In this week’s issue… Cox/Fox swap gives WFXT new owner – Cumulus readies NYC’s new FM – Sinclair sells in PA – New FM in southern Ontario

By SCOTT FYBUSH

MONDAY MORNING UPDATE: It appears Clear Channel is busy cutting staff again, at least here in Rochester. Veteran WHAM (1180) morning man Chet Walker was off the air and off the WHAM website this morning, where “WHAM Morning News” is shown with no host on the schedule. Walker had been a WHAM fixture since 1985; his longtime morning co-host, Beth Adams, lost her spot at WHAM in 2011 and is now across town at WXXI (1370). And in Springfield, WRNX (Kix 100.9) has broken up its morning team of Mike, Kera and Shaggy; they stay on the schedule with individual shifts later in the day, while the syndicated Bobby Bones show takes over mornings.

*Less than a week after the big news of a TV sale in western MASSACHUSETTS, it was the Boston TV market’s turn to be taken by surprise with the news that Fox Television Stations is exiting the region, swapping longtime O&O WFXT (Channel 25) and its Memphis station, WHBQ-TV (Channel 13) to Cox in exchange for San Francisco-market Fox affiliate KTVU (Channel 2) and independent KICU (Channel 36).

wfxt-coxAs valuable as an owned-and-operated station in market 7 might have been to Fox, Rupert Murdoch’s company has long coveted KTVU in market 6, not because it’s significantly larger but simply because of football. As an AFC market, the real football winner in Boston is CBS’ WBZ-TV (Channel 4), which gets to televise all of the Patriots’ Sunday afternoon road games and most of the home games as well. Only the handful of games against an NFC road team end up on Fox and WFXT – but in San Francisco, KTVU gets nearly the complete 49ers schedule, plus a couple of Raiders home games against NFC visitors.

So it’s easy to see what’s in this deal for Fox…but what about Cox? As NERW readers know, Cox has been strategically exiting most of the markets where it can’t combine radio with its TV (and in some cases, legacy newspaper) holdings, which is why it recently sold off its stations in southern Connecticut to Connoisseur, for instance. With two TV stations in San Francisco, might Cox’s radio options in the Bay Area have been too limited?

In any event, speculation is already swirling around Cox’s options to grow its putative cluster in Boston once the ownership swap is official. Of the four big radio clusters in town, CBS Radio and Clear Channel are highly unlikely sellers, and Greater Media’s five-FM cluster is effectively that company’s flagship now that it makes its headquarters in the Boston area. That leaves the troubled Entercom cluster as a possible target for Cox – and a target with some history, at that. That’s because Fox is exiting Boston and selling WFXT for the second time in the station’s history, having owned it from 1987 until 1990 and then repurchased it in in 1995 after Murdoch sold his interest in the Boston Herald. In between Fox ownership, WFXT belonged to the Celtics, as a sister station to pioneering all-sports WEEI, then on 590. Both WEEI and WFXT grew substantially under their subsequent owners, but reuniting WEEI (now on 93.7) and Fox 25 under Cox ownership would still make for some very interesting synergies.

(You can see what Cox does with synergy in a market such as its onetime headquarters town, Dayton, Ohio, where WHIO television and radio share a newsroom with the Dayton Daily News and several nearby dailies. We visited the WHIO complex a few summers ago and recently featured it in Tower Site of the Week.)

*For now, at least, any talk of a larger Cox cluster is still speculative – so what do we know with certainty about what comes next? We know there will be a management change: WFXT VP/GM Gregg Kelley will stay with Fox, taking a cross-country transfer to hold the same post at KTVU/KICU. Cox inherits a vibrant local news operation at WFXT from Fox, something Kelley’s credited with helping to build from the ground up; when Fox repurchased WFXT in 1995, the station’s only local news was a single newscast outsourced to New England Cable News, and now WFXT produces more hours of local news than anyone else in town.

Will Cox maintain that level of news commitment? Out at KTVU, it was Cox that invented much of the news programming now seen on many Fox affiliates – long before Fox even existed, channel 2 was a leader in the Bay Area with its “Ten O’Clock News” and “Mornings on 2,” though our friends out there say the sterling reputation KTVU’s news operation once enjoyed has become tarnished by budget cuts in recent years.

One thing we can say with certainty: “Fox 25” will remain “Fox 25,” since the Fox/Cox deal includes an extended affiliation contract between the network and WFXT’s new owner.

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*Just up the road from WFXT’s Dedham studios, Hearst’s ABC affiliate, WCVB (Channel 5), is celebrating a big promotion for one of its alumni. David Muir was an anchor and reporter at 5 TV Place from 2000 to 2003, when he jumped to the network, eventually becoming the weekend “ABC World News” anchor and, as of this fall, replacing Diane Sawyer on weeknights.

