In this week’s issue… Learning last week’s lessons from Chicago – Format flip in the Hudson Valley – Remembering Frank X. Feller, Christine Loeber – Canadian TV station goes dark
By SCOTT FYBUSH
*While much of NERW-land shoveled out from a succession of winter storms last week (they didn’t do much permanent damage, from what we can tell, though some stations along the coast lost power), the biggest news in broadcasting was coming from ILLINOIS, Chicago to be exact.
That, of course, is where EMF Broadcasting made its latest strike, paying just over $25 million to pick up WLUP (97.9 Chicago) from Merlin Media, which had been leasing it and a sister station, WKQX (101.1), to Cumulus for the last few years.
The sudden demise of the legendary (if faded) “Loop” made national headlines. So too, to a lesser extent, did the news out of the FCC last week that WBBM (780) had its application granted to leave its longtime transmitter site in Itasca and diplex with sister station WSCR (670) a few miles away.
And while they were Chicago stories through and through, they both have resonance here in our corner of broadcast-land, as we’ll explore in this week’s NERW…
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*EMF first: it was already fairly well established with its K-Love brand in Chicago, where the network has been on WJKL (94.3) since just after the turn of the millennium. That signal started out as a class A rimshot from the far northwestern suburb of Elgin, but a clever use of the FCC’s grandfathering rules allowed it to move in closer to the western suburbs, with a 60 dBu contour that now reaches into the (no pun intended) Loop, even though it’s drowned out on cheap radios by second-adjacent class B neighbors on 93.9 and 94.7.
As we’ve seen from recent EMF moves, though, the network is now making aggressive moves to upgrade from rimshots to full-market signals. Take, for instance, last year’s K-Love upgrade in Providence that took the network from WTKL (91.1), an eastern rimshot from across the Massachusetts line augmented by a translator, to the full-market 95.5 signal that used to be WBRU and is now WLVO.
With recent purchases now finding K-Love now solidly installed on full-market signals in markets 2 (the former KSWD in Los Angeles) and 3 (WLUP, newly rechristened WCKL, reviving the former Hudson Valley AM callsign), what about market 1?
K-Love, of course, reaches only the northern half of the NEW YORK City market via WKLV-FM (96.7 Port Chester), the class A signal it upgraded and moved in from Connecticut a few years back. Even without a usable signal in much of New Jersey, lower Manhattan or Brooklyn, all indications are that K-Love has found an audience base in New York, and we’d have to imagine EMF is now the obvious buyer for any better FM signal that becomes available in the market.
Unless Pacifica’s internal inertia ever allows for a sale of WBAI’s big 99.5 signal – and that’s unlikely for now, to say the least – there aren’t many options for EMF. For all Cumulus’ financial woes, there’s no reason to expect a sale of any of its bigger FMs in the market (not even class A WNBM 103.9, which largely overlaps the existing 96.7 coverage), nor is there any reason to think the current city political leadership is looking to sell WNYE 91.5, the city-owned FM signal that now runs a mish-mosh of public radio and ethnic programming. And then there are the Spanish-language clusters in town – as SBS, in particular, continues to writhe through financial turmoil, could its WPAT-FM 93.1 or WSKQ 97.9 signals be in play?
In market 4, of course, EMF and Merlin already did business back in 2013, when EMF paid just over $20 million for WWIQ (106.9 Camden), the class B FM signal that became Philadelphia-market WKVP under K-Love. Do the math on that deal, or on the $50 million sale of KSWD in Los Angeles, and it’s clear that the $25 million price tag for WLUP was a bit of a bargain, even if it tracked neatly with the $50 million that Merlin had sought from Cumulus for the purchase of WLUP and WKQX together. Is this a sign of declining station values at the top end of the market? We’ll be watching closely, especially as Merlin continues to seek a buyer for WKQX, which is still under Cumulus operation for now.
