In this week’s issue… A big celebration at Empire – Red Wolf grows in New England – CBS comes to Utica – Studio move in the Southern Tier – Remembering Pinky
By SCOTT FYBUSH
*It’s not every day that a major-market broadcast facility marks its 50th anniversary as a useful, even vital part of broadcast infrastructure. But the 32 elements that make up the Alford FM master antenna at the Empire State Building are unique in so many ways – not least in the party that celebrated their history on Thursday night in New York.
It was actually early December 1965 when WHOM-FM (92.3, now WBMP) became the first of more than a dozen stations to use the Alford antenna. With the Audio Engineering Society convention in town, just down 34th Street at the Javits Convention Center, late October turned out to be a more amenable time to celebrate the anniversary, though. And what a celebration!
Empire’s recent renovations included the installation of a massive LED lighting system, which showed itself off to maximum effect with a light show at dusk set to the soundtrack of Steely Dan’s “FM” (what else?), simulcast on Empire tenant WCBS-FM (101.1), which led into the song with a montage of “radio” songs and a special message from jock Dan Taylor saluting the antenna’s long history of providing more FM service than pretty much any other site in the world.
Here’s what it looked like from the party atop a rooftop bar a block away as AES attendees began the celebration…
And here’s what the show looked like from the air, in an amazing video produced by Empire itself that got the attention of media outlets as far afield as Rolling Stone…
(Want even more from the pre-show celebration? Our friends at This Week in Radio Tech were broadcasting live, and you can catch that episode, including an appearance by your editor and Mrs. Editor, here!)
As spectacular as the light show was for the whole city, what followed for a select audience in an Empire State Building conference room was even more remarkable: your editor had the signal honor (alongside AES’s David Bialik) of moderating a panel discussion about the fascinating history of FM from Empire.
We kicked it off with four minutes of audio to give just a bit of the flavor of what was heard from the antenna over the years (1965-1994) that it served as the main antenna at Empire…
Then came the experts: Tom Silliman of ERI talked not only about his own experiences modifying the Alford in the 1980s and building its successor in the 1990s but also about his father’s work with inventor Andy Alford. Bob Tarsio of Broadcast Devices Inc. discussed his years at Empire, including the role he played leading the replacement master antenna project that signed on in 1994. Herb Squire, veteran chief engineer at WQXR, talked about the Alford antenna’s signal reach and quirks. Andy Lanset, archivist at WNYC/WQXR, spoke about his role in helping to preserve New York radio history. Frank Foti of the Telos Alliance was the chief engineer of the last station to join the Alford master antenna in 1983, upstart WHTZ (100.3), and he shared some tales of how Z100’s brash approach sometimes clashed with the staid management of the time at Empire. Shane O’Donoghue, Empire’s current director of broadcasting, talked about the improvements being made at the building, including the plans to create a new master antenna system that are now underway.
Empire lights up (left); Silliman (right)
Silliman, Tarsio and Squire (left); Foti (right)
The group at the event (left); an Alford element at night (right)
It’s not a party without a cake, of course – and check out the cake that event organizer Peggy Miles commissioned, complete with an accurate count of 32 “elements” surrounding a delicious replica of the 102nd floor observation deck. Next to the cake was an actual Alford antenna element, which Silliman and O’Donoghue had shipped in from ERI’s Indiana facility just for the event.
A sad note to the night’s activities was the news of the death of Neil Smith, the engineer who was instrumental in the Alford’s installation back in 1965 when he was working for Kear & Kennedy, the firm that was supervising engineering for Empire. Though his health was failing, Smith had hoped to attend the event alongside his sons Neil Jr. and Kevin Fisher, but he was unable to make it. Instead, he was represented by a selection of memorabilia from his collection, and by his sons, who remain active in engineering. Smith was 81 when he died October 24.
As it turns 50, the Alford antenna remains a vital part of Empire’s facility. It’s still used on a regular basis during overnight tower work when the main FM master antenna can’t be on the air. It was an honor indeed to be able to help throw it the party it deserved!
(And stay tuned – as soon as AES makes a recording of the panel discussion available, we’ll post a link!)
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Though the Radio Historian’s calendar is sold out, you can still get your copy of the 2018 Tower Site Calendar. You can even get the autographed and hand-numbered edition. Hurry, though — there are less than 10 left.
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: November 3, 2014
When Cumulus began launching its “Nash” branding for its country stations more than a year ago, the broadcaster made it clear that it intended to make the brand a national one. But that rollout has taken longer than many expected – and the company’s actions last week show that it’s still very much a work in progress.
On Friday morning at 10, Cumulus pulled the plug on its classic hits format at WORC-FM (98.9 Webster) in the Worcester, Massachusetts market, transitioning the station to its “Nash Icon” country brand. That’s not the current hit country of the main “Nash” (as heard, for instance, on New York-market flagship WNSH-FM) but rather a sort of “classic country hits” heavily focused on the 1990s and early 2000s, and it’s an interesting match to the other two stations in the Worcester Cumulus cluster, dominant AC WXLO (104.5 Fitchburg) and classic rock “Pike” WWFX (100.1 Southbridge).
