In this week’s issue… Time running out for WBAI – New FM formats in Plattsburgh/Burlington – Wolf howls again in Albany – Baseball on the Radio
By SCOTT FYBUSH
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The perpetually-troubled WBAI has survived the loss of its rented studio space, investigations from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, multiple changes of management and every manner of financial instability known to nonprofit radio. Now, though, it appears a combination of problems all at once might finally force Pacifica to do what it’s long resisted – liquidating the assets of WBAI, including its commercial class B license.
The pressure this time comes from multiple directions: there’s WBAI’s ongoing difficulty in making timely rent payments to the Empire State Building for its transmitter space; there’s WBAI’s even more ongoing difficulty in making payroll and health insurance payments and its mandatory “central service fees” to Pacifica national; and now there’s a pending lawsuit from Gary Null, the veteran WBAI program host who says the station defrauded members by providing inferior substitutes for the videos and diet supplements he hawked as pledge premiums.
Former WBAI GM Chris Albertson, who’s been tracking the troubles at the station, monitors the doings of Pacifica’s national finance committee, and he reports that last week’s meeting included a presentation from Pacifica’s new national CFO Sam Agarwal that made some tough recommendations for WBAI and for Washington’s WPFW (89.3).
Within 60 days, Agarwal said, he’ll be presenting a recommendation for sale, liquidation or a lease of WBAI, which is once again a month behind in insurance payments and two months in arrears to Pacifica national; in Washington, the local management at least gets a 60-day window to come up with its own plan for recovery.
Albertson also reports that a deadline to reach a settlement deal in the Null lawsuit came and went a week ago with no action by the national board, which means that suit appears to be headed to court and to whatever the consequences of a Pacifica loss might be. (Had Pacifica been willing to settle and create a compliance plan, Null was apparently prepared to forgo any penalties or damages.)
Back in New York, meanwhile, there’s a meeting reportedly scheduled this week between WBAI management and the Empire State Building over the rent arrears there. While WBAI holds a construction permit to relocate to the nearby Four Times Square FM facility, that doesn’t come cheap either, and there’s been no sign yet that WBAI is in any position to build out at a new location.
Will this really mean the end of WBAI after 56 years under Pacifica? And who might be in the market as a buyer? Read on…
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*First things first: the tangled nature of Pacifica’s national/local structure has always stood in the way of any station sale, and that hasn’t changed at all. Even if the national Pacifica board does vote to put WBAI up for sale, various provisions in its bylaws may still require local approval from either the board or station members that won’t be likely – and even if that does somehow come to pass, there’s sure to be legal action from opponents that would hold up a sale indefinitely.
But if matters for Pacifica remain dire (and especially if the double whammy of tower site rental and the Null lawsuit both work against WBAI at once), who’d be in a position to buy WBAI, and what would it be worth?
As we examined in our Tuesday NERW Extra, such a sale is relatively unlikely. There’s a dearth of buyers with the ability and the money to swallow CBS Radio clusters in their entirety, the possibility that other financially-stressed station owners may also flood the market by putting their stations up for sale, and the tax consequences that CBS would face with an outright sale.
An individual signal like 99.5, however, would be a much more attractive purchase prospect for a variety of buyers. While Cumulus, for instance, would go way over the ownership cap (and its finances) to acquire CBS Radio’s three AMs and four FMs, the purchase of a single FM would allow it to upgrade the signal of either urban AC WNBM (103.9) or “Nash” WNSH (94.7). EMF, the parent of the national “K-Love” network, would surely love a bigger New York signal instead of (or in addition to) its rimshot WKLV (96.7 Port Chester). Public broadcaster WNYC has long sought a bigger signal for its class B1 classical outlet, WQXR (105.9). Would Bloomberg, which is now on a CBS FM in Washington, want an FM counterpart for its WBBR (1130)? (That CBS-owned FM in Washington gave up its WNEW calls last Monday, by the way, sending them back home to New York sister station WWFS on 102.7, which is once again saying “WNEW New York” once an hour.)
Or – and here’s something nobody’s mentioned yet at all – if CBS Radio is spun off as a separate company, would they go for the full market cap of five FMs once they no longer have cross-ownership cap issues to deal with?
If any of those scenarios were to come to pass, the best guide for WBAI’s value comes from Cumulus’ purchase of WNSH. That’s also a full class B signal (albeit from a New Jersey transmitter site), and it was sold strictly for stick value – $40 million at its New Jersey site, with an additional payment if Cumulus were to move it to a Manhattan transmitter location, which hasn’t happened yet.
