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In this week's issue... Connoisseur remakes WDRC-FM - Remembering Bob Ausfeld - Cumulus tries again for a  "WFAS-FM" - AM sale in PA - Quebec radio network expands

By SCOTT FYBUSH

*When a new owner takes over at a heritage radio station, there are usually two ways it can go: if the heritage is worth keeping, the standard "no changes are anticipated" line gets trotted out, usually followed by a few staffing cuts and format tweaks. Or, if bigger changes are called for, away goes all that heritage, replaced by new formats, new station names and a new staff.

wdrcfm-newlogoAnd then there's Connoisseur and CONNECTICUT's WDRC-FM (102.9 Hartford), which dominated the region's news on a slow post-holiday week by sending nearly its entire staff packing as soon as the ink was dry on the paperwork that closed the sale of the station from Buckley last Monday. From general manager Eric Fahnoe (a Buckley son-in-law) down through nearly the entire airstaff and a big chunk of the support staff, Connoisseur kept little of the old WDRC-FM in place once its managers were done with the Monday morning meeting.

Among the casualties were PD/midday jock Grahame Winters, morning co-host Mike Stevens, afternoon jock Floyd Wright and night guy "Rockin' Ron" Sedaille, leaving only Stevens' former co-host Kim Zachary alone in mornings. Behind the scenes, sales manager Stu Gorlick remains with Connoisseur, now overseeing sales for New Haven sister stations WPLR (99.1) and WYBC-FM (94.3) as well as WDRC-FM. Moving in the other direction, WPLR/WEZN GM Kristin Okesson is now managing WDRC as well, and WPLR jocks Mike Lapitino and Allen Lamberti are now the midday and afternoon guys, respectively, on the new "102.9DRC, Classic Hits of the 80s, 90s and More."

Even the WDRC signal won't stay the same: Connoisseur already has a pending application to directionalize the 102.9 signal from West Peak, allowing it to take sister station WBZO (103.1 Bay Shore) on Long Island nondirectional. The new WDRC-FM is running a similar music format to WBZO, and that's a big change from what WDRC-FM listeners had become accustomed to. Unlike most heritage oldies stations, WDRC didn't shy away from "oldies," continuing to play tunes from the 1950s and early 1960s in a jingle-heavy format that looked backward to the heyday of "The Big D" on WDRC (1360), the big top-40 voice of Hartford back when that music was new. (For now, incidentally, Connoisseur isn't making any changes to the AM side of WDRC, which now runs talk alongside its three AM sister stations.)

It's hard not to feel as though Connoisseur is trying to have things both ways for now - on the one hand, it's leaving the "DRC-FM" identity in place, but on the other hand it's eliminated pretty much everything listeners associated with that identity, which has led to a fierce backlash on social media. Can a station keep a heritage brand without retaining any of the programming that went with the brand? It's a tough task, as CBS found, for instance, when it transitioned "WBCN" from classic to modern rock and then to a talk-heavy approach. That didn't work in the end, and neither did a similar move in New York City with "WNEW-FM." Will Connoisseur do any better in Hartford?

*There's been no official announcement yet, but plenty of social media reports of the death late Sunday of Bob Ausfeld, the veteran radio manager who built what became the Regent/Townsquare cluster, then retired for a few months in 2012 only to resurface across town at the helm of the Albany Broadcasting (Pamal) cluster he'd long battled.

Ausfeld had been on the waiting list for a heart transplant, and last weekend a heart became available. The surgery took place early Sunday morning, and while it was initially reported to have gone well, news began spreading Sunday night that Ausfeld had died. We'll have more on his life and legacy as one of the region's most important radio managers in next week's NERW.

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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: July 15, 2013

*There was a time when AM 1360 in western PENNSYLVANIA was one of the hottest spots on the dial. As WIXZ, the McKeesport-licensed signal provided Pittsburgh-area listeners with some of the hottest top-40 music on the dial between 1969 and 1974 and a jock lineup that included Terry Lee and a young morning guy who went by “Jeff Christie” on the air but answered to “Rusty Limbaugh” when the mic was off.

wmny-newstalkIn the years after WIXZ was edged out of the top-40 landscape by bigger Pittsburgh-based competitors, the station ended up as the first radio holding of a former TV ad salesman named Tony Renda. As country WIXZ and later as talker WPTT and business-talk WMNY, 1360 became the building block on which Renda constructed a radio empire that eventually stretched as far afield as Oklahoma and Florida.

