In this week’s issue… iHeart bankruptcy still looms – Holley out at WEEI – Remembering a Jersey Shore radio legend – Byrnes reformats Niagara – Oldies reboot in Erie

By SCOTT FYBUSH

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MONDAY MORNING UPDATE: iHeart reached a forbearance agreement that will hold off any potential bankruptcy until Thursday, so we continue to wait for that big shoe to drop…

*If you expected to be starting your week with news of an iHeart Media bankruptcy filing, you’re not alone.

The trades were abuzz late last week with reports that iHeart’s decision not to make two key interest payments on its debt would finally force the hand of broadcast and digital behemoth’s creditors.

There was a bargain-basement attempt by Liberty Media and SiriusXM to acquire 40% of iHeart as part of a restructuring deal, injecting more than a billion dollars in cash into the company, which created lots of speculation but little interest from iHeart management.

It was even the lead story Friday night in Boston at WGBH’s Beat the Press, which interviewed your editor about the developing story:

But as we prepare to hit “publish” early on Monday morning, we’re all still waiting for a shoe to drop after a weekend in which no news emerged from iHeart corporate headquarters.

As they collect millions of dollars in newly-granted bonuses (a bad bit of optics amidst last week’s developments), iHeart managers are doing all they can to maintain the image that it’s business as usual at the company – and that it would continue to be business as usual even if there is a bankruptcy filing sometime soon.

In eastern MASSACHUSETTS, that included a format shuffle on Wednesday morning; as you read first in NERW last week, the end of Bloomberg’s lease of WXKS (1200 Newton)/WJMN-HD2 (94.5 Boston) meant iHeart had to do something with that 50 kW facility. And “something” is about all it did: the low-rated syndicated talk that had been on smaller WKOX (1430 Everett) shuffled quietly down the dial to 1200/94.5-HD2 at 9 AM, complete with the odd pairing of Fox Sports Radio in morning drive and Rush Limbaugh later in the day.

On 1430, which is now in an iHeart divestiture trust, WKOX is now running iHeart’s “Rumba” Spanish hits format. “Rumba” had been on both 1200 and 1430 from 2006 until 2009, and 1430 had later carried the Spanish-language “Mia” format until iHeart pulled Limbaugh’s show back from then-Entercom talker WRKO (680) to create the new “Talk 1430” in 2015. (WRKO, of course, is also now part of iHeart, and it appears Rush isn’t headed back there for the moment.)

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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 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 6, 2017

*We kick off this week with a pair of format changes along the Atlantic coast, some 180 miles apart. In New London, CONNECTICUT, Wednesday brought a format change at the Hall Communications cluster, where WKNL (100.9) dropped its hot AC “Roxy” format after a little more than four years on the air. In place of Roxy, 100.9 is now “K-Hits,” returning to a version of the classic hits format it used until December 2012. Back then, it was “Kool 101;” that branding was snapped up by competitor Red Wolf, which now uses “Kool” on WSKP (1180 Hope Valley RI) and its FM translator at 104.3. The Roxy airstaff stays in place with the new K-Hits.

Down the shore in NEW JERSEY, it was Press Communications making a Friday flip at two of its FM signals. WWZY (107.1 Long Branch) dropped hot AC “Fun 107” in favor of classic rock as “The Boss;” the flip also took Ocean County sister station WBHX (99.7 Tuckerton) from classic hits “The Island” to a “Boss” simulcast, albeit one that’s not mentioned anywhere in the new “Boss” imaging.

The “Pork Roll and Eggs” morning show from Fun 107 will migrate to sister “Thunder Country” WKMK 106.3/WTHJ 106.5; for now, “Boss” is running jockless.

In Utica, Roser’s WUTQ (100.7) has dropped the soft AC part of its format, flipping last Monday to all-talk, with a hefty dose of local news simulcasts from WKTV (Channel 2). WKTV kicks off the morning at 5 AM, followed by the existing “Talk of The Town” morning show hosted by Dave Coombs and Jason Aiello from 6-10. After that, it’s Glenn Beck at 10, more WKTV at noon, Laura Ingraham at 1 PM, Dave Ramsey at 3, WKTV again at 5, “America Now” at 6, Michael Savage at 9 PM and “Red Eye Radio” overnight as WUTQ goes up against Townsquare’s venerable WIBX (950).

