In this week’s issue… The end game for Boston’s talk shuffle – Local ends at “WFAS-FM” – Remembering Maine’s Fred Hirsch – Baseball on the Radio: Single A Edition
By SCOTT FYBUSH
We’re a community.
Yes, we’ve been writing about the Boston AM talk scene more often than its listener count might justify, but how can we resist when the stories keep writing themselves? Consider: in just the last few days, one upstart talker lost one of its expected stars and defended another from a drunk-driving charge. And with a third talker already poised to launch soon, it now looks like there will also be a fourth bottom-rung entry in the talk sweepstakes, answering the Rush Limbaugh question once and for all.
The arrest first: when WMEX (1510) launched Michele McPhee’s afternoon show just last Tuesday, it looked like the station had finally managed to land something approximating a recognizable name on the Boston talk landscape. McPhee had been one of the linchpins of the old WTKK (96.9), as well as being recognizable for her work at the Herald and at WCVB (Channel 5), where she made a name for herself as the staunchest supporter the police had anywhere in the media.
And so when McPhee was pulled over by a state trooper early Thursday morning in South Boston, she reportedly pulled the full “don’t you know who I am?,” refusing to take a breath test and then allegedly kicking the trooper who arrested her, leaving him with a leg injury and her with what looked like a black eye when she appeared in court later in the day. Along the way, NERW hears that McPhee managed to get the troopers to make a 3 AM wake-up call to their colonel; if she was hoping the charges would be dropped, she didn’t get her wish. Instead, she’s now charged with OUI and assault on a trooper – and she was back on the air Friday, saying she can’t talk about the incident but expects to be vindicated when it’s all heard in court.
McPhee’s arrest forced WMEX to put morning shouter Joe Ligotti in afternoons as well on Thursday, but after that the station’s operators (Daly XXL, which has still yet to file anything with the FCC about buying the WMEX license) stood by McPhee, saying “the management of 1510 WMEX stands behind her in this difficult time as we would any friend or family member.”
That was probably a fairly easy decision, if only because McPhee’s arrest was the second hit to WMEX’s program lineup in its first few days on the air. The first came earlier in the week when Utica’s Bill Keeler failed to emerge as WMEX’s midday star. Remember Daly XXL’s claim that it had rejected Premiere’s attempt to place Limbaugh on 1510 because it was so committed to Keeler in the noon-3 PM slot? Instead of Keeler (who’s staying in place at Utica’s WIBX), WMEX is now carrying the hastily-assembled “Renegade Radio” at noon, with station manager Bryan Berner hosting.
*Which brings us to the next chapter in Boston AM talk: Limbaugh isn’t going to WMEX, isn’t mending fences with his longtime Boston home, WRKO (680), and apparently isn’t going to be part of Salem’s lineup at whatever becomes of WMKI (1260), the Radio Disney outlet Salem is buying for a bargain-basement $500,000. Despite rumors making the rounds of a larger Salem-Premiere deal for Rush carriage in multiple markets (and an accompanying rumor of Salem’s WEZE religious programming moving back to 1260 to clear the way to put talk on the better 590 signal), it looks like Premiere parent iHeart will end up doing the same thing in Boston it’s doing in Indianapolis as a last resort: bringing Rush back in house on a marginal signal just to maintain the clearance.
Over at our sister site RadioInsight, Lance Venta was first to pick up on iHeart’s registration of the talk1430.com domain, which appears to mean that for lack of any better option, Limbaugh will land at what’s now WKOX (1430 Everett) whenever WRKO drops him.
You can be forgiven if you’ve lost track of what happened to the 1430 facility: after many years as WHIL, WWEL and WXKS(AM), the station has been an afterthought in the Boston cluster for most of the last decade. It’s most recently been carrying iHeart’s “Mia” Spanish hits format, with a local presence so meager that there’s not even a customized “1430” in the logo on its vestigial website and social media presence. (The WKOX calls, ironically, arrived on 1430 after then-Clear Channel moved the WXKS calls to its beefed-up 1200 signal for what turned out to be a disastrous attempt at “Rush Radio.”)
