In this week’s issue: WFNX deal nets Clear Channel third Boston FM – Blount buys WFEX – WXBR moves back in – WRKS calls go to Mississippi, its studio to WBLS – Baseball on the Radio: The Independent Minors
by SCOTT FYBUSH
*In the earliest years of this column, back in 1994 and 1995, one story dominated our headlines: the consolidation of Boston broadcast ownership under a handful of large cluster operators. Our first issues (then known as “New England Radio Watch”) chronicled the disappearance of independent owners and the rise of the earliest duopolies and triopolies and, eventually, even bigger clusters.
But as the early Granums and Infinitys and Chancellors gave way to today’s CBS Radio and Greater Media and Entercom, two things remained true in Boston: Clear Channel was trying to compete with a much smaller cluster than its rivals, and one old-line operator, Steve Mindich’s WFNX (101.7 Lynn), remained staunchly independent, immune to the run-up in prices that led many other independents to sell out.
On Wednesday, that all changed with the surprise announcement that Mindich had struck a deal to sell WFNX’s license – but not its call letters or modern rock format – to Clear Channel Media + Entertainment for a price widely rumored (but not yet confirmed) to be $11 million.
For Mindich, it means the end of a broadcast legacy that began in 1983, when the Boston Phoenix publisher paid $1.1 million for what was then WLYN-FM, a suburban signal that had recently segued from leased-time ethnic programming to “new wave” music as “Y-102.”
Over the next 29 years, 101.7 established a niche for itself as the radio voice of Boston’s alternative music scene, breaking bands, sponsoring contests and launching the careers of dozens of talented radio people who made their way through the studios that never moved from the old WLYN-FM digs, in a run-down building way off the beaten path in downtown Lynn.
(Just a sampling of the names with WFNX on their resumes includes Bill Abbate, later with WBCN and WZLX; Sharon Brody, now of WFNX; Nik Carter, later at New York’s WXRK; Joanne Doody, later at WXRV; Tom Irwin, aka “Tai the Morning Guy” and later at WRKO and WROR; Juanita “the Scene Queen”; and Neal Robert.)
In an interview with WBUR after the sale was announced, Mindich said he’d received plenty of unsolicited offers for the station over the years, including some at the height of the market that would have paid him much better than the Clear Channel offer.
“I realized given that sustaining the station over the last four years in particular has been extremely difficult, and the recession has just really killed us, I made the decision. It had to be done,” said Mindich, who was reportedly in tears when he made the announcement to the WFNX staff on Wednesday morning.
The station had approximately a dozen full-time staffers and several part-timers, and Mindich says “eight or nine of them” were let go immediately upon the announcement.
WFNX’s airstaff (D-Tension and Henry Santoro in morning drive, station veteran Julie Kramer in middays, Adam 12 in afternoons and Jim Ryan at night) were promptly replaced by automation, though Kramer and Adam 12 were back on the air for farewell shows Thursday and Friday.
The sale to Clear Channel doesn’t include an LMA, so the automated WFNX programming (and, Mindich promises, more farewell shows) will continue for the next several months until the signal is handed over to its new owner.
*So what does Clear Channel plan to do with its new property? That was the, er, $11 million question on the minds of everyone in Boston radio as soon as the news began to spread.
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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: May 23, 2011 -
*Even if you weren’t accosted by someone on a city streetcorner holding a sign and thrusting a tract at you, it was hard to escape the headlines these last few days: “End of the World?”
And as you know – since you’re still here reading the column, and we’re still here writing it – Family Radio’s predictions of global earthquakes and rapture failed to materialize on schedule Saturday evening at 6. (The closest we could come to any evidence of the predicted devastation was the utter meltdown of the Red Sox bullpen later that evening, but that’s another story…)
It didn’t take long at all for the conversations to get going all over the radio landscape: after staking so much, including millions of dollars in billboards and other publicity, on the “guaranteed” end of the world, what happens now to Family Radio and its extensive network of stations, including its most valuable property, NEW YORK-market WFME (94.7 Newark)?
Here’s what we know so far: for all of the apocalyptic claims being made by Family Radio founder and leader Harold Camping on his nightly “Open Forum” show and on the Family Radio website (above right), the rest of the network’s programming carried on Saturday over WFME and Family Radio’s other stations in its usual phlegmatic fashion, with nary a mention of the 6 PM deadline as it drew near. And whatever Camping may have said about having no “plan B” (as he left his Oakland, California studio after his “farewell” show Thursday evening, he reportedly told colleagues he didn’t expect to ever be back there again), someone kept the network’s automation running, not only into Saturday evening but into Sunday as well.