*In the Upper Valley market that spans NEW HAMPSHIRE and VERMONT, Sugar River Media is starting to make some changes to the stations it recently acquired from Bob Vinikoor. In Springfield, WCFR (1480) and its 106.5 translator have shifted from “Springfield’s Variety” to “Rewind 106.5,” focusing on hits of the 1980s and 1990s. Former GM Ray Kimball has departed, and the station is now being run by Steve Smith from sister station WCNL in Newport. Over in Randolph, it’s now Aaron Gonthier in Kimball’s former GM position at WCVR (1320); he tells NERW the station is moving to more modern classic country. Listeners overwhelmingly wanted “fewer whining songs,” Gonthier tells us.

Five Years Ago: March 4, 2013

*It’s turning out to be an interesting year in the world of medium- and small-market TV, isn’t it? While the companies at the top of the local-station ownership market have been reluctant to do much spending on big-market properties, a handful of players are aggressively testing the limits when it comes to the creation of multiple-station local clusters and regional groups in markets below #50 or thereabouts.

sbg-wstm-wjacLate last year, we watched as Nexstar and Sinclair divvied up most of the former Newport Television (ex-Clear Channel/Ackerley) stations across upstate NEW YORK and beyond – and since then, Sinclair, especially, has been at the forefront when it comes to station acquisition. Last week, Sinclair grew again, picking up several smaller-market stations being shed by Cox Media Group for $99 million and then, for $320 million, buying outright the entire Barrington Broadcasting group.

The market that will feel the biggest impact from those Sinclair moves is Syracuse, which has suffered more TV ownership turmoil than just about anywhere else that we can think of in recent years. The dominant station in town is ABC affiliate WSYR-TV (Channel 9), which is just settling in under the first months of its new Nexstar ownership – and even before Nexstar picked up channel 9 in the Newport deal, it was widely known that the competing “CNY Central” cluster was also up for sale. That cluster, which lags significantly behind WSYR-TV in the ratings, includes Barrington-owned NBC affiliate WSTM (Channel 3), its low-power CW sister station WSTQ-LP (Channel 14) and Granite’s CBS affiliate WTVH (Channel 5), which is operated under an LMA by WSTM.

*A veteran MASSACHUSETTS morning show is reuniting after a long absence. It was way back in 2001 when Clear Channel split up the Baltazar and Pebbles morning show at WJMN (94.5), with Baltazar eventually moving out west to KZZO in Sacramento. But after Pebbles was let go by WJMN last year and eventually followed former WJMN programmer Cadillac Jack over to Greater Media’s rhythmic startup WTKK (Hot 96.9), it became clear that Cadillac was doing everything he could to put the band back together, as it were. NERW was the first trade publication to note that CBS Radio had posted an opening for Baltazar’s Sacramento job – and last week Greater confirmed what we’d all been speculating: effective today, Baltazar will be back in Boston on a reunited “Baltazar and Pebbles” show at WTKK. The afternoon slot that Pebbles had been temporarily filling will go to Melissa, the former WJMN morning producer who’d been handling middays.

Over at Clear Channel, March brought an abrupt end to the “Matty’s Comedy 1200″ format at WXKS (1200 Newton). The satellite-fed yuks showed up on 1200 and on WXKS-FM (107.9)’s HD2 last August, after Clear Channel pulled the plug on its attempt to make the station a major conservative talk player. While the comedy lives on at 107.9-HD2, AM 1200 has now flipped again to a full-time feed of Bloomberg Radio’s business format. Bloomberg has bounced around the Boston dial in its two decades on the air: from 1994-1996, it was heard more or less full-time on WBNW (590), Peter Ottmar’s replacement for the old WEEI frequency, and after 590′s sale to Salem (it’s now religious WEZE), Bloomberg eventually ended up with part-time clearance on a series of rimshots. Most recently, Bloomberg has been heard on Barry Armstrong’s WBNW (1120 Concord)/WPLM (1390 Plymouth), where it’s been cleared for a few hours of morning drive and overnights. It appears those clearances will go away in the next few weeks, and there’s no word yet on what replaces Bloomberg over at Armstrong’s “Money Matters Radio.”

Ten Years Ago: March 4, 2008

*It’s beginning to sound like a broken record (remember those?) – Big Conglomerate Broadcaster posts bad quarterly earnings results, and within a day or two, dozens more talented broadcasters are out on the streets, never mind how good their ratings might have been or how many years they’d been with the station.

The disease seems to be working its way through all the big “C” companies, first with CBS Radio and Clear Channel earlier this year. On Leap Day Friday, it was Citadel’s turn, as the company reeled from the losses that followed last year’s ambitious purchase of the ABC Radio assets, which helped drag its stock down to the $1 level from a year-ago high of $10.40 per share.