If Limbaugh had trouble making an impact on the market at 50,000-watt AM 1200, he’ll be even less visible on 1430, which runs 5000 watts by day and drops to a very directional 1000 watts at night. In Indianapolis, iHeart isn’t bothering to surround Limbaugh with talk at his new home, sports-focused WNDE (1260). In Boston, “Talk 1430” will at least have some uncleared Premiere product to pick up – there’s no affiliate now in the market for Glenn Beck or Sean Hannity – but it’s hard to imagine the rest of the schedule, including the key morning drive daypart, becoming anything more than a dumping ground for syndication. As “Mia,” WKOX pulled out a 0.6 rating in May; it’s actually hard to imagine improving on that with talk. (Which is, in turn, even worse news for Limbaugh when he seeks a contract renewal with Premiere next year. If Entercom now gives Premiere more than $1 million a year in value between affiliate fees and spot load, there’s no way WKOX can provide its corporate parent with anything near that value, which is why this appears to be a very last-ditch move on iHeart’s part.)
So to recap: within a few months, it appears that Boston talk listeners will have four stations splitting what’s already a pretty thin audience. WRKO, which actually has been on a slow ratings uptick, climbing to 2.5 last month 12+ after a devastating 1.4 over the winter, will have Howie Carr in afternoons, Jeff Kuhner in the ex-Rush midday slot and a yet-to-be-announced new morning show. WMEX will have its motley crew of McPhee, Ligotti and other relative unknowns. WKOX will have Rush and more Premiere syndication, at least if you’re close enough to hear it. And Salem will have its own in-house lineup on “The Answer,” whether on 1260 or 590. That’s a lot of talk chasing a small audience, isn’t it?
We have a great lineup of podcasts here on our site. While you’re catching up with your summer reading, don’t forget about your summer listening. Now is the time to make sure you’re up to date with Top of the Tower.
Our latest one features Donna Halper discussing her life in radio, from her time at WMMS when she helped Rush get US airplay, to what she learned from Arnie “Woo Woo” Ginsburg.
Don’t forget you can still visit our store to check out our other great products. We’ll be taking preorders for the 2021 calendar soon. Stay tuned!
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, fifteen and – where available – twenty 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: June 16, 2014
*When Clear Channel bought a third FM station in eastern MASSACHUSETTS a few years back, nobody quite understood why then-WFNX (101.7 Lynn) was worth $14 million to a company that had otherwise largely taken itself out of the acquisition game.
Three years and three formats later, it’s increasingly clear that the station now known as WEDX can only be understood as a strategic game piece in today’s cluster landscape – especially after Friday afternoon’s flip from electronic dance music (“Evolution 101.7”) to country, as “The Bull.”
Yes, we could write a few pithy paragraphs about the way in which 101.7 has pinballed from variety hits “Harbor” WHBA to dance music to country in the space of just a few years, and follow that up with some even pithier thoughts about whether there’s any place for a full-fledged EDM format on terrestrial radio, especially as “mainstream” top-40 becomes increasingly EDM-inflected. And we could go on to ponder whether “Evolution” was, no matter how tiny its overall ratings, providing a useful service by giving younger listeners a reason to check out terrestrial radio instead of drifting away to Pandora or whatever’s next.
But realistically, 101.7 is nothing more than a pawn in a bigger game, and the queen Clear Channel is trying to protect with this latest flip is its much bigger top-40 outlet, WXKS-FM (Kiss 108). With Greater Media’s country WKLB-FM (102.5) nipping at its heels for the number-one position in the ratings (both stations were up in the April PPMs, 7.2 to 7.6 for Kiss, 6.4 to 6.8 for WKLB), the flip at 101.7 is a pretty transparent attempt to shave a few fractions of a point off WKLB by providing it with a little country competition.
And make no mistake – as “The Bull” (apparently with new calls WBWL-FM on the way, though no formal request has been filed), Clear Channel will offer WKLB only a little competition. Country listeners within range of 101.7’s limited class A signal who happen to hit the “down” button on their scan during a WKLB stopset this summer will find the Bull running commercial-free through Labor Day. It will also be jock-free for at least a little while, and there’s every reason to expect that when air talent does appear in the fall, it will be mostly Clear Channel syndicated offerings such as the Bobby Bones morning show.
*On to NEW YORK we go, and we start with the shocker from the April PPM ratings: the latest numbers from Nielsen Audio show what appears to be the worst numbers WABC (770) has pulled in more than half a century, dipping from 2.2 in April all the way down to 1.6 in May.
Wherever those WABC talk listeners went over the last few months, it doesn’t appear that they followed Rush Limbaugh down the dial from 770 to Clear Channel’s WOR (710). Even with the start of the Mets season to at least theoretically pull some new ears over to the 710 spot on the dial, WOR has flatlined over the last few months, 1.5-1.5-1.7-1.6.
