In this week’s issue… Why NYC TV stations are headed south – WBAI’s new crisis – Big AM loses baseball – Morning man’s drug arrest – Bell shuffles CFRA lineup
By SCOTT FYBUSH
The Durst Organization, which manages the new 1WTC, announced on Wednesday that it’s signed deals with four New York TV stations to move their main transmitters from the Empire State Building to the new tower. CBS’ WCBS-TV (Channel 2/RF 33), NBC/Telemundo’s WNBC (Channel 4/RF 28) and WNJU (Channel 47/RF 36) and public TV WNET (Channel 13) are the first stations to sign deals with Durst – but, the developer hopes, not the last.
“We look forward to working with other potential broadcasters and telecommunications companies and introducing them to our facility at One World Trade Center,” said Durst VP John Lyons in the release announcing the deals.
That’s an understatement, to say the least. As broadcasters try to figure out what their future looks like amidst the upcoming spectrum auction, repack and ATSC 3.0 conversion, Durst and its rival, the Empire State Building, have been engaged in a quiet but intense battle for the millions of dollars that are at stake from leasing Manhattan’s highest points to the small number of broadcast companies that depend on them.
Keep reading for NERW’s insight into why over-the-air broadcasting still matters and how the rest of New York’s stations are likely to respond to last week’s developments:
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For TV stations, a search for maximum reach for cord-cutters. While some low-rated TV stations will use the auction as a way to cash out, there’s still plenty of money to be made from broadcast operation for a long while yet to come – so long as viewers can actually see those broadcasts.
New York City has been a challenging place for broadcast TV for pretty much as long as there’s been broadcast TV. NBC’s exclusive deal for use of the Empire State Building began in the 1930s but was ended by FCC decree early in the 1950s after studies showed that none of the other sites then in use could provide signals as good as those from Empire, which was then the tallest building in the world. For a generation afterward, all TV in New York came from Empire, hundreds of feet taller than anything else in Manhattan.
The construction of the original World Trade Center towers in the 1970s changed all that. Most TV moved downtown to 1WTC, but reflections from Empire and other new tall buildings made signals worse for viewers in some parts of the city. Cable was relatively slow to arrive in the outer boroughs, which meant that off-air reception remained quite important in the city well into the 1980s.
The destruction of the Twin Towers disrupted over-the-air signals for several months for most stations, and since 2001 New York TV has largely come from an Empire State facility that’s gone through several modifications but has never really been fully optimized, especially now that other buildings are going up in midtown Manhattan that rise above Empire’s spire.
And in the meantime, over-the-air TV has become somewhat more important these days. While it’s true that cable and satellite still reach more than 80% of households in the New York market, 20% of the nation’s biggest market is still an awfully big chunk of viewers – so these decisions matter more than most broadcasters might have thought a decade ago.
All in one place? While Empire’s new management has been working hard to sell broadcasters on the idea of a rebuilt master antenna for TV use, Durst has been working with the TV stations to conduct testing of what a digital TV signal will look like from its new World Trade Center facility. Nobody’s saying much about the exact results of the tests that have been conducted on VHF channel 12 and UHF channel 32, but as one engineer noted last week, the fact that CBS, NBC and WNET have all signed with Durst suggests that broadcasters were pleased with how their signals got out from 1700 feet up on the new 1WTC.
And here’s where it starts to get interesting for the remaining stations that haven’t yet committed. ABC (WABC-TV 7), Univision (WXTV channel 41/RF 40 and WFUT channel 68/RF 30) and the city of New York (WNYE-TV 25/RF 24) already have deals with Durst to use its 4 Times Square tower as either a backup or main facility. Tribune (WPIX-TV 11), ion (WPXN channel 31) and Fox (WNYW channel 5/RF 44 and WWOR channel 9/RF 38) have thus far operated solely from Empire.
Building a master TV antenna and combiner is an expensive proposition, which is one incentive for everyone in a market to be at a common location. Add to that the challenge of getting viewers to adjust antennas for signals coming from multiple locations, and logic suggests that Durst now has momentum on its side for signing most of the rest of the city’s big TV operators to join CBS, NBC and WNET at 1WTC.
Backups matter, too. If New York’s TV stations learned anything from the World Trade Center attacks in 1993 and then the devastation of 9/11, it’s that a backup site is essential. As heavily protected as the new 1WTC is, it’s certain that everyone leasing space up there will want to have another broadcast location on hot standby somewhere else, just in case.
