In this week’s issue… What TV will look like without channels 30-51 – WEEI, Red Sox extend deal – Seven Mountains buys again – CBC seeks new London expansion – New FM in Quebec?
By SCOTT FYBUSH
*One of the themes that was impossible to miss at last month’s NAB Show in Las Vegas was the uncertainty surrounding the impending TV spectrum auction and repack. Now a bit of that uncertainty has been stripped away with the FCC’s announcement that it intends to auction off 126 MHz worth of what remains of the UHF TV dial, wiping out all TV past channel 29.
But if we now know with certainty that the spectrum of present-day channels 30-36 and 38-51 will go into the auction pool at the end of this month, we don’t know exactly what the TV dial will look like in a few years when the auction and repack are completed.
Just because we don’t know all the details yet doesn’t mean we can’t answer some questions, though, and so, as we do from time to time, here’s a little unpacking of the repack:
- 126 MHz? Isn’t that a lot of spectrum to take away? It sure is, especially on the heels of the removal of channels 52-69 from the UHF TV spectrum at the end of analog TV in 2009. But the FCC says it didn’t arrive at this figure randomly: it expects to be able to auction that much spectrum to wireless carriers, and to be able to reclaim that much spectrum from TV broadcasters through its reverse auction. That’s a boost of confidence in the auction process after the word started circulating at NAB that wireless operators weren’t ready to spend as much as the FCC hoped on spectrum.
- My local station is on channel 38. Is it going away? Not automatically, and maybe not at all. This is where the “repack” part of this process all comes in to play – the FCC isn’t forcing any stations off the air involuntarily, or even making anyone who’s currently on UHF move to VHF unless they’re willing to take a payment to do so. But having said that, a repack all the way down to channel 29 means an awful lot of TV stations will have to at least change UHF channels, even in smaller and more remote markets where the FCC isn’t going to get much money, if any, for spectrum. In the Plattsburgh/Burlington market, for instance, stations will have to be moved off RF channels 32, 38 and 44, with those costs being repaid out of the FCC’s auction proceeds.
- Who’s going away, then? For the moment, this is one of those classic “anyone who knows isn’t talking, and anyone who’s talking doesn’t know” scenarios, thanks to the gag order the FCC imposed on auction participants once the process began this spring. We can make some reasonable assumptions – for instance, that the networks aren’t going to auction off their main owned-and-operated stations in big markets such as New York, Philadelphia and Boston, nor are most of the “big four” affiliates vulnerable even in smaller markets. It’s a pretty safe guess that most duopoly signals will be auction bait, such as CBS’ WLNY in New York and WPSG in Philadelphia or Univision’s WFUT New York. It’s widely rumored that Ion Media will put its collection of UHF signals into the auction, and it’s a near-certainty that little-viewed UHFs such as Boston’s WMFP and WYDN will be cashing out in the auction, too. But again – we simply don’t know any of this for certain until the FCC makes the auction results public.
- Channel sharing will be key. Among the many potential moves in this auction/repack is a particularly tricky one – stations can not only surrender their licenses completely, they can also agree to move downward (from UHF to VHF or VHF-hi to VHF-lo) or to share spectrum with another licensee. And that’s where this heads into eighth-dimensional chess: there are so many permutations of channel-sharing that it’s hard to even begin to plot out how this will all end once the auction wraps up. Just for one example, take Sunbeam in Boston: its NBC affiliate (for now) is WHDH-TV on RF 42. Let’s assume WHDH isn’t going into the auction, but will nevertheless have to be moved down to a lower UHF channel. So what becomes of WLVI, Sunbeam’s CW affiliate (for now) on RF 41? Does it enter the auction completely and surrender its license in exchange for a huge cash payout? Does it agree to channel-share with WHDH for a smaller cash payout (which will preserve cable must-carry for both WLVI and WHDH?) Or to go to low-band VHF, where there’s still a channel 7 antenna in place on the WHDH tower in Newton? We take this back – it’s into ninth-dimensional chess by now.