Now that EMF has solidified its K-Love coverage in Chicago, there’s bound to be more scrutiny of the remaining big holes in its nationwide footprint – and one of those is rather central to NERW-land. While the southern half of the Boston market now has K-Love coverage from WLVO in Providence, the network still doesn’t reach the core of the market or most of its northern half, and we have no doubt that EMF would love to change that. Who’d be a likely target? We’ve observed for years that if either of the independent rimshot signals into Boston, WXRV (92.5 Andover) or WPLM-FM (99.1 Plymouth), were to be put up for sale, EMF would be an immediate likely buyer. The same is likely true of Cumulus’ WXLO (104.5 Fitchburg), which recently augmented its Worcester-market coverage with a new network of on-channel boosters into Boston – and which is likely a far less important asset to Cumulus than its bigger clusters in Chicago or New York.
Where else is EMF still missing K-Love coverage? Buffalo is the other big void in its NERW-land footprint, along with Erie, and some bits of northern New England. Nationally, Washington and Baltimore are surely in the network’s sights, along with Minneapolis/St. Paul, Dallas/Fort Worth, Orlando and a few others. If EMF can plug those holes in the next few years, what will it do then with the tens of millions of dollars it spins off each year?
*As for the legacy of the Loop, it’s also worth mentioning in the context of some of the other iconic FM rock brands that have vanished in recent years. WLUP wasn’t exactly Chicago’s WBCN, or WNEW-FM, or WYSP – it came along rather later in the game, at the end of the 1970s rather than at the freeform start of the decade, and so its legacy was that of a somewhat more formatted FM era. WLUP was also an early trendsetter in mixing talk with rock, years ahead of K-Rock in New York or the later incarnations of WBCN and WYSP.
Like those stations, WLUP’s end was somewhat anticlimactic; the most recent version of the station had fallen pretty far from its heyday, as Sean Ross explored in his final listen to the station on our sister site, RadioInsight. With WLUP gone, there are few hard-rock veterans remaining on the FM dial, with Entercom’s WAAF in Boston a fairly notable counter-example.
*And then there’s the other Chicago story, albeit a less surprising one: we’d reported last year that CBS Radio had applied to move WBBM to a diplex on its WSCR site, ahead of the stations’ sales to Entercom. The approval of that move finally arrived last week, and with it the news that Entercom has already placed the WBBM property on the market with a $46 million price tag.
Yes, that’s almost twice as much for the land under an AM station as for the license of a full-market FM in the same market. It’s a testament to the particular value of that one bit of real estate, right next to a major highway in a booming part of Chicago suburbia not far from O’Hare – but it’s also a reminder that the pressures on AM radio are only going to keep growing as land values keep rising and station values stay flat at best. Will Entercom look to unlock the land value under its three-tower WRKO (680) array in Burlington, right there near the mall? Will Cumulus take a hard look at the Lodi, New Jersey property under WABC (770)? It’s a safe bet that WBBM isn’t the last old-line AM that will be leaving its longtime transmitter home – and that some of the others won’t be as lucky as WBBM in being able to nearly replicate their existing coverage from another site.
As Lance Venta reported in RadioInsight, WCZX dropped its hot AC “Mix” format for a loop of songs that all include the words “Now” or “Ahora,” pointing the way to a new identity as “Now 97.7,” as well as a new morning show to replace Hudson Valley veteran Mark Bolger, who exited in February.
The new Now appears to be a straight-ahead top-40, competing with Pamal’s WSPK (K104.7) and iHeart’s “Kiss” (WPKF 96.1) in what’s now a crowded market for the format.
*Down the Hudson, a poorly-kept secret in New York is now out in the open: Bernie McGuirk and Sid Rosenberg, the mid-morning hosts at WABC (770), posted a Twitter photo late last week showing them signing a contract to take over the morning slot from the retiring Don Imus, apparently beginning April 2.
*In Albany, Empire Broadcasting is getting ready to hand WJKE (101.3 Stillwater) over to EMF as the new K-Love outlet for the northern side of the market (it’s heard to the south on WYKV 94.5 Ravena), which means some format shuffling – it appears the AC “Jockey” format will live on at 106.1 on the dial via WAIX (1160 Mechanicville) and translator W291BY, starting this morning, with the current “X” format on 1160/106.1 relocating to other Empire signals
In Albany, Christy is the new morning co-host alongside Jake Allen on Pamal/Albany Broadcasting’s WFLY (92.3 Troy), moving down the hall from weekends on sister station WKLI (100.9 the Cat).
