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In this week's issue... Boston's talk scene shuffles again - RI manager ousted - WLNG's Potz to retire - TV affiliation change in Canada

By SCOTT FYBUSH

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*Heading into the Memorial Day weekend, the region’s biggest radio news came, once again, from WRKO (680 Boston), which is about to lose the Rush Limbaugh Show for the second time in six years. When the Entercom talker last parted ways with Limbaugh in 2010, it was at the hands of Limbaugh’s syndicator, Premiere Networks, which shifted the show to WXKS (1200), the new talk station being launched by its corporate sister, Clear Channel Radio.

“Rush Radio” became “Talk 1200” but never made much of a dent in the ratings, closing up shop in 2012 and sending Limbaugh back to WRKO, which itself hadn’t made much of a dent with its own attempts to fill the noon-3 timeslot. But Limbaugh’s return to WRKO hasn’t moved the ratings needle much either, and with the three-year deal between Premiere and WRKO running out next month, Entercom saw no compelling reason to pay for another Limbaugh contract.

Instead, WRKO is getting ready for another overhaul of its increasingly unstable schedule. The new lineup will shift current morning host Todd Kuhner to Limbaugh’s noon-3 slot, where he’ll lead in to the Howie Carr show that has itself departed WRKO only to return again for lack of a better Boston option. Barry Armstrong’s Money Matters programming will continue to lease the mid-morning hours before Limbaugh, and mornings on WRKO appear likely to become a co-production with the Boston Globe.

wrkologoBut let’s be clear here: for all the virtual ink being spilled over who’s going to go where on the WRKO schedule, the real story isn’t at Entercom, where there appears to be at least a tacit understanding that 680’s glory days as a major force in Boston radio are behind it. The demographics that WRKO brings in are increasingly unsellable, but at the same time there’s nothing else Entercom can do with WRKO that would be any more lucrative. By walking away from the show that once defined the talk medium, Entercom is showing what’s left of WRKO’s future: for however much longer AM talk still has any viability, WRKO will chug along with inexpensive talent like Kuhner or shows like Armstrong’s or Carr’s that appear to be willing to pay for a Boston clearance.

And right there is the bigger story that few in the industry want to discuss: at least for now, Premiere and its parent iHeart are locked into a deal with Limbaugh that makes it impossible to do what Carr or Armstrong are doing. Seven years ago, Premiere signed Limbaugh to a contract that reportedly pays out $400 million over eight years – and while that might have made sense in 2008, it’s looking like a pretty lopsided deal in 2015. If nothing else, it’s severely limiting Premiere’s ability to negotiate to keep much-needed clearances – if word gets out that WRKO, for instance, is getting Limbaugh at a discount to keep him on the air, how long can Premiere keep the rest of the affiliate base paying significant cash for the show?

It’s not just Boston and WRKO: while his partisans still make the case that Limbaugh is the top-rated talker nationwide with nearly 400 affiliates in almost every market, the value of that reach is fading fast, even in the many big markets where iHeart keeps carriage of Limbaugh in house. Moving Rush to iHeart’s WOR (710) hasn’t pulled the station up to even a 2 share, and the numbers are even more dismal in places like Los Angeles, where Limbaugh’s move from KFI to KEIB (1150) finds that iHeart station down in fractional-share territory. While they can’t say it out loud, of course, we’ve heard from more than one iHeart local talk programmer that if corporate would only allow it, they’d gladly replace Limbaugh in the midday slot.