Within that empire, little AM 1360 eventually became a money-losing afterthought, recently switching back to talk from business news to no particular ratings effect. As WPTT in 2005, Renda almost had a deal in place to make the station more of a player in Pittsburgh by completely abandoning McKeesport: the 1360 frequency would have moved northeast of Pittsburgh to Apollo as the new home of religious WAVL, while WPTT would get WAVL”s 910 frequency and use it to build a new high-powered signal licensed to Mount Lebanon. But that plan proved not to be cost-effective and was eventually dropped, and in the meantime Renda had to spend money to fix 1360″s decaying four-tower nighttime array near McKeesport. (In its waning years as WIXZ, 1360 had moved its 5,000-watt non-directional daytime facility to Pittsburgh, giving it a respectable daytime reach but still fading away for most Allegheny County listeners at sunset.)

After nearly four decades in the Renda Broadcasting family (give or take a few years when WIXZ was sold to a Renda business associate to stay under the ownership cap after Renda”s acquisition of WJAS 1320 and WSHH 99.7), AM 1360 is about to change hands again. Last week, Renda announced it would donate the AM 1360 facility to Rev. Loran Mann”s Pentecostal Temple Development Corp.

*At the other end of the state, Merlin Media quietly pulled the plug Friday on its last remaining local show at its lone Philadelphia-market station, WWIQ (106.9 Camden). The morning shift had been the only local shift on the permanent schedule for “IQ 106.9″ when it completed its launch a little more than a year ago, but both of WWIQ”s original morning men survived less than a year on the job, with Larry Mendte departing in January and founding PD Al Gardner making his exit in March. Since then, it”s been talk veteran Lionel holding down the morning shift (often from his home base in New York City) leading into IQ”s core daytime Beck/Limbaugh/Hannity syndicated lineup, but that ended after Lionel”s show Friday when IQ announced that it”s adding a syndicated morning show as well.

Among the formats Merlin launched to big publicity back in 2011-2012, WWIQ”s syndicated talk has been arguably the most successful, outlasting the high-cost, high-risk news formats on WEMP in New York and WIQI in Chicago, and its new morning lineup continues the existing low-risk, low-reward model by installing Cumulus” Don Imus from 6-9 AM. Imus is already available to Philadelphia listeners via his New York flagship, WABC (which also duplicates much of the rest of WWIQ”s daytime lineup), and he”s been heard locally in Philadelphia in the past on WWDB (860) and briefly on WPHT (1210).

Is this a long-term plan for success or a short-term move while Merlin seeks a buyer for its remaining properties in Philadelphia and Chicago? Instinct suggests the latter…but we”ll be following this story closely either way.

*Across the river in NEW JERSEY, the debut of the new “Chasing New Jersey” in place of local news on WWOR (Channel 9) in Secaucus drew the expected protests from Garden State lawmakers hoping to hold Fox Television Stations accountable for the three-decade-old commitment that channel 9 made to New Jersey news.

It was Senator Frank Lautenberg who fought hard for decades to keep channel 9″s various owners focused on continuing to do a newscast aimed at the state in which it”s licensed, but with Lautenberg”s death earlier this year, the mantle passed to the state”s new senior senator, Robert Menendez, and his Democratic colleague in the House, Frank Pallone, who both weighed in last week with strongly-worded statements of concern about Fox”s shift to an outsourced show that”s more “TMZ” than Murrow.

For what it”s worth, “Chasing” has its defenders, too: veteran trade journalist Harry Jessell writes in TV NewsCheck that the new show is “the freshest, most provocative approach to local TV news I have seen since I started watching TV news with a critical eye in the 1990s,” though he also finds much to criticize in the flash and glitz of its presentation.

