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In this week’s issue… Big Canadian broadcaster changes hands – Vermont FM sells – Boston programmer returns – New signals in the Ocean State – Heritage TV signals mark anniversaries

By SCOTT FYBUSH

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*For one of the biggest deals in recent memory in CANADA, Stingray Digital Group’s acquisition of Newcap Radio parent Newfoundland Capital came as a half-billion dollar surprise when the news broke on Wednesday.

The C$506 million deal makes Stingray a broadcast player for the first time, but the Montreal-based company has plenty of experience delivering audio content to consumers over other platforms. It’s a big provider of cable music channels in Canada and abroad, as well as streaming music apps, karaoke services and a recent venture into providing 4K ultra-high-definition TV channels to cable and satellite providers.

The addition of Newcap’s 72 originating stations and 29 rebroadcasters will give Stingray a promotional platform for those services, the company says, as well as providing advertising sales experience that it can use for those 4K TV services.

Those Newcap outlets stretch from coast to coast, including the Steele family’s original holdings in Newfoundland (the St. John’s-based VOCM stations), a strong base in the Maritimes (where the radio division is headquartered in Dartmouth, N.S.), CILV (Live 88.5) and CIHT (Hot 89.9) in Ottawa, and the big stations Newcap acquired out of the spinoffs from the Bell/Astral merger in 2014, CFXJ (93.5 the Move) and CHBM (Boom 97.3) in Toronto.

Stingray says it intends to keep current Newcap management in place, with few plans so far to make any big changes at the radio stations as it incorporates them into what it says will be Canada’s leading independent music business.

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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: May 8, 2017

*Way back in 1954, Charles Hasbrook added VERMONT‘s first television station, WMVT (Channel 3), to a small media empire that included the Burlington Daily News and WCAX radio. Channel 3 changed calls to WCAX-TV in 1955, passed from Hasbrook to his stepson Red Martin in 1958 and then to Martin’s son Peter in 2005, but all along, it proudly held the title of one of the longest-running family-owned local TV stations in America.

So it was understandable that the news that the Martin family is selling WCAX-TV to Gray Television rocked the local media landscape as it emerged late last week. Gray has become a popular buyer for the remaining family-owned broadcast operations; earlier this year, it bought the Hildreth family’s WABI-TV (Channel 5) in Bangor, Maine and its Florida sister station, ending another family TV tradition that stretched back to the mid-fifties.

It’s understandable, too, that the Martin family found this to be the right time to sell. As Alex Martin (Red’s grandson) explained in his memo to station staff on Thursday,

The Martin family believes that we have done all that we can do with WCAX.  The world has changed profoundly over the last 63 years, but certainly the last 10 or so has changed more rapidly than we ever could have imagined.  The business of broadcast TV in its current state is changing, and changing quickly.  Viewers are being pulled in ever expanding directions with the growing popularity of OTT companies like Netflix and Hulu.  Networks are exacting more than their pound of flesh during affiliate negotiations.  Retransmission contracts with cable and satellite providers are becoming increasingly hostile.  The local station business has become one of scale, and is undergoing ferocious consolidation. Being a single station in a small market is akin to being a small, open boat in an ever intensifying storm.  The threats are many and the odds of survival are shrinking.

If anything, we’d say Martin understated the challenges: it’s also daunting for an independently-owned station like WCAX to compete for syndicated programming against the behemoths such as Nexstar and Hearst that own its Burlington competitors, and that’s not even factoring in the impending costs of the ATSC 3.0 conversion.

So why Gray? As Martin explained, “They have over a hundred stations in midsize to smaller markets.  They exclusively buy quality stations in these markets.  They understand that the reason these stations are already successful is because of the culture, the management and the employees.  Gray does not want to mess with what has made WCAX successful for more than half a century.  They are quality owners who have assured us that they will take care of our legacy – and more importantly, you.  WCAX will continue to produce outstanding, award winning journalism and newscasts, just as we have been doing for generations.”

There are no guarantees, of course, that Gray’s $29 million purchase of WCAX will leave everything unchanged; it’s impossible for any out-of-state owner to fully retain the goodwill that the Martin family’s tight bond to Vermont has reaped for more than 60 years, for one thing. It’s likely that some of what WCAX has long done locally will slowly be outsourced (areas such as traffic and master control), and we’d suspect that some of the station’s quirks like its hour-long local newscast at 6 PM will eventually fade away, too.

