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December 19, 2005

WCRB's Fate Becomes Clearer

*The future of one of eastern MASSACHUSETTS' most powerful FM signal is a little clearer this week - but Greater Media's announcement that it's entered into exclusive negotiations to buy WCRB (102.5 Waltham) from Charles River Broadcasting raises just as many questions as it's likely to answer.

The answers, first: Charles River's decision to sit down at the table with Greater Media closes the book (most likely) on several months of talks with potential buyers that included Clear Channel, Entercom, Infinity, Marlin and, reportedly, the Boston Red Sox. Neither Clear Channel nor Infinity has said anything publicly about what their intentions for 102.5 would have been. Marlin's Woody Tanger says he would have kept WCRB's classical format, but his bid, in the $60 million range, fell far short of Charles River's target. Entercom's Julie Kahn told Boston media outlets that she would have moved the rock format of WAAF (107.3 Worcester) to 102.5 and kept classical alive on 107.3. The Sox would no doubt have created a sports station on the frequency, in what would have been a major challenge to Entercom's market-dominating WEEI.

So what will Greater Media do with the full-market 102.5 signal, if it's able to complete a deal with Charles River (likely for an amount somewhere north of $90 million)?

The company's already at the FCC-imposed limit of five FM signals in the Boston market. Four of those are full-market signals, transmitting from the Prudential Tower (WBOS 92.9, WTKK 96.9, WROR 105.7 and WMJX 106.7). The fifth - and the one Greater Media would no doubt spin off if it acquires WCRB - is country WKLB (99.5 Lowell), which transmits from Andover, with an excellent signal over Boston's northern suburbs, the Merrimack Valley and southern New Hampshire, but without the reach into Boston or the western and southern suburbs that Greater Media would like to have.

So it's likely that WKLB's country music would come to rest at 102.5 on the dial (with classical music continuing on the HD Radio subchannel there, if Charles River gets its wish), and that 99.5 would then hit the market - and what then?

That 99.5 signal may not be full-market for Boston, but that hardly makes it undesirable - in fact, it's not hard to imagine it bringing a price even higher than the $60 million or so Tanger would have paid for 102.5, which in turn means that 99.5 is unlikely to end up as a classical station when the dust settles. (It doesn't help that the 99.5 signal is weakest in many of the areas where WCRB's listenership was strongest; can you run a Boston classical station that can't be heard at Symphony Hall?)

Will the other potential WCRB buyers be in the market for 99.5? Who else might find that signal desirable - and in particular, will the concentration of Hispanic listeners in the Merrimack Valley, where the signal is strongest, interest growing Spanish broadcasting groups like Univision, SBS, Bustos or even the hometown Costa-Eagle in spending the kind of money it would take to put a Spanish FM on the air in the market?

That's sure to be a major topic here as 2006 dawns...stay tuned!

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Don't wait for the holiday rush to catch you. If you haven't subscribed yet for 2006, do it right now at our Support page - and enjoy another exciting year of NERW, starting next week with our comprehensive 2005 Year in Review. (And thanks!)

*In other news from around the Bay State, WEEI (850) has named former NECN sportscaster Mike Adams as the permanent replacement for Ted Sarandis in the 7-midnight shift. Adams has been filling in on the shift for several months now, and the position became permanent after a stunt last week in which Adams "locked himself in the studio," saying he wouldn't come out until he got the gig. (An old one? Yes, but well-enough staged, apparently, to get the listeners calling and e-mailing PD Jason Wolfe, who made "Planet Mikey" official after about four hours of the stunt.)

*A RHODE ISLAND high school has settled the dispute over its FM license. Coventry High School's WCVY (91.5) had its license challenged by a group called "Educational Radio for the Public of the New Millennium," under a provision which can force noncommercial stations to share time on their frequency if they broadcast for less than 12 hours a day.

Many school stations, facing similar challenges, have installed automation and gone to a 24-hour schedule. Coventry, however, decided to settle - and so WCVY will be limited to operating from 2-10 PM on school days, with "Educational Radio" (which we believe is a religious broadcaster, the name notwithstanding) operating on 91.5 the remainder of the day during the school session, and all day on weekends and school holidays.

The new 91.5 signal, licensed to East Greenwich, will operate with 100 watts from 48 meters above average terrain.

*Down in Westerly, WBLQ (88.1) changes calls to WKIV under its new "K-Love" LMA. The old calls move to WBLQ-LP (96.9 Ashaway), formerly WCTD-LP.

*A NEW HAMPSHIRE politician-turned-talk host will be off the air after the New Year. Arnie Arnesen's show was cancelled on WNTK-FM (99.7 New London)/WUVR (1490 Lebanon) earlier this fall, and now the originating station, WTPL (107.7 Hillsborough) says it won't keep Arnesen on the air after this month. Arnesen says her outspoken views - including calling SUVs "F-U-Vs" and ridiculing their owners - made it hard for the station to attract advertisers. She continues her TV gig, hosting "My TV Prime" on WZMY (Channel 50) in Derry, and we suspect we haven't heard the last of her by a long shot. WTPL has yet to announce a replacement for Arnesen's afternoon slot.

