In this week's issue: Clear Channel gets WOR - Rush back to WRKO as "Talk 1200" folds - WGBH partners with NH Public TV - WMCA owner Peter Straus dies - Tower down in Binghamton
by SCOTT FYBUSH
MONDAY MORNING UPDATE:Clear Channel may be exiting talk in Boston - but it's entering the arena in a big way in New York City, where it's buying WOR (710) from Buckley Broadcasting a year after the death of Rick Buckley. The sale was announced to WOR employees in a meeting this morning, with terms yet to be announced. It's a big shakeup for the world of New York talk: a Clear Channel-run WOR is almost certain to become the new home of Clear Channel's Premiere Radio Networks talent, most notably Rush Limbaugh. And Limbaugh, of course, is the staple personality just up the dial at Cumulus' WABC (770). Big changes ahead...and we'll be on top of them right here at fybush.com, and on our Facebook and Twitter feeds.
*Clear Channel had big hopes for WXKS (1200 Newton) when it launched the station as eastern MASSACHUSETTS' newest big-ticket talker back in 2010. By pulling Rush Limbaugh over from Entercom's WRKO (680 Boston) and building a new "Rush Radio" around him, Clear Channel would take its Premiere Radio Networks talent in-house in a top-ten market, carving a hole out of the talk landscape that it hoped would drive either WRKO or Greater Media's WTKK (96.9) out of the crowded format.
But despite the "expert" predictions at the time that WRKO would suffer a "a slow and painful demise" without Limbaugh, Entercom's talker just kept on going, locking disgruntled afternoon host Howie Carr into a series of contract renewals and somehow surviving questionable hires like former state House speaker Tom Finneran. And by hanging on, WRKO has now thwarted Clear Channel's plans for 1200, forcing the newcomer out of the talk format and apparently into a comedy format beginning this morning.
The story played out in installments all last week, beginning with the news that Limbaugh's show would be returning to WRKO along with Premiere's "Coast to Coast AM," followed by the news that the local staff at WXKS - morning man Jeff Katz, afternoon host Jay Severin and PD Paula O'Connor - was history.
With Katz and Severin off the schedule, "Talk 1200" (which had dropped the "Rush Radio" name after it failed to catch fire in the market) briefly rolled out an interim lineup of third-tier syndicated talent, but that turned out to be a smokescreen for a bigger change: on Friday, 1200 began stunting as "Gaffe 1200," playing a ten-minute loop of political mishaps.
And that turns out to be a prelude to a truly new format launching this morning on the 1200 signal: "Comedy 1200" is the result of Clear Channel's taking control of the "24/7 Comedy" network, which has achieved surprising ratings success as a niche format in markets such as Norfolk and Kansas City.
In Boston, it appears Clear Channel will be using one of its star personalities, veteran WXKS-FM (107.9) morning man Matt Siegel, to help drive ears to its new format. Lance Venta over at Radio Insight notes that the company has registered several domains such as "MattyComedy1200.com." Will Siegel's heavily-promoted "major announcement" at 8:30 this morning be the launch of comedy on 1200? It makes perfect sense: why not take advantage of the big "Matty in the Morning" audience on Kiss 108 to promote the new comedy format on its almost-unknown AM sister?
Like Clear Channel's other recent format launch in Boston, July's "Harbor 101.7" (WHBA), the new "Comedy 1200" won't be a ratings giant. But it will be cheap to run, especially compared to "Talk 1200"; it's almost sure to exceed the 1 share that was about the best WXKS(AM) could do in 31 months of talk; and it will bring in a younger demographic than the aging Rush audience...and there's nothing funny about that.
*Over at Entercom, the return of Limbaugh to the n0on-3 PM slot promises to help WRKO regain at least some of the dominance it once enjoyed on the Boston talk landscape. Once the dust settles (no later than next week, though the imminent launch of comedy on 1200 may push things up sooner), WRKO's lineup will look like this: Michele McPhee, recently rehired to fill the ex-Limbaugh slot, will move from 11 AM-3 PM to morning drive alongside Todd Feinburg. Barry Armstrong's "Money Matters Radio" will continue to lease the 9-11 AM slot, followed by an hour hosted by Washington-based talker Jeff Kuhner at 11 to lead into the one-two punch of Limbaugh at noon and Howie Carr at 3.
For WRKO, the added cost of Limbaugh's rights fees, while substantial, is a small price to pay to consolidate the talk audience; even if it will never be the mass-market format it was in the days of Jerry Williams, WRKO's talk still attracts a devoted listener base that's especially attractive to advertisers in an election year, and losing a competitor promises to boost WRKO's bottom line (and likely WTKK's as well) in the short term. And for Clear Channel, it's likely the rights fees WRKO will pay Premiere for Limbaugh will quickly exceed whatever profit (if any) the radio division made from Rush's presence on "Talk 1200."