*Beasley has been testing its newest signal in eastern MASSACHUSETTS. That’s the 106.1 translator atop the Hancock tower, running 99 watts as a translator of WRCA (1330 Watertown). The AM, which has been off the air most of the year, has also been heard testing in parallel with the FM signal. For now, both are running Beasley’s all-Irish HD2 channel, but that’s surely not the permanent format once the new 106.1 launches for real.

*Some sad news from MAINE: a month after his body was found in the woods, apparently having taken his own life, former WCSH (Channel 6) chief meteorologist Tom Johnston has been named as the sole suspect in a sexual assault in Newry that happened just before he disappeared in early April.

WCSH reported that the assault took place a few hours after an event Johnston emceed at the nearby Sunday River ski area the weekend of April 1-2; by the time the victim reported the assault the next afternoon, Johnston had gone missing, prompting a search that ended with the discovery of his body a few days later.

“We share in the community’s shock and our thoughts are with the victim and the families involved,” said WCSH general manager Brian Cliffe in a statement released after the Oxford County sheriff’s department held a news conference Thursday to discuss its findings in the case.

Five Years Ago: May 6, 2013

Conventional wisdom says we”re living right now in a time of transformative media change, as established news sources come under siege from newer, more nimble ventures.

wbin-smIn the world of local TV news, though, “new” doesn”t automatically mean “success” – especially in markets where a single player might have a six-decade head start on a newcomer. Markets such as, say, NEW HAMPSHIRE, which is where we start this week”s column with the news that Bill Binnie”s WBIN (Channel 50) has pulled the plug, for now, on the 10 PM local newscast that launched back in the fall of 2011.

In its year and a half on the air, that newscast suffered from two big drawbacks: first, it was never truly “local,” emanating from the centralized newsroom at INN (Independent News Network) in Davenport, Iowa, where an Iowa-based anchor introduced stories from three reporters based in New Hampshire; second, it attempted to compete not only against the very established Manchester-based WMUR (Channel 9), which offers its own 10 PM show on its 9.2 MeTV subchannel, but also against the big newsrooms to the south in Boston. (And even here, the advantage went very much to WMUR, which can draw on the considerable resources of Hearst sister station WCVB in Boston.)

The Binnie group promised early on that the Iowa-based production would be only temporary while it worked to build a full-fledged news operation in New Hampshire, and as recently as February Binnie told the Concord Monitor that he was planning to “double his reporting staff” and expand the evening newscast to an hour. But we”re hearing that concerns with the quality of the Iowa-based production led WBIN to pull out of the deal with INN, abruptly replacing the 10 PM newscast with the syndicated “OMG! Insider.”

WBIN
WBIN”s inaugural newscast, 2011

Will news come back to WBIN? The station has retained one of the three local reporters on its staff, and weatherman Al Kaprielian is still on staff as well, doing hourly weather updates from afternoon into prime time (the former INN-produced newscast used an Iowa-based forecaster instead) – but the most that Binnie VP Periklis Karoutas would tell the Monitor is that Binnie “is doing news and will continue to do so.”

As for some of the bigger plans Binnie”s been talking about for his fast-growing radio/TV group, including a statewide live morning news show, their failure to materialize just yet might well be taken as another sign that even for an owner with the considerable resources of a business magnate like Bill Binnie, getting into broadcasting in a big way is still harder than it looks.

(2018 update: WBIN indeed relaunched news in a very big way via Binnie’s “NH1 News,” which spent millions before folding abruptly when Binnie sold WBIN’s spectrum at auction.) 

*In MAINE, Saga is shifting formats at WYNZ (100.9 South Portland). Gone is classic hits “Big Hits Y100.9,” and in its place as of last Monday is a wider variety of music as adult hits “Rewind 100.9.” For now, the new version of 100.9 is running jockless, but all indications are that an airstaff, including veteran morning man Chuck Igo, will be back on the air soon.

Ten Years Ago: May 5, 2008

*More than two years after CBS Radio put its Rochester cluster up for sale, the last of the stations in the group have finally found new owners. On Thursday, Entercom, which bought the CBS cluster but had to spin three signals to stay under the ownership cap, announced that it’s reached a deal with Oklahoma”s Stephens Media Group to buy AC “Warm” WRMM (101.3 Rochester), adult hits “Fickle” WFKL (93.3 Fairport) and modern rock “Zone” WZNE (94.1 Brighton). Purchase price is a reported $13.25 million, which NERW notes is about half of the number we heard being floated for the stations when they first went up for sale, a sign of the seismic downward shift in station sale prices in recent months.