Muir’s roots in NERW-land go even deeper than WCVB: before Boston, the Syracuse native and Ithaca College graduate worked at WTVH (Channel 5) from 1995 until 2000. (And you’ll forgive us a bit of upstate New York pride for noting that when Muir takes over, the network anchor ranks will include two area natives, since NBC’s Brian Williams is a proud son of Elmira, even if he did move to New Jersey early on.)

*There’s an AM sale in central Massachusetts, where Barry Armstrong’s Money Matters Radio is unloading WESO (970 Southbridge). Emmanuel Communications will pay $250,000 for WESO, which will convert to noncommercial operation as a simulcast of Catholic station WNEB (1230 Worcester). Armstrong ended up breaking even (give or take operational costs over the years) on WESO, for which he paid $250,000 himself back in 2001. Money Matters Radio continues on Armstrong’s WBNW (1120 Concord), as well as for most of the day on WPLM (1390 Plymouth).

One of WNEB’s former owners is moving to fill a format gap in Boston. After WKLB (102.5) cancelled its Sunday morning country oldies show, Bob Bittner is filling the hole with the launch of “Country Memories,” a live show he’ll host on Sundays from 8:30 until noon on both WJIB (740 Cambridge) in the Boston market and WJTO (730 Bath) up in MAINE.

wpni*The total count of AM stations in the Bay State is down by one: the FCC has cancelled the license of WPNI (1430 Amherst) after the station’s last licensee, Pamal, reported that “reinstitution of broadcasting is not economically viable.” Pamal kept the AM as a standalone after selling former sister station WRNX (100.9) to Clear Channel in 2006, but in the years since then it’s been carrying placeholder programming (mostly a simulcast of noncommercial WUMB-FM from Boston) while the company sought out a buyer. One emerged last year in the form of Brian Dodge, but after putting down a $10,000 deposit, the Dodge-affiliated “Love Radio Church, Inc.” was unable to consummate the purchase. (Which didn’t stop Dodge from putting WPNI on his business cards and using the station’s studio address for a pile of LPFM applications, but that, as always, is another story…)

In the Berkshires, WUPE (1110) remains active on the AM dial, but it’s about to join the many small AMs that now exist mainly as glorified studio-transmitter links to FM translators. Gamma Broadcasting (part of Bruce Danziger’s Vox family) has applied to use translator W277CJ (103.3) as a relay of WUPE(AM), doubling its power from 50 to 100 watts. The translator, granted last year, had previously been on the books as a rebroadcaster of WUPE-FM (100.1 North Adams); at least for now, the AM and FM simulcast as oldies “Whoopie.”

Radio People on the Move: James Raggi is departing WXKS-FM (Kiss 108), where he’s been producing “Matty in the Morning” and appearing as an on-air sidekick. In his new gig, he’ll be the morning man himself, joining the airstaff at WAJI (95.1 BEST FM) in lovely Fort Wayne, Indiana.

wfasfm*The big news from NEW YORK, of course, is Cumulus’ impending launch of the fourth piece of its cluster. After acquiring WABC (770) and WPLJ (95.5) when it swallowed Citadel, then picking up what’s now WNSH (94.7) from Family Stations, the last piece of the puzzle, ironically, is the one FM Cumulus already owned in the market.

That, of course, is the 103.9 signal that’s been a fixture to the north in Westchester County for decades. NERW readers were the very first to learn that Cumulus was laying the groundwork to move what was then WFAS-FM (103.9 White Plains) into the city, and if you were following our Facebook or Twitter feeds late last week, you were also first to know that the station, now licensed to Bronxville, will take the calls WNBM when it signs on from its new Bronx transmitter site on Friday.

The calls were just about the last thing we didn’t already know about the new “Radio 103.9 New York”; the remaining details beyond what we’d previously reported emerged at the launch party for advertisers last Wednesday at Sylvia’s restaurant in Harlem. In addition to Tom Joyner in mornings and D.L. Hughley in afternoons, middays will feature Sharon “La Loca” Montero, headed north from WPYO in Orlando, while Marc Clarke, late of WHUR in Washington, will do nights.

But before the new WNBM makes its debut on Friday at 1:03 PM, Cumulus had to wind down the long history of WFAS-FM in Westchester. After years of cutbacks, there wasn’t much local airstaff left in Westchester, but morning host Jolana Smith,  afternoon host Hartman and night guy Ron James are now gone, having done their last shows last week. The WFAS-FM format chugs along on automation for a few more days until the Secor Road transmitter site falls silent Thursday night and the new WNBM signs on from its perch in the Bronx.

