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In this week's issue... FCC amps up pirate busts - NBC drops longtime affiliate - Bouloukos out at CBS NY - Lost 45s off the air?

By SCOTT FYBUSH

*Way back in January 2007, this column noted the inner-city Boston station calling itself "Touch 106" and running without a license, writing, "Its operators claim they can operate legally without one, since they run less than 100 watts. How long until the FCC proves them wrong?"

touch106The answer turns out to have been "a little over seven years." Late last week, federal officials swooped down on a batch of pirate stations in New York City and Boston, including "Touch," seizing equipment and taking them off the air. For most of those stations, including the Boston-area signals on 89.3 and 100.1 that were silenced, it was a relatively low-profile bust - if history is any guide, those stations will lay low for a while and then quietly reappear, if someone else doesn't show up on those frequencies first.

But Touch has played a different game from the start. Helmed by Dorchester pastor Charles Clemons, it's used its perch as one of the few available broadcast voices in Boston's black community to attempt to position itself somewhere above, or perhaps outside, the law. Clemons simply ignored the FCC's $17,000 Notice of Attempted Liability in 2008, and a surprisingly large segment of Boston's power structure has played along. Former mayor Thomas Menino was a frequent guest on Clemons' morning show, and the city openly bought time on the station to advertise events. When Clemons entered the race to succeed Menino last fall, many of the city's media outlets (notably the Globe) glossed over the unlicensed nature of his radio operation, treating him as a legitimate business operator and raising no questions about the enforcement actions already taken against the station. (It didn't help; Clemons finished at the rear of the pack in the Democratic primary.)

After positioning himself as a leader in the LPFM movement, even claiming back in 2009 that he'd walk from Boston to Los Angeles to draw attention the cause (the walk was conveniently "postponed" due to bad weather), Clemons never applied for a signal when the window finally opened last fall.

So when the Feds showed up last week and shut him down, Clemons remained as outspoken as ever, vowing to fight all the way to the White House to keep his station on the air - and drawing support from power brokers as high up the food chain as governor Deval Patrick.

Here's NERW's take on the situation: while we're deeply sympathetic to the lack of a media presence for Boston's African-American community, we can't join in the chorus of praise that Clemons has been receiving. However commendable Touch's service to its listeners was, it was still a blatantly illegal operation. And the heart of Clemons' original argument - that he needed to operate without a license because there was no licensed way to serve his community - was ripped out as soon as the FCC opened that LPFM window last fall.

Frequencies were available for a new LPFM in Boston; in fact, at least three of them now have applicants working their way through the mutually-exclusive process to settle on final construction permit grants. If Clemons had chosen to take part in that process, it's true that his status as a known unlicensed broadcaster would have excluded him personally from being on the board of an applicant. But he could surely have worked with an outside nonprofit to serve as the applicant (indeed, the Globe helpfully reports that the Dorchester building that housed his station belongs to a nonprofit owned by his mother), and there's no overt FCC prohibition against ex-pirates programming LPFMs.

Or Clemons could have leased time on (or bought) any of several AMs that are struggling to find an audience. The relatively new WZBR (1410 Dedham), for instance, nicely serves the neighborhoods Touch reached. As a licensed operator, Clemons could then have used his political pull to argue for an FM translator, and he might just have won.

Instead, there are no real winners here now. No matter how much pull Clemons might have mustered when Touch was on the air, there's no reason to believe the FCC will back down at this point, if only because of the exceedingly bad precedent it would set in other communities. For his part, Clemons is now a marked man. If he attempts to restart Touch, he'll immediately have the FCC's attention once again. He may be in the sights of other regulators, too - the Globe reports that the last complaint against Touch that really started the ball rolling toward the seizure was about Clemons' use of the station to promote his failed mayoral campaign.

And it's the people of Boston's inner city who really lose out here. They've long deserved a proper replacement for the radio voice they lost when Radio One sold off WILD-FM (97.7) and leased out WILD (1090). However noble Clemons' intentions may have been, last week's shutdown was inevitable in the end. If the urban community is going to be served, it's got to be by a licensed station - and it's pretty clear at this point that Clemons won't be the guy to do it.

