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In this week’s issue… Mathieu out at CBS Boston – Remembering Levite, Hambleton, Shuba, Pretzel – Fox buys again in Syracuse – CBC set to add new local outlet

By SCOTT FYBUSH

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EDITOR’S NOTE: In 23 years of writing this column, we’ve always prided ourselves on trying to get the story right, and on fully correcting things when we haven’t gotten it right. We’ve significantly updated this week’s lead story to reflect what we’ve learned from additional conversations with those in the know – to wit, that the circumstances surrounding morning anchor Joe Mathieu’s departure from WBZ aren’t the direct result of any of the cuts CBS Radio has been making in other markets, and that it was very much Mathieu’s own decision to leave that high-profile job. We apologize for any additional stress we inadvertently caused to the good people at WBZ (many of them our friends from our own time there), especially with all the uncertainty still looming from the upcoming Entercom merger. And as always, we’ll keep trying to bring you the most accurate information we can.

*We’re back (if not yet fully rested up yet) from this year’s NAB Show in Las Vegas, and we’ll bring you our inside report on what we saw and heard in a NERW Extra for subscribers later this week.

But what was going on while we were in Vegas (and then on a cross-country road trip in the rain?)

*In MASSACHUSETTS, the big surprise of the week was the abrupt exit of WBZ (1030 Boston) morning anchor Joe Mathieu, who’d been one of the rising stars at the news station as it prepares to change hands as part of the purchase of CBS Radio by Entercom.

Mathieu had made his name as the founding PD of SiriusXM’s “POTUS” (Politics of the United States) talk channel, where he worked from 2007 until joining WBZ in 2011. He’d also worked for WXTK on Cape Cod, WRKO in Boston, Metro Networks and CBS MarketWatch before being picked to replace Ed Walsh, whose short run in the morning anchor chair followed Gary LaPierre’s four-decade tenure there.

As the WBZ lineup has shifted in recent years (especially with the departures of veteran afternoon anchors Diane Stern and Anthony Silva, both voluntary retirements as they reached their sixties), it was easy to imagine Mathieu becoming a long-running fixture there – until the sudden announcement late last week that he was leaving effective with Friday’s broadcast.

NERW has learned that when Mathieu gave his notice several weeks ago, it came as a surprise to the station, which tried to keep him on board. We’re hearing from several sources that the anchor’s contract renewal was the sticking point, and that both sides were simply unable to reach a mutually-acceptable deal. Despite what we’d initially speculated in this space, Mathieu’s exit wasn’t connected to cuts that CBS has made in other markets – or to the impending Entercom merger.

What next? For now, afternoon anchor Jeff Brown is the interim morning anchor while WBZ looks for a permanent replacement for a vacancy it wasn’t expecting – and that’s never an easy thing in today’s broadcast landscape.

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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: February 8, 2016

*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.

fcc-126mhzBut 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.

*We’ve spent a ton of time in the MASSACHUSETTS section of this column over the years pondering the future of Boston Red Sox radio broadcasts, but we can put that aside for a few more years with the word that the Sox and incumbent broadcaster Entercom have signed another extension to their deal that will keep the team on WEEI-FM (93.7) through the 2023 season.

weei937-fmAs we’d expected, the new deal is a little easier on Entercom’s pockets than the ten-year, $200 million deal that set records when it started in 2006. Back then, of course, the Sox had multiple suitors for their radio rights, including the prospect of partial ownership of Greater Media’s WBOS (92.9). This time around, WBOS is off the table, and it appears that in the midst of its impending spinoff, CBS Radio wasn’t a strong contender for Sox radio rights, either. (We hear that CBS was more interested in using the Sox to bolster AM news-talker WBZ than in adding the team to the strong Patriots-Bruins lineup at “Sports Hub 98.5” WBZ-FM, while the Sox wanted a consistent FM flagship.)

Boston.com reports that the new Sox/WEEI deal is worth about $15 million a year, still a very healthy figure for a team that’s been less than impressive on the field these last few seasons. By the time it’s over, it will take WEEI close to the three-decade mark with the Sox; the team came to WEEI (then on AM 850) in 1995 and has been with Entercom ever since, including a three-year stretch when the Sox moved down the dial to WRKO (680).

All of which leads to the conclusion that we’re in for a lengthy period of status quo: Sox and Celtics on WEEI, Patriots and Bruins on WBZ-FM and perhaps the strongest sports radio rivalry in America poised to continue into the next decade.

*Following the death of RHODE ISLAND icon Buddy Cianci, Providence’s WPRO (630)/WEAN (99.7) unveils its new talk lineup today. Dan Yorke moves into Cianci’s former 3-6 PM slot from middays, with Matt Allen taking Yorke’s former noon-3 slot. Tara Granahan, who’d been filling in since Cianci’s death, moves to 6-9 PM, which makes WPRO one of Cumulus’ most live and local stations, straight through from Gene Valicenti’s morning show and John DePetro’s 9-noon slot right up until the syndicated John Batchelor at 9 PM.

