In this week’s issue… Unpacking the CBS/Entercom Boston spinoffs – New Empire antenna lights up – More new FM in Boston – Repack moves WWOR – Translator applicants resolve conflicts
By SCOTT FYBUSH
*The announcement on Tuesday night that Entercom had decided which of its Boston properties to keep in the CBS Radio acquisition ricocheted around the world of radio far beyond MASSACHUSETTS.
“They’re selling WBZ?!?” was the biggest shock for many – and, yes, both WBZ (1030) and its “Sports Hub” sister WBZ-FM (98.5) are among the five stations that will be divested in order to keep the new Entercom in compliance with FCC ownership caps and the Department of Justice’s oversight of antitrust issues.
Entercom is keeping its own sports stations, WEEI-FM (93.7 Lawrence) and ESPN Radio outlet WEEI (850 Boston), as well as rocker WAAF (107.3 Westborough), and it’s acquiring just two of CBS Radio’s five stations, top-40 “AMP” WODS (103.3 Boston) and AC “Mix” WBMX (104.1 Boston). (Entercom will also keep WEEI relay WVEI 1440 in Worcester, which is embedded in the Boston market.)
That means the other three CBS stations – WBZ, WBZ-FM and classic rock WZLX (100.7 Boston) – will be spun off, along with Entercom’s talk WRKO (680 Boston) and urban AC WKAF (97.7 Brockton). For all the speculation about who will be those stations’ new owners (and we did plenty last week in a special edition of our Top of the Tower Podcast, and we’ll do more in just a moment), it’s a little one-sided – based on the documentation Entercom and CBS have provided to the SEC, the companies already know who’ll be acquiring the stations and exactly how much they’ll fetch.
It’s a total of $265 million, plus swaps for 11 new stations in three markets, that will be coming in from all of the CBS/Entercom divestitures, and we’ve already accounted for $57.5 million of that from Entercom’s earlier spinoffs of KSWD Los Angeles and two other smaller FMs. That leaves $207.5 million and 11 trades for the Boston cluster, plus the stations being spun from CBS and Entercom clusters in San Francisco, Sacramento and Seattle.
Why these five stations? Where will everyone move? And, yes, who are the most likely buyers? Keep reading…
Or if you missed it earlier in the week, RadioInsight’s Lance Venta and I discussed some of the possibilities for Boston in this week’s Top of The Tower Podcast.
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Why these five? The question is a much simpler one than it may appear on your favorite radio Facebook group or message board. Sure, it would be great for the new merged Entercom to dominate Boston by owning the maximum eight signals, picking and choosing from all the most successful outlets in both existing clusters. You could completely own the sports market in town, with the Red Sox on WEEI and the Patriots, Bruins and Celtics on the Sports Hub, then add in both of the male-dominant rockers, WZLX and WAAF, pick up some female audience by keeping WBMX, and then top things off with the spoken-word pair of WBZ(AM) and WRKO. Perfect, right?
It would be, if not for the Antitrust Division at the Department of Justice, which has long enforced a standard that radio acquisitions shouldn’t give a company control of more than 40% of a market’s total revenue – and, often, more than 40% of revenue in a more narrow category such as male/female or all-sports. That’s one big reason why we’d long predicted that the merged Entercom would keep either WEEI or Sports Hub, but not both. (And don’t think that Entercom will try to poach the Pats or the Bruins from Sports Hub before spinning off 98.5 – the way these deals are structured, WBZ-FM and its sports contracts will never go under Entercom management, instead going into a hands-off trust if they’re not spun off before Entercom gets CBS Radio. Down the road, with WBZ-FM in new hands, Entercom will once again have the ability to bid for Pats, Bruins or Celtics rights as their current Sports Hub contracts expire.)
There’s another factor, too: Entercom needs some income from spinoffs in order to help start paying down the debt it’s taking on – and it needs a buyer or swap partner who’ll actually want what’s being spun off. A sale of, say, just WODS and WKAF wouldn’t bring in much money, nor much interest from the marketplace.