- A bit of certainty (maybe) for tower owners? Among the many stakeholders watching the repack process closely have been the operators of master sites such as the Empire State Building and the new 1 World Trade Center. They’ve been holding off on new builds and rebuilds until they have a better idea of who’ll be on the air and on what frequencies – and now they know with certainty that UHF TV will be operating in a fairly limited band of frequencies from channels 14 to 29 (and actually even less than that in the biggest markets, where channels 14-20 are shared with land mobile radio.)
- Tower crews? Good luck with that. With everyone now operating on channel 30 and above destined to move, that’s a lot of antennas to be changed out in a fairly short time – nearly the entire Buffalo market, for instance, as well as most of Hartford and Philadelphia. There’s pretty universal consensus that there simply aren’t enough trained crews to do all that work quickly and safely enough, and there may not be enough manufacturing capacity to make all those changes, either. FM stations aren’t safe, either – many of them with antennas side-mounted on TV towers may experience disruptions as crews work around them to swap out TV antennas.
- See you in court? Removing all those channels from TV use will be especially hard on low-power TV stations, most of which are secondary operations that aren’t guaranteed a repacked home once the spectrum is compressed. With so much at stake and so little to lose, will we see some of those low-power stations head to court to at least try to stall the FCC’s hand on the repack? And if they do try to get legal relief, how long could a repack be delayed?
- Oh – and what about the viewers? Let’s stipulate that in most markets, 75% or more of viewers will barely notice the repack, because they’re watching on cable or satellite and won’t be affected by changes in over-the-air TV. But the TV universe still has plenty of cord-cutters and second-set homes that depend on TV that comes out of an antenna, and for them, the next few years will be complicated. Between rescanning, struggling with touchy VHF reception and, eventually, the move to ATSC 3.0 encoding, will most over-the-air homes even be able to follow the bouncing ball that will be TV in the late 2010s and early 2020s?
Plenty of questions, then, and we’re at best informed speculators when it comes to most of the answers. We’ll be watching closely as the answers begin to develop…
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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: May 4, 2015
*Back in 2011, one of our big stories from CANADA‘s largest market was the demise of CKLN (88.1), the Ryerson University-associated station that ended up losing its license after years of internal leadership conflicts and failure to comply with the CRTC’s rules. Now one of Toronto’s smaller college stations is going through a surprise format change, and many who found CHRY (105.5) after CKLN’s demise are wondering if the CRTC will let the York University station continue with the transition it’s making.
Since its arrival on the FM dial in 1986, CHRY has been a consistently inconsistent voice of Toronto’s (and the university’s) cultural mixing pot. Programmed by volunteers from both the campus and the surrounding community, CHRY’s schedule had a little bit of everything, with an emphasis on service to the sizable Caribbean population of north Toronto.
And then came Friday morning: in the space of just a few hours, news began spreading among CHRY’s dozens of volunteer programmers that they weren’t going to be around much longer. Then came unofficial word that CHRY was about to flip to a more professional-sounding format, followed quickly by an official announcement that the station would soon relaunch as “VIBE105.”
*In NEW YORK, Saturday was the closing act for Vin Scelsa and his “Idiot’s Delight” show at WFUV (90.7 New York). The veteran freeform DJ closed out his last New York gig to the sounds of Lou Reed – but not before announcing a surprise replacement.
Paul Cavalconte is a WFUV alumnus, Fordham class of 1983, and he’s been working pretty much nonstop in New York radio ever since, at the old WNCN (104.3), WPIX-FM (101.9) and all of WPIX’s successors on that frequency right up to the ill-fated FM News WEMP. In the last few years, he’s been a fill-in host at WQXR (105.9) and at WFUV, which has hired him to host “Cavalconte’s Cavalcade” in the old “Idiot’s Delight” time slot, 8-10 PM on Saturdays.
*Since she joined the staff at CONNECTICUT‘s WTIC (1080 Hartford) way back in 1974, Dana Whalen has kept a low profile – but the outcry was long and loud when WTIC’s current owner, CBS Radio, dismissed her as news director last week. Whalen, whose time at WTIC was interrupted only by a few years spent launching WTIC-TV (Channel 61) in the 1980s, drew effusive praise from current and former colleagues, including WNPR talk host Colin McEnroe. “Dana has been the model of a working journalist, all grit, no flash,” McEnroe wrote in the Hartford Courant. “She’s the lunchpail broadcast journalist in a profession dotted with divas.”
