In this week’s issue… Someone’s doing deals (but not iHeart) – Steel City files Chapter 11 – Remembering Boston’s Bozo – Imus checks out – Southern Tier shuffle
By SCOTT FYBUSH
*If you were even minimally conscious and at all involved in radio this past week, your inbox was probably filled with forwards of a not-very-insightful article that claimed iHeart’s bankruptcy will lead to a fire sale of hundreds of its radio stations.
It won’t – but if you look down the road from iHeart’s Manhattan headquarters across to NEW JERSEY, you’ll see that several smaller radio players are indeed buying and selling, with a strong hint that there’s more to come.
The players in Thursday’s deal were new to each other, but not new to the deal market in recent months: Jeff Warshaw’s Connoisseur unloaded its Hartford-market stations earlier this year, while Townsquare began raising some eyebrows with its out-of-left-field purchase of Utica’s WOUR from Galaxy just a few weeks ago.
This time it’s Trenton at play, and Townsquare that’s accomplished what nobody else has been able to pull off in decades of FM competition. For $17 million, Townsquare is adding Connoisseur’s top-40 giant WPST (94.5 Trenton) to its own dominant talk/classic hits signal, WKXW (101.5). Combining PST with “New Jersey 101.5” will give Townsquare a near-complete lock on broadcast advertising in Trenton, not to mention a stronger position in digital advertising and events, which has been an increasing focus of Townsquare’s clusters. (The deal also includes two AMs, Fox Sports WNJE 920 Trenton and leased-time religious WCHR 1040 Flemington, which were likely rounding errors in a deal that was really all about WPST.)
What’s next for each company, and for Trenton radio listeners? Read on…
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*In Trenton, the deal ends an entire generation of competition for ad dollars between two stations with outsized reputations. Under Herb Hobler (who also owned WHWH 1350 in Princeton), WPST on 97.5 was one of the first top-40 FMs in the region, launching careers that included PD/morning man Tom Taylor, who’d later go on to even bigger things in the trade press. Later, it was the flagship of the Nassau Broadcasting group, which moved the 97.5 signal down to Philadelphia but kept the PST legacy alive on 94.5 (formerly religious WCHR-FM, then classic rock “Hawk”). After Nassau imploded, WPST went to Connoisseur, which paid $38 million for it and its sister stations in 2013.
WKXW, meanwhile, was the FM underdog sister of WBUD (1260) for much of its early history – but that all changed when Press Communications took over in 1990, unleashing its big FM signal to make big waves as “New Jersey 101.5.” It quickly became a dominant force in the always-volatile world of New Jersey politics, and it held on to that dominance as it changed hands to Millennium in 2001 and was then merged in to Townsquare in 2011.
Townsquare made a play for WPST in Nassau’s bankruptcy sale in 2012, offering $16 million, but was outbid by Nassau’s creditors. Six years of patience have now paid off – and it’ll now be up to Townsquare to figure out how to combine the old Nassau facility on Alexander Road with the New Jersey 101.5 broadcast center in Ewing Township. There’s no reason to expect much in the way of format changes to either FM; both have enjoyed the unusual situation in which those two FMs have really been the only big commercial competitors in town, where the dial is mostly full of outside signals from Philadelphia, the Lehigh Valley and New York. (Better yet for Townsquare, the other potent FM signal in town, WPRB 103.3 Princeton, is run by Princeton students and doesn’t really compete for mass audience or ad dollars – and none of the AMs in the market has managed to do much in the translator era, either.)
If Townsquare is being careful with its latest plays as a buyer – adding WOUR in Utica and now WPST in Trenton as one-off opportunities to bolster market positions where it’s already successful – it’s a little less clear what Connoisseur’s strategy is. In Hartford, Warshaw’s group of one FM and four AMs simply lacked the firepower to compete against the market’s bigger players, including iHeart and CBS Radio/Entercom, so its sale to John Fuller’s Full Power Radio allowed two smaller clusters to combine into a more competitive one. But why sell WPST, which was plenty competitive in the constricted Trenton radio landscape?
Here’s our theory: in addition to paying down debt, Connoisseur’s stated reason for the WPST sale, NERW readers know that Warshaw recently won an important regulatory victory in Washington. Just a few weeks after the Hartford stations sold, the FCC tweaked its rules on radio ownership caps, ruling that a company like Connoisseur that owns stations in an embedded Nielsen market (in this case, Stamford-Norwalk, Connecticut and Nassau-Suffolk on Long Island, both embedded in New York City) could acquire signals in other embedded markets as well without having them all count against the larger market’s cap.