Five Years Ago: July 13, 2009

So long, WBCN! After more than 40 years as a rock station of one flavor or another, "The Rock of Boston" will cease to exist August 13, when CBS Radio will move hot AC "Mix" WBMX from 98.5 to 104.1, relaunching 98.5 as "The Sports Hub" with new calls WBZ-FM. The new sports station will bring some big guns to the fight with Entercom's established sports behemoth, WEEI (850) - it will have the Patriots play-by-play that's been the most successful part of WBCN's current programming, as well as the Toucher and Rich morning show that's now heard on WBCN. The new station will also be the new home of Bruins hockey, replacing longtime flagship WBZ (1030), whose contract ended this spring.

The New York Times Company is exiting the radio business after 65 years with the sale of WQXR (96.3 New York). There are two buyers and a signal shuffle involved: Univision Radio is paying the Times $33.5 million for the 96.3 signal, and that's where it will move WCAA (105.9 Newark NJ). The 105.9 signal goes to the Times, which will then sell that license and the WQXR intellectual property to public broadcaster WNYC for $11.5 million, making the total sale price $45 million. WNYC will operate the new WQXR 105.9 as a noncommercial fulltime classical station, which will allow WNYC-FM (93.9 New York) to drop its remaining music programming and run news and information 24/7.

The good news, of course, is that classical WQXR will survive under committed ownership; the bad news is that listeners in outlying areas, particularly on Long Island, will have a much harder time hearing 105.9 (a 600-watt class B1 signal from the Empire State Building, versus 6000 watts for the full class B signals on the same master antenna) than they now have with 96.3.
Just as it was before the holidays, the spotlight for the last few weeks has continued to be on the relatively small number of DTV stations operating on the VHF spectrum - and especially the handful of big-market stations that made the controversial choice of a slot on one of the low-band channels, 2 through 6.

In the northeast, that's just two full-power channel 6 signals: ABC's WPVI in Philadelphia and Freedom's WRGB in Schenectady. Both stations have already increased power in an attempt to make up for reception woes they've been experiencing, especially among viewers using indoor antennas that are generally poorly designed for low-band VHF signals. But those power increases - to as much as 30 kW average power, compared with the 10 kW maximum the FCC had initially imposed for low-band VHF digital in the crowded northeast - may come at a price for the noncommercial FM stations whose homes in the 88.1-91.9 MHz band have long been uncomfortable next-door neighbors to the channel 6 signals occupying 82-88 MHz.

That discomfort grew stronger late last week when WRGB made good on its promises to return an analog audio signal to the air. Like all analog channel 6 stations, WRGB had an audience around the region for its audio signal, which was transmitted at 87.75 MHz. The CBS affiliate already raised some eyebrows prior to the June 12 digital cutover when it revealed that it was seeking experimental authorization to keep running the audio signal, with vertical polarization, alongside its horizontally-polarized digital signal. But when the analog audio returned, it had edged up the dial a bit: it's now at 87.9 MHz, and there are reports that WRGB has pared back the bandwidth occupied by its digital signal a bit - possibly as far down as the 5.5 MHz used by several digital LPTVs on channel 6, such as WNYZ-LP in New York - in order to alleviate co-channel interference between the digital datastream and the analog audio.

We've yet to locate WRGB's experimental authorization in the FCC database, but we'll be watching this story closely to see what sort of precedent it sets. Will the FCC's rush to pacify agitated TV broadcasters (and the lawmakers who mandated the DTV conversion) create new interference to the already densely-packed noncommercial FM band? For that matter, is the continued provision of analog audio on channel 6 even legal under the terms of the law that mandated the digital transition? And in the end, will the bet made by stations such as WPVI and WRGB - that the lower power bills on channel 6 would outweigh potential reception issues - pay off, especially in a DTV world that seems to be moving toward the mobile services that are only practical on UHF channels?