Nassau's WHDQ (106.1 Claremont) is on the air from its new antenna. The station was on Green Mountain, above Claremont, running 9500 watts at 326 meters above average terrain; now it's sharing an antenna with Vermont Public Radio's WVPR (89.5 Rutland) atop Mount Ascutney in Vermont, where it runs 1.58 kW/685 m.

*On the other side of VERMONT, WFAD (1490 Middlebury) has traded oldies for ESPN sports, sharing the format with sister station WTWK (1070 Plattsburgh NY) in the Burlington market. The stations are branding themselves as "ESPN Radio Champlain Valley," and WFAD continues as the Red Sox affiliate for Middlebury as well. (WTWK's a daytimer, and it doesn't have Sox rights for Burlington; presumably it'll separate from the simulcast with WFAD during Sox day games.)

A few programming shuffles in Burlington: WVMT (620) is dropping Sean Hannity in afternoon drive, in favor of WRKO's Howie Carr - who was ousted from afternoons there a year ago when Hannity was added. On the FM dial, WIZN (106.7 Vergennes) will install the Indianapolis-based Bob and Tom in morning drive to replace Howard Stern.

*And yes, Stern's departure from terrestrial radio is our top story from NEW YORK this week. Love him or hate him - and we'll admit to a little of both - it's hard to argue that his two decades at WXRK (92.3 New York) didn't change the conception of what a radio morning show could be.

The turnout on West 56th Street on a drizzly Friday morning - tens of thousands of Stern fans waiting for several hours to see Howard and his crew say their farewells (and to repeat, over and over again, that his show was "the last of a dying breed") - was itself something of a testament to the bond Stern and his radio family forged with their listeners over the years, and it's prompted much head-scratching over the question of where those listeners will go now. Will they rush out to buy Sirius receivers and subscriptions? Will they give David Lee Roth a chance? Will they leave radio entirely? Some thoughts, in a NERW Mini-Rant:

There's a lot of talk in the industry right now about whether or not Sirius' $500 million, five-year deal with Stern will pay for itself, complete with message-board and mailing-list predictions about precisely how many new Sirius subscriptions Stern will generate.

We'd submit that such a green-eyeshade approach misses the point completely.

What Mel Karmazin is doing with his $500 million is a gamble, and history tells us that those who bet against Mel Karmazin generally don't come out ahead.

The gamble is not just that Stern will draw $500 million in new subscriber revenue over the next few years, or that he'll bring that much in new advertising to Sirius. The gamble, as we see it, is that this uniquely high-profile hire will establish satellite radio as more than just a niche entertainment medium.

There's a certain myopia right now among many in the radio community - a feeling that the fight that matters is the one between terrestrial radio and satellite radio.

From where we sit, that's too narrow a viewpoint. Walk into your local Circuit City or Costco or Wal-Mart, and it should be blindingly obvious that there have never before been this many competing media fighting for the public's entertainment dollars. It's not just a question of whether you buy Sirius or XM or an HD Radio (once they finally hit the store shelves) - it's a question of whether that money might be better spent on a TiVo or a flat-panel TV or an Xbox 360 or an iPod nano.

Only the most devoted gadget freak can justify spending the money on all the new toys that are out there - and even if they do, there are only so many hours in the day to watch and listen to all that content.

So how do you break through the noise out there and get consumers to pay attention to a new technology that requires new radios and a monthly subscription fee? Let's just say the kind of massive publicity that the Stern move has garnered isn't a bad beginning at all - and that it's only a beginning.

What Mel Karmazin understands, and what he's paying $500 million for, is the idea that a new technology is only as good as the content that it carries. Whether or not you care for Howard Stern's particular brand of radio, there's no arguing that what he offers represents one of radio's biggest selling points - he creates, as well as anyone anywhere on the radio dial, a passionate connection with his listeners that can't be automated or easily replicated. (Ask yourself: would you really want to be in David Lee Roth's shoes now, or Adam Carolla's?)

Karmazin's gamble, as we see it, is that he can use the credibility that Stern (and, to be fair, other Sirius content such as the NFL) brings to the new medium to turn it into something much bigger. Is Stern, in fact, the Milton Berle who will turn satellite radio from an expensive toy into an expensive must-have item? (Got a better candidate?)

In our Year-End Rant, we'll explore the future of satellite radio further - and in particular, our vision of a future in which satellite and terrestrial broadcasters might be able to work together. Crazy? Stay tuned...

In the meantime, Stern's now-former station in New York, WXRK (92.3), says it will roll out its new WFNY-FM calls on January 1, followed quickly by the new daytime schedule that now officially includes JV and Elvis (aka the Doghouse) in middays. The station will continue to play rock on the weekends, with an airstaff that includes Julie Slater (the only remaining WXRK jock) and veterans Harris Allan and Dan Neer.

In Albany, the Stern fallout turns out to include a format change, as Regent's WQBK (103.9 Rensselaer)/WQBJ (103.5 Cobleskill) flip from modern rock "The Edge" to active rock "Q103," adding more classic rock (and the Michigan-based "Free Beer and Hot Wings" morning show) to the schedule.