That appeared (and still appears) to us to signal Connoisseur’s interest in adding more stations on the New Jersey side of the New York market, most likely the former Greater Media stations (WMGQ 98.3/WCTC 1450 New Brunswick, WDHA 105.5 Dover, WMTR 1250 Morristown, WRAT 95.9/WJRZ 100.1 in Monmouth) that came along for the ride when Beasley bought Greater’s Boston and Philadelphia clusters.
With some $25 million in the bank from the sales in Hartford and now Trenton, will Connoisseur act soon on its newfound opportunity to close more of its suburban ring around New York City? (And if it does, will it have more success than others who’ve tried the same strategy, going all the way back to the days of the old Herald-Tribune Radio network of AM stations?)
*Speaking of Beasley, it signed a $15,000 consent decree with the FCC last week to resolve some paperwork issues stemming from a reorganization last year that rolled up several of its license subsidiaries (including the one that holds WTEL 610 in Philadelphia, as well as others that held former CBS Radio stations in other markets) into the broader “Beasley Media Group LLC”. If we’re reading the dense legalese right, Beasley made the moves without getting the FCC’s prior consent; the company has also agreed to implement a compliance plan to make sure it handles future transfers correctly.
While we’re in Philadelphia, we note Entercom’s format tweak to one of the stations it picked up from CBS Radio: WTDY (96.5) quietly shifted from AC (“Today’s 96.5”) to hot AC (“96.5 TDY, Today’s Hits”).
And we credit Tom Taylor with the scoop on Entercom’s plans to combine all its scattered Philadelphia-market operations, including its corporate headquarters, under one roof at a new office building at 2400 Market Street in center city, on the banks of the Schuylkill River. The move would pull Entercom’s headquarters into the city from suburban Bala Cynwyd, which is also where WTDY, WOGL (98.1) and WXTU (92.5) have their studios; KYW (1060) would move to the Market Street building from the KYW-TV (Channel 3) studios on Spring Garden, while WIP (94.1) and WPHT (1210) would move west from their current home at 400 Market.
*At the other end of PENNSYLVANIA, the Frischling family’s Steel City Media filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on Wednesday for both of its radio markets. In Pittsburgh, “WPNT Inc.” operates longtime Frischling holdings WLTJ (Q92.9) and WRRK (Bob FM 96.9); in Kansas City, “MGTF Radio Co. LLC” (named for Saul Frischling’s sons Michael, Gregg and Todd) operates four FM stations purchased from Wilks in 2014 for $105.5 million.
Steel City says it intends to continue its operations in both markets while it restructures; Michael Frischling says the stations in Kansas City and Pittsburgh remain “very profitable” despite what he describes as “softness” in both markets.
(NERW notes: just as with iHeart, there’s no reason to expect station sales from Steel City. Here again, the stations are worth more as ongoing operations than they would be if put up for sale. While Kansas City is a notable hole in iHeart’s nationwide market roster, there’s no way the cluster would fetch anything close to $105 million if sold today – and the same is likely true of the Pittsburgh FMs, which would bring Entercom’s cluster there to full strength if sold.)
*Up near Clearfield, Seven Mountains/Southern Belle realigned one of its recently-acquired FMs last week, dropping “Clear Rock 95.9” from WZDB (95.9 Sykesville) in favor of a simulcast of top-40 “Pop 93.1” WPQP.
The 95.9 signal, which gets new calls WQQP, had been doing rock even before Seven Mountains/Southern Belle took over last year; adding it to WPQP gives “Pop” better reach toward DuBois and Punxsutawney.
As Imus’ featured interview on “CBS Sunday Morning” reminded us, even if his best days are long past, Imus is still a seminal figure in radio history – and if you’re not sure about that, just ask Imus, who declared himself one of the five most important radio talents, ever. (The others? Arthur Godfrey, Jack Benny and Imus’ former WNBC colleagues Wolfman Jack and Howard Stern. It was an odd interview.)
Seriously, though, Imus was enormously influential for many years, and it’s hard to imagine his replacements on WABC, Bernie McGuirk and Sid Rosenberg, having anywhere near the impact on the market that Imus had in his stints on WNBC, WFAN and WABC over the decades. And even if we haven’t been paying much attention to the show in recent years, we’ll be tuned in for Imus’ last few appearances and the end of this chapter of New York radio history.