As the only station playing country in the Worcester market, “Icon” goes up against plenty of listening that now goes to signals from outside Worcester, predominantly to Greater Media’s Boston-market country behemoth, WKLB-FM (102.5). Can Cumulus repatriate some of that audience? It’s at least trying to stay local; with no national talent yet on board for “Icon,” WORC-FM retains its existing airstaff of Adam Webster in the morning, Dave O’Gara in middays and Mark Veau in the afternoon.
*In northern VERMONT, Bruce James and his Vermont Broadcast Associates have signed on their newest signal. WJJZ (94.5 Irasburg) emerged from construction permit status as “JJ Country,” operating from the studios of sister stations WMOO (92.1) and WIKE (1490) in Newport. The class A station’s construction permit expires nest July.
*It’s licensed in Belvidere, NEW JERSEY, but WWYY (107.1) is part of Connoisseur’s cluster serving the Lehigh Valley in PENNSYLVANIA – and as of Thursday it’s dropped the “Bone” active rock format it’s been running since , in favor of alternative rock as “Spin Radio 107.1.” Are there enough students and recent graduates at the small colleges that dot the valley to make an alternative format work, especially with Philadelphia’s iHeart alt-rock offering, WRFF (104.5), audible in much of the market?
Five Years Ago: November 1, 2010
Three NERW-land stations tied for the title of “first all-Christmas flips” when they kicked off November by going 24/7 holiday music: in the Albany market, both Clear Channel’s WTRY (98.3 Rotterdam) and Townsquare’s WBZZ (105.7 Malta, now “Santa 105.7”) made the flip Monday morning, as did Equity Communications’ WEZW (93.1 Wildwood Crest) on the Jersey shore. And as the countdown on the “Santa 105.7” website helpfully reminds us, it’s still 53 days until Christmas… (More Christmas? Why, yes: CNYRadio.com reports Galaxy’s WZUN (102.1) in Syracuse and WUMX (102.5) in Rome also made the flip on Monday.)
Want to keep a room full of media historians busy for hours? Just stick your head in the door, ask them, “Was KDKA the first radio station?” and run. But whether or not that November 2, 1920 election-night broadcast by KDKA in Pittsburgh, PENNSYLVANIA in fact marked the start of radio in the United States (and there’s plenty of well-documented evidence to suggest that everything KDKA did that night had been done elsewhere, earlier), it unquestionably marked the breakthrough of radio into the national consciousness – and thus radio’s transition from a curious hobby to a new mass medium. The Westinghouse publicity machine that propelled KDKA into the history books survives today under the station’s current CBS ownership, and so it should come as no surprise that the station is marking tomorrow’s 90th anniversary in style. In partnership with the Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh’s Strip District, KDKA hosted a weekend open house that featured appearances by KDKA personalities, a slide show of the station’s highlights and a display of artifacts that included that transmitter shown above, a 1930s-era replica (including some original parts) of the transmitter used on that fateful night in 1920.
The big news this week out of MASSACHUSETTS is all about Catholic radio, starting at 1060 on the dial this morning at 8. That’s when WQOM (1060 Natick) will return to the airwaves as an all-Catholic outlet of Buffalo-based Holy Family Communications. The inaugural program on WQOM will be a live Mass from the Cathedral of the Holy Cross, celebrated by Boston Archbishop Cardinal Seán O’Malley, and while the station is boasting “50,000 watts of power,” it’s still not clear whether construction has been completed (or even begun) on the station’s full daytime facilities at the Ashland transmitter site, shared with WAMG (890 Dedham), that it’s been using for nighttime operation. In its prior incarnation as WBIX, 1060 transmitted by day from the old WKOX (1200) facility in Framingham, but WQOM didn’t pick up the lease on the studio/transmitter facilities there.
Over in Worcester, Catholic programming is coming to WNEB (1230) as Blount Masscom sells the 1000-watt signal to a new company called Emmanuel Communications. Emmanuel will pay $500,000 for WNEB, which presently does Spanish talk as “Radio Sol.”
Ten Years Ago: October 31, 2005
While it may strike terror into the souls of classical music aficionados across Eastern New England, the news that Charles River Broadcasting has put its station group up for sale is anything but a Halloween prank.
On Thursday, the company’s board of directors agreed to hire Media Services Group to explore the sale of some or all of its five stations – classical outlets WCRB (102.5 Waltham), WFCC (107.5 Chatham) and WCRI (95.9 Block Island RI), as well as rocker WKPE (104.7 Orleans) and all-news WCNX (1180 Hope Valley RI). The board also brought in veteran manager Herb McCord (former head of the Granum group) to manage the stations while CEO Bill Campbell is on medical leave; McCord was already a member of the Charles River board.
At least where WCRB is concerned, the move appeared at first glance to contradict the wishes of Theodore Jones, the station’s founder. At the time of his death in 1991, it was widely reported that he’d created a trust structure to ensure that WCRB would remain classical for the next 99 years, leading many in the business to believe that the station (with one of only a dozen or so truly full-market Boston FM signals) would never go up for sale.