Final staff picture at WFAS, June 27
Final staff picture at WFAS, June 27

The once-bustling Secor Road WFAS building won’t be completely empty once 103.9 moves, though: in a remarkable move these days, Cumulus will keep WFAS (1230) alive as a standalone AM outlet serving the heart of Westchester. NERW hears WFAS(AM) will focus more tightly on news and talk when it reboots in a few weeks’ time, and we’ll be interested to see how the AM fares against its handful of competitors in the county. The largest, of course, is Pamal’s big-signal WHUD (100.7 Peekskill); it’s widely believed that WHUD was the driving force behind Arbitron’s launch of a larger “Hudson Valley” market in which WFAS-FM couldn’t compete.

But the week’s unintentional irony award goes to our friend Bill O’Shaughnessy at New Rochelle’s WVOX (1460)/WVIP (93.5), who put out a “farewell” to WFAS-FM that carefully noted the “17 (count ’em!) absentee owners” and 43 general managers that station has had over the years. In touting the community service his stations intend to continue providing to Westchester while WFAS-FM/WNBP “turns their focus to the highly competitive New York City market,” the “farewell” letter carefully omitted one important detail: a few years ago, WVIP made the very same move that 103.9 is about to make, relocating its transmitter site from Westchester to the Montefiore Medical Center tower in the Bronx. (And, indeed, anyone seeking an early peek at how the “Radio 103.9” signal will get out when it signs on later this week can tune to WVIP for a nearly identical coverage area.)

*CBS Radio wasn’t in a hurry to change the calls when it flipped WNOW-FM (92.3 New York) from “Now” to “Amp” in May – but those WNOW-FM calls were desirable when CBS lured them away from a station in South Carolina to replace what had long been WXRK, and they were apparently desirable to Radio One’s “Now” in Indianapolis, too. WNOU (100.9 Speedway) flipped to WNOW-FM last Monday, presumably with a bit of cash changing hands, and “92.3 AMP” in New York is now WBMP.

wbai-movePacifica’s WBAI (99.5) is wasting no time preparing for its move from the Empire State Building to 4 Times Square. It filed last Monday to be relicensed at the 4 Times Square site, where it would run 10 kW/926′ from the master antenna, an increase in power and decrease in height from its present 4.3 kW/1361′ at Empire. At least on paper, WBAI’s move (which takes it just 0.86 km to the northwest) would keep its coverage area essentially unchanged; as we noted last week, the real-world effect of the move is likely to be a slightly better signal inside Manhattan buildings, and a slightly weaker signal out at the fringes where the lower 4 Times Square antenna can’t see over hills quite as well as Empire does. The bigger question, of course, is whether Pacifica will have any easier time paying the lower rent at 4 Times Square than it’s had meeting the $50,000 monthly bill at Empire.

*In Syracuse, public broadcaster WCNY is going through some belt tightening. Seven staffers lost their jobs last week ahead of the end of the station’s fiscal year, bringing staffing down to a total of 52 at the stations, WCNY-TV (Channel 24) and WCNY-FM (91.3).

Meanwhile in Buffalo, WBFO (88.7) is hiring: it’s adding Brian Meyer as its news director this fall. The Buffalo Broadcasting Hall of Fame honoree is a veteran reporter and newsroom manager at WBEN (930), but he’s been over on the print/digital side of things more recently, working as a reporter and digital media producer for the Buffalo News. Meyer won’t start his new WBFO gig fulltime until September, six months after former news director Jim Ranney departed for the world of politics.

Over at Townsquare’s Rand Building studios, veteran Buffalo programmer Dave Universal has been quietly doing sales for the last couple of years, since exiting CKEY (Z101) just across the Niagara River in 2012. But Universal, best known for 17 years at Entercom’s WKSE (Kiss 98.5), is returning to the PD chair, taking over from John Lassman at Townsquare’s AC WJYE (96.1 Joy FM). Lassman is headed to Minneapolis and the Cumulus cluster, where he’ll be PD at rocker KXXR (93.7). And is Universal already plotting changes at WJYE? RadioInsight reports a domain registration for “Mix96Buffalo.com,” which would resurrect the “Mix” nickname that had been used across town at WHTT (104.1) from 2007-2009.

*Here in Rochester, Wednesday marks the 30th anniversary of WXXI (1370), one of a small handful of public radio news-talk stations on AM when it launched back in 1984, and one of an even smaller handful now. Your editor will be helping to mark that anniversary with a guest appearance on “Connections with Evan Dawson,” Wednesday at 1 PM.