Here’s where both Empire and Durst have powerful cases to make. In ordinary times, Empire’s appeal would be very simple: the broadcasters who’ve already invested heavily in building out DTV facilities there can simply keep them in place as backups even if they move their primary signals downtown to 1WTC. But with the channel changes that come with repacking, just staying put at Empire will be expensive, too.
So will more stations join the existing backups a few blocks away at Durst’s 4 Times Square? It’s not hard to imagine Durst offering extremely attractive terms to stations that want to use 1WTC as their main site and 4 Times Square as the backup – but there’s also the reality to consider that all of Manhattan’s recent skyscraper development is starting to dwarf 4 Times Square, which briefly reigned, post-9/11, as the second-tallest building in the city.
What about FM? As we’ve noted on several occasions in this space, New York’s FM signals have far less freedom to relocate than their TV cousins. Very tight spacing to other FMs in Philadelphia, Baltimore and south Jersey means that most of the FMs on Empire couldn’t relicense to the World Trade Center, eight miles to the south, even if they wanted to. For many New York broadcasters, there are still bad memories of the signal troubles the original WTC FMs faced, which is why several had moved back to Empire even before 9/11. And that eight-mile move, if it did happen, would lead to less raw signal strength in crowded midtown Manhattan, which would make a Trade Center FM signal harder to hear in offices. (At least one station, SBS’ WPAT-FM 93.1, is still operating at reduced power from Empire because it faces the opposite problem; it’s short-spaced in midtown but would be fully spaced downtown, so it may yet make the move to the Trade Center, which is where it’s still officially licensed.)
The bottom line is still the bottom line. The best technical solution is, of course, not always the best overall answer for the executives who run these stations. (Just ask the planners who tried and failed to get backup sites budgeted after the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, when only WCBS-TV had an auxiliary site at Empire.) With leases that are reliably believed to hover in the range of a million dollars a year in some cases, these are big financial decisions, too. So while there’s a lot that we can game out in terms of signals and facilities, there’s also plenty of financial negotiating going on behind closed doors that we’ll probably never know all the details about.
On with the rest of the week’s news:
*At Cumulus, most of what’s left of local programming at low-rated WNBM (103.9 Bronxville) is gone. Budget cuts at “Radio 103.9” last week ousted middayer Sharon “La Loca” Montero, mixer Mister Cee, several part-timers and off-air personnel. It doesn’t appear that there’s a format change coming to the station, though; WNBM’s syndicated morning and afternoon shows, Tom Joyner and D.L. Hughley, stay in place, as does night jock Marc Clarke.
The storm that ripped its way across the region early last week wreaked havoc with at least one talk host’s travel plans. WOR (710) morning man Todd Schnitt was on his way back to New York Monday evening with a producer when his flight was diverted upstate to Syracuse. Schnitt rented a car to try to drive through the night so he could be back in lower Manhattan for morning drive, but ended up in a crash that totaled the rental near Binghamton. Schnitt and his producer were uninjured, and he ended up on short notice at iHeart’s Binghamton cluster, where he did the WOR show via ISDN.
*More bad news from the perpetually-troubled WBAI (99.5 New York): Ken Mills’ SPARK! blog picked up an internal memo laying out just how bad the Pacifica station’s finances have become. Mills reports that as of the start of February, WBAI was just under a million dollars in debt, which didn’t even include loan repayments to the national Pacifica organization and other local Pacifica stations that have helped bail out WBAI. The report from station treasurer R. Paul Martin says WBAI’s $12,000 monthly rent to the Empire State Building hasn’t been paid in two months – and that WBAI didn’t have enough in its accounts to make its Feb. 1 payroll.
*At WNBC (Channel 4), the new anchor for the upcoming 4 PM newscast has a familiar name: Stefan Holt comes to 30 Rock from sister station WMAQ (Channel 5) in Chicago; now he’ll be anchoring right across the third floor hallway from his father, Nightly News anchor Lester Holt.
*When you get way, way upstate in the middle of the winter, there’s not a lot to do, evidently – which may help to explain the arrest of a Massena radio host. Sanford Cook, a former Massena town supervisor, is off the air at WMSA (1340) while he fights misdemeanor criminal possession charges after a drug raid on his home a week ago. Police arrested both the 60-year-old Cook and 24-year-old Edward Slade, who also lived there. They seized crack cocaine, heroin and needles from the house; the station then suspended Cook from the “Extravaganza” morning show where he’s been a longtime fixture.
*The New York Mets are growing their radio network ahead of their 2016 season: the defending NL champions have added Pamal’s WINU (104.9 Altamont) to their network, the first time in several years that they’ll have a local signal in the Albany market.
