal, but it's now applied to upgrade to a 25 kW B1 signal (essentially the same as the present Queensbury facility.) To make that happen, Vox has to move WBEC-FM (105.5 Pittsfield) out of the way. It's applying to relocate the class A 105.5 signal to Easthampton, in the Springfield market some 40 miles east of its present location.

Fifteen Years Ago: March 17, 1999

It was "So long, Johnstown" and "Hello, Albany" as WSRD (104.9) got down to "The Point" Wednesday morning. The station has changed its city of license to Altamont and its transmitter location to the WXXA-TV (Channel 23) tower up in the Helderbergs with the big Albany FMs, and under its new Albany Broadcasting ownership it's playing much the same blend of modern AC that was heard until recently on WXLE (104.5 Mechanicville). No jocks have been heard so far on "104-point-9, the Point," but NERW Albany bureau chief Gavin Burt reports the new transmitter site gives WSRD solid coverage all over Albany, with the only trouble spots being to the south and east, where first-adjacent WAMQ (105.1 Great Barrington MA) begins fighting it.

Heading north, it's the end of an 11-year era at WPAC (92.7 Ogdensburg), as Tony DeFranco leaves his morning drive slot to head to WIII/WKRT Cortland. NERW North Country correspondent Mike Roach reports the last song heard on DeFranco's last show on 93PAC was Sinatra's "My Way" (a bit out of keeping with the station's usual hot AC format!) Morning news guy Doug Craig takes over the slot, and WPAC is said to be seeking a replacement in the newsroom. And insomniacs in the St. Lawrence River valley will be pleased to hear that when Tim Martz takes over WMSA (1340 Massena) in a few months, the station will change its schedule. No more 10 PM signoffs (8 PM on Sunday!) -- WMSA will go 24/7 with syndicated shows.

Heading south again, the FCC has approved the sale of WODZ (1450 Rome) to Bible Broadcasting Network, so the call change to WYFY and the format change to BBN's religious programming is probably imminent.

More upstate New York sounds on-line: Geneva's WEOS (89.7) now has an on-line feed for its non-NPR programming (including what's probably the best lacrosse coverage on the radio anywhere in America); you can get there through the WEOS Web site. The site also lists March 21 as the target date for WEOS' transmitter to move to a new site on Lake to Lake Road, south and west of the studios on the campus of Hobart and William Smith Colleges. When the new 4000 watt transmitter signs on, WEOS will also add a Geneva translator, W212BA (90.3) with 88 watts, to serve the campus and other areas shadowed from the new site.

Heading back into New England, we'll start in Springfield, MASSACHUSETTS, where Gary James has left his position as GM of WHYN (93.1/560) and WNNZ (640 Westfield). His replacement, as of March 8, is Ron Roy.

We're told the FCC paid a call on the Spanish-language 94.3 pirate in Springfield earlier this week, but the word from western Massachusetts is that the station barely waited until the taillights on the FCC van had passed out of sight on the Mass Pike before turning the transmitter back on...

The FCC is paying close attention to the latest transaction in MAINE. It's flagged Cumulus' proposed purchase of WCTB (93.5 Fairfield) and WSKW (1160 Skowhegan) because Cumulus and Pilot together control upwards of 70% of the radio revenue in the Augusta-Waterville market.

We've solved one call change mystery from last week: WXHT (95.3 York Center) became WUBB because it's dropped its satellite modern rock for satellite country as "Continuous Country B95.3." An attempt by Capstar to shave a point or two off Seacoast ratings giant WOKQ (97.5 Dover), which consistently leads the market with its heritage country format? We can't imagine this little class A station chipping more than a point or so off WOKQ, in any event. Still no word from our Portland-area readers about the reported call change on WPOR (1490)...

3 COMMENTS

  1. I wonder how soon they will knock down the WPLY 960 Mount Pocono towers? They are well lit at night, wonder who is paying the electric bill to keep them lit.

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