In this week’s issue… Meredith/MG Merger will transform CT, MA TV – Veteran CT morning man retires – Stephanos out at WFXT – Community Broadcasters expands – More all-Pope broadcasters – Tower Site Calendar 2016: Get Yours Now!
By SCOTT FYBUSH
*There were two big post-Labor Day bombshells that we reported in our NERW Extra last week: RHODE ISLAND Public Radio’s big-name hire of former WBEZ (91.5 Chicago) leader Torey Malatia to be the Ocean State outlet’s new general manager – and the Meredith/Media General merger, which will have huge consequences in western MASSACHUSETTS and CONNECTICUT.
Until Malatia settles in at RIPR, there’s not that much more we can add to that story, but there’s a lot more that we can tell you this week where Meredith and Media General are concerned.
We covered the basics in our Extra: in the Springfield market, Media General’s NBC/CW WWLP (Channel 22) and Meredith’s ABC/Fox WGGB (Channel 40) and CBS WSHM-LP (Channel 21) combine to form the entire commercial TV landscape. In Hartford/New Haven, Media General’s ABC WTNH (Channel 8)/My WCTX (Channel 59) and Meredith’s CBS WFSB (Channel 3) compete with NBC’s WVIT (Channel 30) and Tribune’s Fox WTIC-TV (Channel 61)/CW WCCT (Channel 20).
It’s a given that the merged MG/Meredith will have to shed stations in those markets, as well as in four others (Nashville, Greenville/Spartanburg/Asheville, Norfolk, Portland OR), to stay within FCC ownership caps and to keep the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division happy. But in the fast-changing landscape of local TV in 2015, trying to game it all out gets very complicated very quickly. Here are the factors we’re looking at as we assess how things will change for Hartford and Springfield TV viewers:
- Basic ownership caps: With the number of players in the Hartford/New Haven market (including ion’s WHPX), any single owner can own two stations as long as they’re not both in the top 4 in the ratings. So the merged company can keep either WFSB or WTNH, but not both. WCTX, far out of the top 4, can go to the merged MG/Meredith or be spun off. In Springfield, it’s strictly one-to-a-customer, at least where full-power signals are concerned: WWLP will go one way, WGGB another, and as a low-power license, WSHM-LD can go in either direction. That’s the easy part.
- Justice Department approval: Each company brings to the table one station that’s dominant in ratings and revenue. When Media General absorbed LIN Television, it picked up WWLP’s revenue dominance in Springfield, where channel 22 by itself reportedly takes in more ad dollars than the rest of the market’s radio and TV stations combined. In Hartford, Meredith’s WFSB doesn’t quite pull off that impressive a feat, but it’s still a major revenue player. It’s a good bet that the Antitrust Division wouldn’t look favorably on any attempt by the merged MG/Meredith to add anything else, even the CBS affiliation from WSHM-LD, to WWLP’s dominance; it’s possible, even, that Justice would oppose any attempt by the merged company to keep both WWLP and WFSB and spin off the weaker players in both markets (Meredith’s WGGB/WSHM and MG’s WTNH/WCTX) to someone else.
- Logistical issues: TV stations are more than lines on a balance sheet. They’re also physical entities, and that’s an issue that comes into play in a big way for both companies. When Media General swallowed LIN, it inherited a complex system of hubbed master controls at WISH in Indianapolis and at WWLP in Springfield. A sale of WWLP would force MG/Meredith to build new master control facilities somewhere else for its stations in Providence and elsewhere in the northeast (including WAVY/WVBT in Norfolk, also affected by the Meredith/MG merger). Meanwhile over at Meredith, some of the WGGB/WSHM operation is run out of a master control at WFSB.
- Football: As the last big sport that’s predominantly on broadcast TV, the NFL is a big revenue driver in Patriots/Giants territory. In Springfield, all of that revenue goes to Meredith right now via the CBS and Fox affiliations at WGGB/WSHM. In Hartford, Meredith has the NFL on WFSB.
