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2004 In Review

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August 1, 2005

Payola Investigation Rocks Radio

*There are some nervous programmers in NEW YORK, and around the country, awaiting the aftermath of the settlement between state attorney general Elliot Spitzer and Sony Music over payola charges.

While Sony's $10 million payment, coupled with an assurance that it will change its practices, gets the company off the hook with Spitzer's office, the e-mails that Spitzer's office dug up as part of its investigation will likely lead to more investigations, both by the FCC and by some of the broadcasters accused of accepting payola.

Among the stations whose call letters appeared in the e-mails were Boston's WXKS and WBCN (where Sony apparently paid for a staff dinner for former PD Oedipus), Albany's WFLY and WKKF (where Sony supplied a $1400 laptop to former PD Donny Michaels), Hartford's WKSS, Buffalo's WKSE (where PD Dave Universal was ousted earlier in the payola investigation, and where the e-mails suggest that even Sony was finding Universal excessively greedy) and Rochester's WPXY (where an e-mail from PD Mike Danger admits "i'm a whore this week. what can i say?")

There's more, too - a giveaway in which DJs at Buffalo's WBLK, Rochester's WDKX and other urban stations were to be sent one Adidas sneaker, with the promise of the other one to follow if a certain rap song was played often enough. And Sony apparently paid staffers to call Lancaster's WLAN-FM and the syndicated "Open House Party" to request certain songs, a plan which was thwarted when the callers weren't sufficiently energetic to get on the air.

NERW's Take: Nobody in the radio industry is likely to be terribly surprised by the contents of the Sony e-mails. Legal or not, such exchanges between record labels and radio stations have been common since long before the original payola investigations of the late 1950s.

And as a former top 40 PD whose opinions we respect pointed out when the news broke last week, top 40 radio depends on communication between labels and stations to keep PDs and music directors apprised of what's new and what's coming. While there will no doubt be plenty of attempts by nervous stations and labels to restrict contact (especially, now, by e-mail) between programmers and promoters, such contacts can't - and shouldn't - be cut off completely. "There are degrees," says our PD friend, who points out that the investigations that are sure to get going now will likely ignore those nuances, just as the congressional inquiry in 1959 did.

One could ask, also, whether such petty maneuvering (on both sides - many radio stations are just as guilty, in principle if not necessarily in the eyes of the law, of manipulating their playlists in exchange for favors) is really worth the effort that Spitzer and others have put into these investigations.

After all, any radio station that deals excessive spins to songs that aren't popular on their own will inevitably begin losing listeners. Those listeners now have many options for finding new music that didn't exist in 1959, so it's not as though there's some sort of public interest obligation in playing an accurate list of the top 40 pop tunes. And, frankly, top 40 radio just doesn't seem as important in 2005 as it did in 1959. It bears noting that the radio formats that have garnered the most attention in the last year or two either play no current music ("Jack" and his friends) or no music at all (Air America and its progressive-talk brethren.)

In any case, we don't expect much, if any change, to the sound of top 40 radio as the investigations proceed. It's still a mass-market, lowest-common-denominator medium, whether the record companies are paying for the airplay or not.

*What else was happening in NEW YORK while we were on the opposite coast? There was a sad obituary, for one thing, as the city said goodbye to one of its longest-running DJs. Joe O'Brien began his career as an announcer at WMCA (570) in 1935, and he remained with the station as it went through massive changes, becoming a "Good Guy" DJ and staying on the air until 1969.

O'Brien moved to WNBC (660) for mornings in 1970, remaining until 1972, when he was edged out in favor of a newcomer from Cleveland named Don Imus. From there, it was up to Peekskill and WHUD (100.7), where O'Brien remained on the full-time staff until 1986 and continued contributing segments well into the nineties.

O'Brien and former WMCA PD Ruth Meyer were driving near Tanglewood in Lenox, Mass. when he was involved in a car crash on Sunday, July 24. Meyer was uninjured, but O'Brien died in the crash. He was 90.

Upstate, Route 81 continued its shuffling in Corning/Elmira, putting new calls on 97.7 Big Flats (ex-WGMM, then briefly WCBA-FM and now WENI-FM, paralleling simulcast WENY-FM 92.7 Elmira) and flipping WCBA (1350 Corning) from a simulcast of oldies WGMM (98.7 Corning) to Fox Sports Radio. WCBA is also picking up the Jim Rome show.

*In PENNSYLVANIA, the news was all about sports radio - WLPA (1490 Lancaster) finally made its flip from Sporting News to Fox, while in Philadelphia the 76ers signed a new deal with WIP (610), scotching rumors that the team was moving to WPEN (950). (And speaking of WPEN, the station's apparently just about done building its new night facilities at the transmitter site of WWDB 860.)