The big story, then, isn’t one big-market affiliate in 2015 – it’s going to be Limbaugh’s overall contract when it comes up for renewal next year. Assuming Premiere offers a renewal at all, it’s likely to be for considerably less money and likely for less time as well. Will a 65-year-old Limbaugh be willing to settle for a pay cut to keep his current deal in place? And if his not-inconsiderable ego keeps him from settling for less, what then? It’s unlikely any other major syndicator, especially Cumulus-owned Westwood One, would pay Limbaugh what he makes now, either. Even if Limbaugh were to sign on with a new distributor, he’d be starting with a massive disadvantage: in NERW-land alone, he’d be looking for replacements for iHeart-owned affiliates in Worcester, Springfield, Manchester, New Haven, Albany, the Hudson Valley, Syracuse, Rochester, Williamsport, Harrisburg, Allentown and New York City. There’s ample evidence, including WRKO’s own experience during the WXKS interregnum, to show that as loyal as Limbaugh’s listeners are said to be, they don’t automatically follow him to a new home. (Indeed, what talk station that’s launched in the last decade or so has found any lasting success at all?)

Could Rush go to satellite radio? Perhaps – but given his demographics, he’d be unlikely to bring enough new business to SiriusXM to make him worth the kind of salary he pulls down now from Premiere.

It’s just not a pretty picture for Limbaugh, nor for talk radio overall, where no star has emerged in the last couple of decades with anywhere near the dominance that Rush exerted at his prime.

wmex1510*So having said all that, what is left for Limbaugh and Premiere? The consensus seems to be that he'll end up over at WMEX (1510), where there's a little more clarity about that talk station's future. Owner Blackstrap Broadcasting is now leasing the signal to Daly XXL Communications, a North Carolina-based group that includes station manager Bryan Berner and Henry and Mary Remmer of Wilmington, N.C. (Remmer is a retired Chemex executive with, it appears, no radio background.)

While Daly XXL says it's planning to purchase the WMEX license from Blackstrap, nothing has yet been filed with the FCC. In the meantime, WMEX announced a new morning show last week: former WTKK (96.9) weekend host Joe Ligotti will take over that slot June 2, displacing Boston Herald Radio to 10 AM-noon. Now can Daly XXL come up with the cash Premiere will want for Limbaugh – and will it be worth it? We’ll be watching.

Mid-week update: We're hearing that WMEX has told Premiere it's not interested in paying for Limbaugh. What will be Premiere's next move? More in next Monday's column...

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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, fifteen and - where available - twenty 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: May 26, 2014

*The First Amendment to the United States Constitution is a remarkable thing. It protects my rights - and yours, on this Memorial Day - to stand on our front lawns, or in the town square, or here on the Internet, and proclaim our opinions as loudly as we'd like about just about anything. But what it doesn't do - and has never done - is to guarantee us the right to use a soapbox we don't own to express an opinion without backlash and consequences. Over the years, we've chronicled the misfortunes of plenty of broadcasters who've forgotten that distinction, and last week it hit home again right here in this column's hometown of Rochester, NEW YORK, where Kimberly Ray and Barry Beck are now the former morning hosts at Entercom's WBZA (98.9 the Buzz).

wbzaEntercom moved swiftly to dismiss them on Thursday after a social media firestorm kicked up around comments they'd made on Tuesday over the city's decision to provide medical coverage for transgendered employees and employees' partners. For a morning team that's made its mark in town by turning a jaundiced eye on many community developments, that particular segment of the "Kimberly & Beck Show" wasn't all that out of the ordinary, but it touched a particular nerve within the local GLBTQ community when Ray brought up a specific incident involving a transgender student at a local high school.

The backlash caught the pair at a bad time internally, too; they'd just returned to the air less than a week earlier after spending most of early May off the air in an unrelated suspension that reportedly had to do with on-air criticism of a station sponsor, and that no doubt made them more expendable to Entercom management.

*The big format change leading into the Memorial Day weekend was no surprise to readers of NERW or our sister site, RadioInsight, who've known for months now that "Now" wasn't going to be around much longer at CBS Radio's WNOW-FM (92.3 New York).

After bringing in a new PD - Rick Thomas, late of KRTH in Los Angeles - and then letting most of its airstaff go last Monday, CBS finally pulled the trigger at 2 PM on Thursday, flipping the top-40 station to a new brand, "AMP Radio," and reworking its playlist to emphasize "new music," with a particular lean toward electronic dance music and more of a Hispanic flavor than your typical mainstream top-40.