After posting a net loss for the quarter of $848 million, the job cuts came fast and furious at most of the former ABC Radio properties. In Atlanta, nearly the entire airstaffs at WKHX(FM) and WYAY(FM) were history; in Washington, smooth jazz WJZW(FM) and its airstaff were gone, replaced with automated “True Oldies”; in Chicago, much of the news staff at WLS was history – and in New York, WABC (770) and WPLJ (95.5) were not immune.

At WABC, the cuts claimed John R. Gambling, the third-generation talk host who came to the station in 2000 after his Rambling With Gambling morning show was cancelled by WOR following an amazing 75-year run. In his place, former WABC morning host Curtis Sliwa, relegated to a 5-6 AM talk hour, will move to the 10-11:45 AM slot preceding Paul Harvey and Rush Limbaugh. But newsman George Weber, who’d been Sliwa’s sidekick in the early mornings, won’t join him on his new shift – Weber’s out as well.

Down the hall at WPLJ, the “Rocky Allen Showgram” is history as well. Allen, who did afternoons on WPLJ from 1993-1998, then spent just over a year on WABC, returned to WPLJ in 2005 along with his sidekick Blain Ensley. For now, their show has been replaced by middayer Race Taylor, but bigger changes may be afoot at WPLJ. While the station’s lackluster ratings performance has long been excused by some of the biggest revenues in the market, Citadel officials say that’s changing.

In a Friday conference call, Citadel’s Farid Suleman said CBS Radio’s competing hot AC entry, “Fresh” WWFS (102.7), had cut into WPLJ’s performance.

*The week’s other big radio headline came from upstate, where Rochester’s Brother Wease announced he’s returning to the airwaves, just a month after contract negotiations between the veteran morning talker and his longtime radio home, WCMF (96.5), broke down.

We’d been hearing lots of rumors about Wease being seen in the hallways at Clear Channel, the biggest local competitor to WCMF’s new owners, Entercom – and it turns out that the corporate hiring freeze at Clear Channel wasn’t as rock-solid as it appeared to be, since the company will hire Wease to be the new morning voice at its classic rocker, “Fox” WFXF (95.1 Honeoye Falls).

Current “Fox” morning man J.P. Hastings won’t be vacating his chair right away, though. Because of Wease’s non-compete with Entercom, his return to the Rochester airwaves may not happen until this fall. In the meantime, Wease will be working off the air at Clear Channel, mostly in the sales department, though he tells us he’s also booking some guests on Bob Lonsberry’s talk show at Clear Channel’s WHAM (1180).

Wease’s crosstown move sets up an interesting morning showdown: his former sidekicks, including comedian Tommy Mule and producer Bill Moran, remain at WCMF as the hosts of that station’s replacement morning show, which means Wease will have to hire a new morning crew for his “Fox” debut later this year.

He’s done that before, as former sidekicks including Stephanie Miller, B.J. Shea and Gregg “Opie” Hughes have moved on to bigger things, but this is the first time he’ll be competing directly against his former co-workers. (Including, we’d note, his former colleague Dave Kane, whose midday show on WCMF will air against the last hour or so of Wease on WFXF.)

*There’s a new format coming to Buffalo this morning, as Dick Greene takes control of WECK (1230 Cheektowaga) from Regent, replacing the classic country format with a new lineup of talk programming anchored by veteran Buffalo talents Harv Moore (late of WHTT) and Tom Donohue (most recently with WLKK) in morning drive. The schedule will also include some programming heard on Greene’s Niagara County outlet, WLVL (1340 Lockport), such as “Tradio” and a 10 AM talk show hosted by Scott Leffler. Tom Schuh, formerly with Entercom, is the PD of the station, which will also include syndicated talkers Bill O’Reilly, Neal Boortz, Dennis Miller and Jim Bohannon, plus Fox Sports overnight and on weekends.

*With all of William F. Buckley’s many interests (he was, among other things, a connoisseur of peanut butter), it should come as no surprise that there was a broadcast connection in his life even deeper than his decades as host of “Firing Line.” Buckley, who died Wednesday (Feb. 27) at 82, served from 1973-75 as chairman of Starr Broadcasting, which owned WNCN (104.3 New York), and what a tumultuous time that was: in 1974, Starr flipped WNCN from its longtime classical format to rock under the new calls WQIV.

