In this week’s issue… The mystery of NBC Boston’s channel number – New NBC in upstate NY – Beasley makes Greater cutbacks – More AM in the GTA?
By SCOTT FYBUSH
*If you missed our NERW Extra last week, don’t worry – there’s plenty of catching up for all of us to do with the strange saga that is the future “NBC Boston.”
We know a few things for sure right now: later this week, NBC will light up an “NBC Boston Preview” that will show up for over-the-air viewers via low-power WBTS-LD in Boston and full-power WNEU way up north in New Hampshire. Cable viewers will start to see the future NBC Boston in December, and on New Year’s Eve, the new channel will begin regular programming with live coverage of Boston’s New Year celebrations.
And we learned a few new tidbits later in the week, too. We now have a good idea what the set will look like for NBC Boston News, since it’s getting a preview via sister station New England Cable News. New England One reported last week that NECN moved its anchors (and those for Telemundo’s WNEU newscasts) into its new Studio B, giving it a couple of months to rework its main Studio A for the NBC Boston news.
But it’s not the set, or the anchor lineup for that matter, that’s been driving discussion for the last few days. It’s the question of how NBC can use virtual channel 8 for WBTS-LD, which puts out its digital signal on RF channel 46 and had operated in analog before that on channel 32.
One of the principles of the DTV transition has been that stations can’t just randomly choose which virtual “major channel” (the part before the dot) they will use. In order to avoid chaos that would come from conflicting virtual channels, the ATSC standard that the FCC adopted in its rules says, generally, that a digital station should use its former analog channel as its virtual channel number. In theory, that should mean WBTS-LD should be using “32.x” as its virtual channels, right?
There’s another piece of the puzzle, too – if an owner controls more than one signal in a market, major channels can be shared across RF signals. So CBS, for instance, could put a “4.3” on its WSBK (RF 39/virtual 38) signal, since it controls major channel 4 by virtue of owning WBZ-TV. (And indeed, to the west in Springfield, Meredith uses “3.5” and “3.6” on WSHM-LD, which would otherwise be “67.x,” because it also controls nearby WFSB in Hartford.)
NBC will be leaning on that part of the rule, we think, in order to put NBC Boston on “8.1” over the WBTS transmitter in Boston and also on “8.2” over the WNEU transmitter in New Hampshire. That’s legal, and so is using the “60.x” major channel from WNEU on both its own transmitter (where Telemundo will stay on “60.1” throughout the transition) and, perhaps, on the WBTS transmitter later on as well.
But that still begs one huge question: how did WBTS get FCC permission to use “8” as its major channel?
And to that question, we still have no good answer at all. We’ve reached out to several sources within the FCC, and they don’t know, either. Is there some sort of precedent being set here that might allow other broadcasters to move to more favorable virtual channels? Did a clever NBC/Comcast lawyer find some sort of loophole for WBTS-LD based on its having been off the air for quite a while on analog 32 before moving to 46? (WBTS-LD can’t use “46” as its major channel because of WWDP in Norwell, RF 10/virtual 46.)
In the meantime, a few more notes while we seek more clarification from Washington: Comcast’s channel rearrangement will not only move NECN to channel 840 on Dec. 10 (to make room for NBC on 810), it will also move WWDP’s SD feed from channel 10 up to channel 81 on Dec. 30 to make room for a standard-definition NBC feed on channel 10. There’s still been no official word from other cable/fiber providers or from Dish Network and DirecTV about how soon they’ll launch NBC on the channel 10 position that the network is seeking.
And of course NBC’s hope here is that this will all be much more seamless for consumers than it might appear here. For somewhere between 85 and 95 percent of the market (depending on whose numbers you believe), the over-the-air signal issues won’t matter, and “Sunday Night Football,” Jimmy Fallon and “Superstore” will be just a couple of clicks away from their current home on WHDH’s channel 7. For perhaps 65-75 percent of the remaining population in the market that can receive either WNEU or WBTS over the air, a simple rescan will move NBC just one click up from “7” to “8.” In theory, that means just a few percent of the market will lose easy access to NBC. Will it work in practice? That’s literally a multi-million dollar question.