(You can hear the flip at another of our sister sites, FormatChange.com.)

Five Years Ago: May 24, 2010

Local noncommercial radio in NEW YORK's Hamptons region is about to take a big step forward. Hamptons Community Radio, which holds an as-yet-unbuilt construction permit for a new part-time signal in Montauk, WEER (90.7), isn't waiting to get that signal on the air - instead, it announced last week that it will begin leasing WPKM (88.7 Montauk) with plans to acquire that signal from its parent station, WPKN (89.5 Bridgeport).

At the other end of the state, Buffalo-market WNGS-TV is back on the air for the first time since the shutdown of its channel 67 analog signal last June. The station had all but defined "troubled" in its last few years on the air, passing from founders Bill Smith and Caroline Powley to Equity Media Holdings, which ran it as an affiliate of the Retro TV and ThisTV networks before succumbing to bankruptcy. After going dark, the license was sold to the Texas-based Daystar Television Network, and we'd thought that when WNGS finally activated its digital signal (the lone VHF digital in the market, on RF channel 7), it would be as the second religious TV station in Buffalo.

But while WNGS is currently on the air with Daystar's programming, that's only a very temporary measure: last week, Daystar announced that it's selling the station, for $2.75 million, to a new company headed by two Buffalo TV veterans. Philip Arno was part of the team that launched WUTV (Channel 29) in 1970 and also worked at WKBW radio/TV and WIVB (Channel 4); Don Angelo was part of the launch team at WNYB-TV (Channel 49, now WNYO-TV) in the late eighties and has most recently been working in sales at WGRZ-TV (Channel 2). If we're reading the FCC filings correctly, Arno and Angelo have formed two companies to run WNGS: ITV of Buffalo will hold the station license while Code 3 Broadcasting will hold the station's non-license assets. And in keeping with some of the deals Daystar has done in other markets, it will retain the rights (for 10 years after the sale closes) to broadcast its own religious programming over one of WNGS' digital subchannels.

Ten Years Ago: May 23, 2005

Just a few hours after NERW went to press last Monday, upstate NEW YORK got its first domestic taste of the real live licensed "Jack FM" that's been so much the rage around North America over the last couple of years, as Infinity dumped the talk format on WBUF (92.9 Buffalo) and flipped the station to "92.9 Jack FM." This is a slightly unusual Jack, since it keeps one element of the old talk format from WBUF, retaining Howard Stern in morning drive (at least until the end of the year, when Stern's show leaves terrestrial radio) before segueing into the "Playing What We Want" format that alert Buffalo listeners may already have sampled via nearby CJAQ (92.5 Toronto).

Out the door, however, are the late-morning Brother Wease show imported from Rochester's WCMF (96.5), as well as Don & Mike (who made a big deal about losing their Buffalo audience on Monday's show), Tom Leykis, Lovelines and all the other FM talk staples. In Wease's case, it was already a long shift (morning drive at WCMF, then the post-Stern hours on WBUF) even before the veteran Rochester talker began treatment for a rare form of nasal cancer, so losing the Buffalo shift might be a blessing in disguise; on the other hand, Wease was widely seen as the likely successor for Stern in the morning had WBUF not flipped. As with all new Jack startups, WBUF is running jockless for now.

Buffalo made radio headlines again on Friday, when former WKSE (98.5 Niagara Falls) PD Dave Universal, ousted earlier in the year amidst a payola investigation, was named U.S. programming and sales consultant for CKEY (Wild 101.1), the Fort Erie, Ontario station that's been in the CRTC's crosshairs for allegedly having too much of its programming and sales handled across the border. CKEY has unwound its joint sales agreement with Citadel, and now it appears that Universal will take a less formal role (Citadel treated the station as almost a full member of its Buffalo cluster) in tweaking Wild to appeal to a Buffalo audience while not running afoul of Canadian regulators. (And NERW notes that there's probably nobody alive who has better insight into how to compete with WKSE for listeners...)