- Retransmission rights: The more big networks one company controls, the more pressure it can exert on cable and satellite operators when it comes time to renew retransmission deals. That’s a big advantage for the WGGB/WSHM cluster in Springfield – if those stations disappear from cable or satellite, they take three of the big four networks with them.
- Signal and spectrum auction: With the FCC’s controversial spectrum auction just a few months away (maybe), the deciding factor for MG/Meredith may be none of those other factors. Instead, it may hinge on whether all or some of each station’s RF spectrum can be sold at auction for prices that could climb into the tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars. This gets complicated, too: at least in theory, UHF channels will be worth more than VHF channels at auction. That’s a potential negative for the Media General/LIN portfolio, since both WWLP (RF 11) and WTNH (RF 10) operate on VHF. But in New Haven, WCTX’s RF 39 spectrum is prime auction fodder, and in Springfield, WWLP also has WFXQ-CD (RF 28), a low-power translator whose spectrum could be auctioned. And either WWLP or WTNH could get money out of a channel-sharing deal if a UHF station wants to move down to VHF and use some of their spectrum. On the Meredith side of things, WFSB is likely to want to hang on to its UHF spot (currently RF 33), while it’s easy to imagine the Springfield operation shedding WSHM’s UHF spectrum (RF 21) and keeping WWLP’s RF 40. (Depending on how quickly this whole deal gets FCC approval, it’s entirely possible Meredith and Media General may have to make their decisions individually before they can even close on a sale.)
- Who’s buying? Which stations stay and which ones go may well depend on who’s looking to buy, which is a huge what-if. We can likely rule out any of the network O&O groups; NBC, CBS and Disney/ABC are more likely to sell stations than to buy any more, and for CBS the proximity to its existing Boston and New York O&Os could create FCC issues anyway. TEGNA, the former Gannett group, has been in growth mode, as have Sinclair, Scripps, Cox and Nexstar. (Sinclair, of course, is a former owner of WGGB; WGGB’s calls stand for another ex-owner, Guy Gannett, unrelated to the TEGNA/Gannett stations.) Would smaller groups such as Hubbard or News-Press/Gazette be interested? Hubbard already owns stations in Albany, the next market west from Springfield. And here’s one more wild card: it’s widely known that CBS Radio is looking to sell its Hartford cluster of WTIC (1080) and three FMs. Might a TV/radio joint operator such as Scripps or Cox try to put WTNH or WFSB together with radio? (For WFSB, it would be a reunion with former radio sisters WTIC/WTIC-FM after 41 years apart.)
We will, of course, be following the merger and sale process very closely as it progresses – and we’ll be writing much more about the spectrum auction, too, as that process lurches forward.
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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, 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: September 15, 2014
*Few TV broadcasters enjoy the sort of lucrative near-monopoly that Hearst’s WMUR-TV (Channel 9) has long possessed in NEW HAMPSHIRE. In a growing state that’s often one of the hottest political markets in the country, the ABC affiliate’s local news operation makes it a magnet for the big windfall of political advertising that comes around every few years. And as of tonight, WMUR will face the most serious competition it’s ever seen.
WMUR has faced down in-state rivals before: during its brief run as a CBS affiliate in the late 1980s, Concord-based WNHT (Channel 21) had local news, and so did independent WGOT (Channel 60). A longer-running challenge came from another independent, WNDS (Channel 50) in Derry, which took multiple stabs at a local newscast during the 1990s and 2000s, launching the quirky career of weather guy Al Kaprielian but otherwise making little impact on the Granite State’s news habits.
Channel 50 tries again tonight, but this time Kaprielian is the only remaining ingredient from its prior attempts. Rebranded as WBIN by new owner Bill Binnie, the station doesn’t even brand itself as “channel 50” anymore, instead using the channel 18 slot it enjoys on Comcast cable across a big swath of the Boston market – and the news brand it kicks off tonight will be “New Hampshire 1,” a brand it shares with the newscasts on Binnie’s big cluster of radio stations in southern and central New Hampshire.
