In this week’s issue… Nexstar, Sinclair partner for ATSC 3.0 – and what of Sinclair and Tribune? – Remembering Bob Smith, Maine’s Don Brown – Hall of Fame inductions
By SCOTT FYBUSH
*As broadcast television prepares for its next big transition, there are two parallel stories developing this week that both seem poised to put Sinclair at the center of the TV landscape over the next few years – and yet, unless we’ve missed something, nobody’s put all the pieces together until now.
Sinclair has, of course, been very much in the headlines over its rumored bid to acquire the big-market TV licenses of Tribune Broadcasting. Such a deal, which would be valued well into the billions of dollars, would give Sinclair entree into Los Angeles (KTLA), Chicago (WGN), Dallas (KDAF) and other big markets around the country – as well as several of the big markets in NERW-land where Sinclair doesn’t yet have stations.
In New York, that’s WPIX (Channel 11), plus its sister stations in Philadelphia (WPHL channel 17), York/Harrisburg (WPMT channel 43) and Hartford (WTIC-TV Channel 61 and WCCT-TV channel 20).
Match those markets up with Sinclair’s current extensive footprint across the region, and the Smith family would end up with very little overlap (WPMT shares a market with Sinclair’s WHP-TV) and very few missing pieces. A full-on Sinclair/Tribune combination would still miss Boston (where Tribune sold WLVI to Sunbeam almost a decade ago) and a handful of smaller markets such as Bangor, Burlington, Utica, Binghamton, Elmira, Watertown and Erie.
There are, of course, plenty of regulatory hurdles such a deal would have to overcome, most notably the FCC’s current ownership cap based on nationwide coverage. If any company is poised to overcome those hurdles, though, it’s probably Sinclair, given its close ties to the current administration in Washington and given the current deregulatory trend.
*Beyond the obvious allure of expanding its footprint into Tribune’s big markets and of Tribune’s national cable presence via WGN America, though, there’s reason to think that Sinclair has another reason to want to move quickly to gain control of as much RF real estate as possible.
Read on as we explain…
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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: March 21, 2016
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.
*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.
Five Years Ago: March 19, 2012
*For all of the consolidation that”s changed the U.S. media landscape in the last two decades, it doesn”t even begin to compare with what”s taken place fairly quietly in CANADA over that same period. Not only have independent station owners like Allan Waters” CHUM Group and Gary Slaight”s Standard Broadcasting been swallowed up by larger corporate players, those big corporate players have (unlike most of their counterparts south of the border) combined big radio clusters with equally massive holdings in broadcast. cable and satellite TV, newspapers and wireless service.
The biggest of them all is Bell Media, which includes pieces of the Bell Canada telephone group, the former ExpressVu satellite TV service, CTV television, the Toronto-based Globe and Mail national newspaper and Waters” old CHUM Group radio stations – and on Friday morning, Bell dropped a bombshell, announcing plans to acquire Quebec-based Astral Media for C$2.8 billion (plus the assumption of another C$380 million in debt and C$200 million in special Astral shares, for a total price of C$3.38 billion.)
From Bell”s vantage point, bringing Astral into the fold is primarily about television, and more specifically about French-language television in Quebec. That”s been a weak spot in Bell”s portfolio, and the company”s continued growth into pay television service has meant that it”s been paying lots of money to Astral to carry Astral-owned channels such as Super Écran, The Movie Network and HBO Canada.
But along with the Astral TV networks, the deal also brings 84 radio stations to Bell, joining the 35 stations the company already owns – and that means the CRTC will have some interesting decisions to make on the way to what”s probably the inevitable approval of this latest mega-deal.
As the indispensable Steve Faguy notes in his of the Bell/Astral fallout, Bell already controls 31% of radio listening across Canada. That number would climb to 45% of listenership and nearly a third of all Canadian radio revenue if Bell were allowed to keep all of Astral”s stations. It won”t be, of course – but it could end up retaining a surprisingly large chunk of Astral once the dust settles.
