In this week"s issue: WFNX rocks to the end - FM News returns to rock in NYC - Newport TV sells its stations - Cox to exit CT - CRTC OKs end of CBC analog TV - WUMB seeks move - WSRO powers up
by SCOTT FYBUSH
*In 18 years of writing this column, it"s hard to recall a summer week as jam-packed with news as these past seven days in NERW-land have been. Rock back in New York, modern rock gone in Boston, a big cluster of TV stations sold, a prominent radio cluster for sale...oh, and the very imminent end of most TV reception across big swaths of Canada, too.
We"ll get to all these stories, but for sentimental reasons we have to start in the Boston market, where 29 years of cutting-edge alternative rock came to an end just after 7 on Friday evening as WFNX (101.7 Lynn) ended its live broadcasting on FM. After bringing back "Morning Guy Tai" and Jim Ryan earlier in the day, it was veteran jock Neal Robert at the controls for the station"s last five hours before transitioning to a stripped-down, web-only operation.
After a day of reminiscing with just about everyone who passed through the doors of 25 Exchange Street since WFNX"s launch back in 1983, Robert closed out WFNX"s final hour with David Bowie"s "Changes" and then "Let"s Go to Bed" by the Cure, the song that marked the transition from WLYN-FM to WFNX way back when.
Since the announcement back in May that Boston Phoenix owner Steve Mindich was selling WFNX"s license (but not its intellectual property) to Clear Channel for $14.5 million, there"s been no shortage of eulogies for one of the last independent big-market alt-rockers left standing. (One of the best came from longtime WFNX news director Sharon Brody, who wrote "one final Brody Beat" for her current employer, WBUR; still more came in a special Phoenix section last week.)
What can we add? Not much that Neal Robert didn"t encapsulate in that last hour (which you can hear here, by the way):
"FNX has always been about the future and while the radi o station is migrating off the FM dial, the future of FNX will continue on our computers and mobile devices. In 1983 we found community on the radio and in 2012 we"re finding community online and that"s where you"ll find FNX after today. It"s been my honor and pleasure to be a part of this institution because, in the words of Nietzsche, without music life would be a mistake. And with that we end the long run of 101.7 WFNX."
So what now?
After Robert"s farewell, 101.7 fell silent for a bit before returning with automation - and speculation resumed in earnest about Clear Channel"s plans for its new Boston frequency. Last week, we broke the news that the new calls on 101.7 would be "WHBA," and on Friday night our colleague Lance Venta over at Radio Insight teased out the news that the new station would be called "the Harbor."
And as we post this column late Sunday night, that"s still as much as we know for certain, thanks to the almost nuclear-level cordon of secrecy that Clear Channel has managed to maintain around its plans for 101.7. Soft AC? Oldies? Adult hits? The best bet is that we"ll know sometime today, when Clear Channel is expected to take over operation of the FM signal from Mindich. (The 101.7 signal and the WFNX stream both fell silent at 10:30 Sunday night, but returned to life at midnight with a Z-to-A music countdown from WFNX.com.)
A few more loose ends: the WFNX simulcast in Peterborough, NEW HAMPSHIRE, WFEX (92.1), is reportedly silent for now while the sale to Bill Blount"s WDER (1320 Derry NH) closes. Once the sale is complete, 92.1 will become WDER-FM, initially simulcasting the religious programming from its AM sister.
Over at the Globe"s Boston.com, the new "Radio BDC" modern-rock streaming replacement for WFNX (featuring former "FNX talents such as Julie Kramer) isn"t quite ready yet - it"s still building out studios and preparing to launch later this summer.
*While alternative rock was dying in Boston, rock made a surprise return to the FM dial in NEW YORK City on Tuesday morning.
The signs had been building for a few days that Merlin Media was pulling the plug on the year-old "FM News 101.9" experiment at WEMP, but the initial speculation focused on the possibility of a news-talk hybrid along the lines of Merlin"s WWIQ (106.9) in Philadelphia, which has an all-news morning block and syndicated talk the rest of the day.
What almost nobody saw coming, though, was the complete 180-degree turn Merlin made at 10:00 Tuesday morning: while WEMP staffers (and those at sister station WIQI in Chicago) were meeting with executives, a pre-recorded news segment abruptly gave way to "New Rock 101.9" at WEMP and "i101" in Chicago.
A post-mortem at this point seems almost redundant: however ambitious the plans were for "FM News 101.9," the execution of the format never lived up to expectations, and everyone in (and out of ) the market knew it. In a city that"s still accustomed to turning to the AM dial for two established all-newsers (CBS Radio"s WCBS 880 and 1010 WINS) as well as sports and talk formats, just being on FM wasn"t enough to make listeners change their habits.