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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: April 22, 2013

*Let’s get one thing out of the way right at the beginning of this week’s column: if you’re expecting perfect objectivity in our coverage of the week’s events in Boston and the media’s reaction to them, you’re in the wrong place. Your editor cut his teeth in the broadcast news business learning from the professionals at Boston’s WBZ (1030) way back in the 1990s and has always maintained a healthy respect for the quality of the news coverage that’s come out of the newsroom at 1170 Soldiers Field Road. Back then, just as now, Boston Marathon day was, by itself, one of the biggest news days of the year, with all hands already on deck to deliver nonstop coverage of the race and the massive crowds that surround it.

So to have an even bigger news story develop at the end of the big race, and to have that story grow to immense national proportions over what was essentially a nonstop week of coverage that followed, was an enormously big deal. Whatever criticism might justifiably be aimed at the national coverage of the Marathon bombings and the ensuing manhunt, there’s no way we can even begin to second-guess the tremendous local coverage that came out of WBZ radio, its sister TV station, WBZ-TV (Channel 4), or the other local newsrooms that spent the week keeping their community informed and comforted.

In our Wednesday mid-week update, we took a look at the exhaustive (and exhausting) coverage coming from all of those newsrooms early in the week. As the mysteries around the bombing turned into a Thursday-night drama that included the murder of a MIT campus police officer and a high-speed chase into Watertown, Boston’s TV and radio newsrooms once again went into overdrive to cover a second chapter of the story that proved even more dramatic than the first.

b_strong_whiteWhen the scanner calls came in about the MIT incident just after 10 on Thursday night, it wasn’t yet clear that it was connected to the bombings, and by the time the magnitude of the story in Cambridge and Watertown really became clear, it was well after 1 AM. The national cable news channels were already in their overnight repeat cycles (indeed, CNN had shut down its domestic control room in Atlanta for the night, leaving only the CNN International crew on duty), and that made channels 4, 5 and 7 the first lines of information for both local and national audiences. (Fox O&O WFXT, channel 25, was a little slower to ramp back up, leaving Fox News Channel with dated video of the MIT scene while CNN and MSNBC had live coverage from Watertown via channels 5 and 7; on radio, it was all WBZ through the overnight hours, largely simulcasting WBZ-TV, while Entercom’s WRKO was stuck with syndicated Red Eye Radio as the night’s dramatic events played out elsewhere.)

And then came Friday morning and one of the strangest days in Boston history. As law enforcement put the city under an effective lockdown, local TV and radio became a vital channel of communication to more than a million Bostonians cooped up in their homes while the streets outside emptied.

This being 2013, of course, radio and TV were hardly the only sources of news for a paralyzed city, and we’d be remiss to downplay the role that social media (especially, in this case, Reddit) played in spreading information about the standoff and manhunt. Where local radio and TV really shone, though, was in spreading accurate information about the standoff and manhunt. Even as they worked unbelievably long hours attempting to fill airtime with little or no new information from the police, the local stations avoided some of the pitfalls that social media and out-of-town news sources were stumbling into, including an especially egregious case of misidentification of the suspected bombers during those overnight hours.

On Friday morning, CBS once again simulcast WBZ’s news coverage on most of its FM stations. Entercom’s stations each went their own way with extensive coverage (with WEEI, in particular, turning away from its usual sports talk to become a source of news and conversation for its loyal audience), and at Greater Media the lockdown kept most of the staff away from the office and most of its stations largely playing music during the day. On the public radio side, WBUR-FM (90.9) once again offered its local coverage to a national audience, as did WGBH (89.7) via “The World.”

Then, of course, everything returned to normal with startling speed: the authorities called off the “shelter in place” order in the 6:00 hour on Friday evening, followed almost immediately by one last round of startling news from Watertown as the last suspect was located and captured and cheering Bostonians flooded back into the streets.

*To the extent there was any other big story in New England this week, it came from MAINE, where Friday brought an abrupt announcement that antenna manufacturer Dielectric is closing up shop in the next few months.

Dielectric's new antennas on display at the NAB Show this month

Dielectric’s new antennas on display at the NAB Show this month

Dielectric has made its home in Raymond, north of Portland, since 1954; in 1986, it acquired the antenna business from RCA as that erstwhile giant exited the business, later picking up the Harris antenna line as well, and since 2001, it’s been owned by the technology conglomerate SPX. At first, Dielectric was a profitable piece of SPX, bolstered by the DTV conversion that required thousands of new antennas and untold miles of new transmission line, switching components and combiners. But that process was largely over by 2009, and the subsequent years have been slower ones for Dielectric.