We have a great lineup of podcasts here on our site. While you’re catching up with your summer reading, don’t forget about your summer listening. Now is the time to make sure you’re up to date with Top of the Tower.
Our latest one features Donna Halper discussing her life in radio, from her time at WMMS when she helped Rush get US airplay, to what she learned from Arnie “Woo Woo” Ginsburg.
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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: November 9, 2015
*WASHINGTON, D.C. – This week’s NERW comes to you from our nation’s capital, since our lead story is once again about the woes of Cumulus and our route into town last night took us right past the blinking lights of what will soon be an ex-Cumulus site, the incredibly valuable land under the towers of WMAL (630).
A little over a month past the ouster of the Dickey brothers, it appears Wall Street is again running short on patience with the troubled broadcaster’s attempt to right its leaky financial boat. The share of CMLS that dipped below a dollar during the Radio Show in Atlanta at the end of September traded at just 29 cents when the market closed on Friday, leading NASDAQ to slap a delisting notice on the stock if CEO Mary Berner can’t bring it back. And at least judging by the investor call late last week, she’s running out of options.
That $200 million cash infusion from selling the land out under WMAL and Los Angeles’ KABC? Berner says that’s delayed for various regulatory reasons and unlikely to close before the middle of next year at the earliest.
The digital future? While competitors such as iHeart are ramping up new digital platforms, Cumulus’ quarterly filing shows that it’s written the value of its investment in Rdio and other digital ventures down to zero. Also written down to zero is any goodwill in Westwood One, another stumble in what’s been a very challenging attempt to merge Westwood with Cumulus’ legacy network assets.
Cutting costs through more layoffs? There’s a problem there, too: Berner notes, quite correctly, that the company’s financial woes and its resulting job cuts have made it hard to keep the employees it wants to keep or to attract new employees to replace the ones who’ve left or been cut. It’s as self-inflicted a cut as it gets, of course – but it’s no less serious a problem just because so many of us saw it coming for so long. (In engineering alone, we know of some top-level talent that’s getting ready to take what might ordinarily be seen as a second-tier job just to get away from the risk of staying with Cumulus if the ship goes down. That’s not a good position for any new CEO to find herself occupying.)
Blame another TV station hundreds of miles away: at WGN-TV in Chicago, the freewheeling morning show talks about anything and everything to fill six hours a day, and one day last week anchor Larry Potash took off after Boston’s WFXT (Channel 25) in his “Larry’s World” commentary, sarcastically declaring that the new Cox management at the former Fox O&O is hoping that the new look will make up for viewer grumblings about the ouster of popular anchor Maria Stephanos.
Five Years Ago: November 7, 2011
*Welcome to our new home! There aren’t many websites that have lasted more than a decade without a redesign, and with this week’s NERW we retire the old version of fybush.com, designed and built by your editor (in PageMill 3.0!) way back in 2000 and slightly modified in early 2001.
Enough about what’s happening behind the scenes: on with this week’s column:
*We start in western MASSACHUSETTS, where the end came quietly Saturday afternoon for a venerable radio landmark.
Longtime NERW readers knew that the original WBZ towers atop the old Westinghouse plant on Page Boulevard in East Springfield were doomed to demolition as part of the site’s redevelopment for retail use. But until the very end of last week, we didn’t know exactly when the towers would be coming down.
As it turned out, the old towers – the very pieces of steel that supported the antenna from which WBZ first broadcast 90 years ago this fall – enjoyed one last moment on the air just hours before crews pulled them down. Engineer Kurt Jackson, who was contracted to remove the towers, arranged for a special-event license from the FCC to operate an amateur radio station from a longwire antenna at the site on Saturday, and for just a few hours station “W1Z” operated on shortwave from a temporary operating station inside the WBZ “mobile newsroom” parked next to the gutted shell of the Westinghouse building.