*In Utica, WRCK (100.7) spent a few days silent last week as the station was transferred from EMF Broadcasting to Roser Communications Network, and if you had the class A signal pegged as the new FM home of Roser”s WUTQ, you guessed right. WUTQ (1550) made its initial FM move a couple of years ago, simulcasting on W238CA (95.5) from Ingraham Hill, initially as AC “B95.5” and more recently with talk; now 100.7, under new calls WUTQ-FM, picks up that format and we don”t know yet what will become of the fairly potent translator. (Roser also simulcasts WUTQ on WADR 1480 up in Remsen.)
*One of the most prominent pirate stations in eastern MASSACHUSETTS is silent, apparently the result of a raid by FCC enforcement agents late last week. “Hot 97” has had run-ins with the Commission before, having been shut down in 2009 when the station was operating on 97.1 from the One Westinghouse Plaza building in Hyde Park, but it had been operating out in the open for the last few years at 87.7, with a professional-looking website and a signal covering much of metro Boston.
Ten Years Ago: March 19, 2007
*When one of your town”s most famous citizens is Stephen King, you probably don”t want to get him publicly riled up – especially if you”re the University of MAINE, and it”s King”s radio stations that have been the flagship carriers for your sports coverage for many years.
And in fairness, it”s not the university itself that made the decision last week to move its sports rights from King”s WZON (620 Bangor) over to Clear Channel”s WVOM (103.9 Howland) and WGUY (102.1 Dexter) – that call came from Learfield Sports, to which the University sold its sports rights, under the name “Black Bear Sports.” It”s Black Bear that did the deal with Clear Channel, placing UMaine football and hockey on WVOM, men”s and women”s basketball and some baseball and softball games on WGUY, and creating a network that will carry the games to other parts of the state as well.
Promoting the move on WVOM”s morning show Thursday, station officials said it would give the broadcasts a wider reach across Maine, as well as restoring former Maine sports play-by-play voice George Hale to a role in the broadcasts. (While semi-retired, Hale still does some work with WVOM, a sister station to his longtime broadcast home, WABI 910.)
King and his wife Tabitha have been frequent donors to the university, and he fired back on the station”s website Thursday:
“Tabby and I are very disappointed with the University”s decision to move its sports broadcasting rights to Clear Channel, a company which is based far from the college it will be serving. We understand that monetary considerations were a prime consideration, but feel the Athletic Department in particular and the University in general may not understand that making money the prime consideration in any dealing is usually short-sighted. My wife and I feel that may prove to be the case here; we feel that what UM Athletics has gained for their programs may be offset by a loss in the area of community relations.”
As with any good Stephen King yarn, there”s another twist to the story: the Bangor stations are among the more than 400 nationwide that Clear Channel is trying to sell. Bids for the cluster were due a few weeks ago, and Clear Channel is expected to announce a buyer for the Bangor group any day now. Executives there say the sale won”t affect the UMaine deal, whatever happens.
Comments from listeners on the Bangor Daily News website over the weekend were strongly on the side of the Kings and WZON, and it will be interesting to watch this dispute play out. We”ll be following it here on NERW.
*In other news from New England, there”s yet another TV station sale to report in RHODE ISLAND (though technically, this one”s a MASSACHUSETTS station), as Freedom Communications has reached a deal to sell ABC affiliate WLNE (Channel 6) to Global Broadcasting LLC for an as-yet-undisclosed price.
Global is headed by Kevin O”Brien, who”s spent time at the helm of the Cox and Meredith TV station groups, departing the latter in 2004 after what Broadcasting & Cable describes as a “stormy tenure” in which most of the company”s stations changed general managers and news directors, not to mention an investigation of EEO violations.
Will the arrival of O”Brien and partner Robinson Ewert be less tumultuous at WLNE, which is sitting firmly in third place in the Providence market under Freedom? If nothing else, Global enters at a time when the rest of the market”s unsettled, too – Media General just recently took over WJAR (Channel 10) from NBC, while CBS is in the process of spinning off CW affiliate WLWC (Channel 28) to new owners, leaving only the LIN duopoly of WPRI (Channel 12) and WNAC (Channel 64) under stable ownership at the moment.