In Utica, J.R. Reitz is the new brand manager at Townsquare Media’s WLZW (Lite 98.7) and WODZ (Eagle 96.1). For Reitz, it’s a return to colder climes after a couple of years in Phoenix; he’d been in Massachusetts for many years before his 2013 departure from WFHN (107.1 Fairhaven).
In Syracuse, our content partner Lance Venta’s RadioInsight picks up on an interesting set of domain registrations: someone anonymously registered “1021WSEN.com,” “102WSEN.com” and several other similar domains last week. Is Galaxy’s WZUN (102.1 Phoenix) preparing to drop its “Sunny” soft AC format to pick up the intellectual property from WSEN-FM (92.1 Baldwinsville)? The existing oldies format at WSEN-FM is set to go away sometime between now and April as that station changes hands from Leatherstocking to Family Life Ministries.
There are still more moving parts from that deal yet to click into place. What, for instance, will become of Leatherstocking’s AMs (talk WFBL 1390 Syracuse/WMCR 1600 Oneida and oldies WSEN 1050 Baldwinsville) when Family Life’s $2.5 million purchase of WSEN-FM and WMCR-FM (106.3 Oneida) closes? And why did Family Life modify the deal to keep 92.1 commercial instead of flipping it to non-commercial status like its other religious stations around the region?
*On the East End of Long Island, Bob Anderson has died. Anderson had been chief engineer for more than 30 years at WPPB (88.3 Southampton, formerly WPBX/WLIU), as well as at WCWP (88.1 Brookville), WRLI (91.3 Southampton) and the commercial cluster that included WEHM/WEHN, WBEA and WBAZ. WPPB offered up a glowing tribute to Anderson last week, following his death Feb. 13 at 66.
One more Long Island note: translator W268AN (101.5 Plainview) and its parent feed, the HD3 of WVIP (93.5 New Rochelle), are now carrying the NEW JERSEY-based South Asian “Radio Chai” network. It’s also heard on the HD2 of WPRB (103.3 Princeton) and on WXMC (1310 Parsippany-Troy Hills), and had been feeding WPDI (103.9 Hazlet) as “Radio Asia.”
*We’re still a few weeks away from our annual Baseball on the Radio edition of NERW, but here’s an early preview from eastern PENNSYLVANIA and the Phillies: a renewal of the team’s deal with CBS Radio is taking the Phils off WPHT (1210 Philadelphia), the 50,000-watt signal that’s had the team on and off for decades.
WPHT had been in an unusual position for the last few seasons, functioning as an affiliate while sister station WIP-FM (94.1 Philadelphia) was the team’s flagship. WIP remains the flagship for the 2016 contract extension, which keeps Scott Franzske, Larry Andersen and Jim Jackson in the booth.
The Phillies’ exit from AM leaves only the Yankees (with an FM simulcast) and Mets on powerful AM flagship signals in the region.
*Over at WBEB (101.1 More FM), Dave Moore appears to be out after a long run in afternoon drive. He’s gone from the station’s website, which now lists nobody for the 2-7 PM slot.
*It’s across the state line in Maryland, but we note with some interest the upcoming affiliation change in Hagerstown, where Comcast has notified Nexstar that it’s pulling its longtime NBC affiliation from WHAG-TV (Channel 25) when its contract expires June 30.
As with the 2014 affiliation cancellation at Atlantic City’s WMGM-TV (Channel 40), WHAG-TV had ended up in the uncomfortable situation of a secondary affiliate in a larger market where NBC owned its main outlet. Hagerstown is part of the sprawling Washington market, where Comcast owns WRC (Channel 4), and it would prefer that residents of Hagerstown and vicinity watch NBC there instead of on WHAG-TV.
And as with WMGM-TV, the end of NBC at WHAG had the potential to strand a small local newsroom that’s been providing important service to an area that doesn’t get much local news anywhere else. The WHAG-TV newsroom has launched many careers into bigger markets in its 40-some years on the air, and the good news is that Nexstar says it’s pumping $1 million into expanding local news and lifestyle programming there once NBC goes away. WHAG plans to add additional local news bureaus in the “4 State” area it serves across Pennsylvania, Maryland, West Virginia and Virginia, with 20 additional weekly hours of news.
*In TV news from MASSACHUSETTS, Sunbeam’s WHDH-TV (Channel 7) is getting ready for its own loss of NBC affiliation at year’s end by bolstering its already-substantial local news output. WHDH announced last week that it will start the market’s second 7 PM weeknight newscast starting March 7. Kim Khazei and Adam Williams will anchor the newscast, which goes up against the just-launched 7 PM show on ABC affiliate WCVB (Channel 5).