*There’s still no confirmation of our exclusive-to-NERW story last week that Community Broadcasters is laying the groundwork to buy most of Robert Pfuntner’s Pembrook Pines group in Elmira/Corning. In addition to the domain registrations that our content partners at RadioInsight picked up on last week, there are two more to report this week: Community has registered domains for “Wingz 100.9” and “Star 104.9,” suggesting plans to move classic rock WNGZ from its present Montour Falls-licensed “Wingz 104.9” to the Horseheads-licensed 100.9 signal a few miles south that better covers the Elmira area. That move, of course, would be contingent on whether Community can relocate “Wolf” country from 100.9 (now WPGI) to what’s now Pembrook Pines’ country competitor WOKN (99.5 Southport).

w291by-mix*In Albany, Empire Broadcasting has unveiled the next chapter in its format shuffle, as AC “Mix 106.1” replaces the former Time Warner Cable News simulcast on W291BY (106.1 Albany). Instead of originating on 106.1’s former simulcast partner, WUAM (900 Watervliet), Mix’s AM home is on the former WABY (1160 Mechanicville), where it replaces the standards of “Moon Radio.” The new calls on 1160 are WAIX, and the WABY calls and “Moon Radio” format migrate down the dial to 900, further enhancing the irony that the tower alongside I-90 from which 900 now broadcasts was the home of the original WABY on 1400, now WAMC(AM).

*Is VERMONT ready to welcome “The One”? Ken Squier’s Radio Vermont staff has been hard at work crafting the replacement for the two formats it dropped last week, classical WCVT (101.7 Stowe) and classic rock “Fox” WEXP (101.5 Brandon) down in the Rutland market.

While we’d already reported the broad outlines of what “The One” will sound like, now we have some details. The station’s music mix will, as we predicted, be heavy on AC music from the 1970s through the 1990s, and there will be a heavy news presence from the Radio Vermont News Network and sister station WDEV.

wcvt-101theoneMarion Carol, who’s been off the air for a few years, returns to radio to host “Wake-Up 101” from 6-9 AM on weekdays, followed middays by “Allentown” with music director Frankie Allen (9 AM – 1 PM) and in the afternoons (1-7 PM) by Jim Knight’s “Edge of Knight.”

Both stations have been silent since their previous formats ended on Friday; they’ll spend today running a promotional loop for the new format, and “the One” will kick off Tuesday morning at 6:01 AM.

*On the state line with NEW HAMPSHIRE, Jim Bosh has been the PD and morning guy for Great Eastern’s “KIXX” country simulcast (WXXK 100.5 Lebanon NH/WKKN 101.9 Westminster VT) for a year and a half, but now he’s left the station and the area, returning to Connecticut, where he’d been the morning guy at WWYZ (92.5) in the Hartford market from 2004-2011. He’s pursuing his VO career there, along with some prospects outside of radio, too.

In Skowhegan, MAINE, the Wesserunsett Arts Council’s new 98.1 will be WXNZ-LP.

An update on our True Oldies Channel story from last week: like most affiliates of the network that signed off last night, Binnie Media’s WLVP (870 Gorham)/WLAM (1470 Lewiston) has reportedly flipped to Cumulus’ new offering, Good Time Oldies.

*Sinclair won’t have to shut any stations down in central PENNSYLVANIA in order to complete its near-billion-dollar purchase of Allbritton: it’s struck an $85.3 million deal to spin Allbritton’s ABC affiliate, WHTM (Channel 27) in Harrisburg, to Media General. This is one of Media General’s first deals since swallowing LIN Television; it’s a new state for Media General, and WHTM’s ABC affiliation provides some diversity in a lineup of stations that’s heavy on CBS outlets (especially on the Media General side of the merged MG/LIN.)

whtm-stSinclair keeps its existing presence in the market, CBS affiliate WHP-TV (Channel 21), right across the street from WHTM; for now, at least, WHP is also still operating Nexstar’s CW outlet, WLYH (Channel 15).

And of course we can’t let a mention of Media General and LIN go without noting that in RHODE ISLAND, we’re still waiting to see what gets spun to bring a merged MG/LIN back under the market cap in Providence, where LIN’s CBS affiliate WPRI and Fox affiliate WNAC have been competing with Media General’s NBC affiliate WJAR. Sinclair was speculated to be a possible buyer there – but if a Providence deal were in the works between Sinclair and Media General, it likely would have been done as a swap for WHTM, reducing the tax liability on both sides.

*Tony Bruno is out at Greater Media’s Philadelphia sports talker, WPEN-FM (97.5 Burlington NJ), where the veteran host has been part of the “Fanatic” since 2010, most recently in the late morning slot with Harry Mayes. Bruno says he and the station were unable to reach a deal on a contract extension; will he end up across town at CBS Radio’s WIP-FM (94.1)?

Radio People on the Move: Two veteran managers at opposite ends of the state are retiring. In Philadelphia, Natalie Conner has been a fixture at Beasley’s WXTU (92.5) and WRDW-FM (96.5), where she started as national sales manager in 1991 and has been running the cluster since 2005, most recently as VP/market manager. She’s transitioning out of the role slowly, staying on full-time until a replacement is named and then continuing as a consultant to Beasley afterward. (That will be easy, geographically, since she’s relocating to Beasley’s headquarters town, Fort Myers, Florida.) In Pittsburgh, Chuck Gratner has run Salem’s WORD-FM (101.5) and WPIT (730), but after 23 years with the stations and an even half-century in radio, he’s retiring tomorrow. Tom Lemmon, the stations’ general sales manager, moves up to the GM chair to replace Gratner.

