In this week’s issue… Allegations silence Boston, NYC hosts – Repack shuffle for New England, Philly TVs – NBC buys Telemundo affils – Remembering Perry Ury
By SCOTT FYBUSH
*It’s another one of those weeks when the inevitable lead story is depressing enough that we’d really rather write about nearly anything else. But we just report the news, we don’t make it – and so we start with the late-breaking news out of MASSACHUSETTS that WBUR (90.9) has suspended Tom Ashbrook as host of its “On Point,” the newsmagazine show it produces for national distribution by NPR.
What happened? “Allegations” is all that WBUR and parent Boston University are saying for now about Ashbrook’s removal from that high-profile post, which broke at the close of business Friday, just a day after WBUR says it became aware of – whatever it was it became aware of.
“Tom will be on leave from his duties at WBUR while an outside organization hired by Boston University examines these allegations,” said the statement WBUR released after a staff meeting. “We will decide a course of action after getting the results of this investigation.”
Ashbrook told WBUR’s Martha Bebinger he wasn’t aware of what those allegations were (in a story that must have been challenging to cover; the WBUR newsroom kept Bebinger away from the all-staff meeting that was off the record and thus not open to reporters from other news organizations.)
There will apparently be a guest host anchoring the show today – and the longer this new development drags out, the more uncertainty will build for public radio program directors who will now have to juggle a weakened “On Point” along with the now-former “Prairie Home Companion” that’s doing business as “The Show with Chris Thile” for the moment (the trademarked name had to exit Minnesota Public Media along with creator Garrison Keillor last month.)
(Monday update: WBUR has posted a longer story detailing more of the allegations against Ashbrook.)
*Ashbrook’s suspension wasn’t the only big Boston media story Friday. Over in the world of print, the Boston Herald has long been fighting for survival, and now it will do so in new hands. Owner Patrick Purcell announced the tabloid (now down to daily circulation of just 64,000) is filing for bankruptcy, wiping out its pension obligations and being sold to consolidator GateHouse Media, which already owns most of the suburban weeklies around Boston as well as dailies in Quincy, Brockton, Framingham, Worcester and Providence.
How much of the Herald‘s spirit as the scrappy underdog of Boston journalism will survive under GateHouse’s cut-costs-at-all-costs mentality? (It’s not even good news, really, for the rival Globe, which has made money by printing and distributing the Herald for years now and will now likely lose that business.)
On the broadcast side of things, we wonder what will become of Boston Herald Radio, the streaming talk service that has provided content in the past to WMEX (1510, which itself goes up for auction at week’s end.) And the Herald’s Howie Carr is also the afternoon host at WRKO (680) – which is, of course, in its own limbo as it awaits transfer from Entercom to iHeart. (Hasn’t Carr probably had enough job uncertainty by now for a lifetime?)
*It was a tense week, too, at NEW YORK‘s WNYC, where the news of accusations of sexual harassment by former “Takeaway” host John Hockenberry were followed by the suspensions of midday talk host Leonard Lopate and standards host Jonathan Schwartz, both pulled off the air abruptly on Wednesday after allegations surfaced against both of them. WNYC is saying little about the details of the accusations, though Lopate told the Times “any honest investigation” would clear him. While he’s under suspension, Mary Harris will be filling in on Lopate’s show, a 30-year fixture on WNYC.
The Fybush Media podcast is back – for real! Listen to our latest episode right here!
Season two of “Top of the Tower” offered you several preview editions during the NAB Show last month in Las Vegas – and now we’re (finally!) back to regular weekly editions. Join host Scott Fybush and a wide variety of industry insiders every Wednesday for interesting conversation about what’s happening in the business of radio and TV, not to mention programming, engineering and the newsroom.
Find “Top of the Tower” on all your favorite podcast platforms or right here at fybush.com – and check out our Season 1 Archives, too!
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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: December 12, 2016
*It’s a sad week for broadcasters in VERMONT and the adjacent north country of NEW YORK as they mourn two colleagues who are gone too soon.
In Vermont, we’d been following from a distance for a little over a year ever since WEZF (92.9 Burlington) PD Jennifer Foxx was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in September 2015. Foxx, whose real name was Jennifer McClintock, had to give up her PD gig and her weekday airshift as her condition worsened, but she remained on a weekend shift at WEZF for as long as she could.
The Holden, Mass. native got her radio start in Springfield and had been with “Star 92.9” since 1999. She’s survived by a husband and three children.