*In northeast PENNSYLVANIA, there’s now a price tag for Mercyhurst University’s sale of WMCE-FM (88.5 Erie) to the Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine; LECOM is paying $275,000 for the FM signal, which is back in the programming hands of “Captain” Dan Geary, who’d moved his oldies from WMCE to the streaming “LECOM Radio” last year. LECOM took over operation of WMCE under a Public Service Operating Agreement (“PSOA,” the noncommercial version of an LMA) March 1.
Radio People on the Move: Roxy Romeo starts today as the new morning co-host on iHeart’s WUSL (Power 99) in Philadelphia. She’s been doing middays, as well as serving as APD/PD, for “Real 103.9,” iHeart’s hip-hop station in Las Vegas, heard over a translator and HD2.
And we remember Frank X. Feller, who started in radio at WVPO (840) in Stroudsburg in 1949, then went on to work outside the region before starting a long career in Philadelphia radio on the late-night shift as a “Wibbage Good Guy” on WIBG (990) from 1963-68. Later, he was the first employee of the new WYSP (94.1, formerly WIBG-FM), serving as general manager at the launch of the rock format. In the 1980s, he moved on to a new career as a talk host at WWDB (96.5) before retiring in 1990. Feller served as a president of the Broadcast Pioneers of Philadelphia, which inducted him into its hall of fame. He was 91 when he died on Tuesday (March 8).
*In MASSACHUSETTS, Mike Oliveira is out as VP/news director of Cox’s WFXT (Channel 25) after just a year and a half at the Fox affiliate. He’s headed to sister station WSOC-TV in Charlotte, N.C.; no replacement has been named yet at “Boston 25 News.”
And there’s a sad note from the fatal shootings at a veterans’ home in Yountville, California last week: among the victims was the home’s director, Christine Loeber, who’d worked in affiliate relations for NESN and New England Cable News before departing 15 years ago for a career change into veterans’ services. Loeber, 48, worked at the VA hospital in Brockton before taking her position in California.
*Up in VERMONT, Northeast’s WNCS (104.7 Montpelier) and its sister stations have a new PD. John Mullett is leaving his post as music and marketing director for Beasley’s WBOS (92.9 Brookline) on Friday, and he’ll take over at The Point in Vermont next Monday (March 19). Zeb Norris, who’s been the Point’s PD for 15 years, stays on as morning host.
*The story of TV in CANADA in recent years has been one of consolidation: locally-owned affiliates are largely a thing of the past, with most “local” stations now owned by their parent networks, whether the publicly-owned CBC/Radio-Canada or the private CTV, Global, CityTV, TVA or V networks.
Radio-Canada, in particular, is about to be down to its last remaining privately-owned affiliate with the impending closure of CKRN-TV (Channel 4) in Rouyn-Noranda, Quebec. RNC Media owns CKRN-TV, alongside TVA affiliate CFEM and V affiliate CFVS – but it announced last week that on March 25, it will turn off CKRN’s RF 9 transmitter and its relays around the region, leaving the Abitibi-Témiscamingue area without over-the-air coverage from Radio-Canada’s TV network. CKRN had been around since 1957, when it was the first TV station in the market and the first TV holding of the company then known as Radio-Nord. RNC says it’s focusing its partnerships on the commercial TVA and V networks, and that it won’t reduce any of its local news coverage or staffing, which had been simulcast on CKRN and its sister stations.
With CKRN’s exit, only CKRT in Rivière-du-Loup will survive as a privately-owned affiliate of Radio-Canada’s ici TV network.
*In Quebec City, TVA wants to relocate the transmitter of CFCM (Channel 4/RF 17); it’s applying to move from the self-supporting tower next to its studios on Avenue Myrand to share space with Tele-Quebec atop a downtown skyscraper at 675 blvd. Rene-Levesque Est.
CFCM would drop from 210 kW max DA/206 m at its present site to 80 kW/175 m at its new site.
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