*In MASSACHUSETTS, Bob Bittner is trying something new at his standalone AM station, WJIB (740 Cambridge). We”ve reported in recent months on Bob”s struggle with music rights fees, which have skyrocketed now that WJIB has begun to make regular appearances to the left of the decimal point in the ratings. WJIB also lost the income it was receiving from leasing two morning weekday hours to Radio France International, and now Bob says he needs to raise $88,000 this year just to keep the lights on.
The result: an announcement last week that WJIB will experiment with listener support. If Bob can raise the needed money by June 30, he”ll keep his standards format on the air at WJIB with no commercials and only a few interruptions (mostly for the Sunday church services that help keep the station afloat.) If he doesn”t get enough money by June 30, Bob says he”ll return whatever donations have come in by then – and he”ll have some tough decisions to make. He doesn”t want to air commercials, so one possibility is that WJIB may go up for sale. Whaever happens, Bob says his other station, WJTO (730) in Bath, Maine, is safe, since it”s not under the royalty-fee pressure that WJIB faces.
*It”s either the worst-kept secret in western PENNSYLVANIA radio or some really clever stunting, but we”re betting that the impending format change at CBS Radio”s WRKZ (93.7 Pittsburgh) is for real. If blog postings from former WDVE stalwart Scott Paulsen and former KDKA talk host John McIntire are to be believed, “K-Rock” will relaunch April 2 as “The Zone,” with FM talk and a lineup that will include Paulsen in afternoon drive. WRKZ already airs Opie & Anthony”s syndicated morning show, which will stay, and the rumor mill suggests some of CBS” “Free FM” offerings from elsewhere in the country will fill some of the less-prime slots in the “Zone” schedule.
Fifteen Years Ago: March 25, 2002
Over the last few years, we”ve seen Clear Channel enter plenty of markets in NERW-land (and beyond) with “Kiss”-branded CHR stations, often challenging entrenched CHR competitors. But it”s rare to see one of those competitors change course as quickly as in Harrisburg, PENNSYLVANIA, where Cumulus pulled the plug on CHR at “Wink 104” (WNNK 104.1) last week after more than a decade and a half in the format. The move comes less than a year after Clear Channel flipped oldies WWKL-FM (99.3) to “Kiss” as WHKF; despite a much smaller signal, WHKF had pulled even with WNNK in the 12 numbers by the most recent book. It didn”t help, either, that WNNK parted ways with afternoon host Bruce Bond, one of the market”s best-known personalities, last winter. (We hear Bond just might resurface in the market as an AM talker once his non-compete expires, by the way…) WNNK is still “Wink 104,” but it”s competing in the hot AC arena now, offering up “The Best Music of the 80s, 90s and Today” and adding older tracks by Celine Dion and the like to the playlist.
A bit of radio history died last week with the passing, at age 95, of the Rev. Dr. Carl McIntire. He was best known, perhaps, as the rabidly right-wing preacher whose “Reformation Hour” was heard on the radio from the 1960s until his recent retirement, but in radio circles he”ll be forever known for the license revocation of WXUR and WXUR-FM in Media, near Philadelphia, in 1973. The FCC revoked the stations” licenses after finding they had violated the (now-defunct) Fairness Doctrine by refusing to present the views of those opposed to McIntire”s fiery anti-Communist, anti-modernist editorials. After the stations were silenced (the AM frequency, 690, reappeared later in the seventies as WPHE Phoenixville, while the FM side remained dark until 1983 when it reappeared as WKSZ, now WPLY), McIntire moved his operation to a ship anchored off the New Jersey shore, from which he operated on 1160 kHz for a few days until a fire broke out and destroyed much of the equipment. McIntire never attempted to return to radio ownership after that, but his commentaries continued to air (most recently on WTMR in Camden) until he ceased producing them three years ago. He died Tuesday (March 19) in Voorhees, N.J.