At least initially, NH1’s TV offerings will be strictly weekday evenings: it launches tonight with shows at 5, 5:30, 6 and 10 PM and no newscasts in the morning or on weekends. That will change next year, when a local morning show and midday newscast are planned, just in time for the massive influx of political advertising and national attention that will descend on the Granite State ahead of the 2016 presidential race.
*Much of the week’s other big news came right here in our own back yard in upstate NEW YORK, where Clear Channel’s Rochester cluster moved with unusual speed to blunt the publicity bonus Entercom was hoping to reap from its shift of veteran WPXY (97.9) morning hosts Scott Spezzano and Sandy Waters to older-skewing WBZA (98.9).
Clear Channel’s moves, announced in a quick barrage on Thursday morning, were as clear an example as we get to see these days of cluster strategy in action. On the rock front, Entercom was hoping that the addition of the well-loved, uncontroversial Spezzano to “98.9 the Buzz” would give the female-skewing rock signal the first good publicity it’s had since former morning hosts Kimberly Ray and Barry Beck were ousted in May amidst a series of controversies that included comments about the city’s insurance coverage for gender-reassignment surgery and, more quietly, reported problems with on-air criticism of big-ticket advertisers.
So just as Entercom was preparing to relaunch WBZA with a far less controversial morning presence, who walked into the Clear Channel studios of WQBW (95.1 Honeoye Falls) morning institution Brother Wease (himself an Entercom transplant) just before 10 on Thursday morning? Kimberly and Beck, of course, making the surprise announcement that they had joined Clear Channel to host afternoons on 95.1 – which, by the way, was rebranding right there and then as “Radio 95.1,” ditching the “Brew” moniker it had been using for the last few years and swapping out more of its classic rock for newer rock, at least during the hours it’s not talk-heavy with Wease or Kimberly and Beck. (Clear Channel is also plugging Kimberly and Beck into an evening hour on its news-talk WHAM 1180, where they’ll be heard nightly from 8-9 PM, replacing a stray hour of delayed Sean Hannity.
But wait – there’s more! Hot on the heels of using its “Bull” country brand to shave some ratings from top-rated competitors in Boston and elsewhere, Clear Channel took its oft-flipped 107.3 South Bristol rimshot signal and spun it once again at noon on Thursday. Out is “Oldies 107.3” WODX, which never made much of a dent in independently-run WLGZ (102.7 Webster); in is “107.3 the Bull,” with new calls WNBL on the way, aimed at Entercom’s top-rated country veteran WBEE (92.5).
*While regulators in CANADA continue to plow through their lengthy hearings on the future of broadcast TV, it was a relatively uneventful week in radio – except, perhaps, in Montreal. That’s where RNC’s CKLX (91.9) unveiled its new lineup after receiving CRTC permission to swap music for talk. The station formerly known as “Planete Jazz” and more recently as “Radio X” rebranded itself “Radio 9” on, fittingly enough, 9/9,ut on Long Island, Connoisseur and Clear Channel closed on their swap that sent WALK-FM (97.5 Patchogue) and WALK (1370 Patchogue) from the Aloha Trust into Connoisseur’s hands. The new cluster now has AC dominance of the island, with WALK-FM in eastern Long Island joining Connoisseur’s WKJY (98.3 Hempstead) to the west, as well as rock “Shark” WWSK (94.3 Smithtown) and classic hits WBZO (103.1 Bay Shore). On the AM side, Connoisseur moved quickly to turn soft AC/oldies WALK (1370) into an eastern simulcast of its standards/soft AC WHLI (1100 Hempstead) to the west.