Charles River, however, sees things differently. Company officials say it’s become impossible to operate as a small group in the era of consolidation and clusters, and they tell the Boston Globe that when Jones died, the trust he created stated that it was his “wish” that WCRB remain classical – but not a binding order. The board believes it can honor that wish by mandating that anyone buying WCRB maintain the classical format on an HD Radio subchannel, but leaving them free to program whatever they’d like on the main channel.
WCRB’s only one big headline in eastern MASSACHUSETTS this week, though. Up in Burlington, things got awfully quiet Thursday at WWZN (1510 Boston), where Sporting News Radio abruptly pulled the plug on the local programming it was originating at “1510 the Zone.” At the end, that meant two shows for the struggling station: “The Diehards” and Eddie Andelman’s afternoon show. The paid programming that was running on the weekends and some evenings (including high school football) will continue, as will three WWZN staffers, including Diehards Anthony Pepe and Jon Anik. A few moments of class marked the station’s end: former GM Mike Winn, who’s now with “ESPN Boston” WAMG/WLLH, was allowed to come back to WWZN for the last day there. And Andelman, whose history on Boston radio goes back 36 years, will get to do a farewell show Thursday (Nov. 3) from 2-4 PM.
Then there’s Howard Stern, who took away whatever suspense still surrounded the question of his replacement on Tuesday, when he introduced David Lee Roth as his successor, starting January 3, 2006, on most of his East Coast Infinity-owned affiliates.
In Boston, that means Roth will replace Stern on WBCN (104.1), but WBCN’s rock format will continue for the rest of the day. That’s not going to be the case on several other Stern stations – in particular, NEW YORK, where the end of the Stern show will also mean the end of “K-Rock” at WXRK (92.3). Stern has been a part of K-Rock since just a few months after it signed on in 1985. After he signs off in December 16, the rock will go as well – at least during the day – to replaced by the “Free FM” brand of talk that Infinity’s launching in other big markets. So far, the only host confirmed for WXRK (besides Roth) is comedian/magician Penn Jillette.
The Roth show won’t be heard in upstate New York. Instead, WZNE (94.1 Brighton) will bring “Rover’s Morning Glory” to the Rochester market. Rover is the “nom de chien” (thanks to Ohio Media Watch for that one!) of Shane French, who’s been doing mornings on WXTM in Cleveland. His show will now be based at “Free FM” Midwest hub WCKG in Chicago, where it will feed WXTM, WZNE and affiliates in Columbus, Cincinnati, Detroit and Memphis.
Back to Stern, then – and perhaps the biggest news, at least in our region, comes from eastern PENNSYLVANIA, where the end of the Stern show Tuesday was followed with the launch of “94.1 Free FM” on WYSP (94.1 Philadelphia).
The new format had clearly been in the works for a while, since it launched with a relatively comprehensive schedule. The most notable addition is market veteran Paul Barsky, who resurfaces as the 10 AM-3 PM host (with former sidekick Vinnie the Crumb alongside him again.) Kidd Chris, already on WYSP, remains in afternoon drive. After 7 at night, the station will still be a rocker, with Couzin Ed moving to 7-10 PM and Matt and Huggy from 10-2.
Fifteen Years Ago: October 30, 2000
A former MASSACHUSETTS broadcaster is making some awfully loud noises against Clear Channel as his U.S. Senate campaign in Florida heads for the finish line.
Here at NERW Central, we were paying only a little attention to the charges independent candidate Andy Martin was making about Clear Channel’s contests. If you haven’t been reading the national trades all week, they boil down to this: not only is Clear Channel trying to pass off national contests as local ones, but the company is also rigging those contests to favor certain markets. Florida’s attorney general already reached a settlement with Clear Channel on the former allegation, of course, but Martin claims the company isn’t running the required disclaimers as promised. Clear Channel, of course, denies the allegations. But in doing so, the company mentioned in passing that “Andy Martin” is also known as…Anthony Martin-Trigona.
That’s a name we do recognize: Martin-Trigona bought WHET (1330 Waltham) in the late 1970s and flipped it to country as WDLW, the calls it would use for more than a decade (and which calls supposedly refer to the initials of an ex-girlfriend of Martin-Trigona’s!) By whichever name you call him, it seems Martin-Trigona has had a colorful career since selling WDLW in the early 80s, including real estate deals and politics in Illinois, and several run-ins with the Florida court system for filing frivolous lawsuits and such.
Martin’s official campaign website makes no mention of WDLW or of the “-Trigona” part of the name, but it certainly appears that we have an interesting answer to at least one Boston radio “where are they now” question.
The big news in the Big Apple this week was the death of Frankie Crocker at age 63. Crocker spent almost two decades as program director and afternoon jock at WBLS (107.5), in two separate stints at the station. His resume also included stops at WWRL and WMCA, and most recently at WRKS. Crocker died last Saturday (10/21) in Miami.
Twenty Years Ago: November 2, 1995