Once W1Z had signed off, the rest happened quickly: crews climbed the building, cut the towers at their bases, and quickly pulled them down.
*The week’s other big news from the Bay State also came from the Springfield area, where our new NERW midweek update (another bonus for subscribers!) has already reported the big format change: AAA WRNX (100.9 Amherst) went away for good moments after midnight last Monday (Oct. 31), replaced by country “Kix 100.9.” That’s the next step, of course, in the long migration of another Clear Channel station, WPKX (97.9 Enfield CT) from the Springfield cluster to the Hartford cluster.
For now, the old “Kix” on 97.9 remains on the air from its Springfield-market site at the WWLP-TV facility on Provin Mountain, pending some technical changes at other adjacent-channel facilities in the region – but it will move, sooner or later, to a new site in CONNECTICUT, atop an office tower in downtown Hartford with a new city of license of Windsor Locks. (The 100.9 signal will move, too, to a new tower on Mount Tom, though for now it’s still at its old site on the east side of the Connecticut River.)
*More Citadel/Cumulus news: in NEW YORK, WABC (770) program director Laurie Cantillo exited last week after less than three years on the job. While Cantillo was a well-liked figure at Two Penn Plaza, her tenure was marked from the beginning with questions about the purpose of the job, given the WABC program lineup that’s now almost entirely made up of syndicated shows. But Cantillo at least made a valiant effort to localize the schedule as much as possible, launching the local late-morning Joe Crummey show last year as well as several weekend offerings.
*On TV, there’s a new owner coming to the Albany market: as we reported in our Wednesday update, Freedom Communications is exiting the TV business, selling its eight-station group to Sinclair for $385 million. The deal includes two stations in NERW-land, both in the Albany market: CBS affiliate WRGB (Channel 6) and CW affiliate WCWN (Channel 45). The new stations fit nicely with an existing Sinclair footprint in the region that includes stations in Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse and Portland, Maine.
Ten Years Ago: November 6, 2006
*After serving a two-day suspension over the summer for using an anti-gay slur against a MASSACHUSETTS state official, WRKO (680 Boston) mid-morning talk host John DePetro was probably on thin ice at the Entercom station. On Thursday, another DePetro remark sent him crashing through that ice, ending his career at WRKO and getting his board operator, Jimmy Kiesling, fired as well.
This time, the comment concerned the Green Party candidate for governor, Grace Ross, who DePetro referred to as a “fat lesbian” while reviewing the previous night’s televised debate.
In a prepared statement, Entercom Boston executive VP Jason Wolfe said, “In the context of what (DePetro) said and the tone with which he said it, the comments were completely inappropriate, derogatory, and will not be tolerated,” pretty much slamming the door on any possibility of DePetro returning to the air.
The talk host, who came to Boston from Providence’s WHJJ (920) in 2004, says he plans to sue Entercom for wrongful dismissal, noting that his language didn’t violate any FCC content guidelines. And there’s plenty of speculation that WRKO was looking for any excuse to send DePetro packing, given his sagging ratings and complaints from advertisers. (What’s more, the impending arrival of Red Sox broadcasts at WRKO are giving the station a powerful incentive to steer clear of the sort of controversy that’s seemed to follow DePetro for years.)
Up in Sharon, Cumulus’ WPIC (790) once again has a proper tower, a year and a half after its 1947-vintage Truscon self-supporter was demolished. WPIC had been operating on a temporary longwire antenna at 400 watts, but it’s now on from its new guyed tower, running 1300 watts by day and 58 watts at night.
In the Ithaca market, meanwhile, Saga Communications is paying Citadel $4 million for WIII (99.9 Cortland), one of the last commercial competitors to its four-station Ithaca cluster (news-talk WHCU 870, progressive talk WNYY 1470, AC WYXL 97.3 and country WQNY 103.7). Saga will sell WIII’s sister station, news-talk WKRT (920 Cortland), to Bible Broadcasting Network (which, ironically, has been trying for quite a while now to sell its station in Rome, WYFY 1450.) Will the community activists in Ithaca who protested what they said was over-concentration when Saga bought its existing cluster protest the WIII deal as well? We’d bet on it.