That new sort-of-FM-signal on 87.76, otherwise known as LPTV station WNYZ-LP (Channel 6), came to life late last week, playing "Hurban" music on the audio channel and showing the videos on the video channel; we understand the bulk of the promotion will be as "WNYZ-FM 87.7," though.

On the TV dial, WCBS-TV (Channel 2) fired Arthur Chi'en after the much-publicized incident last week in which the reporter responded angrily to a couple of hecklers who disrupted an early-morning live shot he was doing. While we won't try to defend the use of the F-word in front of what Chi'en should have known was still a live mike, there's also no excuse for the way in which these and other hecklers attempt to sabotage broadcasters in order to draw publicity for a certain pair of satellite talk hosts (who will therefore go unnamed here.)

Down the shore in NEW JERSEY, Press Communications is asking the FCC to allow it to move WKOE (106.3 Ocean City) to Bass River Township, in Burlington County north of Atlantic City. If granted, the move would shift WKOE from 106.3 to 106.5, though it would remain a class A signal. The new WKOE signal at 106.5, which would really be more of an Ocean County signal, would overlap sister "Breeze" soft AC station WBHX (99.7 Tuckerton), which would then free up one or the other of those signals to take on a new format.

In PENNSYLVANIA, Greater Media's WPEN (950 Philadelphia) is one step closer to a better night signal. Last week, the FCC granted its application to move its night transmitter from the current 5000-watt, three-tower facility in southwest Philadelphia to the five towers of WWDB (860 Philadelphia) on Germantown Pike in Montgomery County. The new 21 kW night signal could be on the air within a few months; since WWDB is strictly a daytimer and WPEN will use the facility only after dark, there will be no need to build complicated diplexing filters at the site. WPEN is still pursuing plans to build a six-tower, 50,000-watt daytime facility at another Montgomery County location.

Fifteen Years Ago: May 26, 2000

Nobody said it was easy running a little thousand-watt AM station in the northern reaches of NEW HAMPSHIRE -- which may explain why WMOU (1230 Berlin) went silent this week. The Associated Press reports owners Gladys and Robert Powell were in negotiations to sell the station, but after the deal fell apart decided to shutter WMOU rather than try to keep it afloat.

The closing of WMOU leaves the region north of Mount Washington with no really local radio voice. Berlin's other AM, WBRL (1400), went dark almost a decade ago. On the FM side, the erstwhile WMOU-FM (103.7) is now WPKQ, running the country format from WOKQ down in Dover (and soon to be relicensed to North Conway, anyway), while the other commercial station in town, WXLQ (107.1 Gorham), was sold to New Hampshire Public Radio this year to become noncommercial WEVC.

The Powells say they'll still seek a buyer in the twelve months remaining before WMOU's license would be revoked. NERW's hoping for the best (and thinking we'd best get up to Berlin to see the tower, just in case).

It looks like there's a CHR war brewing in NEW YORK's Capital Region, as Albany Broadcasting's WFLY (92.3 Troy) gets its first real competition in a decade, since the old WGFM (99.5 Schenectady) packed it in and went oldies. This time the challenger is Clear Channel, which turned off the classic rock at WXCR (102.3 Ballston Spa) Thursday night and began stunting with a loop that included the sounds of a "FLY"-swatter (cute!) and a voice crying "Help me!" At 9 this morning (5/26), Albany bureau chief Gavin Burt reports the debut of "102.3 Kiss-FM," making Albany the latest market to get Clear Channel's prefab CHR format.

Twenty Years Ago: May 25, 1995

(no issue)

1 COMMENT

  1. Concerning the WHRL call letters, they stood for the station’s original founders, Robert Hill, Tom Ryan, and Robert Levy. WHRL was Albany New York’s first (Full-time FM. stereo Station, when it went on the air in 1966.

    I new Bob Hill’s health was declining for a while. I’m sorry to hear of his passing.

    Mike O’Brien

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