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In this week’s issue… Remembering the father of WFNX – WMEX’s next steps – Entercom shuffles managers – New formats in the Southern Tier

By SCOTT FYBUSH

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*The category of “individual owner of prominent 1980s radio station” is a small one indeed, and it’s smaller still this week with news of the death of Steven Mindich.

Mindich was already a Boston-area media force by the early 1980s, having started out as an ad salesman for one of the city’s early alternative weeklies, Boston After Dark. By the early 1970s, Mindich was part-owner of the paper, then sole owner, merging it with the Cambridge Phoenix to become the Boston Phoenix.

The Phoenix, of course, was one of the most prominent alt-weeklies in the country as that medium flourished. Flush with classified ad revenue and then with even more money from 900-number services, Mindich moved into radio in 1982, buying sleepy suburban WLYN-FM (101.7 Lynn) and relaunching it the following spring as WFNX.

If the Phoenix was an icon among alt-weeklies, WFNX was a legend among alternative radio stations. Two generations of listeners grew up with WFNX setting their musical tastes, while the ties to the Phoenix kept the station full of top-notch news reporting and closely tied to the Back Bay club scene that Mindich helped support.

In later years, Mindich expanded the Phoenix to Worcester, Providence and Portland, following those print extensions with a larger “FNX Radio Network” that extended to RHODE ISLAND (via WWRX 103.7 Westerly/Providence), NEW HAMPSHIRE (WFEX 92.1 Peterborough) and southern MAINE (WPHX 92.1/1220 Sanford).

Those expansions in the late 1990s probably came a little too late, especially as the internet began to eat away at what had been the Phoenix’s profit centers (which, yes, included a lot of adult advertising.) Mindich sold the Providence station in 2004 and the northern New England stations in 2011-2012, then WFNX itself in the summer of 2012. A streaming version of WFNX.com continued into 2013, when Mindich shut down what remained of the Phoenix itself, by then a glossy lifestyle weekly.

On Wednesday, Mindich died at 74, reportedly after several years of fighting pancreatic cancer, leaving behind a community of writers and artists he nurtured at the Phoenix – and a radio landscape on which he left an indelible mark.

The Fybush Media podcast is back!

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 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.

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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 29, 2017

*The three large radio groups with impending financial issues have all been making quiet job cuts in recent weeks, and last week all three made noticeable cuts in our region. As you’ll read later on in the column, CBS Radio continues to winnow down its job count as it gets ready to be merged into Entercom over the next few months. iHeart, of course, is facing more than 20 billion dollars in debt.

And then there’s Cumulus, which has its own debt issues even as its stock continues to fluctuate wildly amidst the news that former leader Lew Dickey has been raising money to prepare for some sort of upcoming business acquisition. The Cumulus job cuts last week seemed to focus on the talk stations it inherited from ABC by way of Citadel; in Washington, WMAL (630/105.9) morning talk host Brian Wilson was abruptly cut from the lead anchor chair on “Mornings on the Mall,” leaving veteran New Jersey host Mary Walter as the lone anchor of the show just a few months into her tenure at WMAL.

A few hours later, the news broke from NEW YORK that another co-host had just done his last show: Ron Kuby at WABC (770), the liberal foil to Curtis Sliwa on the station’s noon-3 “Curtis and Kuby” show.

The former WABC morning men had reunited at the station in 2014 as part of an attempt to breathe new life into a lineup that had drifted away from local talk toward syndication. While Cumulus never officially said as much, it was widely expected that Curtis and Kuby were in Rush Limbaugh’s former noontime slot only temporarily while awaiting the eventual retirement of WABC morning host Don Imus.

*Our CBS Radio news comes from eastern PENNSYLVANIA: After almost 14 years as PD of CBS Radio’s WOGL (98.1 Philadelphia), Anne Gress was caught in budget cuts last week. Gress, who’d also worked at Philly’s WUSL and WJJZ, is being replaced by Bobby Smith, PD and morning host at sister station WTDY (96.5), who’ll keep his existing duties as well. The cluster has also named Shelly Easton, PD of country WXTU (92.5), as VP/music programming, overseeing all three music FMs.

*The corporate cuts last week hit iHeart, too – in Providence, RHODE ISLAND, Tom Campbell is out as morning man at WWBB (101.5) after 16 years. That leaves Kristin Lessard as the solo host of what had been the “TC and Kristin” show, and Campbell is on the hunt for his next gig.

Five Years Ago: May 27, 2013

*For more than a decade, the migration pattern for radio studios in NEW YORK City has gone almost uniformly in just one direction: southward from midtown Manhattan to lower Manhattan. Emmis, CBS Radio, Clear Channel and WNYC have all spent millions in recent years to build out new studio facilities down below Canal Street.

But as of Thursday, one major New York radio station has reversed that trend, moving into new studios on the Upper West Side. ESPN Radio’s WEPN-FM (98.7) and WEPN (1050), along with their sister Web operation, ESPNNewYork.com, are now operating from the sixth floor of 125 West End Avenue, the facility that was the longtime home of the ABC Radio Networks.