It’s the long term that may prove more interesting. Camping gave an interview to the San Francisco Chronicle on Sunday in which he pronounced himself “flabbergasted” that his prediction didn’t come true – but he says he’ll be back at work today to figure out what to do next.
Camping is one of four voting members on Family Radio’s board, and while the network appears to run largely debt-free, it’s been very much the product of Camping’s vision over the last half-century, and little is known about how it might function if he doesn’t remain at the organization’s helm. Then there’s the question of license renewal: the eight-year radio renewal cycle begins next month for stations in the mid-Atlantic region, and it’s likely that all the publicity over Camping’s blown prediction will lead to some sort of challenge against the renewal of Family Radio’s licenses there (including a high-power commercial FM license in Annapolis/Baltimore) and perhaps to others down the road.
A challenge to Family’s license renewals would likely be a long shot, given the specificity of the FCC’s anti-hoax rule, which asks whether a “hoax” broadcast caused public panic, which Camping’s broadcasts mostly did not. But whatever happens in the short term, it’s certain that there will now be more scrutiny of Family’s operations and more broadcasters eyeing the possibility of acquiring some of the network’s big signals.
In addition to WFME, which has been in Family’s hands since 1965, broadcasting a big class B signal that blankets most of the New York market, Family also owns a Philadelphia-market class B commercial signal, WKDN (106.9 Camden), as well as full-power noncommercial FMs in the Johnstown, Erie, Bedford, State College, Buffalo, Rochester, Kingston and Long Island markets, an AM daytimer in Connecticut (WCTF 1170 Vernon) and a slew of translators. Family also owns WFME-DT, a noncommercial religious TV station licensed to West Milford, N.J. and serving the New York market (and Philadelphia, too, via a subchannel of WYBE-TV.)
A sale of WFME or WKDN would be a big deal indeed: in the boom years of the mid-1990s, WFME’s license could probably have fetched several hundred million dollars, and even today, it’s likely that the signal could be worth close to nine figures to any of several potential buyers. We’ll be watching closely to see what happens as Family Radio deals with the fallout from the world’s failure to end…
(One more quick note here: there’s no connection at all between the Oakland-based Family Radio, legally Family Stations Inc., and the “Family Life Radio” network that extends across upstate New York and Pennsylvania.)
2012 update: WKDN was indeed sold; WFME remains in Family’s hands for now.
*Elsewhere in the region, it was indeed “the end of the world” for CONNECTICUT‘s “Coast 96.7″ just after midnight on Thursday (May 19), as Cox shut down the Stamford transmitter site of WCTZ (96.7 Port Chester NY) in preparation for the sale of the license to EMF Broadcasting.
Typical of Cox Radio, in six years on the air, the AC station never stopped being “The New Coast,” but in its last few months it had been running entirely on automation, serving little purpose other than to keep the license alive and some ad contracts fulfilled until the station can be transferred to EMF to become its new “K-Love” outlet for the New York market under the new calls WKLV-FM.
That could happen any day now, since the FCC has granted a license to cover for 96.7′s new signal from the top of Trump Plaza in New Rochelle.
*There’s once again an urban radio station in western PENNSYLVANIA. We’ve been telling you about Tim Martz’s acquisition of WPYT (660 Wilkinsburg) and his plans to use translator W261AX (100.1 Pittsburgh) to augment the AM daytimer’s signal, and it all came together over the weekend.
WPYT went silent late last week, but it returned to the air on Friday playing hip-hop and rhythmic top-40 as “The New WAMO 100, Pittsburgh’s Home for Hip-Hop and R&B” – and on Saturday, the translator (which had been testing from KDKA-TV’s North Hills tower with a relay of public radio WDUQ) lit up with the urban programming as well.
The “WAMO” identity (which doesn’t yet extend to the actual call letters) comes, of course, from Pittsburgh’s longtime urban outlet, which was sold off a couple of years ago to become Catholic WAOB AM/FM. The WAMO calls are parked, for now, on a noncommercial CP in northeastern Pennsylvania, but it seems likely that they’ll migrate back to the ‘Burgh to appear on 660 at some point.
And in good Martz fashion, the new “WAMO” launches with a full-frontal attack on Clear Channel’s top-40 WKST-FM (96.1), which is clearly in Martz’s sights as he seeks a segment of the Pittsburgh audience that’s been unserved for a few years now.