Without a strong launch in New York or Chicago, it appears Merlin pulled back from what was, we"re told, an ambitious plan to create a national all-news service that would have combined local content with national material fed from the New York newsroom. (The morning show at Philadelphia"s WWIQ was the only real test of the format, and it continues for now with a New York-based newscast.)
What now? For 101.9, it"s not only back to rock, it"s even back to the WRXP callsign the station used until Emmis sold it to Merlin last year. The new incarnation of WRXP features more active rock than Emmis" "New York Rock Experience" did, and for the moment it"s running jockless, programmed out of Chicago, though that will change.
Merlin"s exit from spoken-word programming in New York (assuming it"s permanent, and not just a stunt) changes the dynamic for some of the city"s other broadcasters, too. After Merlin picked up Rush Limbaugh and other Premiere Radio talk shows in Philadelphia, speculation ran rampant about whether WEMP might be planning to add Rush in New York when the existing contract between Premiere and longtime Rush flagship WABC (770) expires next year. Without WEMP as a backup option, will Premiere have as much leverage when it comes time to renew WABC and its sister Cumulus stations? It"s sure to be an interesting negotiation now.
WEMP"s demise also puts more than two dozen talented newspeople out of work, many of them having been lured away from WINS and WCBS (some even within the past few weeks) by the promise of higher salaries and more creative freedom. Here"s hoping they find work again, soon...
*Enough big news for one week? Not hardly, thanks to a very big TV station transaction that then prompted a radio cluster selloff.
The TV group is Newport Television, the private-equity-backed venture that acquired Clear Channel Television in 2007, and last week it announced plans to sell off most of the 27 stations it owns around the country.
Here"s how it shakes out in NERW-land:
Sinclair Broadcast Group, already a major player in upstate New York, Pittsburgh and Portland, Maine, is paying $412.5 million for six stations, including CBS affiliate WHP-TV (Channel 21) in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. That deal also includes the rights to program WHP"s sister station WLYH (Channel 15), a CW outlet, and it makes for a nice northward extension to Sinclair"s home base in the Baltimore area.
Nexstar Broadcasting, which already operates in Rochester (WROC-TV) and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (WBRE), will pay $285.5 million for a dozen mostly smaller Newport stations, including most of the central New York cluster that"s been held together under Ackerley, Clear Channel and Newport. Nexstar will add ABC affiliate WSYR-TV (Channel 9) in Syracuse, NBC affiliate WETM (Channel 18) in Elmira, ABC affiliate WIVT (Channel 34) and low-power NBC affiliate WBGH (Channel 20) in Binghamton and ABC affiliate WWTI (Channel 50) in Watertown, as well as stations in Memphis and Salt Lake City. Newport"s remaining upstate stations, Rochester ABC affiliate WHAM-TV (Channel 13) and Albany Fox affiliate WXXA (Channel 23), weren"t included in the deal, which means WHAM will have to move forward with plans to rebuild its own local master control to replace the hub that"s been operating out of WSYR-TV for the last few years.
(One more Nexstar note: its stations remained on Time Warner Cable systems out of their home markets right up until the end of the Time Warner/Hearst carriage dispute Thursday night, despite Nexstar"s protestations that Time Warner had no legal right to carry WROC, WBRE or Utica"s WUTR into markets where it couldn"t carry local Hearst-owned CBS, NBC or ABC affiliates.)
The third Newport buyer, Cox Media Group, added only two of Newport"s bigger clusters in Jacksonville and Tulsa - but it did so as part of a consolidation strategy in which it"s focusing its efforts on markets in which it can assemble dominant TV/radio clusters. That, in turn, means Cox now plans to sell off some of its less-consolidated markets, which means the company is now seeking buyers for its radio stations in southern Connecticut and its smaller TV signals flanking Pittsburgh"s WPXI (Channel 11).
In Connecticut, Cox had already shed its AM signals and one smaller FM (the former WKHL 96.7 Stamford, now K-Love"s WKLV-FM), and now it"s hoping to unload rocker WPLR (99.1 New Haven), AC WEZN-FM (99.9 Bridgeport), classic rock WFOX-FM (95.9 Norwalk) and the sales rights to Yale"s WYBC-FM (94.3 New Haven). Who"d be in line to buy them? About the only names we can rule out might be the other two big commercial operators in the area, Clear Channel and Cumulus, which would both face market-concentration issues if they tried to add Cox"s big FMs.
In western Pennsylvania and vicinity, Cox wants to sell NBC affiliates WJAC-TV (Channel 6) in Johnstown and WTOV (Channel 9) in Steubenville, Ohio, apparently having concluded that even after centralizing many of those stations" operations at WPXI, they"re just not big enough by the standards of today"s Cox.
