In this week's issue... Boston's dance FM evolves to country - New FM coming to RI? - AM talk ratings sink to all-time lows - Translators on the move near NYC - WBZ slaps down "WBZ" - PLUS: More Baseball on the Radio
By SCOTT FYBUSH
*When Clear Channel bought a third FM station in eastern MASSACHUSETTS a few years back, nobody quite understood why then-WFNX (101.7 Lynn) was worth $14 million to a company that had otherwise largely taken itself out of the acquisition game.
Three years and three formats later, it's increasingly clear that the station now known as WEDX can only be understood as a strategic game piece in today's cluster landscape - especially after Friday afternoon's flip from electronic dance music ("Evolution 101.7") to country, as "The Bull."
Yes, we could write a few pithy paragraphs about the way in which 101.7 has pinballed from variety hits "Harbor" WHBA to dance music to country in the space of just a few years, and follow that up with some even pithier thoughts about whether there's any place for a full-fledged EDM format on terrestrial radio, especially as "mainstream" top-40 becomes increasingly EDM-inflected. And we could go on to ponder whether "Evolution" was, no matter how tiny its overall ratings, providing a useful service by giving younger listeners a reason to check out terrestrial radio instead of drifting away to Pandora or whatever's next.
But realistically, 101.7 is nothing more than a pawn in a bigger game, and the queen Clear Channel is trying to protect with this latest flip is its much bigger top-40 outlet, WXKS-FM (Kiss 108). With Greater Media's country WKLB-FM (102.5) nipping at its heels for the number-one position in the ratings (both stations were up in the April PPMs, 7.2 to 7.6 for Kiss, 6.4 to 6.8 for WKLB), the flip at 101.7 is a pretty transparent attempt to shave a few fractions of a point off WKLB by providing it with a little country competition.
And make no mistake - as "The Bull" (apparently with new calls WBWL-FM on the way, though no formal request has been filed), Clear Channel will offer WKLB only a little competition. Country listeners within range of 101.7's limited class A signal who happen to hit the "down" button on their scan during a WKLB stopset this summer will find the Bull running commercial-free through Labor Day. It will also be jock-free for at least a little while, and there's every reason to expect that when air talent does appear in the fall, it will be mostly Clear Channel syndicated offerings such as the Bobby Bones morning show.
Can we at least conclude, if nothing else, that this latest flip fully puts to rest the idea that Boston's not a country radio market? After all, this is now the third time in a generation that multiple stations have competed for the country audience in town: in the late 1980s, WDLW (1330) battled it out with WBOS-FM (92.9) back when country was still a niche format in town; in the mid-1990s, WBCS (96.9) duked it out with the first incarnation of WKLB-FM before Greater Media merged the two - and now this...at least until Clear Channel has some other strategic move that requires the deployment of 101.7 in another new direction.
(As for Evolution fans? The dance beats continue on WXKS-FM's 107.9-HD2, as well as streaming on Clear Channel's iHeartRadio.)
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: June 17, 2013
*There's a new AM signal coming to eastern MASSACHUSETTS, as owner Alexander Langer moves forward on a relocation of the former WMSX (1410 Brockton). When Langer announced his $100,000 purchase of the silent AM signal from Kingdom Church exactly a year ago, he told us he didn't have a move immediately planned - WMSX “happened to be a good local signal at the right price,” he said then - but anyone familiar with his signal-upgrade work knew better, especially given WMSX's lack of a viable Brockton transmitter site.
Working with consulting engineer Charles Hecht, Langer filed for his move on Monday. He's proposing to transfer WMSX from Brockton to a new community of license of Dedham, abandoning the old Linwood Street site in Brockton in favor of a new 75-foot Valcom fiberglass whip antenna to be located in an industrial section of Readville, right at the southern tip of Boston's city limits. (It will, in fact, become the only AM station transmitting from within the city of Boston.)
From that new site on Sprague Street, the new WMSX would run 610 watts by day and just 25 watts at night. At least on paper, that day facility will put about 600,000 people within its 2 mV/m contour, including most of Roxbury, Dorchester and Mattapan as well as a ring of south suburban Boston including Dedham, Milton and parts of Quincy and Brookline.