*Sad news from VERMONT: Joel Chandler, who was the first host of WCAX-TV (Channel 3)’s long-running “Across the Fence” when that show started back in 1955, has died. Chandler, a Plattsburgh native, also did radio at Burlington’s WJOY and WCAX/WVMT and Plattsburgh’s WEAV, as well as TV at Vermont ETV. Chandler died April 23 at age 87.
Five Years Ago: May 2, 2011
*Does broadcast radio still matter? It certainly did last week in the tornado-ravaged south, where good old-fashioned radio (and over-the-air TV) kept going strong with emergency information even as wireless networks and cable were collapsing under heavy winds, overloaded systems and power outages.
And it apparently still matters in Erie, PENNSYLVANIA, to the tune of at least $1.4 million. That’s where the bidding for a new FM channel stands as round 13 of the FCC’s FM Auction 91 opens this morning. The class A facility on 92.7 is by far the priciest construction permit among the 144 signals up for bid in this auction, and the bidding war between Rick Rambaldo’s First Channel Communications and Jeff Warshaw’s Mini-Me group has been getting national attention, not to mention a front-page article in the Erie Times-News.
Rambaldo, of course, is the broadcast entrepreneur who entered the Erie market in 1989 by flipping sleepy little North East-based WHYP-FM (100.9) to market-leading rocker “Rocket 101” (WRKT), eventually building up to a six-station cluster that’s now in the hands of Connoisseur Communications – which is the same ownership group behind Mini-Me.
At the other end of the Keystone State, they’re mourning one of the longest-serving voices of the all-news era at Philadelphia’s KYW (1060). Don Lancer died last Monday (April 25) after a battle with lung cancer. Born Donald Kelsh Jr. in Auburn, N.Y., Lancer started his career in nearby Syracuse at WOLF, later moving to the legendary WKBW in Buffalo, where his work included a role in that station’s famed 1968 take on “War of the Worlds,” and then to WIFE in Indianapolis before arriving in Philadelphia in 1970. At KYW, Lancer spent many years as a business anchor, leaving briefly in 1996 for a stint as a talk host at sister station WPHT (1210), then for good in 2008 when he took voluntary retirement to spare the station from cutting the jobs of younger co-workers. Don Lancer was 68.
*NEW YORK City’s newest radio station is getting closer to its debut. Cox has applied for a license to cover for its move of WCTZ (96.7 Port Chester) from its longtime transmitter site in Stamford, CONNECTICUT to the top of the Trump Plaza building in New Rochelle – and once that New Rochelle signal is on the air, Cox can complete the transfer of the 96.7 license to California-based EMF Broadcasting, which will flip the signal to a relay of its “K-Love” contemporary Christian format under new calls WKLV-FM. There’s one more piece to the chess game that has to happen, and it will take place early this week: WTSX, also on 96.7, will move from Port Jervis, New York to Lehman Township, Pennsylvania, clearing the way for WCTZ/WKLV-FM’s move closer to the Big Apple.
Ten Years Ago: May 1, 2006
Today’s the day new programming launches at WESX (1230 Salem), as the station’s new owners-to-be take control from the Asher family, which has owned the station since the fifties. Last Friday, fans of the little local station honored longtime personalities Al Needham and Betty Stavis at a ceremony at Salem City Hall that drew about 150 people. Under its new ownership, WESX will replace local programming with a format that’s expected to be primarily foreign-language religious programming. That format will arrive at sister station WJDA (1300 Quincy) soon, too, though it appears the local programming on WJDA will be around for at least a few more weeks.
On the FM dial, WBCN (104.1 Boston) has named a new afternoon team. “Toucher and Rich” come to Boston from Atlanta (where Fred Toucher was on modern rocker WNNX) and Dallas (where Rich Shertenlieb was a producer of the syndicated “Kidd Kraddick” morning show), and their arrival moves Hardy from afternoons to evenings and Mark Hamilton from evenings to overnights.