Five Years Ago: April 30, 2012

*Few days in NEW YORK City radio history have produced so many surprises  as this past Thursday.

We knew, of course, that ESPN had long coveted an FM outlet to overcome the signal deficiencies of its New York flagship WEPN (1050), a perpetual laggard in the ratings battle against CBS Radio’s behemoth WFAN (660). But of all the possibilities floated for a new WEPN-FM, the news on Thursday came as a nearly complete surprise: a complex deal involving ESPN, Emmis Communications’ WRKS (98.7) and YMF, which recently took over Inner City Broadcasting’s WBLS (107.5) and WLIB (1190).

Now that the dust has settled, here’s how it all plays out – and what we think it all means:

For listeners, the effects of the deal began to appear on the FM dial almost as soon as the ESPN press conference was underway Thursday morning: WRKS began simulcasting with WBLS in what was billed as a “celebration” of 30 years of urban radio on “Kiss 98.7.”

That simulcast, which ended Friday night as the stations went into their separate weekend programming, was the result of a $10 million deal under which YMF is acquiring the intellectual property of WRKS: the “Kiss” nickname, the station’s playlist and some of its airstaff. Starting today, YMF begins the challenging task of merging the “Kiss” DNA with its own WBLS, bringing together two stations that have been competitors for more than a generation.

Here’s what we know so far about that piece of the puzzle: WBLS will keep its own Steve Harvey morning show instead of taking WRKS’ Tom Joyner. In middays, it’s WRKS’ Shaila (who displaces WBLS’ own Deja Vu.) Jeff Foxx remains in afternoons on WBLS (leaving the syndicated Michael Baisden without a New York home), and at night Lenny Green comes over from WRKS, replacing Keith Sweat on WBLS. We’ll know more this weekend about what moves where, but we’d expect WBLS staples such as Hal Jackson, Imhotep Gary Byrd and the Sunday gospel and Caribbean blocks to remain in place.

At least one longtime WRKS weekend staple, DJ Red Alert, made an emotional signoff Saturday night and apparently won’t be making the move to WBLS. Nor, apparently, will be Felix Hernandez and the Sunday edition of his “Rhythm Review,” though he’ll continue to be heard Saturdays on WBGO (88.3).

And as for the branding? All signs of “Kiss” disappeared from the WBLS website right at midnight – so in effect, it appears YMF may have paid more for the privilege of eliminating WBLS’ biggest competition than for much of the branding that went with WRKS.

*If not for the WRKS upheaval, we’d have led this week’s column with another huge story from New York: the death of one of the city’s best-loved rock DJs.

Pete Fornatale

In a 48-year career spent entirely in the city, Pete Fornatale lived the dream, starting in 1964 as an exceptionally talented student DJ on WFUV (90.7), the radio station at his alma mater, Fordham University. At WFUV, Fornatale pioneered free-form rock programming on what had been a staid “educational” FM station, and he quickly parlayed that skill into paying work at WNEW-FM (102.7), one of the city’s first commercial free-form rockers. Fornatale was on WNEW-FM from 1969 until 1989, fighting to keep the free-form torch burning in an increasingly structured world of commercial radio formats. In 1982, he launched “Mixed Bag,” a Sunday bastion of themed free-form programming that came along with Fornatale when he moved down the dial to WXRK (92.3) in 1989 to do middays.

In 1997, Fornatale returned to WNEW-FM for what turned out to be that station’s last gasp as a classic rocker, but that lasted only a year, and by 2001 he was back where he’d started at WFUV, where “Mixed Bag” settled in nicely to what had by then become a professionally-run AAA format, a successor in a way to the free-form radio Fornatale had started there back in the sixties.

Fornatale also became a successful author, writing books that included an early history of music radio (“Radio in the Television Age,” co-written with Josh Mills in 1983) and his story of the Woodstock festival.

Fornatale died Thursday, several days after suffering a stroke. He was just 66. WFUV will remember him with a special broadcast next Saturday (May 5) in his old “Mixed Bag” timeslot, from 4-8 PM.

There’s still more deal-making percolating out there, and it finds Cumulus exiting several of its smaller markets in the region in a swap with Townsquare. Townsquare is adding the Cumulus (ex-Citadel) clusters in Binghamton, New Bedford, Augusta-Waterville and Bangor (along with six other markets outside the region) to its lineup, while Cumulus takes former Townsquare properties in central Illinois and $116 million in cash. The deal reinforces Townsquare’s lineup in upstate New York (where it’s already in Buffalo, Utica, Albany and very close to Binghamton in the Oneonta area) and gives the company its first foothold in New England. Much more in next week’s NERW…

Ten Years Ago: April 30, 2007

*A VERMONT commercial station is helping Plattsburgh’s WCFE-TV (Channel 57) get a signal back on the air after the collapse of its tower on Lyon Mountain April 18. WCAX-TV (Channel 3) in Burlington announced Tuesday that it’s allowing “Mountain Lake PBS” to broadcast over one of the subchannels of WCAX-DT (Channel 53) until WCFE can rebuild its own tower later this summer. The WCFE subchannel will apparently appear as “57.1” on DTV tuners, and more importantly, will resume the feed of WCFE’s signal to cable companies in Vermont, Quebec and northeastern New York. WCAX quickly rounded up some loaned microwave equipment to get the WCFE signal across the lake to its transmitter on Mount Mansfield. (And when you look up the definition of “broadcasting in the public interest,” that should be a WCAX logo you see…)WCFE is also getting some help from its Plattsburgh neighbor, Hearst-Argyle’s WPTZ (Channel 5), which donated video streaming to help WCFE get its big “Arts Auction” out to as many viewers as possible.