OK then, who? Did we mention that there’s 40 minutes of solid speculation on the podcast this week? To recap: Beasley, which has the five former Greater Media FMs in Boston, is capped out and thus not a potential player. Within the market, then, that leaves iHeart as the only existing cluster that would be looking to beef up its presence. Its current three FMs (top-40 “Kiss” WXKS-FM, rhythmic hits “Jamn” WJMN and country “Bull” WBWL) could be augmented by up to two more – and WKAF and WZLX would be nice complements indeed. Shedding WBWL would add room for WBZ-FM under the cap, too; on the AM side, WBZ and WRKO would fit with iHeart’s existing WKOX and WXKS(AM). But iHeart has deep financial problems of its own – as does Cumulus, which operates all around Boston but not within the market itself.
The decision to shed WBZ(AM), with all the legendary freight that comes with being New England’s oldest radio station and by far the best AM in town, should hint that the buyer, whoever it is, really wanted that particular station and all the challenges it brings with it. While WBZ remains near the top of the ratings with strong revenues, it’s still an AM in a world where FM becomes ever more dominant. Its all-news format (at least during the day) is as expensive to operate as any radio format anywhere. And it’s still tightly interconnected with WBZ-TV (Channel 4), which CBS is keeping, which means a new owner will have to either license content (at additional expense) or find new partnerships.
Does that lead to Hubbard, which runs Washington’s WTOP as a top-notch all-news operation that’s often the highest revenue producer in the nation? Or does it point to Cox, which has strong news-talk operations at Atlanta’s WSB, Orlando’s WDBO, Jacksonville’s WOKV and elsewhere – and which has been trying hard to create radio-TV combos in all its markets? In Boston, Cox has been a TV-only group since it acquired WFXT (Channel 25) in a swap with Fox a few years back. The CBS/Entercom spins would give Cox a ready-made radio cluster to pair with WFXT – and in WFXT, a new news partner for 1030.
(And yes, Cox would be the one buyer that might not keep the venerable calls on 1030; Entercom gets a perpetual license from CBS to keep using its heritage callsigns such as WCBS and WBBM on the radio, but CBS has to grant permission to keep using “WBZ” if the AM station is bought by a competing television broadcaster. Under any other buyer, 1030 would surely continue as “WBZ,” even without common ownership with WBZ-TV. There’s no reason that we can see for other TV players in town – Hearst, Ed Ansin or Comcast/NBC – to have any interest in acquiring radio right now.)
EMF, of course, is always in play as a potential station buyer anywhere it doesn’t already own, which very much includes Boston. If the five spinoffs aren’t all going to the same owner, it’s highly likely EMF would end up with at least one FM for its K-Love network; even a smaller signal like WKAF would be much more than K-Love has now in town.
Who else? Bill Binnie, up north in New Hampshire, is sitting on a pile of cash from selling the spectrum of his WBIN-TV – would he want to expand southward into the much bigger Boston market? Or – to get wildly speculative – would public broadcaster WGBH, also sitting on massive spectrum money, want to get deeper into the world of news radio by forming a for-profit subsidiary and adding commercial WBZ to its noncommercial WGBH-FM? If you’re John Henry and you own the Red Sox and the Globe, you’d probably love to own WBZ(AM) and the Sports Hub, but the intractable broadcast-newspaper cross-ownership ban continues to make that impossible for now, just as it does for the equally sensible idea of the Herald buying WRKO.
Again, this is one-sided speculation, since Entercom and CBS already know who’s buying; we’ll see how accurate our analysis is soon enough, whenever the buyers are announced.
And where does everyone go? One of the assets Entercom will pick up from CBS is its radio studio building on Leo Birmingham Parkway in Brighton (right), just across Market Street from the existing Entercom space on Guest Street. It seems more than logical that WBMX and WODS would stay put there, with WEEI eventually moving into the ground-floor space now home to Sports Hub and WAAF taking over WZLX’s studios upstairs.
Entercom’s existing rented space at Guest Street could take in Sports Hub where WEEI now sits, and WZLX could swap space with WAAF – but with WBZ(AM) also in the picture, a prospective buyer of all five stations would probably want to look elsewhere for a long-term home for that new cluster. If it’s Cox, it’s easy – there’s plenty of empty space in the WFXT building in Dedham that could be filled by radio studios, and in a great location, too. For anyone else, it seems likely that a short-term option, at least, would be to keep WBZ(AM) where it’s been since 1948, leasing space (and some services) from CBS, if it’s willing.