Back east, Sarah O’Conner is out as PD of Radio One’s WPHI (107.9 Pennsauken NJ); AllAccess reports Darrick Williams, PD of sister station WRNB (100.3 Media), will become operations manager for the entire cluster, overseeing WRNB (“Old School 100.3”), WPHI (“Hot 107.9”) and gospel WPPZ (103.9 Jenkintown)

Outside Philadelphia, Neumann University’s new LPFM station has changed calls. WRNU-LP (98.5) will instead be WNUW-LP when it signs on the air. (Will its air studio be outfitted with U47s?)

*Few college stations have been as consistently good at placing graduates in good positions in the industry as NEW JERSEY‘s WSOU (89.5 South Orange), and now the Seton Hall station has provided a good job right within its walls for a talented alumna. Jennifer Kajzer, a 1999 Seton Hall graduate, worked as an “integrated media manager” for CBS Radio across the river in New York, but now she’s returned to campus as WSOU’s new underwriting and marketing manager.

If that last name sounds familiar, it should – Kajzer’s sister Jackie, also a WSOU alum, has made a big name in the business herself as syndicated host “Full Metal Jackie.”

*In CANADA, there’s another new FM signal coming to southern Ontario now that the CRTC has approved an application from David Holdgate’s R.B. Communications Ltd. to build a sister station to his “Giant FM” (CIXL 91.7) in Welland. The new signal on 89.1 will bring back the country format that was last heard in the Niagara region on CIXL’s predecessor, CHOW (1470). It will run 564 watts average/3.1 kW max DA/130.5 m.

United Christian Broadcasters has won CRTC permission to add a relay transmitter at Maynooth, north of Bancroft, Ontario. The 50-watt/45 m signal will operate on 94.7, rebroadcasting CKJJ (102.3) from Belleville.

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From the NERW Archives

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: July 1, 2013

*What North American nation has the most consolidated mass media? There’s now a very good case to be made for CANADA, where regulators on Thursday approved Bell’s second attempt to swallow Astral Media, creating a media mammoth that includes the nation’s largest satellite TV provider, the nation’s largest English-language commercial TV network, one of the biggest radio groups in the nation, as well as a large roster of cable networks. (And, oh yeah, a phone company, too.)

astral-bellAs you’ll recall, the CRTC turned down Bell’s first attempt at the C$3.4 billion deal last fall, citing concerns about too much concentration, especially where pay TV is concerned. The revised version of the deal requires Bell to spin off several additional cable networks to bring it down to about 22 percent of the French TV market (still a huge increase from Bell’s present status) and about 35 percent of the English TV market.

On the broadcast side, little has changed in the second version of the deal: Bell will still spin off ten radio stations, including CHBM (97.3 Boom FM) and CFXJ (93.5 Flow FM) in Toronto and CJOT (99.7 Boom FM) and CKQB (106.9 the Bear) in Ottawa. But the merged entity will still bring together a solid Toronto cluster with Astral’s clusters in surrounding southern Ontario markets including Hamilton and St. Catharines, and it will bring Bell into the Maritime provinces in a bigger way.

Perhaps most significantly, the CRTC decided to allow Bell to keep CKGM (690 Montreal) alongside the three English-language stations (CJAD 800, CJFM 95.9 and CHOM 97.7) and two French-language stations (CKMF 94.3 and CITE 107.3) it’s acquiring from Astral. Canadian market caps would have limited Bell to only three stations in a market the size of the Montreal Anglophone market, but Bell persuaded the CRTC that owning a fourth station would allow it to keep CKGM’s specialty sports talk format alive. As a consequence, Bell must retain the current “TSN Radio 690” format on CKGM for the next seven years. (The only other independently-owned English commercial station in Montreal for now is Cogeco’s CKBE 92.5, though it’s expected to be joined by a new talk station on 600 owned by the TTP group later this year.)

*In MASSACHUSETTS – not to mention the proverbial “38 states and half of Canada” that can hear WBZ (1030 Boston) at night – it’s been just over a year since Steve LeVeille departed the weekday overnight shift, leaving a slot that’s been filled by a rotating cast of part-timers including former WRKO (680) host Jen Brien and WBZ’ers Bradley Jay and Morgan White Jr.

The slot once filled by Larry Glick, Dave Maynard, Bob Raleigh and LeVeille is officially vacant no more: as of last Thursday morning, it’s now Jen Brien’s full-time home from midnight until 5 AM. While Brien’s being widely billed as the first woman to hold down a full-time talk shift in WBZ’s history, that’s not quite true: veteran Boston broadcaster Janet Jeghelian filled the overnight shift at one point as well, though she’s much better remembered for her years at WRKO.