Fifteen Years Ago: November 5, 2001
We told you last week about the fate of the Tele-Media stations that were spun off to Ed Levine’s Galaxy, with WKLI (94.5 Ravena) becoming “94 Rock” and WABY (1400 Albany) being prepped for sale; we can add this week that Levine’s other new purchase, WHTR (93.5 Corinth) is off the air with transmitter problems unrelated to its proposed move to 93.7 in Scotia. This week, the attention shifts to the stations Tele-Media sold to Pamal Broadcasting: while WKBE (100.3 Warrensburg) keeps running automated with the “Point” hot AC format for the Glens Falls area, WCPT (100.9 Albany) ended its stunt simulcast with CHR WFLY (92.3 Troy) at 4 PM Friday (Nov. 2) to go standards as “Magic.”
New call alert: As Univision prepares to relaunch the former USA Broadcasting stations with its new Telefutura network, it has new calls lined up as well. In New York, WHSE-TV (Channel 68 Newark N.J.), whose antenna is now the very highest point in the city (at the top of the Empire mast), becomes WFUT(TV), while Long Island’s WHSI (Channel 67 Smithtown) becomes WFTY, calls last seen in Washington, D.C. on what’s now WBDC (Channel 50).
Infinity’s consolidation is hitting home in MASSACHUSETTS, where John Morgan exits as PD of WODS (103.3 Boston) after just over three years at “Oldies 103.” His duties get added to the plate of Greg Strassell, who’ll be doing some running across the parking lot from WBMX (98.5 Boston) next door, where he’s VP of programming.
One MAINE note: Citadel has reclaimed the WCLZ call for 98.9 in Brunswick, ex-WTPN. The station has been edging its way back to the AAA format it used to run in its first stint as WCLZ through much of the nineties, but it’s keeping the “Point” nickname that went with the WTPN calls. “WCLZ” had been picked up by former 98.9 owner J.J. Jeffrey for his 95.5 in Topsham, but that station flipped to WJJB-FM a few months back.
From the Pittsburgh market, Sheridan’s WAMO-FM (106.7 Beaver Falls) will soon have a better signal in the Steel City, a few years after Sheridan traded the grandfathered superpower WAMO-FM signal on 105.9 to Chancellor (it’s now WXDX) for cash and the 106.7 facility 35 miles out of town. Here’s how it works out: WAMO-FM will move its 106.7 signal from Beaver Falls to Wexford, running 38 kW at 568 feet from a new tower where I-79 meets Wexford Bayne Road just south of the Turnpike. WAMO-FM’s simulcast, WSSZ (107.1 Greensburg), will move from its current site west of Greensburg way out to a new site south of Latrobe, just off route 217 north of US 30, where it will run 4300 watts from 305 feet AAT, with a directional antenna. And religious WRIJ (106.9 Masontown) will move its tower south across the West Virginia border, where it will run 980 watts from 810 feet AAT from the same ridge where West Virginia Public Television’s WNPB-TV (Channel 24 Morgantown) broadcasts.
Twenty Years Ago: November 7, 1996
Up in Portland, Maine, “The Ocean 97.9” is a thing of the past. Fuller-Jeffrey’s hot AC WCSO began moving towards a CHR format at the start of the month. It’s now going by “The New Q 97-dot-9,” and new calls are expected any day now. This fills a major format gap in Portland, where until now the only CHR has been little WRED (95.9) from Saco.
The 103.7 signal from Mount Washington is back on the air, but it’s not WZPK anymore. As predicted, the Berlin, NH-licensed outlet is now simulcasting country WOKQ (97.5) from Dover, NH, using the “WPKQ” calls. The top-hour ID on WOKQ/WPKQ now mentions both stations, as well as WOKQ’s 97.9 translator in Manchester, NH.