*So what have we learned? Here's NERW's analysis:
Signal matters, but less than you'd think. Clear Channel spent several years and millions of dollars to move the former WKOX (1200 Framingham) from the western suburbs into the heart of the Boston market as a 50,000-watt fulltimer, and it was inevitable that the new 1200 signal would come in for plenty of scrutiny after the move. Like every Boston AM save for WBZ, the 1200 signal has impairments, especially after dark anywhere west of the Route 128 beltway.
Those signal flaws didn't help "Talk 1200," to be sure - but despite what you might read elswehere, they weren't the main reason it failed, either. Within 128, and especially in much of the city of Boston at night, 1200's signal is fully competitive with WRKO, yet the new station's ratings were just as anemic in strong-signal areas as out in the suburbs where both 1200 and 680 struggle to be heard.
Promotion matters, even more than you'd think. Talk radio listeners are creatures of habit, and by definition, conservative talk listeners really don't like change. When Limbaugh's show moved from WRKO to WXKS back in March 2010, it was immediately clear that not all his listeners got the message: the front-desk phones at WRKO were ablaze for days with angry callers who knew Rush wasn't on 680 but didn't know why, or where he'd gone. Most of Clear Channel's attempts to promote Limbaugh's new home up the dial were kept in-house, but no matter how often "Rush Radio" or "Talk 12oo" were promoted on co-owned Kiss 108, the message never completely got through: Limbaugh's numbers on 1200 never came close to his audience on 680, and listeners who found Rush on 1200 didn't automatically stay put for the rest of the new station's lineup. Once WXKS launched its local lineup, its hosts (especially Katz) worked social media as hard as they could, but the followings they built were more loyal than numerous.
In talk radio, service elements really matter. With CBS Radio's WBZ (1030) long established as the Boston market's main destination for radio news, the other spoken-word players in the region have struggled to find the balance between cutting costs and maintaining the other elements that make a radio station more than just a collection of standalone talk shows. The former WHDH (850) tried to compete with its own all-news block in morning drive in the early 1990s, to no avail; WRKO, for its part, experimented with outsourcing local newscasts but eventually brought them back in-house, realizing that part of what has kept the station successful is its emphasis on the news and traffic that surrounds its talkers.
Over at Clear Channel, WXKS struggled with the question of "stationality": it launched as a low-cost operation without much local Boston flavor to surround Beck and Limbaugh and Hannity, and while it added a small local news operation in drivetime, 1200 never picked up an image as a place to turn for breaking news, or for much else beyond its talk lineup. Might it have been different if 1200 had picked up even a second-tier sports franchise, or developed a signature community event? We'll never know - but it's safe to say that one reason WRKO retained listener loyalty even without Limbaugh was the reputation it built over decades of doing more than just talk.
Rush is a draw, but not enough to build a whole new station. Without Limbaugh, 1200 probably wouldn't have registered in the ratings at all. But something didn't go according to plan even with talk radio's most powerful voice on board. Even limited to areas where both stations enjoyed competitive signals, Limbaugh's audience from 680 didn't (you'll excuse the pun) "rush" to find him in his new home up the dial, and the "Rush Radio" branding from 1200's launch didn't even survive a year. It's worth noting that after launching a flurry of new "Rush Radio" outlets prior to Boston, Clear Channel didn't launch any new ones after WXKS made its initial flop. Will Rush's return to 680 restore the ratings the station enjoyed before 2010? Those numbers will be closely watched, no doubt, in the next few months.
*In other Bay State news, WGBH is growing again. The Boston public broadcaster is picking up some of the slack across the border at NEW HAMPSHIRE Public Television after budget cuts severely reduced state funding for NHPTV. A new partnership between the two broadcasters will have WGBH handling programming duties for NHPTV - and that means a new schedule that syncs up the main "NHPTV Prime" service with WGBH's main 2.1 channel and "NHPTV Explore" with WGBX 44.
The synchronized schedules will mean the end to cross-border viewing: NHPTV's flagship station, WENH (Channel 11), will be removed from the Massachusetts cable systems that have carried it for decades, while WGBH will disappear from New Hampshire cable systems. Over the course of the next year or so, NHPTV members in Massachusetts will be encouraged to renew instead with WGBH, and vice-versa. Behind the scenes, NHPTV has shed 20 staffers, and it's now an independent agency separate from the University of New Hampshire, which long held the licenses for WENH and its sister stations.
Local program production will continue at NHPTV's Durham studio, but those productions will now be seen only in the Granite State, a big reduction in potential audience from the days when WENH was a welcome alternative to WGBH for many Boston-area viewers.