*On the other side of Lake Champlain, Canton-based North Country Public Radio serves a vast region with a small staff – and so it was devastating indeed when the network lost its former giving and membership director in a car crash Dec. 2.
June Peoples had departed NCPR a few months ago to join the advancement office at licensee St. Lawrence University, but she remained close to the station and its staff, especially because her husband Joel Hurd also works for NCPR as its production director. Peoples was 52.
Five Years Ago: December 10, 2012
*The average TV viewer in upstate NEW YORK might not have noticed much, but behind the scenes, last week brought some dramatic changes to the dial involving two big group owners.
Nexstar was already an established presence in the region, owning and operating clusters in Rochester and Utica as well as just across the state line in Scranton and Erie, Pennsylvania. When Nexstar closed its purchase of most of Newport Television’s stations, it instantly became a much larger player. Nexstar’s Newport deal adds most of the cluster that was first assembled more than a decade ago by Ackerley, later passing to Clear Channel and then Newport. In Syracuse, Nexstar now owns top-rated ABC affiliate WSYR-TV (Channel 9), which serves as a hub for Watertown ABC outlet WWTI (Channel 50), Elmira NBC station WETM (Channel 18), Binghamton’s ABC affiliate WIVT (Channel 34) and NBC affiliate WBGH-LP (Channel 20). Nexstar’s Utica ABC affiliate, WUTR (Channel 20), was part of the old Ackerley group, too, and now rejoins its old sister station.
Under Ackerley, the group established a master control hub in Syracuse. The Nexstar acquisition will add a new level of hubbing: accounting and traffic for all of Nexstar’s stations in the region are being handled from a new hub at WROC-TV (Channel 8) in Rochester. Our colleague Peter Naughton at CNYRadio.com reports that consolidation meant as many as 20 jobs were lost at WSYR-TV’s East Syracuse facility, including the loss of several part-time photojournalists as well as production and business managers.
The Nexstar/Newport deal also brings two more former Clear Channel Television stations in the region under Newport’s management: CBS affiliate WHP-TV (Channel 21) in Harrisburg, PENNSYLVANIA and its JSA partner, CW affiliate WLYH (Channel 15) in Lebanon. Nexstar’s arrival in the Harrisburg market means the departure of Holly Steuart, who’d been GM at those stations under Newport; Steuart had also worked at WROC-TV in Rochester before moving to Harrisburg.
Nexstar still has another deal yet to close: it’s also acquiring Fox affiliate WFFF (Channel 44) and WVNY (Channel 22) in Burlington, Vermont, adding to what’s now a large regional footprint.
*While we knew Nexstar’s closing on the Newport stations was just a matter of time, the week’s other big deal came as a surprise – even, apparently, to Nexstar itself. This piece of the puzzle involves the last station remaining in the Newport family, ABC affiliate WHAM-TV (Channel 13) in Rochester. Because Nexstar already owned WROC in Rochester and operated Sinclair-owned Fox affiliate WUHF (Channel 31) under a joint sales agreement (JSA), it appeared that WHAM-TV would have to go to a different buyer. What nobody at Nexstar appears to have expected was that the “different buyer” would be its own JSA partner in Rochester, Sinclair, which paid $54 million on Monday and immediately took over the “non-license assets” of WHAM-TV.
Confused yet? No more so than the business pages that obligingly reported Sinclair’s official statement that it had no plans to alter its WUHF arrangement with WROC, leaving the station Sinclair actually owns, WUHF, being operated by a competitor to WHAM-TV, the station Sinclair will operate but not own. Even in the tangled web that is modern television group ownership, that’s a bizarre situation indeed, and NERW can confirm it won’t last very long.
*New York’s WEPN (1050) no longer has a simulcast in central NEW JERSEY. The relay of WEPN on WNJE (1040 Flemington) made some sense when 1050 was the English-language home of ESPN in New York and the 1040 signal could fill some serious nulls in the 1050 signal. With ESPN’s move to FM (on WEPN-FM 98.7), 1050 went to Spanish-language ESPN Deportes Radio, and after a few months of simulcasting en Espanol, WNJE has now gone its own way. Under new owner Connoisseur, 1040 is now simulcasting religious sister station WCHR (920 Trenton).