Once those stations are sold, Cox"s only remaining operations in the region will be its Long Island FMs (WBAB and WBLI) and WPXI in Pittsburgh.
*There"s big TV news from CANADA this week, especially for viewers outside the biggest cities. The CRTC approved the CBC"s request to shut down all of its remaining analog transmitters effective August 1, a move that will leave over-the-air viewers in many places with no service from CBC or Radio-Canada, and in some cases with no Canadian TV service at all. CBC officials cited budget issues and the widespread use of satellite and cable TV when they decided to implement digital TV service only in "mandatory markets" - provincial capitals and other very large cities with multiple local stations.
Among the cities that don"t meet those criteria for CBC English TV are Sydney, Nova Scotia, Moncton, N.B., Quebec City (and the rest of Quebec outside Montreal), London, Kitchener and Sudbury, Ontario - and Sudbury"s doubly hit, since its large Francophone population will lose Radio-Canada service, as will Halifax, Charlottetown, Windsor, and a whole swath of rural eastern and northern Quebec. (You can read the entire list of deleted transmitters here.)
*The rest of the week"s Canadian news all came from the Maritime Broadcasting System (MBS): in Charlottetown, PEI, CHLQ (93.1) has flipped from classic hits/oldies "Magic 93" to classic rock "Q93." Dan Sys at Canadian Radio News says the move is meant to close a gap created when rival Newcap flipped CKQK (K-Rock 105.5) to top-40 "Hot 105.5" earlier this year. And in Saint John, New Brunswick, seven unionized workers at the three-station MBS cluster are now in the second month of their strike - and while MBS is using replacement personnel to keep its stations on the air, the striking employees are launching their own online station this week at radiofreesaintjohn.fm.
*There was much more news this week from MASSACHUSETTS, too: in Quincy, WUMB-FM (91.9 Boston) is soon to be evicted from its transmitter site. The site WUMB has used for decades is an historic stone water tower, and WUMB tells the FCC that tower "will soon be restored to its original state," which didn"t include an FM antenna up top.
After surveying other possible sites, WUMB"s technical consultant, Dave Doherty, tells the FCC the least short-spaced new site that"s available is the Industrial Communications tower near the Quincy/Milton line. That tower, a fairly prominent landmark along I-93, has never had a broadcast tenant; if WUMB gets FCC permission to move there, it would mean lower power but a much higher antenna, going from its present 660 watts/206" to 160 watts/620".
To make WUMB-FM"s move possible, two co-owned, co-channel simulcast stations will have to power down slightly: WBPR-FM (91.9 Worcester) will drop from 370 to 270 watts and WFPB-FM (91.9 Falmouth) will drop from 6 kW to 5.2 kW.
The WUMB-FM move would bring 91.9 a little closer to second-adjacent WMLN (91.5 Milton), but there"s an existing interference agreement between the stations dating back to 1983 - and Doherty says moving 91.9 to the Industrial tower in Quincy will shift any potential WUMB/WMLN interference from the more densely-populated suburban area around the water tower to a less-populated industrial area west of I-93.
*It was delayed a bit by national politics, but WSRO (650 Ashland) finally had its official power-increase ceremony last Tuesday, complete with Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick (who"d been busy on the original ceremony date, in Washington for the Supreme Court health care ruling).
Bostonradio.org"s Garrett Wollman was on hand for the big ceremony to mark the boost from 250 to 1500 watts by day, and he reports that Patrick"s ceremonial button-pushing "was followed by speeches from station staffers and local politicians, and a birthday celebration for Pearl Oliva, the 92-year-old host of the station"s Italian show, which she has been doing for 62 years."
Oliva started the show at the old WKOX (1190, later 1200), which occupied the same Framingham studio and tower site that"s now used by WSRO.
(Garrett has many more pictures, and a fairly comprehensive explanation of how the former WSCV 1050 from Peterborough, New Hampshire became 650 in MetroWest, over at The Archives.)
*Radio Talkers on the Move: after seven years as a weekend staple on WRKO (680 Boston), Kevin Whalen"s "Pundit Review" made its last Sunday-evening appearance last weekend; there"s now more paid programming filling the 6-8 PM slot on WRKO"s Sunday schedule. And over at WTKK (96.9 Boston), it appears the "Phantom Gourmet" radio show will be adding a three-hour slot on Fridays, from 10 AM-1 PM, to its existing weekend airings.