Five Years Ago: September 13, 2010
Radio listeners in Monmouth and Ocean counties on the NEW JERSEY shore might be forgiven if they’re a little confused by the end of this week. It was back in 2005 when Press Communications killed off the top-40 “B98.5” format on WBBO (98.5 Ocean Acres), turning the station first into a simulcast of modern rock WHTG-FM (106.3 Eatontown) and eventually taking it country as WKMK, “Thunder Country,” after flipping WHTG-FM to top 40 as “Hits 106” and adding a new simulcast on 106.5 in Ocean County, a station now known as WBBO. (Even loyal NERW readers can be forgiven for getting a little confused by now…)
On Wednesday, Press will hit a big cosmic “undo” button on several of those moves. The Ocean County 98.5 signal will return to top 40 as “B98.5,” and we’d expect the WBBO calls to move back there at some point soon, too. And in exchange, “Hit 106” will be replaced on both signals (106.3 in Monmouth and 106.5 in Ocean) by “Thunder Country.” The move will fill a format void in Monmouth, which has been without a country station since the demise of the old “Y107” quadcast in 2002; it’s likely that the station will find country fans elsewhere on the southern side of the New York metro as well, given the absence of the format in the core of the market. Unfortunately, the return of B98.5 comes without most of its personalities, since Press let much of the “Hits 106” airstaff go last week. Among the casualties were Matt Knight, who started out 11 years ago at the old B and eventually became PD/afternoons at “Hit 106,” and night guy Shawn Palmer.
Our colleagues over at Ohio Radio Watch lovingly called it the “Glunt Radio Empire” – but now the last vestiges of the small radio group assembled by the late Youngstown, Ohio steel magnate Harold Glunt have been dispersed to new owners. We told you last week about Chris Lash’s plans for Glunt’s two Ohio signals, WRTK (1540 Niles) and WANR (1570 Warren) – and now Glunt’s heirs have sold his three stations just across the state line in PENNSYLVANIA. EMF Broadcasting, the nation’s most active station buyer, is paying $225,000 for those stations: WEXC (107.1 Greenville), WGRP (940 Greenville) and WLOA (1470 Farrell). EMF is not known as an AM operator, and broker Ray Rosenblum, who arranged the deal, says those AMs will go to another buyer once the transfer closes. WEXC, meanwhile, had already flipped to EMF’s “K-Love” contemporary Christian network Friday night, just hours after the sale was announced. (WGRP is also apparently simulcasting “K-Love” for now, at least temporarily.)
After more than 30 years with Buffalo’s WBFO (88.7), Mark Wozniak is retiring, effective October 1 – but WBFO listeners will continue to hear Mark’s familiar voice in the afternoon, hosting the local segments of “All Things Considered,” since he’ll continue in a part-time capacity with the station while shedding his traffic director duties.
Western MASSACHUSETTS has a new NPR news/talk outlet. The former Deerfield Academy station, WGAJ (91.7 Deerfield), was just hours away from having its license expire for a full year of silence when it made it back on the air Thursday afternoon (Sept. 9) under new calls WNNZ-FM. Under its new owner, the WFCR Foundation, the 100-watt station is relaying the programming of WNNZ (640 Westfield), the secondary news-talk service programmed by Amherst’s WFCR (88.5). Returning 91.7 to the air came with a host of technical challenges, reports WFCR chief engineer Charles Dube: with no line-of-sight path from WFCR’s Amherst studios to the transmitter site, WFCR is using an audio-over-IP path to Deerfield Academy, then sending the signal over the old WGAJ STL path to the transmitter site. And up on the hill, the old WGAJ tower was deemed unfit for continued use, which meant the installation of a new tower and a new Jampro antenna. The new WNNZ-FM is operating under program test authority at half-power (50 watts) until the FCC issues a license to cover for its new facility.