Still, the company made a prominent showing just a few weeks ago at the NAB Show in Las Vegas, with a sizable booth right by the main entrance to the radio exhibit hall and a product lineup that included several new FM and TV antennas – which is why it came as a surprise to many when SPX announced that “extremely difficult global economic conditions in the broadcast marketplace” had led to a decision to close down Dielectric’s operations over the next two months.

*There was one new format in upstate NEW YORK to start the week last week: on Monday, Clear Channel relaunched country on Binghamton-market WBBI (107.5 Endwell), ending a brief trimulcast designed to move WBBI’s former “Big 107.5″ oldies audience down the dial to the new AM/FM combo of WINR (680) and translator W245BV (96.9). The “New Country B107.5″ format now being heard on WBBI returns that format to the frequency after a decade-long absence; now, as then, it’s intended to blunt the ratings of market-leading competitor WHWK (98.1), which is part of the rival Townsquare cluster.

*Radio listeners in NEW JERSEY‘s Monmouth and Ocean counties can be forgiven if they’re a little confused this week, what with all the format shuffling now underway at two clusters. At Press Communications, the new brand on WWZY (107.1 Long Branch) is simply… “107.1 FM.” The former “Breeze” has ditched some of its softer AC tunes and is leaning more current than it did in its Breeze days, and it’s subtitling itself as “A Music Radio Station.” For now, it’s jockless in middays and afternoons after shedding most of its former airstaff, but today will bring a morning show to the station as Nina Siciliano and Tom Devoy’s “Pork Roll and Eggs” show slides up the dial from sister station WBBO (98.5). WBBO, in turn, gets a new morning show hosted by its current midday jock, Kelso, and its night jock, Sara Cucci.

Meanwhile at Greater Media, WJRZ (100.1 Manahawkin) is making a bid for some of the listeners who might be displaced by WWZY’s shift from classic to current. After three years as a straight-ahead AC sharing the “Magic” branding with Greater sister station WMGQ (98.3 New Brunswick), WJRZ moves to classic hits today, reports RadioInsight, returning to a format it used from 2000-2009.

Five Years Ago: April 20, 2009

There was at least a bit of NERW-land presence at Tuesday's NAB Show radio luncheon, where WGY (810 Schenectady) was one of ten stations nationwide honored with an NAB Crystal Radio Award - and those awards are getting some extra attention this year as the NAB pushes its community-service initiatives.

And one more sad note from back home: we've just received word that Bill Corbeil, the 40-year-old co-owner of WTSA AM/FM in Brattleboro, Vermont, succumbed to cancer yesterday. It was just a year and a half ago when Corbeil and his wife Kelli bought the stations, and since then they'd been busy moving them to new studios and building a real community connection in that small market. Our deepest condolences to Kelli, the two young Corbeil boys, and to the entire WTSA family...

It was PENNSYLVANIA making the news all last week, first with the death of Harry Kalas (about whom, much more in a moment), then with the possible demise of once-legendary WARM (590 Scranton). The AM station that once pulled a 70 share in the Electric City had long since become a forgotten spot on the dial even before falling completely silent a few weeks ago. Under current owner Citadel, transmitter maintenance was all but nonexistent in recent years, reducing WARM's once-booming voice across all of northeast Pennsylvania to a staticky, undermodulated signal that would have been hard to listen to, even if it had been programming anything listeners still cared about. (Not that it was; the most recent in a long string of automated formats was Citadel's "True Oldies Channel.") WARM had occasionally gone off the air for short periods over the last couple of years, but the latest silent period may be more permanent. Citadel isn't talking about the future of the station, but NERW's hearing that the company is unwilling to make the big investment needed to reverse years of neglected work at the station's tower site, including a non-existent ground system and two nonworking transmitters.

Could the legendary WARM really be gone for good this time? We'd bet that it will at least be resurrected in time to avoid the loss of its license after a year of silence. Citadel has reportedly turned down several offers to buy the station in recent years, and might be even less likely to accept a lowball offer now that station prices are sagging. Any new owner would, of course, have a lot of work to do to get the signal humming again. But a new owner would also inherit plenty of good will from the community, at least if the coverage of WARM's apparent demise is any indication; the story led the TV news late last week, a rarity for any story about radio.