Ten Years Ago: December 10, 2007
*When Cumulus’ WFAS-FM (103.9 White Plains) filed to change city of license to Bronxville back in January, it wasn’t hard to figure out what was coming next – a transmitter move that would make the class A signal into a NEW YORK broadcaster.
Here’s what we said in NERW back on Feb. 5: “As a pre-1964 grandfathered station, WFAS-FM doesn’t have to protect its second-adjacent neighbors on the Empire State Building, WKTU (103.5) and WAXQ (104.3), but it does have to stay at least 15 km from WPAT-FM (93.1), which is also on Empire. That means it’s likely to end up somewhere in the Bronx, where it will probably end up joining another move-in, Cox’s WCTZ (96.7 Stamford CT, moving to Port Chester NY.)”
“Somewhere in the Bronx” turned out to be the tower atop a Montefiore Medical Center building that’s already home to WFUV (90.7). Last week, WFAS-FM, which was granted the city-of-license change to Bronxville over the summer, applied to move its transmitter from its longtime site in Greenburgh to the WFUV tower (shown below in 2005), where it would operate with 980 watts at 532 feet above average terrain.
From that site, WFAS-FM would still have decent Westchester/Rockland/north Jersey coverage, but more to the point, it would blanket the Bronx and cover most of Manhattan, Queens and even part of Brooklyn with a 60 dBu (city-grade) signal.
What happens next? We speculated back in February that Cumulus, which does most of its business in suburban and medium-sized urban markets, was unlikely to keep WFAS-FM operating as a standalone AC station in the cluster-dominated cauldron of Market Number One, and last month’s layoffs of a significant portion of WFAS-FM’s airstaff would seem to bear out that theory.
Will WFAS-FM soon be up for sale as a New York City signal? And if so, who would be in line as buyers, at a price tag that’s likely to be in the $50 million range? It’s not hard to imagine the new 103.9 nicely complementing the Queens/Nassau rimshot of Univision’s WQBU (92.7 Garden City), a signal for which Univision famously paid $60 million a few years ago. Then there’s Citadel, whose two-station cluster (WABC/WPLJ) is far smaller than those of its New York competitors, CBS, Clear Channel and Emmis. Would Salem, which is spinning off some of its smaller markets to focus on bigger ones, want to add a “Fish” contemporary Christian FM to its two AMs (WMCA and WWDJ)? Would Arthur Liu’s Multicultural group want an FM to go with its many AMs?
We’ll be watching this one closely – not to mention another eventual Bronx move-in, Cox’s relocation of WCTZ (96.7 Port Chester NY, ex-Stamford CT) closer to the big city.
*A transmitter-site fire leads our PENNSYLVANIA news this week, as Harrisburg’s WRVV (97.3), WHP-TV/DT (21/4) and WLYH-TV/DT (15/23) all recover from the blaze that knocked them off the air early Monday morning. The fire started in the corner of their shared building near the FM transmitter, completely destroying the FM station’s equipment and severely damaging several of the TV stations’ transmitters.
Clear Channel dispatched one of its emergency-recovery trucks, complete with frequency-agile transmitter, to get WRVV back on the air Monday afternoon. The TV stations were able to get back on the air soon afterward, thanks to some clever engineering (and the remarkable survival of a Microwave Radio STL receiver that continued working even though its entire front surface had melted away!)
Public broadcaster WITF (89.5)/WITF-TV/DT (33/36), which share the site, suffered some smoke damage to their transmitters in an adjoining room, but remained on the air.
*In MASSACHUSETTS, Principle Broadcasting is trying again to move WESX (1230 Salem) from its longtime (and very valuable) site in Marblehead to a location much closer to Boston. Back in March, Principle applied to change WESX’s city of license to Saugus, relocating the transmitter to the tower of WLYN (1360 Lynn) and requesting a waiver because the new site wouldn’t provide full coverage of the new community.
In early November, the FCC let Principle know that it wouldn’t grant the waiver, giving WESX an opportunity to amend its application to fix the problem. Now the station has done so, changing its proposal to specify Nahant as the new city of license. This time, no waiver is required, as WESX would cover Nahant fully by day, and would cover 89.1% of the town with a nighttime interference-free signal.
And we’re very sorry to report the death on Thursday (Dec. 6) of Fred B. Cole, one of the last living links to Boston radio in the pre-World War II era. Cole worked for WBZ and WNAC before joining WHDH in 1946, where he spent 21 years playing big-band tunes. Cole was inducted into the Massachusetts Broadcasters Hall of Fame earlier this year. Cole, who lived his entire life in Hingham, was 92; he’s survived by wife Betsey and a large family.