Brien’s selection as the full-time host brought LeVeille back to the WBZ airwaves for the first time in a year, making a ten-minute appearance by phone to pass the crown, figuratively speaking, to his successor. (LeVeille insisted, however, that he and Brien are simply keeping the “Larry Glick Show” alive.) Don’t expect him back as a fill-in, though: he tells NERW that his new life in Maine has him “happy as a clam, fried, steamed or otherwise,” and that he’s keeping himself very busy writing and enjoying the beach.

*A central NEW JERSEY FM station has once again changed frequencies. What’s now WPDI (103.9 Hazlet) started out as noncommercial class D WVRM at 89.3, eventually becoming WCNJ and then Indian “Dhoom FM” WDDM before being displaced from 89.3 by newcomer WFJS in Freehold. That’s when the station became WPDI and moved to 104.7, but that frequency conflicted with an Edison-based translator that also serves the South Asian community in the area. On Thursday, WPDI was granted a construction permit to slide down the dial to 103.9, still with 10 watts; interestingly, listeners in the area had already heard WPDI testing on that frequency several weeks earlier. (We’ve also heard reports of full-fledged commercials running on what should be a noncommercial facility.)

Five Years Ago: June 29 & July 6, 2009

Remember the days when radio was a vital part of the national conversation? When a station like WABC or WIBG or WRKO could cut across demographic boundaries to bring entire communities together with music and personality? The radio industry spends a lot of time wondering where those days went – but for a few days late last week, it regained a bit of that old relevance in the wake of the death of one of radio’s biggest stars.

At the height of his own career in the eighties, of course, Michael Jackson transcended radio; it can even be argued that the boost his groundbreaking videos gave to MTV in its early years helped the TV network usurp the role that top-40 radio had long played in shaping America’s musical tastes. None of that mattered, though, on Thursday evening. As word spread that Jackson had suffered a heart attack – and, not long afterward, of his death at the age of 50 – many radio stations all over the region, and the nation, quickly crossed format lines and dug out old CDs and even LPs as they launched into nonstop hours of Jackson’s music.

“Many” stations, mind you, and not “all,” because the timing of Jackson’s death, especially here in the east, pointed up the new reality of radio, circa 2009: when the music and the voicetracks on a radio station were programmed by someone miles away and hours before, it’s much harder for that station to rise to the occasion by providing listeners with the music and the information they didn’t know they needed ahead of time. (Note the demand for Jackson music in record stores and at online sites – a demand that radio was uniquely positioned to meet, immediately and efficiently.) But our purpose here this week is not to call out the stations that found themselves ill-prepared to react to the breaking news from Los Angeles; instead, we note just some of the ones that rose to the occasion:

-In New York City, Jackson’s music was all over the dial within minutes of his death. Urban stations, including WBLS (107.5) and WRKS (98.7), went wall-to-wall Jackson through the weekend; classic hits WCBS-FM (101.1) offered several all-Jackson hours on Thursday, followed by several songs an hour thereafter; we’re told that even a few of the city’s Spanish-language stations were playing Jackson’s songs Thursday night.

-Boston’s WXKS-FM (107.9) and WJMN (94.5) are the descendants of two of the stations that played Jackson’s music most heavily in the “Thriller” era, and both were heavy on Jackson’s music after his death. So was WODS (103.3), where Barry Scott devoted his weekend “Lost 45s” show entirely to Jackson.

-In Philadelphia, most of the FM dial was full of Jackson’s music Thursday night, spanning the format spectrum from AC (WISX 106.1) to adult hits (WBEN-FM 95.7) to urban (WUSL 98.9, WDAS-FM 105.3, WRNB 107.9) to oldies (WOGL 98.1).

-In Pittsburgh, PBRTV.com’s Jason Togyer reports that Jackson music also crossed format lines, though it was oddly absent at young-skewing top-40 competitors WKST-FM (96.1) and WBZW (93.7) and in short supply early on at several of the city’s voicetracked FMs. (Little WKHB 620 was live-and-local with nonstop Jackson tunes starting at 7:15 Thursday night, reports PD Clarke Ingram…)

-Syracuse’s WLTI (105.9) blew out the syndicated Delilah show to go wall-to-wall Jackson, reports CNYRadio.com, with PD Tom Mitchell and APD Brian Phillips rushing to get the songs loaded into the automation system at the last moment.

-Here in Rochester, stations were oddly slow to start playing Jackson’s music as the news broke on Thursday, but the spotlight (and the local TV news) was soon firmly focused on locally-owned urban WDKX (103.9). There was no need to go scrambling for songs there; Jackson tunes have been a staple on WDKX from its earliest days 35 years ago, and the station’s phone lines were ringing nonstop with remembrances and requests all weekend as WDKX went wall-to-wall Jackson. (Buffalo’s WBLK was also wall-to-wall Jackson, at least on Friday.)