*There’s some sad news from Pittsburgh as well: John Cigna, veteran morning man on KDKA (1020) through the eighties and nineties, died Friday (May 20) after a battle with emphysema and a stroke.
Cigna came from Fort Wayne’s WOWO (1190) to Pittsburgh in 1969 to work at WJAS (1320), but four years later he was back with Westinghouse as the evening talk host on KDKA – and in 1983, he succeeded Jack Bogut in KDKA’s morning slot, a position he held until his retirement in 2001.
“John Cigna and the K-Team” became a Steel City morning staple, complete with Cigna’s trademark spaghetti breakfasts for listeners and a series of comedic TV commercials for the show.
Cigna had been in declining health in recent months, especially since the death of his wife in January. He was 75.
Five Years Ago: May 20, 2007 -
*It seemed like a sure thing – put a Spanish-language format on an FM signal in PENNSYLVANIA‘s biggest market and watch the ratings soar.
But Clear Channel’s experiment with Spanish tropical “Rumba” on WUBA (104.5 Philadelphia) never quite caught fire after the station signed on last fall, replacing the soft AC of “Sunny” WSNI. WUBA languished at the bottom of the ratings, with revenue to match, and the advent of the Portable People Meter in Philadelphia this year confirmed that it wasn’t just an issue with under-representation of the Hispanic audience.
So on Thursday, “Rumba” disappeared from the big full-market 104.5 signal, moving down to WDAS (1480 Philadelphia), displacing black gospel from that frequency and its decidedly less-than-full-market coverage. (WDAS had picked up Spanish-language Phillies broadcasts at the start of the season, which should have tipped us off that something was up.)
Replacing “Rumba” on 104.5 is Philadelphia’s first commercial modern rocker since the 2005 demise of the old “Y100″ (WPLY 100.3 Media) more than two years ago. “Radio 104.5″ is running jockless for now, with a logo (and programming) reminiscent of the old WMRQ (104.1) in Hartford prior to its switch to urban in 2003.
*Gus Saunders, veteran Boston Herald restaurant critic and longtime host of “Yankee Kitchen” on the old Yankee Network and later on WROL (950), died last Monday (May 14) at his home in Newton. Saunders was on the air with his food show for a remarkable 56 years, signing off for the last time in October 1999.
It’s become almost a tradition by now that nearly every time Clear Channel changes format on its Rochester rimshot at 107.3 (currently WSNP South Bristol), it stunts with country for a few minutes before adopting whatever format it’s really moving to.
The latest 107.3 flip, which took place Friday afternoon, didn’t include that stunt – because this time around, the format du jour is, in fact, country. “Country 107.3″ is the new moniker, and we’d note that the previous occupant, rhythmic AC “Snap 107.3,” lasted all of eight months and change, which means that maybe we weren’t all that far off the mark, after all, when we called it a stunt format last September. (Conventional wisdom says putting country on 107.3 will serve as a flanker to shave just enough ratings points off Entercom’s market-leading WBEE 92.5 to put Clear Channel’s WHAM at the top of the ratings; we’ll see how well that turns out.)
2012 update: Two formats and three callsigns later on 107.3…it’s just flipped to oldies WODX.
Ten Years Ago: May 20, 2002 -
MAINE gets digital public TV across most of the state tomorrow (Tuesday), with the official launch of three of the planned five DTV outlets for Maine PBS. WCBB-DT (Channel 17) in Augusta, WMEB-DT (Channel 9) in Orono and WMEM-DT (Channel 20) in Presque Isle will all transmit a four-channel digital multiplex that includes the main Maine PBS service, PBS Kids, PBS YOU (the national network’s “how-to” channel) and PBS Plus. (It appears Maine PBS plans to use the actual DTV channel numbers, instead of programming the PSIP capability to mimic the old analog channel numbers, which seems like an odd choice if the network eventually intends to return Augusta and Presque Isle to their VHF analog channels; we have no idea why.)
NEW YORK could soon have a new classic rocker. WDRE (98.5 Westhampton) will soon break from its simulcast of modern AC WLIR (92.7 Garden City) to become “the Bone”. It will join a crowded rock market in eastern Long Island, competing against Cox’s WHFM (95.3 Southampton, relaying WBAB Babylon) and Barnstable’s WRCN (103.9 Riverhead), not to mention AAA’s WMOS (104.7 Montauk), which is now targeting a cross-Sound audience in Connecticut but still puts a solid signal across the East End.