*And so here we are, waiting for as many as five more shoes to drop in the next few months. We’ll do our level best to keep providing the most solid information we’re able to deliver as these transactions proceed. And yes, we’re emotional about the potential changes coming to your editor’s own broadcast alma mater, WBZ – and hopeful that whoever ends up with that facility provides it with the care and resources that it and its staff deserve.
*Elsewhere in the market, a second Boston FM rimshot is looking at using synchronized on-channel boosters to better reach the market. WXRV (92.5 Andover) has been using boosters for the last year or so to enhance the southern edge of its market, and now Cumulus is applying to do the same with its WXLO (104.5 Fitchburg).
WXLO’s 54 dBu protected contour already reaches to Boston from its prime site near the Leominster State Forest. The applications filed last week would add three more transmitters on 104.5: a 10-watt directional signal aimed east from the roof of the Hancock Tower in Boston’s Back Bay, which will in turn fill in two suburban signals, one with 150 watts horizontal/450 watts vertical from the WWDJ (1150) site in Lexington and one with 230 watts horizontal/700 watts vertical from Bear Hill in Waltham. (Those sites each have WXRV boosters, too.)
It’s worth noting that Cumulus describes WXLO as being part of its “Worcester/Boston/Springfield” group of stations, notwithstanding the lack of any actual Boston stations in the company’s portfolio; it was under that “Worcester/Boston/Springfield” banner that Cumulus announced last week that it’s hired Laura St. James as the new PD and midday host at WXLO. St. James, who has a long programming history in New York City, Philadelphia and the Lehigh Valley, will continue to be heard on weekends at Cumulus’ WNSH (94.7 Newark NJ). At WXLO, she replaces former PD Lance Ballance and former middayer Mary Knight, who both left the station in August.
*WXLO isn’t the only Worcester-based station looking to expand. The Epic Light Network is acquiring the construction permit for WSJQ (91.5 Pascoag, RHODE ISLAND) from St. Joseph Radio Station, and it says it will put the station on the air in January with its contemporary Christian “Q” format now heard on WYQQ (90.1 Charlton), serving more of northern Rhode Island and central Massachusetts east of where the WYQQ signal now peters out.
A native of New Bedford, Gray spent 23 years at WPRO (630) and WPRO-FM (92.3) in Providence beginning in 1969, including a long and influential run as PRO-FM’s morning man. His departure in 1992 wasn’t voluntary, but he soon landed down I-95 at WEBE (107.9) in Westport, then came back to Providence in 1995 for stints in mornings at WCTK (98.1) and WHJJ (920) before retiring from radio in 2000.
Gray died last Monday (Oct. 9) at the Evergreen Nursing Home; he was 72.
And we send our condolences, too, to Connecticut radio veteran John (“Harper”) Kosinski on the death of his mother, Carmella, on Thursday. She was 94.
*We’ll be in NEW YORK City later this week for the double-whammy of the Audio Engineering Society and NAB New York conventions, and while we’re there, we’re very much looking forward to AES’ exclusive tour of the new 1 World Trade Center broadcast facility.
But we’ll also be looking up toward 1WTC’s big rival, the Empire State Building, where there’s a remarkable new 19-station master antenna system coming on line. The three-bay ERI panel antenna right at the base of the Empire mast (just above the 104th-floor top of the building itself) is designed to serve as a reliable auxiliary system for the 16 stations that use the main two-bay ERI master near the top of the mast and the three FMs (WPLJ, WQHT, WCBS-FM) that share the one-bay “mini-master” just below the master.
The master is now more than a quarter-century old, making the need for an aux system a little more urgent – and add to that the impending TV repack that will likely mean more construction work on the Empire mast and may thus require some shutdowns of the master and mini-master. (The 1965 Alford master antenna that surrounds the 102nd-floor observation deck is still in place, but no longer practical for routine use.)
Thus the new master aux – and now that it’s up and running, it provides some exciting new options for all those stations at Empire. With most of the stations there running 7.6 kW/386.7 m, they’ll have essentially equivalent coverage from the aux to what they get now from the master or mini-master above (with less power but a bit more height), which means the “aux” could serve as a main facility at some point if Empire’s FMs decide it’s time to renovate or repair the aging master or the combiner on the 85th floor that feeds it. (That combiner has been a potential single point of failure for a long time, so the addition of a second combiner for the aux is an important piece of resiliency for the broadcasters there.)