As your editor observed in a Boston Globe article Saturday, there aren’t likely to be many other moments quite like this in radio’s future, if only because it’s hard to imagine any other artists who crossed rigid format boundaries to appeal to so many listeners for so many years. But for a few days, at least, it was refreshing to hear radio doing what it does best: being a true mass medium in a way that no MP3 player or webcast or cellphone can do. Is it too much to hope that some of that spark might last?

Ten Years Ago: June 28, 2004

In NEW JERSEY, the major breaking news this past week was something insiders had been expecting for a long while now: the sale of WCHR-FM (105.7 Manahawkin) from Nassau to Millennium. In addition to classic rock “Hawk,” though, Millennium’s getting another FM outlet for its $40 million, as Nassau throws in smooth jazz WOJZ (104.9 Egg Harbor City) to the deal.

In NEW YORK, we now know who’ll replace the syndicated Doug Banks in mornings on WBLS (107.5 New York). Rick Party’s coming up from Miami’s WEDR (99.1) to take over the shift on July 6. He’ll be joined by Sonia Colon, who’s headed uptown from WQHT (97.1). And new in middays at WBLS is Adimu, who heads east from KKBT (100.3) in Los Angeles.

Up in Rochester, Clear Channel’s getting ready to swap facilities at two of its FMs. On July 4, classic hits “Fox” WFXF (107.3 South Bristol) will take over the big 50 kW class B signal now occupied by WNVE (95.1 Honeoye Falls), while modern rock “Nerve” will relocate from the market-blanketing 95.1 to the rimshot-on-a-good-day class A 107.3 signal that emanates from 35 miles out of town.

Some back story here: A few years ago, Clear Channel moved 95.1 from the perch atop Bristol Mountain that it had occupied for half a century, changing its city of license from South Bristol to Honeoye Falls and co-locating it with WVOR 100.5 on Baker Hill in Perinton, much closer to the city. To make that improvement, though, the 107.3 signal was effectively sacrificed, leaving its Honeoye Falls city of license and Bloomfield tower site to go to the more distant Bristol site and become the replacement “sole local service” – cough, cough, hack – to the 1200 or so souls of South Bristol.

Amazingly, despite having no airstaff, not much signal and almost no promotion, 107.3 placed respectably in the ratings as “The Fox,” enough so that Clear Channel’s giving the format a shot at the big stick and a better chance to shave some numbers off Infinity’s heritage classic rocker WCMF (96.5) and Entercom’s classic hits WBZA (98.9).

As for the Nerve, we suspect its fate was sealed when Clear Channel took Howard Stern off its airwaves in February; will it be anything more than a placeholder on 107.3 in its new incarnation? (2009 update: No.)

Just after NERW went to press last Monday, Vox made some big changes at its remaining stations in western MASSACHUSETTS, killing off the very soft AC at WMNB (100.1 North Adams) and the AC at WUPE (95.9 Pittsfield) and replacing both with an oldies simulcast as “Whoopee.”

“Whoopee” has a full airstaff: Joanne Billow moves to mornings there from the morning show at sister WBEC-FM (105.5 Pittsfield). Alex Seseske, who was doing WUPE’s morning show, moves to middays, followed by PD Dave Isby in the afternoon and A.J. Kelley at night. Over at Live 105.5, Billow’s former co-host Steve Murray moves to afternoons and OM Mike Patrick takes over mornings.

One valley over, we hear Air America Radio is coming to Northampton and the Pioneer Valley next week. That’s when Saga’s WHMP (1400 Northampton)/WHNP (1600 East Longmeadow)/WHMQ (1240 Greenfield) will pick up some Air America programming. Still no sign of a Boston affiliate…

Fifteen Years Ago: July 2, 1999

We’ll start this week with two station sales in MASSACHUSETTS. The big one is out west in the Berkshires, where Tele-Media is paying $4.65 million to buy Aritaur’s three-station group, news-talk WBEC (1420 Pittsfield), CHR WBEC-FM (105.5 Pittsfield), and religious WZEC (97.5 Hoosick Falls NY, still running the format it had in its pre-Aritaur days as WNGN). The deal expands Tele-Media’s reach eastward from its station group in Albany (WABY, WABY-FM, WKLI/WKBE) over the state line into the Pittsfield market, and leaves NERW wondering — is an Albany-Pittsfield simulcast on the way?

We also have to wonder what will become of the other station owned by Aritaur’s Joseph Gallagher, WBET (1460) in Brockton. Gallagher’s KJI Broadcasting sold WBET’s sister station, WCAV (97.7), to Radio One a few weeks back for a tidy profit.

Meantime, the other station in Brockton, WMSX (1410), is getting a new owner — and it’s a familiar buyer of late. Keating Willcox’s Willow Farm Broadcasting is paying $674,000 to buy WMSX from Donald Sandler, the second deal in a year Sandler’s Metro South Broadcasting has made to sell the station. The first, to Monte Bowen’s Griot Communications, was never consummated.