As many have speculated repeatedly, Pacifica could stabilize its operations with that kind of money, creating an endowment to keep some form of WBAI alive (and even healthy) by using some of it to purchase a lesser FM signal or a decent AM signal. But that would require a level of common sense and organization that’s been in short supply for a long time at Pacifica. (As Albertson noted, WBAI can’t even organize itself well enough right now to send out pledge premiums to listeners; instead, there was a backlog of more than two months’ worth of premiums waiting recently for anyone at all who knew how to operate the station’s postage meter.)
How will this all end? Will it ever end? We’ll keep following it closely for you.
*A longtime VERMONT streaming operation is making a jump to FM. Tony Gallucci and Eric Koval have been running “WBKM, Burlington’s Kinda Music” for eight years at wbkm.org – and now they’re on the FM dial on what used to be WNMR (107.1 Dannemora NY). The AAA-formatted webcaster is leasing the FM signal from Randy Michaels’ RadioActive with the intent to buy the license down the road.
Across the lake in Plattsburgh, RadioActive’s WPLB (100.7 Plattsburgh West) also has a new LMA-to-buy partner. Hometown Radio, Inc. is now leasing 100.7 and running it as WIRY-FM, simulcasting WIRY (1340 Plattsburgh)’s distinctive small-town full service programming.
*Mal Boright was a unique figure in Vermont sports over a career that stretched across five decades. After starting out in print (at papers that included the Valley News, Rutland Herald and Burlington Free Press), Boright joined the upstart WVNY-TV (Channel 22, later WEZF-TV and then WVNY again) as its founding sports director in 1968. For more than 30 years, he was known as “The Swami” doing sports commentary at WDEV in Waterbury, most recently as co-host of “Geezer and the Kid.” In retirement, he wrote about local sports for the Williston Observer. Boright died Friday at his home in Williston, at 81.
*The “Wolf” will be howling again in the Albany market soon. Bob Wohlfeld’s been off the air for a while after his long run in mornings at WPYX (106.5), but on April 1 he’ll join Townsquare’s WTMM (104.5 Mechanicsville) to talk sports alongside Jeff Levack. “The Levack and Wolf Show” will run from 2-7 PM, the slot that Levack’s been doing solo on the ESPN Radio affiliate for the last few months. (Before that, brand manager Armen Williams was doing that shift; he’s now out in Denver.)
In Syracuse, Family Life Ministries continues to make changes ahead of its acquisition of Leatherstocking’s WSEN-FM (92.1 Baldwinsville) and WMCR-FM (106.3 Oneida). It’s filed to move translator W207BH (89.3 Baldwinsville) up the dial to 100.1, which is also the translator frequency used over in Oswego by Galaxy’s WSGO (1440). With Galaxy apparently poised to pick up the intellectual property of WSEN-FM (and move it to its own WZUN 102.1), is this translator now part of the deal as well?
Meanwhile, Family Life continues to shuffle its callsigns: after moving WCOV-FM from 93.7 in Clyde to 90.9 in Laporte PA, it’s now swapped calls again, making Laporte WCID and putting the WCOV-FM calls on 89.1 in Friendship NY, formerly WCID. (Laporte’s original calls of WCIS are now on the Clyde signal, which is the parent to the Baldwinsville/Syracuse translator.)
Over on the TV side of things, Rochester’s WHEC (Channel 10) is looking for a new news director after the departure of Chris Ford, who’d been at the Hubbard-owned NBC station for two years.
*There’s a search for a new news director underway in MASSACHUSETTS, too, where Gary LaPlante is out after a year and a half at CBS O&O WBZ-TV (Channel 4). LaPlante came to WBZ from Fox’s WFXT (Channel 25), where he’d been assistant news director.
Salem’s WBIX (1260 Boston) is getting its first local talk show: Grace Voto will take the 9 AM-noon slot there. She’s married to WRKO (680)’s Jeff Kuhner, who used his show last week to promote his wife’s new gig at the competition.
There’s a new LPFM on the air on Cape Ann. WJOP-LP (96.3 Newburyport) belongs to the Newburyport Community Media Center, and it’s calling itself “Joppa Radio.” It filed for its license to cover on March 17.
In Worcester, WXLO (104.5) moved into a rehabilitated studio over the weekend, just over a year after a water pipe burst, sending a torrent of water into WXLO’s old studio. The Cumulus station had been operating from a makeshift studio in the meantime, with a console perched on a picnic table.
Where are they now? Chris Eagan, who worked extensively in New England (including programming gigs in Providence, Boston and as ops manager at Cox’s CONNECTICUT stations) has been promoted to corporate format leader for adult contemporary at Cox Media Group. He’ll keep his current job as PD at Atlanta Cox stations WSB-FM (98.5) and WSRV (97.1).