Moving across to NEW JERSEY, the FCC has approved one of the longest-delayed transactions on the table: the sale of WNJO (94.5 Trenton) and WCHR (920 Trenton) from Great Scott Broadcasting to Nassau. The approval came as part of the Commission”s attempt to clear a backlog of transactions that had been flagged for market-concentration issues; while WNJO-WCHR and four other old transactions were greenlighted, the FCC told Clear Channel it could not acquire WUMX in Charlottesville, Virginia, setting up a potential new round of challenges to the Commission”s still-vague concentration guidelines. As for WNJO and WCHR, Nassau has been operating them under an LMA for so long that most people in the market probably thought the deal had long since gone through.
WBZ-TV (Channel 4) is pulling the plug on its 7 PM newscast on sister station WSBK (Channel 38). It”ll be replaced next month with a 10 PM show on WSBK, the second time in a decade that WBZ has produced a 10 o”clock newscast for WSBK.
A pioneer in CANADA”s multilingual broadcasting scene has died. Johnny Lombardi had to fight hard to get the CRTC to approve a station in a language other than English or French, but he won the license for CHIN in Toronto in 1966, eventually expanding to two full-time services on AM and FM, a new construction permit in Ottawa and a weekend schedule of TV (via CITY-TV Toronto), in a total of more than 30 languages. Lombardi, who remained a vibrant presence at CHIN and in Toronto”s Italian community well into his eighties, died Monday (March 18) at 86. His family continues to own the CHIN stations.
Twenty Years Ago: March 28, 1997
Live, local, and late-breaking: There”s another urban station in Hartford. Mega Broadcasting has flipped WNEZ (910 New Britain) from Spanish romance music to urban as “910 Jamz.” There”s no urban FM in Hartford; the competition is Windsor”s WKND (1480).
Boston”s WCVB-TV (Channel 5) is getting a new owner. Hearst Broadcasting is merging with Argyle Broadcasting, and that means you can now list WCVB as a Hearst-Argyle station. The merger means the company will have to sell WNAC-TV (Channel 64) in Providence, a Fox affiliate operated under LMA by Clear Channel”s WPRI-TV (Channel 12), because of the signal overlap between WCVB and WNAC. Late word is that Hearst is selling its radio properties in Milwaukee (WISN/WLTQ) and Pittsburgh (WTAE/WVTY) to SFX to help pay for the Argyle deal. The Providence market will have another LMA”d TV outlet by next week. WLWC-TV (Channel 28) New Bedford-Providence is due to sign on March 31, operated as a WB affiliate by NBC”s WJAR-TV (Channel 10) Providence. Channel 28 will have a 10pm newscast produced by WJAR-TV.
Call letter news: Boston University”s FM station is no longer WBUR(FM). It”s changed calls to WBUR-FM, allowing the former WUOK(AM) in West Yarmouth to become WBUR(AM). WBUR(AM) simulcasts the NPR news and talk programming from WBUR-FM for Cape Cod listeners on 1240.
Another historic Boston call has returned to the airwaves. WVBF, the calls associated with 105.7 in Framingham from 1970 until 1993, now can be heard each hour on AM 1530 in Middleborough. The new WVBF(AM) is the former WCEG(AM), and broadcasts programming for the blind from the Talking Information Center in Marshfield. The new public radio station on 91.1 from Nantucket will be WNAN(FM), and Sound of Life”s new religious outlet in Glens Falls NY will be WARD(FM). The WARD calls were last seen on what”s now WKQV(AM) 1550 in Pittston PA. 96.1 in Poughkeepsie NY is no longer WNSX; the new calls there are WTND, reflecting its “Thunder Country” simulcast with WTHN (99.3) Ellenville NY.
In business news: Congratulations to Bob Bittner, whose purchase of WJTO (730) Bath ME was approved earlier this month. Bob”s now sorting his way through all the old stuff he”s finding buried deep in the WJTO studio/transmitter facility. WMDI (107.7) Bar Harbor ME has been sold by MDI Communications to Bridge Broadcast Corp. Pilot Communications has sold its radio properties in the Northeast to Broadcasting Partners Holdings LP. The stations include WTVL/WEBB (1490/98.5) Waterville ME; WEZW/WMME (1400/92.3) Augusta ME; and WLTI (105.9), WNSS (1260), WNTQ (93.1) and WAQX (95.7 Manlius) in the Syracuse NY market. WLTI has just been granted a power increase to 4 kW.