Assuming the move is granted (and there's no reason to expect it won't), it's likely the new WMSX will follow in the path of another Langer move-in. What's now WSRO (650 Ashland) was moved into the Framingham area from southern New Hampshire, and Langer has slowly grown that small facility into an important voice for the fast-growing Portuguese-speaking community in MetroWest that had lacked its own radio outlet. Will the new WMSX find a similar ethnic niche in the diverse neighborhoods it will serve? There are certainly openings, as the slew of unlicensed Haitian Creole signals in the area attests every day.
*Where are they now? The Reverend Earl Jackson made a name for himself as the general manager of WLVG (740 Cambridge) during that station's days as a black gospel/religious outlet in the 1980s, including several encounters with bankruptcy. After exiting WLVG (which eventually ended up in the hands of Bob Bittner as WWEA and then WJIB), Jackson decamped for Virginia - and it wasn't until late last week (with an assist from Universal Hub, by way of the now-defunct Washington Examiner) that we made the connection between WLVG's Earl Jackson and the Rev. E. W. Jackson who's making headlines as the Republican candidate for lieutenant governor in Virginia.
(If you're keeping score at home, Jackson is at least the second former Boston radio operator to make headlines at the rightward end of national politics: as we've noted here on several occasions, former WDLW 1330 owner Anthony Martin-Trigona has become a perennial candidate and political gadfly under the name "Andy Martin.")
*A stealth format change in Binghamton: Equinox Broadcasting appears to have quietly killed off AC WRRQ (106.7 Port Dickinson), instead using that frequency to simulcast its oldies WCDW (100.5 Susquehanna PA). At least for now, that puts "Cool 100" on the Ingraham Hill 106.7 signal, the east-side rimshot 100.5 and a string of translators around the valley; will any of those translators instead end up with some of Equinox's other HD-subchannel feeds? (The company also runs rock "Z93," soft AC "Sunny 107" and AAA "104.5 the Drive" on translators fed by WRRQ's HD subs.)
Five Years Ago: June 15, 2009
Whether you date its beginnings to the first experimental electronic broadcasts of the late twenties, the early scheduled broadcasts of the thirties, the start of commercial service in 1941 or the establishment of the 525-line NTSC standard soon afterward, there's no disputing the longevity of analog broadcast television in the United States - nor the historical import of the switches being thrown and buttons being pressed in master controls and transmitter rooms from Presque Isle to Pittsburgh last Friday, as one by one the signals that had been so central to American life over the decades winked out for the last time. What was widely portrayed in the mass media as a one-day "switch to digital" was, of course, really the culmination of a long and complex transition that began back in the late nineties, when the first experimental digital TV transmitters began to appear on the airwaves. In most parts of NERW-land, that transition was far enough along that Friday's "switch" was - just as broadcasters had hoped - a non-event for most viewers, who'd already traded over-the-air analog for cable, satellite, or over-the-air digital TV. Add in the last-minute stresses behind the scenes, as the FCC revised its transition guidelines and phones rang off the hook from the remaining few percent of viewers who'd yet to complete their conversion, and it's not entirely unsurprising, if still somewhat disappointing, that by the time the end of analog rolled around on Friday, many broadcasters were ready to just pull the plug on their venerable analog signals without any notice or ceremony. (There were some notable exceptions, which we'll mention later in this week's issue.)
Whether accompanied by fanfare or just a fade to snow midway through Conan O'Brien's monologue, the good news is that the last pieces of the complex puzzle that was the transition went largely without a hitch for most stations across NERW-land, even in the complicated situations where stations had to swap channels and even transmission facilities in the space of just a few hours.