At least one VHF DTV operator is tacitly acknowledging that it placed its bets on the wrong band. In Boston, Sunbeam's WHDH-TV (Channel 7) is asking the FCC to modify the DTV table of allocations so that it can dump its VHF channel in favor of a permanent return to the transitional UHF channel, 42, that WHDH used for a decade before moving its digital signal to VHF in June. Even after being granted a power increase on channel 7, WHDH found the challenges of indoor reception - especially in areas relatively close to its tower site in Newton - to be insurmountable. Just days after the June 12 cutover, WHDH had asked the FCC for temporary permission to reactivate the channel 42 facility, and it's been running both 7 and 42 ever since.

WHDH's situation is an unusually fortunate one: its transitional digital channel was within the new core (channels 2-51), and it remained both available and fully spaced after the transition, providing an easy solution to its VHF troubles, albeit a somewhat costly one - its channel 42 transmitter is relatively old, as DTV transmitters go, while its brand-new digital 7 transmitter will have to be removed and the antenna system atop its tower reconfigured, assuming the move back to 42 is granted.

Ten Years Ago: July 12, 2004

When we headed out on the road two weeks ago for the first of several bits of summer travel, we were already hearing rumblings about a big announcement from the Howard Stern camp - and sure enough, a few days after we departed for Colorado, Howard announced nine new affiliates, including replacements in Pittsburgh and Rochester where his former Clear Channel affiliates dropped his show back in February.

And in western PENNSYLVANIA, Stern's arrival on an Infinity-owned FM meant the demise of one of Pittsburgh's longest-running formats. Admittedly, the top 40 at WBZZ (93.7 Pittsburgh) had taken a beating in recent years as the station reinvented itself, first replacing "B94" with "93-7BZZ" and then with "B93-7." The 23 years of heritage CHR came to an end June 30, when B gave way to "K-Rock," with new calls of WRKZ following a few days later and Stern's arrival scheduled for July 19. (And yes, WRKZ is itself something of a heritage Keystone State callsign, but not to Pittsburgh ears - it was over in the Harrisburg market for most of the last two decades.)

The "Dave, Bubba and Shelly" morning show that was a 93.7 staple is gone, as are several other jocks at the former WBZZ calls - and the calls themselves were quickly packed in dry ice and driven out the Parkway West to be flown down to Tampa for another new Stern affiliate, "1010 the Buzz," the former WQYK (1010 Seffner FL).

And at the other end of the Keystone State, Radio One modified its application to move WSNJ-FM (107.7 Bridgeton) to 107.9 in Pennsauken, NEW JERSEY. Instead of the current CP, which calls for 1900 watts at 156 meters above average terrain on the WKDN (106.9 Camden NJ) tower in Camden, Radio One now wants to put WSNJ-FM right in the heart of Philadelphia - as in, two blocks from William Penn's statue atop City Hall. The new application for WSNJ-FM's 107.9 facility calls for 550 watts at 252 meters from the very same One Liberty Plaza skyscraper that's already home to WMMR (93.3 Philadelphia). Radio One has also applied for Special Temporary Authority for WSNJ-FM, presumably to allow the station to remain silent while it pursues this modified move in to Philadelphia.

Oldies have returned to the Ogdensburg area with the flip of AC "Yes FM" WYSX (98.7 Ogdensburg) to "PAC 98-7" WPAC. "Yes FM" sticks around on the simulcast frequency of 96.7, by way of a strange little swap of facilities. Grab a pencil, a piece of paper and a couple of Advils and try to follow along: The class A facility that was WNCQ (102.9 Morristown) upgrades to class C3, changes frequency to 96.7 and takes on the calls WYSX and the "Yes FM" AC format. The class A facility that was WPAC (96.7 Canton) moves to 102.9, changes calls to WNCQ and picks up the "Q Country" that's been on WNCQ 102.9 all along anyway. If this makes sense to you, you're probably an FCC lawyer; for the average listener in the North Country, the practical result is that "Q Country" more or less stays put on 102.9 (just changing its ID from Morristown to Canton) and "Yes" more or less stays put on 96.7, albeit with a power increase and a new Morristown city of license.