*In MASSACHUSETTS, Qantum Communications announced a $10 million spinoff of three Cape Cod stations that it can't keep because of ownership caps. Nassau will enter the Cape market with the purchase of classic rock WPXC (102.9 Hyannis) and oldies WDVT (93.5 Harwich Port)/WTWV (101.1 Mashpee) - and that starts the rumor mill spinning, since Nassau's not a company that tends to be happy with just three signals in a market.

In Boston, former WBIX (1060 Natick) owner Brad Bleidt pleaded guilty to mail fraud and money laundering charges last week, which will land him behind bars for 11 years when he's sentenced October 25.

WZLX (100.7) is apparently getting a new morning team from out of town, but Karlson & McKenzie won't need an introduction to former listeners of WEGQ (93.7, now WMKK). The duo went to Rochester (WZNE 94.1) and then Poughkeepsie (WPDH 101.5) after the "Eagle" folded its wings in 1997, but they're reportedly about to fill the slot last occupied by Steve Sweeney on 'ZLX.

And ESPN Radio finally appeared, after many weeks of delays, on WAMG (890 Dedham) and WLLH (1400 Lowell and Lawrence) on Sunday, July 24, though we hear that the Lowell transmitter was off the air for much of Monday.

*The saga of VERMONT's radio free brattleboro continues to wend its way through the courts up there - last week, a federal judge ordered the station and the FCC to sit down for settlement talks, as rfb continues to try to get its seized equipment back.

The would-be operators of the community's new LPFM, WVEW-LP (107.9), say they were depending on getting the rfb equipment in order to sign on their licensed station quickly, and they're warning that WVEW's debut will be delayed if rfb's gear remains in federal custody.

(Which NERW believes begs the question: if rfb was supportive of WVEW-LP's efforts, to the extent that rfb pledged to go off for good once WVEW began operation, why did rfb risk the seizure of its gear by continuing to operate without a license even after WVEW's construction permit had been granted? Seems to us that the prudent thing to do would have been to shut down rfb and focus efforts on getting WVEW on the air as quickly as possible...)

*An obituary from CONNECTICUT: Andrew S. Rajcok, better known as Andy Rage, died July 28 after a battle with cancer. Andy's career included time at WAVZ in New Haven and a stint as director of advertising for the Long Island Radio Network and for WICC in Bridgeport and WPIX-TV in New York. He was also an accomplished summer theater actor.

*CANADA could soon have a province with not a single AM station, if the applications of two Prince Edward Island stations are granted.

PEI was already down to just two AM stations after the conversion of CJCW (1240 Summerside) to FM a few years back. And a flood of applications for new FM stations in PEI includes proposals to move both CFCY 630 (to 95.1, with 100 kW DA/179 m) and CHTN 720 (to 100.3, with 88 kW DA/212 m) off AM as well.

Other applicants for new FMs in Charlottetown include Coast Broadcasting (95.1, 60 kW DA/213 m, adult pop), Astral Media (92.5, 70 kW DA/213 m, classic rock) and Newcap (89.9, 100 kW/253 m, rock).

At the same October 3 hearing in Charlottetown, the CRTC will also consider proposals for new FMs in New Glasgow, N.S., including one to move CKEC (1320) to 94.1 (100 kW DA/208 m). CKEC faces three competing applicants for 94.1 - Acadia Broadcasting (50 kW/115 m, classic rock), Astral (8 kW/109 m, hot AC) and Atlantic Broadcasters (6 kW/111 m, hot AC/pop).

The CRTC will also consider an application for a new community TV station in St. Andrews, N.B., to operate with 100 watts on channel 26.

Speaking of New Brunswick, it has a new FM station - CFRK (92.3 Fredericton) launched last week as classic rock "92.3 Fred FM."

And we can't leave Canada this week without a few words about Newsworld International, the CBC-programmed news service that went dark as we were going to press Sunday night. (Its channel space was purchased by a group led by Al Gore, which is relaunching the channel as "Current.")

NWI never had a very big audience in the U.S., in part because it was carried mainly on obscure digital cable tiers, but it was always a refreshingly serious and un-flashy alternative to the increasingly tarted-up U.S. cable news channels, and it went out with as much class as ever, giving its staffers a full half-hour Sunday night to say their farewells.

We're big fans here at NERW of the CBC's solid news coverage, and we hope it finds a new venue south of the border for its programming soon.

*And we'll close this week with a couple of brief mini-rants:

TV Guide, 1953-2005: It's been many years since good ol' TV Guide got the media attention it received with last week's announcement that it will cease publication in its current incarnation in October, eliminating local listings and becoming a full-size glossy entertainment magazine.

The move doesn't really come as a surprise to anyone who's been following the slow and sad decline of what was once an American institution. In the last few years, TV Guide appeared to have come unhinged over what it perceived as the threat of online listings and the profusion of new cable listings. A particularly ill-conceived redesign last year consolidated many local editions into nearly useless regional versions, in the process eliminating useful features such as overnight listings and even a guide to which channels were listed. (Here in Rochester, we now get a "Western New York Edition" that lists everything from Syracuse to Erie, Pennsylvania, with no guidance to the uninitiated reader as to whether they can actually receive most of the channels listed.)