At the direction of the FCC and the Justice Department last November, Entercom put those three stations (WRMM and WZNE from the original CBS cluster and WFKL from Entercom”s own cluster) into a “hold-separate” arrangement known as the Rochester Radio Group. Under the terms of the FCC/Justice deal, the stations were to go into a trust if no buyer was found after six months, and the trust documents were filed April 17. (It’s not immediately clear whether the stations will still be transferred to trustee David Pearlman and then to Stephens, or if the FCC will allow Entercom to sell them directly to Stephens.)

While the lawyers do their thing, Stephens wasted no time taking over operation of the stations under a JSA. Cluster manager Mike Ninnie stays in place as Stephens’ market manager, and all three stations’ formats remain in place for now, too. Citing budget considerations, Stephens let at least three employees go, though – WRMM morning co-host Dee Alexander, Fickle newsman Bob Kirk and at least one behind-the-scenes staffer.

Entercom”s Mike Doyle tells the Democrat and Chronicle that Alexander remains an Entercom employee, albeit without a station for now; Kirk is on the beach and looking for new work.

The changes at WRMM leave veteran morning man Tony Infantino without his longtime partner (the “Tony and Dee” show came together on the former WVOR in 1988, and the 1994 WRMM talent raid that brought the pair over to Warm 101 is widely viewed as having brought about WVOR’s downfall.)

On the air by himself Friday morning, Infantino acknowledged that it had been a difficult few days at the Rochester Radio Group studios (where we hear morale has been low in recent months as the status of the stations has remained uncertain), and he noted that Alexander’s dismissal is only the latest in a series of talent shakeups in Rochester radio in recent months.

Rochester becomes Stephens’ biggest market, and the most expensive piece thus far of the Oklahoma company’s move into upstate New York. Last fall, Stephens bought Regent’s Watertown stations and Tim Martz’s cluster up in the North Country, and thus far there have been few changes at those stations. Back home in Oklahoma, Stephens is best known for its network of contemporary Christian stations around Tulsa, based at KXOJ-FM (100.9 Sapulpa OK); it also owns several sports-talk stations in the Tulsa market.

Can a modern rocker like WZNE – one with a provocative morning jock, Cleveland’s Rover, no less – be a good fit with the rest of Stephens’ growing radio empire? Will the group’s cost-cutting efforts include a move from the former CBS studios at the HSBC Plaza office tower, where much of the space now sits empty and the lease is up in a few months? (And could that space be a natural fit for Clear Channel’s cluster, whose current Midtown Plaza home is soon to be demolished? NERW notes that the HSBC space includes the former WCMF Brother Wease studio, now vacant but with furniture intact, and we’re sure Wease would relish the opportunity to move back into his old space when he returns to the air on Clear Channel’s WFXF later this year…)

And perhaps the biggest question – can a small operator like Stephens compete with the bigger clusters and much deeper pockets of Entercom and Clear Channel? At least from where we sit, cutting popular local personalities like Alexander and Kirk just to make budget doesn’t look like a good sign, but we”ll be watching with great interest to see what Stephens’ plans are for its new stations.

*The big news from New York City was the official announcement that John R. Gambling will indeed be returning to the station he and his family called home from 1925 until 2000. The new “John Gambling Show” debuts this morning on WOR (710), where it will be heard from 5:30-9 AM on weekdays. Joe Bartlett stays on to do a 5-5:30 morning news block, then serve as Gambling’s co-host and news anchor for the rest of the show. Bartlett”s former co-host, Donna Hanover, remains with the station as arts critic and fill-in host, and New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, who’d been appearing weekly with Gambling over at WABC until Citadel let Gambling go, will make a regular Friday-morning appearance on the new WOR show.

*There’s a station sale at the top of our PENNSYLVANIA news, too: Cary Simpson’s Allegheny Mountain Network is selling its biggest signal, WGMR (101.1 Tyrone), to Forever Broadcasting, already the dominant player in the region.

Forever will pay $2.5 million over ten years for the station in a deal that includes a noncompete for that ten-year period, as well as translators W267AC (101.3 Altoona) and W264BB (100.7 Lewistown).

And that’s not the only sale in Happy Valley this week – in order to stay under the ownership cap of six stations in the State College market, Forever is selling a station, too, as Nick Galli’s 2510 Licenses pays $1.2 million for “Froggy” country WSGY (98.7 Pleasant Gap), which has been simulcasting Forever’s WFGY (98.1 Altoona).