What can we read into those numbers? To some degree, certainly, they’re a sign that the talk format in general has calcified. Underlying those weak 12+ numbers are even more appallingly weak 18-34 and 25-54 numbers, indicating (to nobody’s surprise) that what remains of the talk audience, in New York and elsewhere, is rapidly aging and that younger listeners aren’t coming in to replace them.
These numbers also reinforce something we’ve long believed: to succeed, today’s political talk needs the framework of longstanding listener heritage, in what’s almost become a host-parasite relationship. Where there are still many years of full-service habit on which to draw, stations still do well – think of WGAN in Portland, or WPRO in Providence, or WGY in Albany or WBEN in Buffalo. Without that strong news and sports heritage to surround the talk, though, the format falls apart, just as it did at WWIQ in Philadelphia or WTKK in Boston. And with all the changes that Clear Channel has wrought at WOR, and the steady erosion of any sort of local presence around the syndicated hosts at WABC, these latest ratings may indicate that whatever heritage those stations once brought to the table may no longer be a ratings boost, either.
Five Years Ago: June 13, 2010
It’s been a week of obituaries across NERW-land, including the passing of a radio owner who was a trailblazer twice in his long career.
When Andrew Langston came north from his native Georgia to Rochester, NEW YORK in 1960, the idea that he might someday own a radio station was but a fantasy; indeed, even the opportunity to work in radio or television was something of a pipe dream. But by the late sixties, Langston saw that a black-owned radio station was becoming possible, and after many years working in the clothing and insurance industries, he founded Monroe County Broadcasting in 1968 to pursue the dream. Getting a new signal on the air even then was a challenge, involving negotiations with an adjacent-channel signal in Buffalo (what was then WWOL-FM 104.1) and securing the cooperation of Xerox Corp. to place an antenna atop their new downtown Rochester office tower – but in April 1974, Langston’s dream came true with the debut of WDKX (103.9 Rochester), a class A signal named for Rochester’s Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. While not the first black-owned independent station in the country (that honor appears to belong to KPRS in Kansas City), WDKX was certainly among the very first.
WDKX grew slowly but steadily, and by the eighties it had moved from its original rented studio space down East Main Street to larger quarters in a former funeral home. By then, WDKX had become a major force in Rochester radio, trading airstaff back and forth with larger stations and routinely appearing near the top of the ratings. With consolidation came plenty of offers for Langston to cash out, but even the inflated station prices of the nineties couldn’t separate him from his radio station and his community. In an interview with your editor (then with Rochester’s R News) on WDKX’s 25th anniversary in 1999, Langston promised that the station would pass not only to his son, Andre Marcel (who was by then WDKX’s program director) but eventually to his granddaughter as well.
Langston not only spurned the advances of the big broadcast groups; he also fended off their attempts to compete for his audience. Remember “Jam’n 107.3?” Not many in Rochester do; that voicetracked urban outlet came and went while WDKX, with its live airstaff and full-service commitment to the community, survived and thrived. While other commercial music stations cut back or eliminated news, WDKX’s news operation grew; in recent years, the station has been a frequent partner with other news outlets (including the Democrat and Chronicle, WHAM-TV and WXXI) in sponsoring political debates, community forums and special coverage of big events.
In recent years, Langston had handed over most of WDKX’s daily operations to his son, who now serves as both president of Monroe County Broadcasting and PD of the station, which remains a proud stand-alone – and a constant visitor to the top of the ratings in town. Langston was inducted into the inaugural class of the New York State Broadcasters Association Hall of Fame; he also received honors from the National Association of Black-Owned Broadcasters and the “Rochester Radio Broadcaster of the Year” award. Langston died on Thursday (June 10) at age 83; he’s survived by his wife, Gloria and son, Andre.
Langston, sadly, was just one of several good broadcasters the region lost last week. Stew Schantz, who died Friday morning at age 53 from complications during surgery, was a familiar figure on the music-radio scene for many decades. He started out in the late seventies at WPDH (101.5 Poughkeepsie), then moved across town to WSPK (104.7 Poughkeepsie), where he was the PD who launched the “K104” top-40 format in 1980. Schantz also worked afternoons at K104 before moving up to Utica in 1998 as PD/afternoons at WSKS (then on 102.5), where he eventually served as operations manager for the whole Clear Channel cluster. In 2005, Schantz moved over to Galaxy, where he programmed WRCK in Utica and WRCZ in Albany. Most recently, Schantz was operations manager at the Vox cluster in Pittsfield, MASSACHUSETTS, where he also was PD/afternoons at oldies WUPE-FM (100.1 North Adams)/WUPE (1110 Pittsfield).