And of course Philadelphia - along with sports fans across the nation - is mourning Harry Kalas, who died last Monday in the place he loved best, the Phillies broadcast booth. Kalas was getting ready for a day game against the Washington Nationals when he collapsed; he died a short time later at a DC hospital. Kalas, 73, was one of the longest-serving announcers in baseball, having started in 1963 with the Houston Colt .45s before moving to Philadelphia in 1971. When the Phillies won the championship in 1980, Kalas wasn't behind the mike, thanks to an MLB rule that gave the networks exclusive World Series radio rights. That rule was changed soon afterward, allowing local broadcasters to call the games on each team's flagship station; as a result, Kalas finally got to call a Phillies Series win last fall, capping a magnificent career. In addition to his baseball work, Kalas succeeded Philly's John Facenda as the voice of NFL Films in 1975, making his rich baritone familiar to fans everywhere (and even to some non-fans who've tuned in to Animal Planet's "Puppy Bowl," which also featured Kalas.) On Saturday, Phillies fans honored Kalas by packing Citizens Bank Park to pay their respects to Kalas' casket, which was placed behind home plate. The team is also displaying a memorial patch on its uniforms for the rest of the season.

Ten Years Ago: April 19, 2004

MAINE radio listeners are finding their way around the many changes in the radio dial wrought by Nassau last week, and now we can report a slew of call changes, too: "The Bone," the simulcast of classic rock and Howard Stern on 104.7 and 106.7, is now WHXQ (104.7 Kennebunkport, ex-WQEZ) and WHXR (106.7 North Windham, ex-WMTW-FM). "Frank" on 107.5 Lewiston is now WFNK, formerly WTHT. We assume the WTHT calls will replace WMEK on 99.9 Auburn, the new home of the "Wolf" country format formerly on 107.5, but that call change hasn't been filed. WLAM (1470 Lewiston) keeps its calls, and WMTW (870 Gorham) becomes WLVP, which we're guessing stands for "Liberal Voice of Portland."

It's "Know-Nothings on Parade" yet again in Charlotte, VERMONT, where a fight continues over the Pease Mountain transmitter tower of WIZN (106.7 Vergennes). Vermont's Environmental Board was scheduled to hear testimony last week about whether to revoke the land-use permit granted in 1999 (after the station had already been in place on the mountain for 12 years) over the NIMBYish howls of the neighbors. (We've been to Pease Mountain, and the site is nearly impossible to see from any distance.)

The neighbors' attorney (who, we'll editorialize, apparently never heard of the inverse-square rule) told the Associated Press that "it's clear that there is radiation in the community. The energy from the signal heats human tissue." (NERW wonders if he was talking on a hand-held cellphone at the time.)
RHODE ISLAND listeners got an early introduction to their newest radio station last Friday, when Entercom launched WEEI-FM (103.7 Westerly) two weeks earlier than planned, changing calls (from WWRX) and flipping to the sports format simulcast with Boston's WEEI (850) - except during Red Sox games.

Fifteen Years Ago: April 16, 1999

The nights will soon sound different on Boston's WBZ (1030), as one of the CBS station's talk hosts retires and another cuts back on his workload. Bob Raleigh told listeners this week that he'll leave WBZ when he turns 65 June 9. Raleigh has been gradually shedding overnight hours for the last few years, going from five nights a week down to three, and giving WBZ a chance to try out some potential replacements, including Steve LeVeille, Jordan Rich, and Kevin Sowyrda. No permanent replacement for Raleigh has been named so far, and if the precedent set by the death of weekend overnight host Norm Nathan a few years back holds, it's likely the station will take its time with the decision.

The pre-midnight landscape on WBZ is shifting as well. David Brudnoy asked station management to cut his weeknight show back two hours, ending at 10 PM instead of the present midnight. Brudnoy tells the Herald's Dean Johnson that the decision has nothing to do with the AIDS virus that took him off the air entirely back in 1995, just that five hours of radio each night, in addition to his many other duties as college professor, movie reviewer, and commentator, leave him "tired." A new talk host will be hired for the 10-midnight slot; again, no names have surfaced (although NERW can't ignore the newsgroup buzz that's suggesting a Gene Burns return from the West Coast would be well-received).

Elsewhere in MASSACHUSETTS, the end of 65 years of English-language radio at WLLH (1400 Lowell/Lawrence) is finally in sight. The station has been running promos all week asking listeners to follow WLLH personalities (including newsman Bob Ellis) down the dial to "the New 800 WCCM." Mega Broadcasting is expected to begin programming WLLH from its Charlestown WBPS/WNFT studios next week. (Another English-language institution, also dating back to 1934, also comes to a close at midnight Saturday, as Mutual's last radio newscast hits the airwaves. While it had probably outlived its usefulness, it still seems strange to think that the words "Mutual News" will never be heard again.)