Out on Cape Cod, Steve Solomon (known on-air as "Steve McVie") is switching teams. After nearly two decades with what"s now Qantum Communications, most recently as operations manager and PD of WCIB (101.9 Falmouth), Steve is joining John Garabedian"s new Codcomm cluster as VP and station manager. The Codcomm stations are the former Nassau signals - WPXC (102.9 Hyannis), WFQR (93.5 Harwich Port) and WFRQ (101.1 Mashpee), and Steve"s overseeing the almost complete transformation of the cluster. We already knew that Codcomm was planning to move the 101.1 signal to the mid-Cape, eliminating the need for the 93.5/101.1 "Frank FM" simulcast, and we knew that new calls WHYA had been requested for 93.5. Now we know that Codcomm has also applied for signal improvements on 93.5 and 102.9: Garabedian wants to move the 93.5 transmitter west from its present site in Brewster to Dennis, increasing power from its present 3 kW/328" to 6 kW/254", and it"s applying to increase WPXC"s power from 3.1 kW/462" to 6.8 kW/472". Oh, and Codcomm is building new studios in Hyannis, too...
*There"s a new PD inbound to RHODE ISLAND to replace the departed Paul Giammarco at Cumulus" WPRO (630)/WEAN (99.7) and WPRV (790). Craig Schwalb comes to the cluster from Sirius/XM, where he"d served as senior director of talk programming.
*Broadcast Managers on the Move in NEW YORK: Kevin LeGrett, who moved from Citadel to become Clear Channel"s Rochester-based regional VP two years ago, is now one of the company"s three senior VP/Operations for regional markets. As best we can figure it, he remains based in Rochester, but with a much-expanded portfolio. Over at Cumulus, northeast regional VP Chuck Bortnick is leaving his base in Poughkeepsie to become the company"s Houston-based regional VP; no replacement has been named yet at the Hudson Valley cluster. Down the road at Cumulus" WPLJ (95.5 New York), PD John Foxx is swapping airshifts with Race Taylor, sending Taylor to middays and putting Foxx in afternoon drive. In Utica, Steve McMurray has been promoted from news director to station manager at NBC affiliate WKTV (Channel 2); he"ll continue to serve as news director and co-anchor of the station"s 5 PM newscast. And in Plattsburgh, Kyle Grimes is the new president/GM of Hearst"s WPTZ (Channel 5) and sister station WNNE (Channel 31) over in White River Junction, VERMONT. A former WPTZ/WNNE news director, Grimes returns north from Hearst"s WPBF in West Palm Beach, Florida to replace Paul Sands, who"s retiring after a long career at WPTZ.
There"s a format change coming this week in Utica, where Roser Communications Group has now fully transitioned its soft AC/talk hybrid WUTQ to its new home on the 100.7 FM signal that Roser recently bought from EMF. Over the weekend, Roser began stunting on WUTQ (1550 Utica), WRCK (1480 Remsen) and W238CA (95.5 Utica), playing the theme music from The Jeffersons to promote that WUTQ was "moving on up" to 100.7. WUTQ"s existing weekend specialty programming will stay put on the two AMs and the translator - and it appears there will be an LMA"d sports format the rest of the week on those three signals, with 1550 taking new calls WUSP.
More Football on the Radio: add WMML (1230 Glens Falls) to the Buffalo Bills" radio network for this fall.
And here in the Rochester market, Family Life Ministries is selling translator W283BB (104.5 Fairport) to Russ Kimble"s MB Communications for $75,000.
*The rest of our PENNSYLVANIA news this week begins with two obituaries:
They called Ted Atkins "Captain Showbiz," and he earned that title for his top-notch management of Pittsburgh"s WTAE (1250) and WTAE-FM/WXKX/WHTX (96.1) from 1973 to 1985. Atkins had already worked at some very big stations - first in Denver, later at CKLW, Los Angeles" KHJ and KIIS, San Francisco"s KFRC and Pittsburgh"s WWSW - but he made WTAE the final stop on his career, riding the stations to the top of the ratings before retiring in the Steel City. Myron Cope"s "Terrible Towel"? That was an Atkins idea, and so was the long-lasting morning pairing of John Garry and Larry O"Brien.
Atkins died Thursday at age 79 after a two-year fight with pancreatic cancer; Pittsburgh radio historian Jeff Roteman has a fine tribute to Atkins at his WTAE Radio page.
And Steve Carlesi died July 11, just shy of his 38th birthday. He was most recently production director at WEZX (Rock 107) in Scranton, but he was best known for his dozen years working for talk hosts Opie & Anthony, including several years as their PD and executive producer.
Also in Scranton, Bill Palmeri is apparently out as market manager of the Cumulus cluster; he"s best known in the region for many years at Poughkeepsie"s WPDH before moving to Scranton.
*EMF Broadcasting"s purchase of a new Nashville "K-Love" outlet means a call change in northeastern Pennsylvania - the WLVU calls formerly on 88.5 in Halifax have been moved down to 97.1 in Nashville, which means the Halifax "K-Love" signal now bears the WRQQ calls that used to be in Nashville.