*Where are they now? As first reported on our sister site RadioInsight, Gregg “Opie” Hughes is joining Westwood One for a new podcast that will launch April 17. The former “Opie and Anthony” co-host will also be doing some as-yet-unspecified new radio work for Westwood One, returning him to broadcast radio after stints with SiriusXM and streaming. And Brian Thomas, whose New York days included PD stints at WCBS-FM and WNSH, is now Cumulus’ PD in Atlanta at “Kicks” WKHX (101.5), moving south after programming WLS-FM in Chicago.
*Upstate, Sound Communications realigned several of its signals in the southern tier last Wednesday. WZKZ (101.9 Alfred) kept its country format, but it’s now “101.9 the Ride,” and it’s picked up a simulcast a half-hour to the west in Olean on WOEN (1360, formerly standards) and new translator W242CT (96.3). WOEN’s former simulcast another 20 miles to the west in Salamanca, WGGO (1590), is back on the air from its new Valcom whip antenna (replacing the old tower that was downed last year in a storm). Instead of standards, WGGO is now simulcasting sister “98 Rock” WQRS (98.3 Salamanca).
In Buffalo, WEDG (103.3) PD Jim Kurdziel has been upped to regional VP/rock programming for parent company Cumulus. He’s now overseeing rock formats in Syracuse, Harrisburg, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and as far afield as Wisconsin and Louisiana, all while continuing to program WEDG and track middays there. And over at public radio WBFO (88.7), we’ve been remiss in not noting Dave Rosenthal’s promotion to news director, replacing the departing Brian Meyer at the end of March. Rosenthal had been managing editor for the “Great Lakes Today” regional journalism center, a partnership between WBFO, Rochester’s WXXI and WCPN/Ideastream in Cleveland.
*In Syracuse, Mark Wainwright is back on the air with a reduced schedule at iHeart’s WSYR (570/106.9) as he recovers from his fight with throat cancer. Wainwright, who’s still dealing with a weakened voice, is hosting the 6-9 AM portion of the morning show as he works his way back to full strength.
*In VERMONT, Saga took WKVT-FM (92.7 Brattleboro) from classic rock to adult hits last week, trading “Iconic Rock 92.7” for a new identity as “92.7 Bratt-FM.” The format flip on Friday comes with a staffing shuffle today as morning host Fish moves to afternoons, trading airshifts with Tom Mayo.
Up north at Vermont Public Radio headquarters in Colchester, there’s now a replacement for departing president/CEO Robin Turnau. VPR is bringing Scott Finn aboard as its new leader, hiring him away from a five-year stint at the helm of West Virginia Public Broadcasting.
*In MASSACHUSETTS, Frank Avruch was a real Bozo – and that’s no insult at all. Avruch, who died Tuesday (March 20), played the famous TV clown on the old WHDH-TV (Channel 5) from 1959 until 1970, as well as in national syndication.
But the versatile Avruch was much more than just a kiddie host; in more than 40 years at WHDH-TV and its successor, WCVB, he did the sort of wide-ranging hosting and announcing that’s now a lost art on television.
At WCVB, his signature role was as host of “The Great Entertainment,” suavely introducing a new generation of late-night movie viewers to classic Hollywood films.
Avruch was 89.
*The exodus continues from iHeart’s WBZ (1030 Boston), where Chris Citorik has left his Sunday night “Up Front” talk show and his weekday role producing Dan Rea’s “Nightside.” He’s joined public broadcaster WBUR (90.9), where he’s now part of the production team for the weekday “Radio Boston.” And down the hall in the engineering department, longtime WBZ chief engineer Mark Manuelian has also moved to public radio, joining the growing engineering staff just around the corner at WGBH (89.7).
Back at iHeart, WRKO (680)’s Howie Carr picked up an unexpected endorsement late Sunday night: President Donald Trump promoted Carr’s self-published book about Trump, “What Really Happened,” in a late-night tweet that we’re sure Carr will be talking about today.
*In RHODE ISLAND, Latino Public Radio will leave the airwaves of WRPA (1290 Providence) at the end of March, as its lease with Rhode Island Public Radio expires. LPR had been heard for part of the day on the Wheeler School’s WELH (88.1 Providence) until 2012, when RIPR took over programming on WELH and in turn leased out its AM signal (then known as WRNI) to LPR.
RIPR and LPR had reached a deal last year to sell 1290 to LPR, but the sale was never consummated, and the AM signal will now be put on the open market, while LPR will go streaming-only starting April 1. (The 1290 signal will temporarily simulcast RIPR programming until it’s sold.)
“We regret that the budget realities at Latino Public Radio meant we couldn’t
complete the station sale as both parties had hoped,” said Rhode Island Public Radio
CEO Torey Malatia. “We’re grateful, though, that they intend to continue reaching
their audience online.”
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