The other big story from New York this week was Bob Grant's announcement that he'll be leaving WOR (710) in January. Grant came to WOR in 1996 after his comments about former Commerce Secretary Ron Brown got him ousted from his longtime home at WABC; and he's never had the same visibility in his 4-6 PM slot on WOR that he did in earlier years. WOR's moving away from political talk when Grant leaves; he'll be replaced by chef Rocco diSpirito in that prime drivetime slot.

Out on Long Island, WLIM (1580 Patchogue) drops its Polskie Radio Polish programming. It flipped to Spanish full-service programming as "Radio Formula" early last week, with Polskie Radio continuing on WRKL (910 New City) at the other end of the metro area.

Up in the Hudson Valley, Red Hook is getting a new "local" radio station, as WKZE (1020 Sharon) and WKZE-FM (98.1 Salisbury) move their studios across the state line from CONNECTICUT into a new home on South Broadway. Along with the move comes a format change on the AM side, which drops its simulcast of the FM's AAA programming in favor of Air America talk.

Way upstate, local nighttime talk has been missing from the radio dial for a few years now, but it's on the way back in Buffalo in January, as WBEN (930) drops Laura Schlessinger from its schedule in favor of a local show with Ron Dobson. Dobson worked at WGR (550) when it was a mainstream talker in the mid-nineties, and in recent years he's been a stay-at-home dad, though he's been heard on some fill-in shifts on WBEN. Can Rochester or Syracuse hope for local talk after dark again someday, too? We can dream...

*A dark PENNSYLVANIA AM station is returning to the air. WHGT (1590 Chambersburg, formerly WCBG) has been silent since December 4, 2004, when a settlement between owner Verstandig and the city of Chambersburg allowed the city to take the station's tower site so that construction could proceed on a nearby water tower. (Its planners apparently had never considered the problems that would arise from building so close to a 5000-watt AM station.)

Now Verstandig is donating WHGT to the Emmanuel Baptist Temple, in a gift valued at $250,000. The station will be back on shortly with 100-watt temporary facilities; the church apparently plans to build a new directional array for the station.

In Pittsburgh, B.J. Leber is leaving her post as senior VP/station manager at public broadcaster WQED to become chief of staff for mayor-elect Bob O'Connor.

And just up the road, Clarke Ingram (former PD at WBZZ and WJJJ) has been promoted to PD at Bob Stevens' pair of oldies/talk/leased-time AMs, WKHB (620 Irwin) and WKFB (770 Jeannette) - congratulations, Clarke!

*There's a format - or at least a nickname - change in CANADA this week, as hot AC CKMB (107.5 Barrie) drops its "Star 107.5" identity and becomes "107.5 Kool FM." The name change coincides with CKMB's move to a more powerful signal from the CKVR (Channel 3) tower south of Barrie.

In Ottawa, Samantha Stevens leaves CISS (Kiss 105.3) - she's headed for Toronto and middays at CILQ (Q107).

Corus is launching traffic helicopters in several Canadian cities in early 2006, including Toronto (where CFMJ's "Chopper 640" will be in the air January 9, also serving sister stations CILQ and CFNY) and Montreal (where the "Corus News Traffic Chopper" will serve the company's six-station cluster beginning January 16). In Hamilton, CHML's "Skyview 900 Traffic" will be provided by a fixed-wing aircraft beginning January 9, and will also be heard on CING (95.3) and CJXY (Y108).

The CRTC has granted Aboriginal Voices Radio an extension of time to build its stations in Kitchener-Waterloo and in Edmonton; it now has until Sept. 1 to get those facilities on the air. The CRTC also granted an extension of time for Leamington's new community TV station. CFTV (Channel 34) now has until Nov. 19 to finish its construction.

*And that's it for another year of regular weekly updates here at NERW! We won't have a December 26 issue, as the industry shuts down (more or less) for the holidays, but we'll post updates here if anything big breaks, and we'll have our 2005 Year in Review and Year-End Rant up before New Year's Eve. We'll be back with a regular issue January 2 - see you then!

*Working through those holiday lists? Tower Site Calendar 2006 is the perfect gift for the radio guy (or gal) who has everything else - and there's still plenty of time to get your copy under the tree/menorah/Blaw-Knox diamond tower model of your choice. (And, let's face it, wouldn't an 8-foot Blaw-Knox diamond be an amazingly cool thing to hang your ornaments on?)

We've got to say, we're especially proud of the way this year's calendar turned out. Once again, we bring you more than a dozen images from the collection that have never seen print before, including that nifty nighttime view of New York's WMCA that graces the cover. You also get to see WSB, KTAR, Mount Wilson, CBV and many, many more, plus all those fun dates in radio and TV history, civil and religious holidays, a handy full-page 2007 calendar, and the always-popular hole for hanging.

And we do it all with no increase in price, for the fourth year running!

You can get one free with your 2006 subscription to NERW at the $60 level, or order the calendar (plus other goodies) at our brand new Store! We think you'll like this one - and as always, we thank you for your support.

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.