How about some non-obituary news from the Empire State? There was a bit of it last week, starting in Poughkeepsie, where Cumulus rocker WPDH (101.5) has named a new morning show. Last month, WPDH pulled the plug on the “Coop and Tobin” morning show after co-host John Tobin departed amidst a contract dispute; now John Mulrooney’s on board with Mark Cooper for the “Coop and Mulrooney” morning show. Mulrooney is better known to the north, in Albany, where he was the longtime co-host of the “Wolf and Mulrooney” morning show on WPYX; he’s also worked in New York (at the old WDBZ 105.1) and on TV.
Ten Years Ago: June 12, 2005
ALPINE, N.J. – It may have taken more than half a century, but if the crowd at the Armstrong Tower here Saturday was any indication, a certain sort of cosmic justice has now prevailed where the legacy of Major Edwin Howard Armstrong is concerned. It’s hard to imagine dozens of people baking in the hot sun for an afternoon to honor the memory of David Sarnoff or Lee deForest, as they gladly did for this event honoring the man who may be the greatest inventor radio will ever know.
The memorial nominally commemorates the 70th anniversary of Armstrong’s first demonstrations of FM, but it really grew out of a more informal memorial held last year on the 50th anniversary of Armstrong’s suicide. Among the attendees was Philadelphia engineer Steve Hemphill, who had already built a replica of an early GE Phasitron FM transmitter. The stars came together when Hemphill began talking with Charles Sackermann, Jr., whose family has owned the Alpine tower since buying it from Columbia University after Armstrong’s death. Sackermann had been seeking a way to bring greater public attention to Armstrong’s achievements, and the two soon began hatching a plan to conduct experimental broadcasts from the tower on the old 42-50 MHz (or should that be “megacycle?”) FM band. Add to that the programming expertise of WFDU (89.1 Teaneck), the Fairleigh Dickinson University station that’s used the Armstrong tower since it signed on in 1971, and the result was one of the most memorable live broadcasts in radio’s recent history.
It’s unlikely that more than a few hundred people at most heard the signal of WA2XMN, the 250-watt temporary operation on 42.8 MHz transmitting from near the top of the tower – but thanks to a simulcast on WFDU, millions in the area (and around the world on the web) had the chance to listen to a very special day of programming. On 42.8 – via Hemphill’s painstakingly detailed Phasitron transmitter and a modified Ringo Ranger ham antenna on the tower – test broadcasts began sometime early in the morning. At 11:45, Hemphill pushed the button to begin official operation of WA2XMN, and for the first time in almost six decades, the old FM dial was alive with broadcasting from Alpine.
WINS (1010) anchor Judy DeAngelis emceed a live one-hour panel discussion that featured the few living veterans of the Armstrong era – Ren McMann, who worked at Alpine in his youth and later at CBS Laboratories; Henry Dietz, who worked for early FM equipment maker REL; Jerry Minter, who was at Alpine for the March 31, 1954 sign-off of Armstrong’s KE2XCC; and Armstrong relative Robert Brecht. That was followed by two hours of recorded programming, including the radio drama version of “Empire of the Air” and an interview with that book’s author, historian Tom Lewis. And just before 4 PM, WA2XMN broadcast a recording of that 1954 KE2XCC farewell, an emotional moment for those who remained by then, gazing up at the mighty three-armed tower where that era ended.
For those fortunate to be able to attend the event in person, the day brought other treats as well, as CSC Management, the Sackermanns’ company, used the opportunity to show off the care they’ve taken with the historic Alpine site. From the vintage “FM” logo that adorned Armstrong’s 1937 building (and the commemorative polo shirts being sported by the staff) to the phenomenal display of early Armstrong gear inside to the ultra-modern communications facility that now resides directly beneath the tower, the site was in top condition to welcome visitors, and there was hardly a moment when someone wasn’t aiming a camera up at the tower or shooting a souvenir photo on the steps of the W2XMN building. “It’s like a wedding reception for radio people,” was the observation one attendee made, and it’s hard to argue with that.
It was truly a great day in Alpine, and we’re hoping that some of the hints being dropped during the celebration (a recreation, perhaps, of Armstrong’s Yankee Network FM relays for the 75th anniversary in 2010?) can become a reality. In the meantime, the Sackermanns, Hemphill, and the crew at WFDU can take great pride in their accomplishment, reminding all of us of the debt the industry owes to Edwin Howard Armstrong.