*Meanwhile, a southern New Hampshire TV icon is returning to the small screen. Charismatic weatherman Al Kaprielian was a staple on Derry's channel 50 in its days as WNDS, and after a brief absence he returned to the station when it became WZMY. Its most recent flip to WBIN under new owner Bill Binnie once again pulled Kaprielian off the air, but you can't keep a good screechy-voiced weatherman down: he's back on WBIN doing hourly forecasts from 2-9 PM daily, starting next Monday.
Back in Boston, there's a new DTV signal on the air: WCEA-LP, which moved around from channel 19 to channel 3 to channel 58, has signed on its digital signal on RF channel 45. The Spanish-language signal runs 15 kW from the John Hancock tower in Boston's Back Bay.
*Radio People on the Move: Scott Zolak, the Patriots quarterback-turned-talk-host, is now officially part of the Pats' radio team on flagship WBZ-FM (98.5 Boston), where he's been named to join veteran play-by-play man Gil Santos for Santos' final season with the team. Zolak replaces another former Pats player, Gino Cappelletti, in the team's radio booth.
*Today's launch day for "RadioBDC," the new online alternative-rock station hosted by the Globe's Boston.com and staffed by many of the jocks and programmers who used to be part of WFNX (101.7), including PD Paul Driscoll and jocks Julie Kramer, Adam 12 and Henry Santoro. The new stream will officially kick off at noon, up against the "WFNX.com" online remainder of the old WFNX operation.
*In CONNECTICUT, WLAT (910 New Britain) wants to lose one of its four towers at night. Reducing its night pattern to just three towers will mean a power drop from 5000 watts to 2800 watts at the Gois Broadcasting station, which will remain 5000 watts non-directional by day. (It will also open up a big chunk of land that can apparently be sold off for new housing. )
On the FM dial, John Fuller's Red Wolf Broadcasting has expanded its reach to Bridgeport with the acquisition of translator W285DE (104.9). It's broadcasting the "La Bomba" Spanish hits format from the HD2 of Red Wolf's WMRQ (104.1 Waterbury), which is also heard via translator in the Hartford market.
*There's a tower missing in NEW YORK's Southern Tier, too, but WYOS (1360 Binghamton) didn't intend to drop from three towers to two over the weekend - but it wasn't counting on a tractor catching the guy wires, either, partially topping one of the end towers in the in-line array. WYOS normally runs 5000 watts during the day and 500 watts at night from all three towers, and the job of rebuilding the damaged tower gets to fall on a new owner, since the ESPN Radio affiliate just changed hands from Cumulus to Townsquare Media at the start of August.
If you're reading this column before 10:00 Monday morning, the demise of WYOS' tower might still be the biggest radio story out of the Empire State, but that could change soon: there's a staff meeting at 10 at New York City's WOR (710) at which it's widely expected a new owner will be announced for the venerable 50,ooo-watt talk signal a year after the death of owner Rick Buckley. We'll have updates here, and of course on our Twitter and Facebook feeds as well...
We'll also keep you posted on any developments with Pacifica's WBAI (99.5 New York), which has been skating on the edge of financial disaster for quite a while now. Several reports in the last week or so have suggested that WBAI's money woes, including a huge monthly rent payment for its studio/office space on Wall Street, could force the station to go temporarily dark or even be put up for sale, and even with today's depressed station values, a full class B FM signal from the Empire State Building would be worth many tens of millions of dollars if it were to come on the market.
*Back upstate, WUSP (1550 Utica) is now in the hands of its new owners-to-be, Good Guys Broadcasting. The new owners are moving quickly to separate the station from its former FM sister, WUTQ (100.7 Utica), which retained the AC/talk format that had been heard on 1550, its FM translator at 95.5, and WRCK (1480 Remsen). WUTQ's weekend ethnic programming remains on the 1550/1480/95.5 trimulcast, which is also featuring Good Guys co-owner Tom Coyne in morning drive and veteran Utica broadcaster Hank Brown from 9 AM until noon. The new WUSP is carrying New York Mets baseball and will be picking up New England Patriots football in the fall.
In Dansville, WDNY (1400) made a format segue Friday afternoon, as owner Genesee Media flipped the station from adult standards to an adult hits mix that's heavy on the 1970s.
Radio People on the Move: Bethany Watson is the new morning co-host on the Elvis Duran morning show based at New York's Z100 (WHTZ 100.3 Newark). Watson moves to New York from KDWB in Minneapolis to take the role last filled by Carolina Bermudez. Back in the Finger Lakes, Sammy Carillo is the new program director at Bath-based Family Life Network, which added a new signal last week when WCOM-FM (89.3 Silver Creek) signed on along the Lake Erie shore south of Buffalo. Northeast of Buffalo in Medina, WFWO (89.7) has applied for a license to cover, though our ears in Orleans County don't report having heard the black gospel station (programmed from Buffalo, in the old WKBW-TV studios at 1420 Main Street) on the air at all yet.