The one notable exception was in Syracuse, NEW YORK, where viewers looking for NBC programming had to do some juggling to find WSTM-TV (Channel 3) over the weekend. WSTM had a difficult juggling act to pull off: it had to vacate both its longtime analog channel and its temporary digital channel, 54, by midnight Friday, but it couldn't occupy its new digital channel, 24, until public station WCNY-TV signed off its analog operation early Friday morning, freeing up not only the channel but also the transmission line and antenna that WSTM-DT would use. But rather than buying WCNY's transmitter, already tuned to channel 24, WSTM decided to retune its own digital transmitter from channel 54 to channel 24. It even signed off WSTM-DT on channel 54 early - on Monday - to provide plenty of time to get the retuning done. As it turned out, though, retuning the Thales transmitter was a more complex task than expected, so much so that when WSTM turned off its analog transmitter at a minute past midnight Friday (with a full-screen ID and a 50s-vintage national anthem clip), it was clear that it would still be a few days before the station could get the parts it needed to get WSTM-DT back on the air.
So WSTM turned to plan B - and plan C, too. By mid-morning Friday, analog channel 3 was back on the air, providing at least some signal for hockey fans to tune in for the final Stanley Cup game that night. Thanks to its new partnership with CBS affiliate WTVH (Channel 5), WSTM was able to put its programming on the 5.2 subchannel of WTVH-DT, maintaining some on-air presence after channel 3 had to sign off for good (with no fanfare this time) at 11:59 Friday night. (As always, most cable viewers were unaffected, since WSTM continued to provide its signal to Time Warner Cable via fiber.) By Sunday, WSTM-DT was back on the air on channel 24, with a significantly better signal than the old channel 54.
As best we can tell, only one other station - Erie NBC affiliate WICU (Channel 12) - was off the air as a result of the switchover, as its engineers worked to replace the old channel 12 analog signal (silenced last Tuesday) with a VHF digital signal on the same channel. There, too, a sister station saved the day, with WICU's signal continuing to be available (as it has for some time now) on WSEE's 35-3 subchannel.
Around the region, those VHF digital signals - many of them taking the air for the first time on Friday or early Saturday - proved a little more troublesome than expected, especially for viewers unfamiliar with the different antennas needed for VHF reception as opposed to the UHF band, where most existing DTV had been located. Even with those hiccups (which we'll list in more detail in our market-by-market roundup below), the transition went about as smoothly as anyone could have anticipated; contrary to message-board fearmongering, there were no mad runs on stores selling converter boxes and antennas, no widespread shortages, and certainly no rioting in the streets in front of TV stations or transmitter sites. (Though just about every station we've talked to has received at least one frantic phone call starting out, "why didn't anyone tell me this was going to be happening?!?," proving that no public education campaign can ever reach absolutely everyone...)
Ten Years Ago: June 14, 2004
Vox is selling yet another radio station - this time, the last bit of its cluster in Concord, NEW HAMPSHIRE. WTPL (107.7 Hillsborough) was left behind when Vox sold sister stations WOTX (102.3 Concord) and WJYY (105.5 Concord) to Nassau; now it's being transferred from Vox subsidiary Concord Broadcasting to Great Eastern Radio, owned by Vox principal Jeff Shapiro. Shapiro will pay his Vox partners $1.5 million for WTPL; we expect (though it's not clearly stated in the filings with the FCC) that WTPL will continue to be LMA'd back to Concord's WKXL (1450), which has been programming it for a while now.
Pamal Broadcasting has closed on its $2.5 million purchase of Vox's cluster in Glens Falls, NEW YORK. Vox hands off WMML (1230 Glens Falls), WENU (1410 South Glens Falls), WENU-FM (101.7 Hudson Falls) and WFFG (107.1 Corinth) to Pamal; WNYQ (105.7 Queensbury) is not part of the deal, though other trades have reported otherwise; Vox is still working on moving it south to the Albany market.
There's a brand-new FM station in CANADA, as CIGR (104.5 Sherbrooke) signs on with French-language rock as "Generation Rock." It's running 1300 watts at 290 meters from the Radio-Canada tower at Fleurimonte, Quebec.
Fifteen Years Ago: June 18, 1999
We're back -- sort of! Actually, by the time you read this, the NERW-mobile (fresh from a car wash following our trip to New England last week) will be headed north to hear the last, dying gasps of CBL on 740 in Toronto. At this writing, the scheduled sign-off is midnight, Saturday, June 19, which probably means a loop announcing the move to 99.1 FM will begin running at midnight Friday night, with 740 being silenced for good 24 hours later. In any event, when the loop begins running, the NERW-mobile will be parked on the road outside the CBL transmitter plant at Hornby, Ontario, and if anyone wants to join in an impromptu wake, we'll be happy to have you.