It clearly didn't take TVG long to figure out that the changes weren't working; at the end, subscribers were being offered rates as low as 25 cents an issue (against cover prices of $2.49 or more at the diminishing number of newsstands and supermarkets where the magazine was still sold), and some reported continuing to be sent the magazine even after explicitly cancelling it.

The new TV Guide, such as it is, will apparently eliminate much of the padded subscription numbers (including the generic editions that were being sent free to hotel rooms coast to coast), cutting circulation by about two-thirds, and it appears from here that it will be at best a shell of its former self.

The shame of it is, TVG didn't really have to die. Ask any newspaper editor what feature draws the most complaints when it's changed or diminished, and the invariable answers will include comics, sports listings and the weekend TV book. There's clearly a demand for a compact print publication that provides reasonably comprehensive listings, if not for every channel on a 500-channel system, then at least for the top 70 or so. And NERW thinks that a TVG that retained some of the editorial flair that once distinguished it - interesting articles that exposed readers to more of the inside nuances of the TV industry, as opposed to the shallow celebrity profiles of recent years - could still draw readers today.

No, TV Guide was never going to return to the glory years when it was the top-selling magazine in America, but it didn't have to die like this, either.

United Airlines, on the other hand, can't complete its death throes soon enough, as far as your editor and family are concerned. A stroller that's gate-checked in Oakland should, NERW firmly believes, be waiting at the gate in O'Hare, and we do not like being given the run-around with excuse after excuse about where said stroller might be and when it might turn up, especially when there's a small child and stacks of luggage to transport. We'll be taking JetBlue next time we go west, thanks very much.

*We're just weeks away from the debut of the Tower Site Calendar 2006, and we think you'll like the many images and dates that we've collected in the fifth annual offering in the series.

In the meantime, our Tower Site Calendar 2005 clearance continues, and here's how it works: instead of our list price of $16 for this fabulous, full-color, glossy calendar, you can now pick one up for just $8, postpaid. ($8.64 to New York State addresses.) Better yet, if you order two calendars at this special clearance price, we'll throw in a third for free - $16 for THREE calendars, with nine exciting months of 2005 yet to go. (That's $17.28 in NYS.)

Maybe you've already hung your original 2005 calendar on the wall, and you're thinking it would be nice to have another copy to stick away in pristine condition. Maybe you really want to frame that spectacular September page right now - but you still need a calendar later this year. Maybe you just want to help Mrs. NERW clean out the living room and give happy NERW baby Ariel more space to practice walking.

Whatever your motive, now's your big chance, because while there are still 2005 calendars left, there may not be any in a few weeks. (Remember, the 2002 and 2003 editions were total sellouts, and I've had to turn away several of you who were hoping to add these now-rare calendars to your collections.)

And we've got two more great deals for you, too. We still have a few 2004 calendars left, and while they're getting rare, Mrs. NERW wants them gone - so they're yours, in pristine condition, for just $5 postpaid. (Buy two and the third is free!) Or order the 2004 and 2005 calendars together for just $10, postpaid. (What a deal!)

(New York orders pay $5.40 for the 2004 calendar, $10.80 for the 2004 and 2005 together.)

And as always, the calendar's free with your $60 or higher subscription to NorthEast Radio Watch/ In fact, as part of our Early Summer Subscription Drive, you can be among the first to reserve your free 2006 Tower Site Calendar with your $60 subscription - and we'll even send you a 2005 as well, if you ask. Remember, we count on your subscription dollars to keep NERW coming each and every Monday morning!

You can use PayPal, below, or send your check or money order, payable to Scott Fybush, to 92 Bonnie Brae Avenue, Rochester NY 14618. (Please note that the prices below are valid for U.S. and Canadian orders only; please e-mail for information about overseas shipping.)

Order the 2005 Tower Site Calendar on CLEARANCE for $8...
Order the 2005 and 2004 Tower Site Calendars together for just $10...
...or subscribe to NERW at the $60 level and get two FREE 2005 Tower Site Calendars
...and you can still order the 2004 Tower Site Calendar at our special DEEP clearance price of $5! (US and Canada only - e-mail us for overseas ordering information.)

Don't want to order by credit card? You know the drill by now - make those checks payable to "Scott Fybush," be sure to include sales tax (8.%) for New York state calendar orders only, and send them along to 92 Bonnie Brae Avenue, Rochester NY 14618. (Sorry - we can't take orders by phone.)

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NorthEast Radio Watch is made possible by the generous contributions of our regular readers. If you enjoy NERW, please click here to learn how you can help make continued publication possible. NERW is copyright 2005 by Scott Fybush.