Yes, there was some other news around the region while we were on the road to Alpine all week, including the exit of a longtime northeast PENNSYLVANIA radio owner. Doug Lane’s sale of WWDL (104.9 Scranton), WICK (1400 Scranton) and WYCK (1340 Plains) to Bold Gold Media won’t close the legal case against Lane, who was convicted of child molestation earlier this year and now awaits sentencing. It will, however, end the uncertainty that surrounds the stations – if it’s approved. Bold Gold, whose principals include Bob Vanderheyden (the first PD of oldies WCBS-FM, years ago, and now serving as the stations’ general manager), began operating the stations under an LMA last week. While details of the sale haven’t been released, the deal reportedly won’t yield any profit to Lane, with proceeds from the stations instead going to Lackawanna County (for a victims’ restitution fund) and to non-profit groups.
Bold Gold also owns WDNH, WYCY and WPSN in nearby Honesdale; its acquisition of the Lane stations still requires FCC approval, which isn’t a certainty. While the deal has the support of county officials, the Commission could still do what it’s done with other convicted felons, simply revoking the stations’ licenses and leaving the frequencies dark pending an auction that could take years. Lackawanna County DA Andy Jarbola tells Inside Radio that he hopes the FCC will recognize that the deal he’s worked out with Bold Gold and Lane is in the public interest, preserving the jobs at the Lane stations and keeping them from going silent.
Fifteen Years Ago: June 16, 2000
From a rumor last week, Clear Channel’s purchase of Roberts Radio has become reality this week — but we suspect the NEW YORK portion of this 29-station, $65 million deal is just a small part of Randy Michaels’ strategy here. Clear Channel will get four stations to add to its six-station Hudson Valley cluster: rhythmic oldies WBPM (94.3 Kingston), talk WGHQ (920 Kingston), hot AC WBWZ (93.3 New Paltz), and country WRWD (107.3 Highland).
By the way, we can now report that Clear Channel is paying $18.4 million for the six nearby stations it’s buying from Straus Media, while Concord Media Group will pay $6 million for the four stations in Hudson and Catskill Clear Channel was barred from buying from Straus.
Heading west, Sabre Communications is beefing up its position in the Corning/Elmira radio market with a $1.8 million purchase of Hornell’s WKPQ (105.3) and WHHO (1320). The seller, Bilbat Communications, is owned by William “Bil” Berry and Richard “Bat” Lyons. WKPQ is a sort of modern AC, with a penetrating signal across much of western New York; WHHO does some talk and simulcasts WKPQ. SabreCom owns sports-talk WWLZ (820 Horseheads), country WPGI (100.9 Horseheads) and WGMF (1490 Watkins Glen), classic rock WNGZ (104.9 Montour Falls), and CHR WNKI (106.1 Corning). Two curiosities here: The Hornell stations, although in the same county (Steuben) as Corning, don’t really have much signal overlap with the rest of the market, which leads to odd ratings changes when diaries aren’t uniformly distributed across the county. We also wonder what will become of WZKZ (101.9 Alfred), the country station Bilbat has been operating from Hornell as an LMA. The WZKZ license is held by Robert Pfuntner’s Pembrook Pines group, SabreCom’s arch-rival in the Elmira/Corning market.
A moment of silence from the Bay State’s birds? It would be in order, in memory of Robert J. Lurtsema. The veteran host of WGBH’s “Morning pro musica” died Monday (6/12) of idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis. Lurtsema began the show, complete with the birds chirping at the beginning, in 1971. Until 1993, he was on the air seven days a week, on a network that at its peak included Albany’s WAMC, Amherst’s WFCR, and several state networks in northern New England. “Robert J.” cut back to weekends in 1993, and had been off the air completely for the last few weeks. Lurtsema was 68.
Twenty Years Ago: June 15, 1995
A weekend trip through Providence to Norwich CT found WICE (550) in Pawtucket RI silent. The station’s sale to Back Bay Broadcasters (owners of WARA-WWKX in the Providence market and WBNW in Boston) just closed, and it appears the station will resurface as WPNW, simulcasting WBNW’s Bloomberg business news/local and satellite business talk format. WBNW/WPNW just signed to carry Harvard football as well.
WZEA (102.1) in Hampton NH is also being sold, as reported earlier, and M Street says the new owners want the WSTG calls. An on-air announcement heard on the station this week said it will be a “family-friendly” station…whatever that means. (And promptly segued into a Prince song, at that! :-)