*In Syracuse, Saundra Smokes had just started her broadcast career a few weeks ago, building on her long experience as a Post-Standard reporter to host a Saturday talk show on Clear Channel's urban "Power 620" (WHEN). The veteran journalist died suddenly on Monday after suffering a heart attack and collapsing at home. She was just 57.
*In New York City, Peter Straus was one of the legendary names in radio ownership, making WMCA (570) one of the nation's most distinctive radio voices during the three decades in which he controlled the station.
Straus took over WMCA from his father, Nathan Straus Jr., in the 1950s, and under his leadership the station became the top-40 home of the "Good Guys," riding the wave of Beatlemania to a solid competitive spot against 50,000-watt competitors such as WMGM, WINS and WABC. But Straus' WMCA did more than just play music: it offered incisive editorials penned by Straus himself, and in 1969 it began a transition that made it the city's first full-time talk radio outlet.
With hosts such as Alex Bennett, Bob Grant, Barry Farber and "Long John" Nebel, WMCA offered a spectrum of opinions that would be unrecognizable in today's compartmentalized talk landscape, and it held on against bigger competitors (once again, WABC) until 1987, when Straus sold the station for $10 million.
Straus also owned stations elsewhere, including WGVA (1240) upstate in Geneva, and he raised a third generation of Straus family broadcasters; his son, Eric, owned a cluster of stations in the Hudson Valley and later launched radiohelpwanted.com and several other sites linking radio to the Internet.
Straus served as director of the Voice of America under President Carter from 1977-1979 and held several other international positions as well. He died Monday at his Manhattan home, at age 89.
*On TV, today is launch day for the new MundoFox network, the bilingual effort by Fox to target Hispanic audiences. While much of MundoFox's effort is being aimed at the southwest, the new web launches with three low-power affiliates in NERW-land: WPXO-LD (Channel 34) in New York City, WFXZ-CD (Channel 24) in Boston and WPSJ-CD (Channel 8) in Philadelphia.
*A year after its launch, western PENNSYLVANIA's new NPR news outlet is rebranding. Pittsburghers are modest people by nature, and when the former WDUQ (90.5) changed hands to a new group called Essential Public Media, the new "Essential Public Radio" branding for the station apparently came off a little heavy-handed, especially in the hands of the station's mostly out-of-market new management. ("It turns out that the new EPR name didn't work out very well," says the station's name-change FAQ.)
That's why the station is now going just by its calls, WESA - and the identity change comes with a schedule reboot that includes an extra hour of "Morning Edition" from 9-10 AM in place of "The Takeaway," which is itself about to reboot as a midday hour. WESA is also replacing "On Point" and "Tell Me More" with the "Diane Rehm Show" - and no, it says it won't consider bringing back the jazz programming that went away with the demise of WDUQ last summer.
WDUQ's former general manager is back in the world of public radio: after a year working with other nonprofits, Scott Hanley is on his way to Birmingham, Alabama to be the new general manager at WBHM (90.3), licensed to the University of Alabama - Birmingham.
*In Philadelphia, All Access reports WBEB (101.1) has cut several sales and engineering staffers as well as production guy/weekend jock Mark Shepperd, who'd been with the station only six months. Over at Clear Channel's WIOQ (102.1), the search is on for a new program director as Tim "Romeo" Herbster moves up to a new national role as VP/national programming projects.
*The big news from CANADA continues to be the fight over Bell's proposal to convert Montreal's CKGM (990, soon to be 690) from English to French. Wrapped up in the larger issue of Bell's as-yet-ungranted purchase of Astral Media, the CKGM conversion has drawn a record response at the CRTC. Last week, the Montreal Canadiens weighed in, asking the CRTC to grant Bell an exemption allowing it to exceed the usual ownership cap in order to keep CKGM's English-language sports format; meanwhile, the Parti Quebecois, one of Quebec's largest political parties, has weighed in opposing the sale of Astral to Bell at all.
*In Ottawa, veteran program director Doug Anderson has retired after 35 years in the business, most recently programming CKBY (Y101). Joel Lamoreaux moves from Rogers Radio in North Bay to replace Anderson in Ottawa.
By the shores of Georgian Bay, two stations are applying for power boosts: in Collingwood, Ontario, Corus wants to up CKCB (95.1 the Peak) from 350 watts/288.5 m to 9.7 kW (25 kW max DA)/293.1 m; while in Wasaga Beach, Bayshore Broadcasting wants to take CHGB (97.7 the Beach) from 200 watts (347 watts max DA)/100 m to 20 kW (75 kW max DA)/125 m.
And back in Quebec, Radio-Canada wants a power increase at CBV-7 (96.7) in St.-Georges-de-Beauce. The relay of CBV (95.3 Quebec City) would go from 84 watts/-6.5 m to 640 watts (2.5 kW max DA)/163.6 m.