Back when the FCC paid attention to stations’ format choices, that flip was a big deal – so big, in fact, that the “WNCN Listeners’ Guild” prodded Starr into flipping the station back to classical and selling it to GAF Broadcasting. (It was in the aftermath of the WNCN brouhaha that the FCC got out of the format-regulation business; 18 years later, GAF flipped WNCN back to rock as WAXQ without much of an outcry.)

*Perhaps the most famous voice in PENNSYLVANIA sports broadcasting history has been silenced.

Myron Cope died Wednesday (Feb. 27) at 79, ending a career that included 35 seasons as color announcer for the Pittsburgh Steelers, as well as a 22 year run, from 1973-1995, as host of the city’s first sports talk show, on the former WTAE (1250) and many years as a sports commentator on WTAE-TV (Channel 4).

Cope, born Myron Kopelman, already had a distinguished career as a print writer at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and later in magazines such as The Saturday Evening Post when he was recruited for the Steelers’ radio team in 1970. His unusual turns of phrase – both Yiddishisms such as “Yoi!” and catchprases such as “The Immaculate Reception,” for the pass that won the 1972 Steelers their Super Bowl championship – endeared Cope to generations of Steelers fans. He even created one of the team’s icons, the “Terrible Towel” that began waving from the stands at the old Three Rivers Stadium in 1975. Cope retired from the Steelers’ broadcast booth in 2005 as he fought a series of illnesses that included a growth on his vocal cords; the next year, he donated the trademark rights to the Terrible Towel to the Allegheny Valley School, where his autistic son, Daniel, has lived most of his life.

Fifteen Years Ago: March 3, 2003

With a network of seven primary FM signals and translators that stretches north to Plattsburgh, south to Middletown, west to Oneonta and east to Southington, Connecticut, WAMC (90.3) in Albany, NEW YORK has become one of the larger public radio broadcasters in the country in recent years. Now the network is adding its first AM signal, as it pays Ed Levine’s Galaxy Communications $500,000 for WHTR (1400 Albany), a 1 kilowatt facility that’s spent the last few years simulcasting other stations in Levine’s cluster (most recently, modern rock WKRD 93.7 Scotia), but which has a proud history under the WABY calls which still adorn its tower on Braintree Street in Albany.

WAMC head honcho Alan Chartock tells the Albany Times Union that the AM 1400 signal will fill some holes in the main WAMC signal within city limits; the big FM signal comes from across the state line on Mount Greylock in Adams, Massachusetts and has some multipath problems in parts of Albany. Expect 1400 to change calls to WAMC(AM) and begin simulcasting the WAMC-FM signal within the next couple of months, we hear….

Moving down the Hudson Valley, Albany’s Pamal group is wasting no time in its takeover of WYNY (107.1 Briarcliff Manor) from Nassau; it will LMA the station and begin a simulcast of CHR WSPK (104.7 Poughkeepsie) within the next few weeks.

And another part of the 107.1 quadcast could soon be sold; our colleague Tom Taylor reported a rumor in Inside Radio last week that Jarad, owner of Long Island’s WLIR (92.7 Garden City), WDRE (98.5 Westhampton) and WXXP (105.3 Calverton-Roanoke), is looking to buy WWXY (107.1 Hampton Bays) to add to its cluster out there. That would leave Nassau with WWYY (107.1 Belvidere NJ) and WWZY (107.1 Long Branch NJ), closer to its core of stations in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

In PENNSYLVANIA, Rick Strauss is out as program director of classic rocker WMGK (102.9 Philadelphia); former ‘MGK PD Buzz Knight is programming the station for now from his post as PD of Greater Media sister station WROR (105.7 Framingham) up in the Boston market.

Just south of Pittsburgh, Washington and Jefferson College’s WNJR is powering up. Formerly a class D station with just 13 watts on 92.1, WNJR has made the move to class A status and 91.7 on the dial. Its new 950-watt signal now carries almost to Pittsburgh from its base in Washington, PA.

And there’s a void this week in the hearts of all of us of a certain age, with news of the death on Thursday (Feb. 27) of Mister Rogers. Fred McFeely Rogers was part of Pittsburgh’s WQED-TV (Channel 13) beginning in 1953, even before the station went on the air; in 1966, WQED became the home base for “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” and the show has been a PBS staple ever since, even though production of new shows ended several years ago. Upon word of Rogers’ death (he was 74 and was suffering from stomach cancer), WQED preempted its full evening of programming to devote four hours to remembering the station’s most famous personality.