So who’s on the new aux? CBS Radio’s WBMP (92.3), WCBS-FM (101.1), WFAN-FM (101.9) and WNEW (102.7); SBS’ WPAT-FM (93.1) and WSKQ-FM (97.9); New York Public Radio’s WNYC-FM (93.9) and WQXR (105.9); Cumulus’ WPLJ (95.5); Univision’s WXNY (96.3); Emmis’ WQHT (97.1), WEPN-FM (98.7) and WBLS (107.5); Pacifica’s WBAI (99.5, and yes, the costs of this project are factored into the rent it’s still not paying); and iHeart’s WHTZ (100.3), WQHT (103.5), WAXQ (104.3), WWPR (105.1) and WLTW (106.7).
*A deal between T-Mobile and Fox Television Stations will lead to an early repack move for WWOR (Channel 9), Fox’s NEW JERSEY-licensed MyNetwork affiliate. Fox isn’t saying how much T-Mobile is paying to help speed up Fox’s exit from the 600 MHz spectrum for which the wireless carrier paid more than $8 billion at auction, but the first big move will be an early 2018 relocation of WWOR from RF 38 to RF 25, a channel now occupied by WASA-LP, which will presumably go dark or find a channel-share deal before then.
It’s not yet clear whether the repacked WWOR signal on RF 25 will come from its present site at Empire or whether it will become part of Fox’s deal with Durst to move its digital transmissions to the new 1 World Trade Center facility, announced in August.
*Up in the North Country, the WAMC Northeast Public Radio Network is having ongoing problems with a planned power increase at its Plattsburgh signal, WCEL (91.9). A year ago, the FCC rejected one WCEL application on the grounds that it was short-spaced by 1 km to WVTK (92.1 Port Henry); now the FCC has rejected another WCEL application because it proposed to use only vertical polarization. (You can do that if you’re protecting a channel 6 TV station, but WCEL’s application didn’t include channel 6 protection. The nearest “channel 6” up in Montreal, of course, is actually on a UHF channel these days.)
*John Morris was a player in NEW JERSEY radio for many decades, starting his career with AFN Radio in Germany and then continuing it as sales manager of WHWH (1350 Princeton) in the 1960s. WHWH was the start of what became Nassau Communications, where Morris helped launch WPST (97.5) and served as the company’s president. After leaving Nassau, Morris formed Morris Communications and bought WIMG (1300 Ewing) in 1993. WIMG remains in the Morris family’s hands even now; Johnnie Morris died Sept. 28 at age 91.
*As we await Friday’s big move in northwestern PENNSYLVANIA, as “Rocket 101” WRKT (100.9 North East) slides up the dial to 104.9 with a much-improved signal over Erie, we note that WRKT’s former AM sister station is now silent. Inspiration Time, Inc. tells the FCC that it silenced AM 1530 (formerly WMCE, soon to be WZTE) at “approximately” 1:36 PM on September 1. Inspiration Time is in the process of buying the station from Mercyhurst University and moving it from North East to Union City, where it will backfill as “sole local service” so that sister station WCTL (106.3) can move from Union City to Erie.
(And a happy 50th anniversary to Erie’s public TV station, WQLN-TV, which marked that milestone Thursday night with a party at the Ambassador Center up the street from the WQLN studios. Guests included PBS president Paula Kerger.)
PDs on the Move: iHeart is rearranging some of its talent in its cluster that stretches from central Pennsylvania down to Delaware. In Lancaster, Jeff Hurley returns to PD duty at WLAN-FM (96.9), a job he’d given up when he became regional SVP of programming. Derrick Cole, who’d taken over the WLAN-FM PD chair, is headed to Allentown to be PD of WZZO (95.1) and WAEB-FM (104.1), replacing Kyle Due there after Due went to Texas. And in Harrisburg, Newman takes over as PD of WRBT (94.9) from Hurley. (Newman had been APD/MD at “Bob 94.9.”)
In Wilkes-Barre, Entercom has found a new afternoon host on its WILK talk network (WILK-FM 103.1 Avoca, WILK 980 Wilkes-Barre, etc.) In two weeks, Frank Shimkus, who’s been serving as mayor of Throop but has a long media history, will take the slot that’s had three hosts already this year. That 3-6 PM slot belonged to Steve Corbett, then to the late L.A. Tarone until his death in June, and has since been temporarily hosted by Rob Neyhard. Shimkus, who’s worked in radio at WCDL in Carbondale and WEJL in Scranton and at WNEP-TV and WYOU-TV as a reporter and anchor, will use his old “Frank Andrews” air name when he hits the airwaves Oct. 30.