The other big news from MASSACHUSETTS is the impending end of the six-year relationship between Don Imus and WEEI (850 Boston). WEEI’s new Entercom owners aren’t renewing their contract with Imus’ syndicator, Infinity, which expires August 24. WEEI was reportedly paying well into seven figures annually for the rights to carry Imus, and ratings weren’t reflecting it…so now Infinity begins the search for a new Boston Imus affiliate. Rumors are already flying about a new FM home for the I-man, but nothing’s confirmed yet, so stay tuned…

Saratoga Springs’ WKAJ (900) is getting new calls to go with its new owner. Ernie Anastos has applied for WUAM as the new calls for the little adult-standards outlet, marking the second time the station has dropped its original calls. Just north in Glens Falls, the FCC lists WCQL as the “new calls” for the station on 95.9, which is kind of silly since the license has been around for a couple of decades and the WCQL calls have been in use there for a few years now. Sounds like a database correction to us…

Heading towards Syracuse, we’re told new WRVD (90.3) is on with just half power for now, but that should change soon.

Auburn’s WHCD (106.9) is indeed being sold, as Butch Charles hands over the keys to the smooth-jazz outlet to “Mag Mile Media LLC.” We’re keeping an ear on this one, which comes in quite well under the flea-power signal of local WKGS (106.7 Irondequoit); updates to follow.

A well-known voice is returning to Rochester’s WCMF (96.5) on the weekdays. Bill Moran (“The Moranimal”) yielded the 3-7 PM slot on ‘CMF to BJ Shea two years ago; now Shea is out the door and Moran returns to the slot after a couple of years in the advertising business (and doing weekends on WCMF to keep his pipes fresh).

And just over the state line in PENNSYLVANIA, there are a bunch of call and format changes to report in the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre market, most of them involving the Citadel mega-group: WKQV (1550 Pittston) and WEMR (1460 Tunkhannock) switch from One-on-One Sports to Music of Your Life; WCDL (1440 Carbondale) changes calls to WKJN but keeps its simulcast with news-talk WARM (590 Scranton); rock simulcast “The Bear” (WZMT 97.9 Hazleton/WKQV-FM 95.7 Olyphant) takes on new calls WXBE and WXAR, respectively (get it — “BE” and “AR” = “BEAR”?); and over in Mount Pocono, WILT (960) is being sold to Nassau Broadcasting in nearby New Jersey, ending its LMA with and simulcast of WILK (980 Wilkes-Barre).

Twenty Years Ago – June 29, 1994

WBZ has introduced a new financial show on Saturdays from 3-5. “The Money Managers” is hosted by Dee Lee of the Herald and Dave Caruso of New England Cable News. It replaces “Learning Center Live.”

And despite all the reports that Stern will be moving to AM drive on WBCN imminently, sorry, Charlie. WBCN morning institution Charles Laquidara has just signed a long-term contract with the Rock of Boston that will keep Laquidara on BCN mornings past the turn of the century. So much for retiring to Florida… (2009 update: Contracts are made to be bought out…and it turned out to be Hawaii in the end for Laquidara.)

7 COMMENTS

  1. May I offer a correction? WNEB is broadcasting in English these days — and so will WESO if the sale is approved and consummated.

  2. Any thoughts on the possibility of affiliation swaps between Sinclair and Media General (down the road) in Harrisburg ? Sinclair must see considerable upside to keep WHP-21 (distressed or underperforming assets with the multitude of owners since locally-owned?) “CBS 21” has not been a local news leader since the early 80s.

    If “Newschannel 8” gets rolled-out in some form nationally, perhaps WHP will get reworked too with a dedicated HD channel for NC8?

    Media General may find it easier to leverage CBS (via a WHTM affiliation). Your thoughts, Scott ?

    • I don’t see any affiliation changes. Sinclair’s big goal here is to clear the way for speedy FCC approval of the purchase of WJLA, which is really the only reason it wanted Allbritton. It’s not going to let the possibility of a slight upgrade in Harrisburg slow down the main event in DC. I’m sure the deal with Media General was a strictly “as-is” sale.

  3. WABY/Moon Radio now transmitting on 900 AM Watervliet.
    But the station’s studios are in Malta.
    It sounds like the studio can’t pick up their own signal.

  4. Would not the TV Radio cross ownership rule prevent Cox from having radio in the Boston market. The combinations they have in Dayton and Atlanta are grandfathered by the FCC.

    • The grandfathering in Dayton and Atlanta applies to broadcast/newspaper crossownership, which is not currently allowed (though it’s silly that it isn’t.) Radio-TV crossownership is permitted, though it means you can’t have quite as large a radio cluster as you’d otherwise have. Cox could buy up to 7 radio stations in the area WFXT serves.

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