*This week’s NEW YORK entry in the “Don Imus Replacement” contest? It’s NFL star Boomer Esiason, who’ll fill morning drive on WFAN (660 New York) all week this week, allowing Mike and the Mad Dog to begin to go back to focusing on their regular afternoon slot. (Though not entirely – Chris “Mad Dog” Russo will be co-hosting mornings with Esiason for at least today, as well as afternoons with Mike Francesa.)

*In CANADA, the CRTC has granted another new ethnic expanded-band AM in the Toronto market. Neeti P. Ray gets 1000 watts on 1650 in Mississauga, for a station aimed at audiences from the Indian subcontinent, with programming primarily in the Urdu and Hindustani languages. A competing application from S.S. TV Inc. was denied.

On the TV side of things, CanWest Global is getting ready once again to rebrand its “CH” network of local stations – and it’s picking up a brand from a US-based cable network. Starting September 1, those stations, including CHCH (Channel 11) in Hamilton and CJNT (Channel 62) in Montreal, will be rebranded as “E!”

The stations will keep their current prime-time lineups of (mostly US) network programming, adding E! content during the day and later at night, and they’ll go back to using their call letters for local news, except for CJNT, which doesn’t do news.

Fifteen Years Ago: April 29, 2002

WVIP (1310 Mount Kisco) has begun simulcasting the Spanish-language religion of WWRV (1330 New York); we’ve also heard that WVIP sister station WGCH (1490 Greenwich CT) has been off the air, but it’s not clear whether that’s related to WGCH’s tower dispute (NERW, 4/17).

Heading up towards Albany, the state capital’s newest radio station made its debut late last week in stunt mode. Newly moved up the dial (from 93.5) and down I-87 (from Corinth/Glens Falls), WHTR (93.7 Scotia) started out with a loop of “Anarchy in the U.K.,” followed by a weekend of simulcasting owner Ed Levine’s “K-Rock” (WKLL 94.9 Frankfort-Utica), before launching into a hot talk format Monday afternoon. As rumored, former WPYX (106.5) morning guy Bob Mulrooney is doing mornings on 93.7; other additions to the schedule include Opie and Anthony in afternoons, Tom Leykis in the evening and Lovelines at night. Much more on this new signal when we return in mid-May…

PENNSYLVANIA has a new radio station this week; WVIA (89.9 Scranton) applied for a license to cover for its new relay in Williamsport. WVYA (89.7) replaces the old WVIA translator there, which had been on 89.3.

Twenty Years Ago: May 1, 1997

We’ll begin in NEW HAMPSHIRE this time around, where there’s much more to report about religious broadcaster Brian Dodge and his media empire of sorts. Last week we told you that his WWNH (1340 Madbury NH) is operating without benefit of valid FCC license, and now it seems New Hampshire’s Attorney General’s office is looking into the finances of his “We Trust in Jesus Broadcasting.” State officials tell the Nashua Telegraph that the charity made a loan to Dodge last year, in violation of a new state law which bars charities from making loans to their directors or officers. Dodge has also reportedly failed to file annual reports for 1995 or 1996, and he’s due to appear at a closed-door hearing of the Division of Charitable Trusts on May 20. Dodge is claiming his charity is actually a church, which would exempt it from the reporting requirements. State officials disagree. Stay tuned…

More from VERMONT: The rumors are flying around WVMX (101.7 Stowe) this week. Late word is that the classic rocker may soon be reborn as a classical music outlet under the calls WCVT. The 101.7 signal comes from the top of Mount Mansfield, overlooking the Burlington area as well as the Stowe area.

A minor format change to tell you about in MASSACHUSETTS this week, as American Radio Systems tweaks the format on WEGQ (93.7 Lawrence-Boston), the former 70s rocker. The “Eagle” is adding music of the early 1980s, and touting itself as the “Greatest Hits of the 70s and 80s.” Sister station WZMX (93.7) Hartford is still playing 70s rock, but now calling itself “Classic Hits 93.7”.

There’s a new signal on the air in upstate NEW YORK. Just hours after the last NERW went online, WCGR in Canandaigua turned on its new 1310 kHz fulltime signal. The directional signal blasts in towards Rochester, especially by day. WCGR is still simulcasting on the old daytime-only 1550 facility, but that’s expected to be turned off shortly. Just down the road in Geneva, WEOS (89.7) has turned on its new transmitter, providing much-improved coverage to the areas east of Geneva.