*Another long-delayed station sale suddenly became a reality late last week, as Clear Channel exited MAINE with an $11 million sale of its Bangor and Augusta/Waterville clusters to Blueberry Broadcasting, a new company whose principals are Louis Vitali, late of Mariner Broadcasting (which owned Maine’s “W-Bach” stations and still owns WCCC in Hartford) and Bruce Biette, a former Maine broadcaster who”s been involved with Convergent Broadcasting down south.

We’d been hearing rumors about this deal for several months, as it apparently became stalled in the drama surrounding Clear Channel’s attempts to go private and to sell many of its smaller clusters. At one point, the Maine stations were included in the list of signals being transferred to GoodRadio.TV, a sale that was never consummated.

Fifteen Years Ago: May 5, 2003

*It”s not as though the state capital of NEW YORK doesn”t have enough FM signals – between the 80-90 drop-ins of recent years and a slew of move-ins from the surrounding countryside, the Albany market now encompasses some 21 commercial FMs. But if a proposal now before the FCC is accepted, there will soon be a 22nd: the station that’s now WNYQ (105.7 Queensbury), an hour north of Albany in the Glens Falls market.

Vox Radio is asking the FCC to change WNYQ’s allocation from 105.7B1 in Queensbury (where WNYQ now runs 1570 watts at 1273 feet above average terrain) to 105.7A in Malta, a town of about 2000 people along I-87 near the Saratoga-Schenectady county line, well within the Albany radio market. Since the move would leave Queensbury without “first local service” (never mind that it can easily pick up nearly a dozen local Glens Falls stations, not to mention most of Albany), Vox would then change the allocation of WCQL (95.9 Glens Falls) to Queensbury – and just for good measure, create a new “first” service on 105.9A at Indian Lake, where routes 28 and 30 meet high in the Adirondacks between North Creek and Blue Mountain Lake.

This isn’t the first such move in the Glens Falls area; in fact, it was just a couple of years ago that WHTR moved from 93.5 Corinth to 93.7 Scotia (just outside Schenectady), sending WFFG (107.1) from Hudson Falls to Corinth to compensate. And it wasn’t all that long ago, for that matter, that Saratoga Springs” 102.3 moved south to Ballston Spa to become the Albany-market station that”s now “Kiss” WKKF. And the allocations beat goes on…

The former “Jukebox Radio” translators, W232AL (94.3 Pomona NY) and W276AQ (103.1 Fort Lee NJ) are getting a new life: owner Gerry Turro has filed to sell them to “Bridgelight Corp.”, the company that bought WPDQ (89.7 Freehold Township NJ) last year and turned it into a religious station. W232AL has been silent since the Jukebox feed from WJUX (99.7 Monticello) ended; W276AQ has been relaying WKHL (96.7 Stamford CT), except when the atmosphere has offered up other signals instead…and as we post this from our downstate “alternate” base Sunday night, both translators are on the air with WKHL’s audio. (And we checked WJUX on the way down; it’s still running infomercials mixed with occasional bits of oldies – and still ID’ing and promoting itself as though it’s being heard in New Jersey…)

Twenty Years Ago: May 7, 1998

The FCC has shut down a CONNECTICUT pirate station for a third time. Agents visited La Nueva Radio Musical’s latest location, on Saltonstall Avenue in New Haven, on Wednesday afternoon to pull the plug on the unlicensed 104.5 MHz operation. The station’s operators tell the New Haven Register they hope to be back on in a few days, and they say they’re disappointed that Congresswoman Rosa De Lauro hasn’t been more responsive to the petition they presented to her office at a rally last month.

Two Hartford-area pirates remain on the air undisturbed, meanwhile. Praise 105.3 continues its gospel programming, which NERW first heard on the air back in 1996, and a Spanish-language station on 97.1 is still being widely heard as well.

The New Britain Rock Cats have added Hartford’s WPOP (1410) to their broadcast network. Down the coast in the New London area, 1510 remains off the air, while its sister FM station in East Lyme has technically changed calls from WNLC-FM to WNLC(FM). And Groton’s WSUB (980) and WQGN (105.5) have moved studios; they”re now in new digs at 7 Governor Winthrop Blvd. in New London.

From the call-letter desk: Entercom”s WBBF (950) in Rochester has applied to ditch the calls it’s held since 1953 and become WEZO, another heritage set of Rochester calls. The WBBF calls will move to what’s now WKLX (98.9), which is already going by “99-BBF” on the air.