Ten Years Ago: September 12, 2005
The exact details are still murky, but it appears that some big changes are imminent at the Long Island radio stations owned by The Morey Organization. For the last few days, active rock “Bone” WBON (98.5 Westhampton), dance/top 40 “Party” WDRE (105.3 Calverton-Roanoke) and modern rock WLIR (107.1 Hampton Bays) have been running jockless, and on Friday all three stations will reportedly drop their current formats.
It was anything but a quiet week in RHODE ISLAND radio, where what was supposed to have been a benefit broadcast for Hurricane Katrina’s victims turned into an on-air brawl between WPRO (630 Providence) talk host DanYorke and his predecessor, John DePetro, who now does late mornings on Boston’s WRKO (680). Yorke, a frequent on-air critic of DePetro, was broadcasting from a furniture store in West Warwick when DePetro, who’d been listening to the show, showed up, grabbed the microphone and began castigating Yorke on the air, saying he’d been offered the WPRO job and had turned it down. WPRO PD David Bernstein came on the air afterwards to say that the station stood behind Yorke – and the whole thing goes down as a reminder that Rhode Island talk radio, just like Rhode Island politics, is a most unusual thing.
(Need further evidence? Crosstown talk rival WHJJ 920, reinventing itself after a year or so as a mostly-syndicated progressive talker, announced that it’s found a new local talk host for late mornings: former “Survivor” contestant and Rhode Island native Helen Glover takes the 10AM-1PM slot beginning tomorrow, replacing Air America’s Jerry Springer and the first hour of Al Franken. This is the first of a series of changes at WHJJ, we hear; expect an announcement about another local host later this week.)
One of the most respected names in MASSACHUSETTS broadcasting has been picked as the new leader of troubled public radio station WBUR-FM (90.9 Boston). Paul LaCamera spent 33 years at WCVB-TV (Channel 5), most of that time at the helm of what’s widely regarded as one of the best commercial TV stations in the country. LaCamera just retired from WCVB a few weeks ago, and the timing couldn’t have been better for WBUR, which is still recovering from the turmoil that marked the end of the tenure of Jane Christo, whose long run at the station rivaled that of LaCamera at WCVB. LaCamera will take over as WBUR’s general manager on October 3, replacing interim GM Peter Fiedler.
In eastern CANADA, Rogers has unveiled the call letters and studio sites for its trio of news-talk FM stations that will soon be launching in the Maritimes. CJNI (95.7) will be at 6080 Young Street in Halifax, CHNI (88.9) at 55 Waterloo Street in Saint John and CKNI (91.9) at 70 Assumption Blvd. in Moncton. The stations are expected to sign on sometime next month.
Fifteen Years Ago: September 11, 2000
We begin in NEW HAMPSHIRE, where Hearst-Argyle fulfilled the rumor mill’s expectations by announcing a $185 million purchase of Manchester’s WMUR-TV (Channel 9) from Imes Communications. Why so much for a small-town ABC affiliate? (Imes paid just $5 million for the station back in 1981.) It should be well worth it for Hearst-Argyle, if only for the opportunity to control both ABC outlets in the Boston market. Expect to see some news coverage from Hearst-Argyle’s WCVB (Channel 5) Boston on WMUR, as well as enhanced New Hampshire coverage from WMUR on ‘CVB. The real prize, though, won’t come around for another four years: the incredible amount of political advertising and national attention that flows into the Granite State’s only commercial VHF station come primary time. There’s a reason WMUR’s spacious new studios in downtown Manchester are called “The House Steve Forbes Built,” after all. As part of the deal, Hearst-Argyle also gets WMUR’s LPTV outlets in Littleton and Berlin, which carry Fox network programming and WMUR newscasts. (Expect some unusual FCC paperwork on this one, too, since it will actually be Emmis Broadcasting acquiring WMUR, then transferring it to Hearst-Argyle as payment for the three Phoenix radio stations Emmis is getting from Hearst…)
What’s happening in MAINE? We heard from several of our Augusta-area readers about the situation with Cumulus’ cluster there, and for the moment it appears no fewer than five stations are carrying the sports programming nicknamed “The Score.” In addition to WSKW (1160 Skowhegan) and WIGY (97.5 Madison), Cumulus has indeed added WCTB (93.5 Fairfield) and WCME (96.7 Boothbay Harbor) to the simulcast — and it’s still being carried on WHQO (107.9 Skowhegan) as well!