Entercom now has its new calls for "Star 93.7," with the FCC's approval of WQSX for the former WEGQ Lawrence-Boston. An unintentional meaning to the new calls, noted by WCAP's Bill O'Neill (who, by the way, is someone we'd listen to on WBZ overnight!): "SX" for "Essex" County, where the station's city of license is located. Of course, the AM in Salem beat them to it...

In RHODE ISLAND, morning host Mike Butts has parted ways with WPRO-FM (92.3 Providence) after a long run with the Citadel-owned CHR. Midday jock Giovanni is taking over mornings, and Pro-FM is looking for a new midday host.

The big news in VERMONT is the sale of one of the Green Mountain State's most powerful FM signals. Albany Broadcasting is buying WJJR (98.1 Rutland), along with "Cat Country" simulcast WJEN (94.5 Rutland) and WJAN (95.1 Sunderland), for a reported $6.1 million. WJJR's mountaintop transmitter covers most of Vermont, a good chunk of New Hampshire, and a swath of eastern New York north of Albany, where its new owner already controls news-talk WROW (590), CHR WFLY (92.3 Troy), AC WYJB (95.5), and dance-CHR WAJZ (96.3 Voorheesville). Will format changes be in order? We'll keep you posted.

We'll start NEW YORK's news with a format change in the Watertown market. WOTT (100.7 Henderson) dropped its "Fun Oldies" format after just over a year, resurfacing Wednesday morning as "Real Rock," claiming to play "the best classic rock and the best new rock." The Clancy-Mance station becomes a direct competitor to Forever's WCIZ (93.3 Watertown). Former morning host Mike "The Colonel" White will move over to sister station WATN (1240 Watertown) to replace Nat Natali, who retires at month's end. Mornings on the new WOTT will be handled by the syndicated "Bob and Tom" show from Indianapolis.

5 COMMENTS

  1. TouchFM has been running longer than 2007. I remember them being around for a few years before I left Boston in Sept 2007, and I found a reference to them on Prometheus’s site dating back to 2005. It’s possible they were around even earlier than that…they came around after Radio Free Allston’s time on that frequency but RFA got busted off FM much earlier than that…back in 1999 or 2000, I think.

  2. Don’t forget: SUNY Oneonta also owns and operates WONY 90.9FM. Which is not an LPFM but might as well be (180w @ -22m HAAT). It’s an all-student station (and one that perennially struggles with insufficient budgetary support from its parent college, last time I talked to the students there 5 or 6 years ago). That’s why the LPFM was the public radio outlet, although that’s kind of the reverse of the usual way of doing things.

    IIRC, WONY also had potential to be expanded much larger than its current footprint, although whether or not the extra coverage would really matter was debatable; the terrain out there makes wide-area reception very difficult even if you’re not using a highly directional pattern as WONY would have to. And a lot of that region is just zero-population mountains. I don’t recall if the expanded pattern was big enough to allow for on-channel boosters to be practical, but probably not. (obviously translators would be more ideal, but boosters don’t need a filing window to be applied for)

  3. I was just down near Eastport yesterday (Monday April 21st) WSHD Eastport was still on 91.7; they get terrible cochannel interference from WUMM 91.7 Machias, so glad to see they will have a relatively interference free spot at 93.3; conveniently spaced between WQDY Calais at 92.7 and WRMO Milbridge at 93.7.

  4. You mentioned that Clemons finished last in the Democratic primary for mayor of Boston. There is on Democratic or Republican primary for Boston mayor, there is just one non-partisan primary.

  5. Reading about the Rev Clemons’ pirate operation in Boston reminded me of the PrayzFM pirate that showed up at, I believe, 105.3, in Hartford several years back. Production values (it was black gospel) were quite good, and I listened occasionally.

    It was never entirely clear where the station transmitter was located (I always believed it to be in Bloomfield), but the operator also claimed to be serving the un-served black community, and he had his supporters.

    Detractors were the other religious stations in the Hartford market who griped to the FCC.

    For some reason the Hartford Courant reporting staff seemed initially to have a hard time comprehending that it actually mattered that the station had no FCC license. Stories about the station, which I seem to recall disappeared before it was actually shut down, were rife with quotes from listeners who made the FCC (read, “the government”) out to be a bully for not letting the station stay on the air, license or not.

    From where I sit, the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau has amped up its efforts on several fronts in recent weeks, perhaps at the prodding of the bureau’s new acting director. One can hope, I suppose.

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