(Once NBC leaves channel 7, we’d expect the station to also add a 6:30 PM show in what’s now the network news timeslot.)
*Greater Media’s WKLB (102.5) has named a new morning man to replace John “JW” Willis. Jeff Miles will start his new “Miles in the Morning” show March 7. He’s coming north from KCYY in San Antonio; before that, he’d done top-40 in Atlanta and Dallas.
A format change that we should have noted earlier: Multicultural Broadcasting’s WAZN (1470 Watertown) has been running Mandarin-language programming for several weeks now, replacing the Music of Your Life that had been a filler there between paying clients.
*RHODE ISLAND morning man Vezzy Parmesan has been commuting an hour and a half every day to get to WWKX (106.3 Woonsocket) from his Connecticut home for the last five years now, but no more. On Facebook, Parmesan told Hot 106 listeners that he’s leaving the “Hot Morning Show with Vezzy & Bekah” for “family and personal reasons (none bad).” No replacement has been named yet, and Vezzy’s looking for new work closer to his former gig at WZMX in Hartford.
Upstairs at Cumulus, Tara Granahan is now the host in the 3-6 PM slot long occupied by the late Buddy Cianci at WPRO (630)/WEAN (99.7).
*MAINE Public Broadcasting is picking up a new signal along the state line. WFYB (91.5 Fryeburg) also reaches into Conway, NEW HAMPSHIRE; MPBN is paying $37,500 to acquire the 430-watt signal from Light of Life Ministries. (No word yet on whether those excellent call letters will stay in place.)
Closer to Portland, Bob Bittner’s Blue Jey Broadcasting has closed on the $135,000 purchase of WLVP (870 Gorham) and WLAM (1470 Lewiston) from Bill Binnie’s WBIN Media. Bittner says the stations will simulcast a soft AC format that’s similar, but not identical, to his WJTO (730 Bath),
It turns out that CFRA is where Bill Carroll is headed after giving up his afternoon shifts at KFI in Los Angeles and then at Corus’ CFMJ (640) in Toronto as well. Carroll will start as CFRA’s morning man March 7, working alongside Tricia Owens on “The Morning Rush with Bill Carroll.”
But with Carroll’s entrance comes a slew of exits: Mark Sutcliffe, who’d been doing mornings since Steve Madely’s exit last year, was abruptly ousted on Wednesday, as were evening hosts Ron Corbett (“Unscripted,” 7-9 PM) and John Counsell (9-11 PM). They’re being replaced by “Beyond the News with Brian Lilley,” a former Sun News Network host who’ll be heard from 7-10 on weeknights.
On weekends, CFRA has cut host Nick Vandergragdt (“Nick at Night.”)
The latest changes mean an almost complete remake of CFRA in less than a year; late last year, the station shifted its own news team to full-time reporting duties, using anchors from sister TV station CJOH (Channel 13) to read the news each hour on the radio. Several other staffers were cut, and veteran morning man Madely resigned to spare more of his colleagues from cuts. That was followed at the end of 2015 by the exit of CFRA veteran Lowell Green.
*Across the river in Gatineau, Quebec, CFTX (96.5) has started simulcasting sports talk from CKLX (91.9 Montreal) during daytime hours. The Montreal-based sports programming replaces “Capitale Rock,” which hasn’t gained much ratings traction in the increasingly crowded Ottawa-Gatineau Francophone market. The rock format will stay in place on CFTX at night and on weekends, at least for now.
*In Toronto, Bell has launched a new schedule on CHUM (TSN Radio 1050): newcomer Michael Landsberg joins Dave Naylor for “Naylor and Landsberg in the Morning” from 5:30-9; Andi Petrillo takes over “Leafs Lunch” from noon to 1, becoming Canada’s first female sports radio talk host; and from 4-7 PM it’s now “Overdrive with Hayes, Noodles & the O’Dog,” hosted by Bryan Hayes, Jamie ‘Noodles’ McLennan, and Jeff ‘The O’Dog’ O’Neill.
Uptown at Rogers, the media giant’s cuts last week took the jobs of 200 employees in radio, TV and publishing. That included Karen Steele, who’s out as PD of CKIS (Kiss 92.5) with no replacement named.
And at Newcap, is there a format change coming at urban CFXJ (93.5 the Flow)? RadioInsight’s “NetGnomes” have picked up on a domain registration for “935theMove.com,” which could go live as early as this week.
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