All of which brings us to a series of swaps that should be a little bit easier to understand: right on schedule at midnight July 4, Clear Channel flipped active rocker WNVE (95.1 Honeoye Falls) to classic hits as WFXF, "the Fox," moving WNVE's "Nerve" format up the dial - and down in power - to the former WFXF (107.3 South Bristol) facility. The Nerve led into the change with repeated spins of Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit," while the Fox showed a bit more creativity, leaving 107.3 behind with a playlist that included Bowie's "Changes," the Who's "Song is Over," the Eagles' "Already Gone," Bob Seger's "Night Moves" (it was a midnight swap, after all), Billy Joel's "Movin; Out," the Beatles' "Hello, Goodbye" and finally Genesis' "Follow You, Follow Me" (which cut off partway through, but now we're just being picky.)

So far, so good, right? Leave it to the local paper (the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, which has now officially replaced the Boston Globe as this column's favorite example of one-stop-beyond-clueless radio reporting) to confuse matters. First came the "news" article, more than a week after even the slowest of the radio trades had reported the switch, almost two weeks after WFXF began promoting it on air and - yup - even a day after WFXF finally gave up waiting for a news article and took out an ad announcing the move, that somehow wound up with the claim that neither station would be using any live jocks - which had to have been a shocker for the live jocks who were (and still are) on the Nerve.

Fifteen Years Ago: July 9, 1999

The student voice of Colby College is silent for the moment, as staffers of WMHB (90.5 Waterville) try to find out why their station has no current license in FCC records. The FCC still lists WMHB at its old 91.5 frequency, which the station vacated in the mid-80s to allow Maine Public Broadcasting to put WMEW on the air at 91.3 in Waterville. So how does MPBC repay the favor a decade later? The statewide public broadcaster applied back in January for a 90.5 transmitter in Camden, on the coast southeast of Waterville and mutually exclusive with the 90.5 facilities WMHB has been using for years. The FCC deadline for competing applications for 90.5 is Monday night, July 19, and thus far, MPBC's application is the only one.

The students who run WMHB tell the Central Maine Morning Sentinel that they never received the warning MPBC claims it gave Colby about the problem. In the meantime, they took WMHB off the air last Saturday (July 10) while they try to resolve the problem. Ironically, MPBC is funded in part by Colby College, thanks to the merger of the former MPBN network and WCBB-TV Lewiston, which was owned by Colby, Bates, and Bowdoin Colleges. (2009 update: This one had a happy ending, as MPBC helped WMHB find a new home down the dial at 89.7.)

Moving west to NEW HAMPSHIRE, Dennis Jackson checked in to report his WZEN (106.5 Farmington) is now operating 24 hours a day with its "real" format as "Oldies 106.5." The station is running in mono for better coverage, and using Portsmouth and Winnipesaukee in its IDs. Sign-on was last Friday (July 9) at 10 PM.

From RHODE ISLAND this week, we have two station sales that really are, and one that's not. The real ones are the Urso family's last Bear Broadcasting properties, WADK (1540) Newport and WERI-FM (99.3) Block Island. They're being sold, for a reported $1.8 million, to Maurice Polayes' Astro Tele-Communications of Needham, MA. Polayes is promising no changes to WADK's talk-and-jazz format and WERI-FM's AAA format, but we'll wait and see, thanks.

Now for the one that wasn't quite so: NERW was startled to find a notice in last week's issue of Broadcasting & Cable that Brown Broadcasting's WBRU (95.5 Providence) was being sold to Chancellor for all of $2 million. Not only did the price seem absurdly low for a class B signal in the Providence market, but we found it hard to believe Brown would have any reason to sell a station it's owned for half a century, or that B&C would list a sale long before it appeared in the FCC database or any of the on-line trade publications (which usually scoop B&C by a week or two).
Sure enough, we find next Monday's B&C will carry a correction indicating that such a sale is not, in fact, taking place. Could a company like Chancellor (now AMFM, Inc.) get a station like WBRU? Maybe, but we suspect the price would be more like $20 million than $2 million. Providence listeners will have to wait a while longer for "Jammin' Oldies," we guess... (2014 update: Brown Broadcasting still runs WBRU as a proudly independent radio station.)