End of story? Not so fast…we also saw applications make their way to the FCC at week’s end to transfer WCTB/WCME, WSKW, WABK (104.3 Gardiner), WKCG (101.3 Augusta), WTOS (105.1 Skowhegan), and WFAU (1280 Gardiner) to Clear Channel. More next week, we’re certain…
A relatively quiet week in Boston…but the big news in MASSACHUSETTS was happening 90 miles to the west, where Saga wasted no time in its acquisition of WHMP (1400/99.3 Northampton) from the AMFM/Clear Channel spinoffs. Saga is changing the calls of WHMP-FM (“99.3 Rocks”) to WLZX, and we’re told the next step will be an active rock format similar to longtime Saga property WLZR (102.9) in Milwaukee. Scott Laudani arrives to replace Adam Wright as PD. (He’s perhaps better known to New Hampshirites for his stints at WHEB and WXBB/WXBP in recent years.)
One big piece of news from RHODE ISLAND, and it’s no surprise: after two minutes of silence, WWRX (103.7 Westerly) discarded its old classic rock format for the WFNX (101.7 Lynn MA) modern rock network at midnight Thursday (Sept. 7).
One of Buffalo’s three country stations will flip to sports by October 1. WNUC (107.7 Wethersfield Township) was sold to Adelphia Communications, parent of the Empire Sports Network, last month, and it’s no great surprise to find that the new sports outlet will feature Fox Sports Radio and the Adelphia-owned Buffalo Sabres. Former WGR (550) sports talker Art Wander will be the first local host to join the station, which is being billed as a “nicer” alternative to WGR.
There must be something in the air in CANADA this year. Last issue, we told you about the mass licensing of new FMs in New Brunswick. This week, we get to tell you that the world of English-language radio in Montreal is being flipped on its head, as one pair of stations gets a duopoly partner, while another gets a new owner.
It started the last week in August, when Metromedia CMR announced that it will sell its four-station group to Shaw spin-off Corus Communications for C$185 million. Metromedia had been struggling from the difficult launches of “Info 690” CINF and “940 News” CINW, neither of which made any impact on the ratings despite expensive launches in the spring. Now it will be up to Corus, which has never owned an all-news station, to figure out what to do with the 50kw stations. Corus also gets English soft-rocker CFQR (92.5) and French companion CKOI (96.9 Verdun).
Just a week later, Montreal’s radio world was rocked again, as Standard Broadcasting announced Friday (9/8) that it’s buying rocker CHOM (97.7) and oldies CKGM (990) from CHUM Ltd. Standard already has dominant AM news-talker CJAD (800) and “Mix 96” CJFM (95.9), and it’s not hard to see the kind of pressure the four-station group will be able to bring to bear on CFQR and, especially, struggling CINW. There’s no word yet on how much CHUM gets for the stations, which it has owned since 1985. In addition to cash, the deal has CHUM acquiring Standard’s CFWM (99.9) in Winnipeg.
Meanwhile, radio listeners in southern Ontario are finding two new formats on the dial. CIWV (94.7 the Wave) took to the air in Hamilton with Canada’s first smooth jazz format on September 1 at noon, just hours after the CHUM folks launched their latest station an hour away in London. CHST (102.3) is playing adult contemporary music as “Star 102.3.” (Which, NERW notes, must be fun when the trop is up around Hamilton, where listeners can no doubt switch from Star 102.3 to Star 102.5, WTSS in Buffalo, to Star 103.7, WRTS in Erie…)
Twenty Years Ago: September 11, 1995