Listeners in New England should have no trouble hearing the end of CBL, thanks to the generosity of Bob Bittner, the owner of WJIB (740) in Cambridge. He won't run his usual 5 watts Friday night, instead signing off at sunset and returning the next morning and allowing Boston listeners one last shot at hearing Toronto. Tune in around 8:11 to hear Bob's eulogy to CBL, followed by the sign-off.
What next for 740? The CRTC has yet to ask for applications for reuse of the frequency (unlike in Montreal, where applications were being taken long before 690 and 940 went dark). It's likely to be a while before 740 is reactivated; the CRTC has yet to choose winning applicants for the Montreal channels (despite an erroneous mention in one hobby publication that seemed to fall prey to the FCC database listing that claims CKVL will get the nod for 940).
But we'll take a pause from mourning the loss (for listeners on this side of the lake) of Andy and Anubha, Michael and Avril, Dave Stephens, Bill Richardson, Joan Melanson, As It Happens, all those fine weekend shows (what will we listen to on Saturdays without DNTO?), and the simple pleasure of hearing how badly the 401 is jammed whilst crusing through the Can of Worms...and get on, sadly, with the rest of the week's news:
We were in MASSACHUSETTS just in time to see the end of another, albeit much briefer, institution, as Boston University's stewardship of WABU (Channel 68) and its New Hampshire and Cape Cod satellites came to a close Sunday night (June 13). Devon Paxson's DP Media is LMA'ing the stations while it spins off existing Pax outlet WBPX (Channel 46) in Norwell. Here's how things are shaking out: WABU is still carrying much of its previous syndicated programming while contracts run out, joining the Pax TV network only in middays and prime time for the moment.
WBPX remains a Pax outlet for now as well, but up in New Hampshire, WPXB (Channel 60) in Merrimack has dropped Pax for infomercials now that WNBU (Channel 21) in Concord is the Pax station in the Granite State. NERW expects the WBPX calls to move to channel 68 eventually, as well as an eventual sale of the 1660 Soldiers Field Road studios.
In NEW HAMPSHIRE, Clark Smidt's oldies station has applied for a big move. WNNH (99.1 Henniker) wants to move off the Pat's Peak ski area where it currently operates (with 1250 watts and a directional antenna at 217 meters) to Gould Hill just off route 103 in Contoocook, much closer in to its target market of Concord. WNNH's new facility would have 2800 watts at 146 meters, still with a DA to protect WPLM-FM down in Plymouth MA.
The top radio news from RHODE ISLAND was the Saturday NERW gathering that brought more than a dozen radio junkies together for lunch and a visit to the Rhode Island Historical Society's broadcast-history exhibit. In between sharing radio stories, we also had a chance to visit the studios of Brown University's WBRU (95.5) and head south to see what was happening down in South County, an area we hadn't visited in a while. Our first stop was at WBLQ (88.1) in Westerly, a station which appears to be the 100-watt offspring of the TIS that used to operate as a community station down that way. What we heard, once we got within range of the telephone-pole-mounted antenna, was an automated format of mostly 70's AC music, with some other oldies thrown in for good measure. We also heard "underwriting announcements" that skirted just safe of the line separating them from honest-to-Kennard advertising -- and an announcement telling neighbors what to do if WBLQ was interfering with their radios, complete with a recording of the automated message they'd hear if they called the FCC. And by the time the NERW-mobile had seen the WXNI (1230) antenna at the water's edge and headed downtown to the WERI-FM studios, the WBLQ signal was almost gone (although we did catch an unusual top-hour ID that contained bits of a classic JAM jingle package from the '70s).
New to the air sometime Thursday (6/17) is Pax TV's latest outlet, WPXJ (Channel 51) in Batavia. It's putting a watchable, but far from city-grade, signal into Rochester; we're guessing Buffalo's getting a lot less. Both cities are mentioned in WPXJ's hourly ID.