*Connecticut’s “Robin Hood Radio” (WHDD 91.9/1020 Sharon) touts itself as the “smallest NPR station in the nation,” and it hosted several NPR Digital staffers earlier this month for a visit. Check out their tour report here – which reminds us that we need to find an excuse to get down that way and see Marshall Miles ourselves, too…
*Our colleague Lance Venta predicted that NEW HAMPSHIRE‘s WEMJ (1490 Laconia) would be the first AM station anywhere in the region to get a translator move on the air under the new AM Improvement window – and he was right. Bill Binnie’s WBIN Media Co. filed last Wednesday for a license to cover on W298AH (107.5), which moves from Claremont to Laconia.
*A longstanding TV callsign in central PENNSYLVANIA has quietly changed. What was long known as WLYH (Channel 15) in Lancaster has become WXBU. The former “CW 15” gave up its CW affiliation to the 21.2 subchannel of former sister station WHP-TV a few months ago, when Sinclair realigned its Harrisburg-market holdings to avoid ownership cap issues; WXBU now belongs to Howard Stirk Holdings, a shell company belonging to Armstrong Williams, and it’s programming digi-nets Comet and Grit TV until, we presume, it goes into the auction later this year and disappears after 62 years on the air.
In Indiana, The Christian Witness has filed for a license to cover on WMUG-LP (105.1).
*From CANADA, regulators have handed down what appears to be a death penalty for a low-power station in the Toronto suburb of Scarborough. Subanasiri Vaithilingam’s CJVF (102.7) has already been displaced once, and now it’s about to be displaced again by a new full-power station, CJRK (102.7 East FM). CJVF applied to go to 105.3, boosting power to 50 watts from its present 6.5 watts, but the CRTC turned down that application last week.
*And with Opening Day just a week away now, it’s time once again for our annual look at Baseball on the Radio, Major League edition:
The big news at the Boston Red Sox isn’t the big news we were expecting last year. With the end of that mammoth 10-year contract between the Sox and Entercom, we’d been planning to cover a battle for a new rights deal between incumbent flagship WEEI-FM (93.7) and, perhaps, CBS Radio’s WBZ-FM (98.5). But Entercom preempted a fight for now by quietly signing a shorter-term contract renewal, and so the Sox stay in place on 93.7 for a while longer.
In the meantime, then, this year’s Sox story is the change of personnel in the radio and TV booths: the abrupt ouster last year of longtime NESN TV voice Don Orsillo (now with the Padres) moved Dave O’Brien from TV over to radio. That created an opening in the radio booth, where New England native and former Pirates announcer Tim Neverett now joins Joe Castiglione.
As usual, there’s no broadcast TV for the Sox except for network games; team-owned NESN carries the bulk of the schedule.
The New York Yankees just signed John Sterling and Suzyn Waldman to a new “long-term” deal, keeping them in the booth on WFAN (101.9/660) and the usual extensive radio network that blankets New York State and stretches as far south as Florida.
On TV, there’s a new graphics package on partially-team-owned YES Network, but otherwise no change in the split that puts most games on YES and some YES-produced games on WPIX (Channel 11) and a network of over-the-air affiliates upstate.
The defending NL champion New York Mets stay put on WOR (710) for another year, and their small radio network is suddenly in growth mode. In the last week or so alone, the Mets have added Pamal’s WINU (104.9 Altamont) in the Albany market, iHeart’s WKIP (1450 Poughkeepsie)/WJIP (1370 Ellenville) in the Hudson Valley, WBAZ (102.5) on Long Island’s East End and Genesee Media’s WRSB (1310)/WOKR (1590) (“105.5 the Team”) in Rochester. It’s a return to the Mets network for WKIP; for 104.9, which was a longtime Mets affiliate back when it was located in Johnstown; and for WBAZ, which carried the team briefly in the late 1990s. For the “Team” simulcast up here, the Mets replace the Red Sox after two seasons.
Mets TV coverage stays in place on SNY, with some games produced by SNY airing on WPIX and a smaller network of over-the-air and cable channels upstate.
The Philadelphia Phillies’ new deal with CBS Radio takes them off WPHT (1210), making WIP (94.1) their sole flagship this year. Beyond 215-land, there’s the usual extensive radio network for the Phils.
The Pittsburgh Pirates bring in Joe Block from the Brewers to replace Tim Neverett; their broadcasts stay on KDKA-FM (93.7) and a sprawling radio network. All of their TV games are on ROOT Sports with no over-the-air local broadcasts.
North of the border, the Toronto Blue Jays remain a model of stability, which is easy to achieve when the team and the broadcasters are all under common ownership. Rogers-owned CJCL (Sportsnet 590 the FAN) is the radio flagship of a coast-to-coast network; Rogers-owned Sportsnet has the TV broadcasts from the Rogers Centre.
We’re a community.