Twenty Years Ago: March 5, 1998

We begin this week’s news with the passing of two of the industry’s giants. W. Gordon Swan was on the air at the Boston area’s first radio station, Tufts University’s WGI Medford Hillside…way back in 1922. Two years later, he joined the staff of Westinghouse’s WBZ/WBZA in Boston, rising through the ranks until becoming program director. Swan was instrumental in bringing television to New England, as program director of WBZ-TV when it signed on in 1948. Swan remained with WBZ radio and television until his retirement in 1968. In recent years, Swan was writing a memoir of his days in broadcasting. Gordon Swan died Sunday at a nursing home in Kingston, Massachusetts. He was 92 years old.

The medium Swan helped create was later polished to a high sheen by Fred W. Friendly. As Ed Murrow’s producer on “See It Now,” and later as president of CBS News and as a statesman of the industry, Friendly stood for the highest values of broadcast journalism throughout his long career. He was also a veteran of New England radio, having started his career at WEAN (now WSKO) in Providence. Friendly was 82.

In upstate NEW YORK, things are finally settling down at the Jacor group of stations in Rochester. The FCC database lists new calls of WYSY and WISY for “Sunny 106,” the erstwhile WMAX-FM (106.7 Irondequoit) and WMHX (102.3 Canandaigua), as well as a new call of WMAX-FM for “Jam’n 107,” heretofore WRCD (107.3 Honeoye Falls) — but as of Thursday evening, all three stations are still using their old calls. NERW suspects the WMAX-FM calls are being warehoused at 107.3 until they can be shipped off to one of the other “Max”es around the country (perhaps Greater Media’s WXXM Philadelphia?) .

Jam’n remains jockless for now, as does “Mix 100.5” (WVOR) outside morning drive…but NERW heard former WMAX afternoon jock Michael Gately doing a liner on WVOR this afternoon. Across town at WPXY (97.9), morning show producer Jim Eiseman has left the station “to pursue other opportunities.”

Big City Radio’s New York City-area stations are all getting power boosts. The FCC has approved power increases for the “Y107” trio of WWXY Briarcliff Manor, WWVY Hampton Bays, and WWZY Long Branch NJ will all increase their power in the next few months on 107.1.

On to MASSACHUSETTS, where we find a new owner for Worcester’s WORC (1310). Andrew Davis’ Davis Radio Corporation gets $715,000 for the talk station, whose new owner is Chowder Broadcasting Group. If the name sounds familiar, that’s because the Chowder-heads (sorry…) recently bought WGFP (940) and WXXW (98.9) down in Webster. WGFP and WORC will make a worthwhile combination in Worcester County, with WGFP neatly filling the huge southern null in WORC’s signal, which protects co-channel WICH in Norwich CT.

In CONNECTICUT, it’s musical studios for two of Hartford’s rock stations. No sooner did WHCN (105.9) vacate its Asylum Avenue home for SFX’s corporate digs at 10 Columbus Drive, then WCCC (106.9/1290) came along to buy the old house on Asylum. It’ll be a return home for ‘CCC afternoon guy Michael Picozzi, who worked at WHCN on Asylum until last year. (It’ll also be a big move up from the little building on South Whitney Street that WCCC has called home since the early eighties.)

The FCC paid a call on “La Nueva Radio Musical” in New Haven on Tuesday, warning operators Pedro Jimenez and Hipolito Cuevas that they faced a $10,000 daily fine if they continued operating the unlicensed station on 104.5 MHz. The New Haven Register reports Jimenez and Cuevas told the FCC that their station wasn’t a pirate but a “microbroadcaster,” but agreed to shut the transmitter off. Jimenez and Cuevas told the Register they think the FCC crackdown was prompted by a complaint from WYBC (94.3), which they accuse of being unfriendly to community broadcasters. WYBC has been in the media spotlight recently for its attempts to take over urban-formatted WNHC (1340).

Finally this week, a note from across the border: It won’t be an April Fools joke when CHSJ in Saint John, New Brunswick turns off its AM 700 transmitter April 1. That’s when the station will complete its move to 94.1 FM — and disappear for good from New England’s radio dial. Get those QSL cards in while you can…

CHSJ’s not the only one vacating FM across the border; CKLY (910) in Lindsay, Ontario has been granted 91.9 MHz and will leave AM three months after the FM signs on. And CJEM in Edmunston, New Brunswick, just across the border from Madawaska, Maine, has been granted a move from 570 kHz to 92.7 MHz.