In NEW JERSEY, the FCC gave the go-ahead to Millennium’s purchase of the Nassau stations in the Monmouth/Ocean market, allowing Nassau to take control of standards WADB (1310 Asbury Park) and WOBM (1160 Lakewood), modern AC WJLK (94.3 Asbury Park), AC WOBM-FM (92.7 Toms River) and CHR WBBO (98.5 Ocean Acres), despite market-concentration concerns. Millennium will have 64% of radio revenues in the Arbitron-defined “market” (where one end can’t hear most of the stations from the other end) when the Nassau stations are combined with its other recent purchases, including WKXW (New Jersey 101.5) in Trenton, which has a sizable audience in the area.
Fifteen Years Ago: May 22, 1997 -
NERW went back to Boston this past weekend, only to find yet another station added to the American Radio Systems megaopoly. WNFT (1150 Boston) is ARS’ newest acquisition, to the tune of a reported $4.5 million from Greater Media. 1150 has been a troubled spot on the Boston radio dial for more than a decade, including stints as oldies WMEX (quashed by WODS’s arrival on FM), business WMEX (killed off by the recession of the early 90s), Spanish “Radio Continental”, leased-time ethnic brokered by WRCA (1330), the recent brief run as KidStar’s Boston affiliate (which ended when KidStar went out of business), and plenty of interim periods simulcasting WMJX 106.7 or WBCS/WKLB-FM 96.9.
ARS isn’t saying much about its plans for 1150, but rumor has it that the station will pick up some of the sports conflicts (Red Sox/Celtics, for instance) from WEEI (850). There’s also a pretty credible rumor that ARS will move 1150 to the WRKO transmitter site in Burlington, demolish the three AM towers and the FM backup tower on the WNFT site in Lexington, and build a taller FM tower there that can be leased out by subsidiary American Tower Systems. That could be profitable enough by itself to make WNFT’s profitability irrelevant, in fact…time will tell.
And one more personnel note: Steve Murphy is heading west after a five-year stint as PD and operations manager at classical WBOQ (104.9 Gloucester). Steve started at classical WFCC (107.5 Chatham) in 1988, detoured into easy listening at WQRC (99.9 Hyannis) in 1990, then arrived at WBOQ in 1992. Now he’s off to classical WFMR in Milwaukee, where he’ll be director of broadcast operations. Steve may be taking his life in his own hands — he’s vowing to keep wearing his Patriots attire in the heart of Packer country. Steve is also a past member of the board at the Massachusetts Broadcasters Association, which has created a new award to honor the state’s best broadcasters. It’s called the Alan Okun Award, and it’s named for the late owner of Webster’s WGFP (940) and WXXW (98.9). Okun was named posthumously as the award’s first recipient.
2012 update: After a long run in Milwaukee, Steve is now the morning man at KDB in Santa Barbara, California.
It will be licensed to New Hampshire, but the story of WLPL (96.3 Walpole) is really our VERMONT news this week: The Vermont Environmental Board is hearing another appeal to the 110-foot tower that WLPL owner Gary Savoie wants to build on Bemis Hill near Athens VT. Two adjoining landowners, Sarah Ann Martin and Veronica Brelsford, have kept Savoie tied up in appeals for several years, and in the meantime WLPL remains on hold. Meantime, WMXR (93.9 Woodstock) is crossing the border in the other direction, moving its studios from Woodstock across the Connecticut River to 52 Main Street in West Lebanon NH. And the next piece of the WVMX (101.7 Stowe) mystery has revealed itself: Sage Broadcasting has applied to sell the station to “Radio Vermont Classics,” which could be related to the Radio Vermont that owns WDEV AM/FM (550 Waterbury/96.1 Warren) and WLVB (93.9 Morrisville). Rumor has 101.7 going classical eventually.
Up in MAINE, a new station is about to make its debut. WHRR (102.9 Dennysville) has been testing its transmitter, starting back on May 12. Perhaps in response to the upcoming competition, WQDY-FM (92.7) in nearby Calais has gone to 24-hour broadcasting. Sister AM WQDY (1230) remains on a 7AM – 10PM schedule. And over in Eastport, we’re told high school outlet WSHD (91.7) is back on the air after some recent weather-related antenna damage. Advising the station is WQDY news director Tom McLaughlin, a onetime Boston broadcaster on WBCN (104.1) and the old WTBS (88.1, now WMBR).