Fifteen Years Ago: December 9, 2002
The man who defined morning radio in CONNECTICUT for fifty years died last Friday (Dec. 6), ending a radio career that spanned seven decades at just one station. Bob Steele came to WTIC in Hartford in 1936, as a junior announcer fresh from the motorcycle-racing circuit, where he had announced the races at a local arena (and, earlier, on KGFJ in Los Angeles.) The Missouri native was hired on a probationary basis and urged to work on his accent. Within a few months, Steele was announcing sports broadcasts on WTIC — and in 1943, he took over the “Morning Watch” show.
Before long, “Morning Watch” became the Bob Steele Show, and Steele became a WTIC institution, waking up generations of Nutmeggers with the “Word for the Day,” birthday announcements, and general good humor until his retirement from daily broadcasting in 1991. And even then — at the age of 80 — Bob Steele was far from finished at WTIC, moving to a Saturday-morning slot that eventually became a monthly feature on the station. In recent years, Steele was on the air only from May until November, but still proudly claimed his title as the longest-running regular program host in New England, and probably the entire country. When he turned 90 last year, Steele was quoted as saying he might consider retiring “when I turn 100.”
Sadly, he won’t get that chance; Steele died in his sleep sometime Friday morning, a month or so after what turned out to be his last WTIC broadcast. It was a run that’s unlikely to ever be equalled, from a man who’ll be widely remembered as one of the class acts in this business, and he’ll be missed. (WTIC did a special four-hour broadcast Sunday morning to remember Steele; we hear the station even cut carrier for 15 seconds at the end of the show in Steele’s memory.)
Back up here in Rochester, Entercom will hold an official ribbon-cutting Wednesday (Dec. 11) for its new “High Falls Studios” radio complex, home to WBEE-FM (92.5), WBBF (93.3 Fairport), WBZA (98.9) and WROC (950). We had a chance to see this nifty new facility a couple of weeks ago, and it’s far and away the nicest commercial radio plant in town, complete with historic brick-vaulted ceilings and a wonderful location in the heart of the city’s entertainment district.
Twenty Years Ago: December 11, 1997
It’s been several years in the making, but WKOX (1200) in Framingham, MASSACHUSETTS finally holds a construction permit to go 50 kilowatts by day. The FCC this week reversed a decision rejecting WKOX’s application for the higher power from the WNTN (1550) tower on Rumford Avenue in Newton, a site erroneously identified as “River Street” in the application. We’ll be interested to see whether WKOX and owner Fairbanks Broadcasting are actually able to build on the site; we’d heard last year that WNTN was leery about allowing WKOX to diplex off its tower.
Elswehere in the Bay State, Boston’s WNFT (1150), the oft-forgotten stepsister in the CBS/ARS group, was doing some simulcast-hopping this week. WNFT was heard with sister hot AC station WBMX (98.5) last Friday, returning to its usual simulcast of WAAF (107.3 Worcester) for a few days only to switch again for a little while, this time to CHurban WJMN (94.5) — which, oddly enough, is NOT a CBS/ARS station. An accident at the WNFT broadcast facility? Only the engineers know for sure.
On to CONNECTICUT, where the revolving doors have been spinning fast and furious in and around Hartford this week. No sooner did NBC take control of WVIT (Channel 30 New Britain-Hartford) than news director Micah Johnson, general sales manager Ron Pulera, and reporter Pete Yaksick were out of their jobs. Assistant news director Nancy Andrews is running the show at channel 30 for the moment.
Over at oldies station WDRC-FM (102.9) in Hartford, morning host Jerry Kristafer has been ousted after 15 years. Replacing Kristafer for now is weekend jock Don Brooks, with the station’s website announcing Marc Sommers as the permanent replacement. Sommers comes to “Big D 103” from a stint with New York’s WCBS-FM (101.1). No official reason was given for Kristafer’s dismissal beyond the usual “philosophical differences,” but Kristafer tells a local newspaper he thinks low ratings were to blame.
It’s dead, Jim: Stephen King’s WNSW (1200) in Brewer, MAINE apparently applied for license renewal — even though it was cancelled and its callsign deleted back in February after being off the air for more than a year. This was one resurrection even King couldn’t pull off; the FCC rejected the application, as the Telecom Act requires it to do.