On TV in Pittsburgh, it’s a double dose of Pompeanis: veteran KDKA-TV (Channel 2) sports anchor Bob Pompeani raised two daughters who went into the business. Big sister Chelsea worked at WJET-TV in Erie and WROC-TV in Rochester before moving into PR (she’s now at Point Park University); now younger sister Celina, who’s worked at WTOV in Steubenville, Ohio and for the Pittsburgh Penguins, has joined KDKA-TV as the morning traffic reporter.
*Translator applicants in our region in the FCC’s recent filing window did a good job, all in all, of staying out of each other’s way. The FCC recently released a list of 88 MX (mutually-exclusive) groups of applicants, giving them a deadline of November 29 to resolve their conflicts through technical amendments or settlements. Any MX groups that aren’t resolved by the deadline will go to auction.
In NERW-land, there were only a few MX groups, many of which can be easily resolved with directional antennas or other technical changes: in Massachusetts, Bloomberg’s WNBP Newburyport and Principle’s WESX Nahant both applied for 92.1, while WIZZ in Greenfield’s 101.3 application conflicts with Saga’s WHMP Northampton app for 101.5. On the state line, WGFP Webster and WOON in Woonsocket, R.I. conflict for 99.3
In New York, there are conflicts up north (Stephens’ WMSA Massena on 92.9 and Waters’ WPDM Potsdam for 93.3 in Massena), out west (Genesee’s WDNY Dansville and DBM’s WLSV Wellsville, both for 99.9), in the Mohawk Valley (Flack’s WBRV Boonville and Tune In’s WKAL Rome, both for 103.3 in Rome) and in the Hudson Valley (WKNY Kingston and WHVW Hyde Park, both for 107.9). And on the shores of Lake Champlain, WCHP Champlain NY and WRSA St. Albans VT both applied for 100.3.
Pennsylvania had more conflicts: in Sharon, Cumulus’ WPIC applied for 97.9, conflicting with a 97.7 app in Warren, Ohio. Cumulus also hit a conflict in York, where its 107.3 app for WGLD is MX’d with a 107.3 app in Carlisle for WIOO. In Johnstown, WCRO’s 102.9 app conflicts with WZSK’s 102.9 app in Everett. In Waynesboro, WCBG applied for 100.9, in conflict with 100.9 from WEEO in Shippensburg. And in Erie, Inspiration Time’s 103.3 app for its new WZTE conflicts with a 103.3 app in Avonia, near Fairview, from WWOW across the state line in Conneaut, Ohio.
We’ll be watching as these head toward settlements or auction.
*In CANADA, a struggling community station is being bailed out by its local government. CFBW (91.3 Hanover), known locally as “BWR” (“Bluewater Radio”), hasn’t been able to make the mortgage payments on its two-story downtown Hanover building – so the local council is paying C$246,000 to buy the building, which BWR can occupy rent-free until 2020. After that, local officials say, the station will have to find other ways to remain self-sustaining – but in the meantime, they think BWR is too valuable to the community to be allowed to fail.
*We promised you just a bit more Hockey on the Radio, and we meant it: at the AA level, there are only a handful of ECHL teams in the region with regular radio coverage. The Worcester Railers have a new radio deal this year, putting all their games on Cumulus’ WORC-FM (98.9 NASH Icon). Eric Lindquist is behind the mike there for his ninth season with the team. The Adirondack Thunder in Glens Falls are on WCQL (95.9), and in Pennsylvania the Reading Royals are at least streaming through iHeart’s WRAW (1340), though it’s not clear whether they’re actually on the air over “Rumba 1340/92.3” itself, or just on the stream.
Down at the junior level, the OHL’s Erie Otters are on Cumulus’ WRIE (1260) and its new 96.3 translator; the Guelph Storm remain on CJOY (1460); the Hamilton Bulldogs remain on CKOC (TSN Radio 1150); the Kingston Frontenacs on CKYM (88.7 Napanee); the Kitchener Rangers on CKGL (570 News); the London Knights are in their second year on CFPL (980); the Niagara IceDogs on CKTB (610 St. Catharines); the Peterborough Petes on CKMB (90.5).
We’re a community.