One of VERMONT’s locally-owned radio voices is being sold, but all within the station family. Tri-State Broadcasters, which has owned WTSA (1450 Brattleboro) and WTSA-FM (96.7 Brattleboro) since 1985, is selling the stations to William and Kelli Corbeil. William Corbeil began his broadcast career as an intern at WTSA and later worked at WIZN in Burlington before returning to his family’s auto dealerships. Corbeil says WTSA’s staff (including WTSA-FM morning host John “Clarke” Kilduff, one of the station’s current owners) will remain unchanged, and that no changes are planned to the AM’s sports programming or the FM’s adult contemporary format.
The battle over that controversial WFUV (90.7 New York) tower in the Bronx ended with a whimper early last week. Now that WFUV is on the air from its new site at Montefiore Hospital, Fordham University officials acted without any publicity at all to take down the never-completed tower that stood on the edge of the Fordham campus, overlooking the New York Botanical Garden. It’s always nice when these things end happily, and all sides are now satisfied – the Garden has its view back (not that we ever found the tower all that ugly!), and WFUV has a better signal from the Montefiore site than it ever would have had from the Fordham tower, had it been completed.
Fifteen Years Ago: April 30, 2001
The biggest news came from QUEBEC, where a Cessna piloted by Gilbert Paquette, 38, of Ste.-Therèse struck the top of the tower between Trois-Rivières and Shawinigan that was home to most of the FM and TV stations serving the Mauricie region of central Quebec. Paquette’s plane lodged a few dozen meters below the top of the 300-plus meter guyed tower, killing the pilot on impact Sunday afternoon (April 22). After studying the situation, local authorities decided it was unsafe to climb the tower to retrieve Paquette’s body. Declaring the tower itself damaged, they brought it down at week’s end by cutting the guy wires. Paquette’s widow protested the plan, saying officials should have tried harder to recover the body before bringing it down with the wreckage and the tower itself.
The other big news from CANADA, of course, is the impending demise of music on Toronto’s CHUM (1050). Mayor Mel Lastman declared this week to be “1050 CHUM Week,” and the countdown is underway for the big “Final Hours” show, to take place Monday, May 7 from 10 AM until 3 PM. Duff Rowan and Bob Laine will be hosting. CHUM Group is also making official its plans to launch the “Team” sports format in Montreal next week, with “Team 990” replacing “Oldies 990” at CKGM on May 7. The station has signed a deal to carry Expos baseball in English, returning the team to the Anglo airwaves there for the first time since the 1999 season.
Up north in New York, the word is that the AC sounds of “The Valley” will make their permanent home on the new 96.1 Norwood signal (now WYSI), while the original “Valley” signal at 96.7 in Canton (now WVLF) will join Tim Martz’ “Yes FM” hot AC simulcast, along with WYSX 98.7 Ogdensburg and WYUL 94.7 Chateaugay. Bet we see a WYSI/WVLF call swap soon…
Working our way back down towards Albany, Vox submitted a three-part plan to the FCC that will move the “Wheels” oldies signal much closer to the Capital District from its current Glens Falls home. Here’s how it works: Vox would move WHTR, now licensed to Corinth, from 93.5 to 93.7. It would then move that 93.7 allocation from Corinth down to Scotia, not far from Schenectady. And to keep a “first local service” in Corinth, sister station WFFG (107.1) would change city of license from Hudson Falls to Corinth.
MAINE saw the launch of a new “W-Bach” outlet April 23, as WMDI (107.7 Bar Harbor) became WBQI at 6 AM, bringing classical music to the Mount Desert Island area. Just to the southwest, Gopher Hill changed calls on its WAYD (105.5 Islesboro); the standards station is now WBYA, the former identity of 101.7 Searsport, recently flipped by Clear Channel to “Fox” WFZX.
Twenty Years Ago: April 30, 1996
From the high-school front: WHHB in Holliston MA has completed its transmitter move. This little class D outlet used to run 18 watts from the roof of the high school; now, according to an article in the (Framingham MA) “Middlesex News,” it’s moved to a nearby cell-phone tower, giving it somewhat better reach.
The new evening lineup took effect this week at Boston talker WRKO (680). Lori Kramer and Leslie Gold, aka “Two Chicks Dishing,” now hold down the 7-10pm slot last occupied by Charles Adler. Dr. Laura, who must be on just about every AM station in the country by now, takes over 10pm-1am from Phyllis Levy and “Sex Talk.”