ABC Radio, of course, largely ceased to exist after Disney sold its radio operations to Citadel, which eventually merged into Cumulus, and while Citadel had retained half of the sixth floor for its own network operations, that space became available when Cumulus completed folding the remaining pieces of the old ABC Radio Networks into its own network facilities. (The other half of the sixth floor is home to ABC Radio News, where Disney/ABC employees still work under contract to Cumulus.)

WEPN, meanwhile, kept its local operations commingled with former sister stations WABC (770) and WPLJ (95.5) even after Disney sold off WABC/WPLJ to Citadel, retaining its ESPN Radio and Radio Disney local stations. (The New York Disney outlet, WQEW 1560, now maintains local offices and a nominal studio in the ABC television complex at 147 Columbus Avenue.)

The WABC/WPLJ digs at 2 Penn Plaza became extra-crowded when Cumulus added WNSH (94.7 Newark) to its cluster earlier this year, and now everyone can breathe a little easier with some extra space at both ends. For WEPN, the new studios include a large bullpen area and multiple on-air and production rooms – and a more spacious base from which ESPN Radio can originate programming in New York as well as from its mothership in Bristol, Connecticut. (Where we hear, incidentally, that last week’s ESPN-wide round of layoffs apparently largely spared the radio side of the operation.)

*The week’s other big story came from San Francisco on Saturday – but the death of Gene Burns resonated powerfully on this side of the country too. A native of Hornell, New York, Burns quickly moved from hometown station WWHG (1320/105.3, later WHHO/WKPQ) to WSBA (910) in York, Pennsylvania – and then into a nationally-renowned career as a talk host in Baltimore (WCBM), Orlando (WKIS), San Francisco (KGO), and within the region in Boston and Philadelphia.

Burns’ Boston legacy started around 1970, when he moved from WCBM to WEEI (590), and while he lasted only a year at the CBS-owned news-talker before moving to Orlando and a role in station management, Burns came back to the region in 1981 for a brief run at WCAU (1210, now WPHT) in Philadelphia and then, beginning in 1985, a major role at WRKO (680) in Boston.

In the days before Rush Limbaugh owned the midday talk audience nationally, Burns boasted massive noontime ratings for his erudite brand of talk radio. (“We have transited the meridian and entered the afternoon incarnation of the broadcast day” was his trademark phrase at the top of his broadcast, part of a legendary WRKO lineup that also included the dean of Boston talk, Jerry Williams. In addition to his daily midday show, Burns was passionate about food, hosting a weekend show called “Dining Around” that continued long after he departed WRKO, and Boston, in 1992. (Burns would return to the Boston airwaves, briefly and from across the country, on the short-lived talk incarnation of WMEX at 1060 on the dial in 2000.)

After WRKO, Burns moved to New York and WOR (710), where he hosted both locally and on the WOR Radio Network; two years later, he was off to San Francisco for another round of radio success at KGO (810), where he worked as part of one of the nation’s legendary talk lineups until new owner Cumulus began dismantling the top-rated talker in 2011.

Burns had planned to follow several other former KGO colleagues to a rival talker, Clear Channel’s KKSF (910), but ongoing health issues intervened. He suffered a stroke in 2012 that robbed him of much of his ability to speak, and had apparently suffered another stroke last week. Burns was 72.

Ten Years Ago: May 26, 2008

*Another Philadelphia morning host is out of a job: after just over two years in mornings at Clear Channel’s WIOQ (102.1 Philadelphia), Chris Booker was abruptly let go on Thursday. That leaves Q102 with no wakeup show, but perhaps not for long – the rumor making the rounds is that the next Q102 morning-drive entry will be the Elvis Duran “Morning Zoo” from sister station WHTZ (Z100) up in New York City.Booker, of course, has New York history, too: he did mornings on the “Blink” incarnation of WNEW (102.7) and evenings on WXRK/WFNY-FM (92.3). Will he be headed back to 92.3 in its current “K-Rock” incarnation? An unsourced addition to Booker’s Wikipedia entry on Monday claimed he’s signed a new contract there…

*New York’s Educational Broadcasting Corp., the parent of WNET (Channel 13) and WLIW (Channel 21), won’t be acquiring a Florida public broadcaster after all. EBC announced last week that it’s reached a joint agreement with Barry University, licensee of WXEL (90.7) and WXEL-TV (Channel 42) in West Palm Beach, to withdraw its deal to buy the stations. The two sides cited delays in FCC approval of the transaction. It’s not clear now whether some of the other suitors for the station, including rival south Florida PBS outlet WPBT in Miami, will again attempt to purchase WXEL.

(There’s a Rochester connection here, too: WXEL’s general manager is Jerry Carr, who spent much of his career in the Flower City at WOKR and later as the founding GM of WUHF-TV.)

We’re sorry to have to pass along three obituaries this week: veteran New York City newsman Keeve Berman, whose career included two years as news director at WOR-FM (98.7) and ten years with ABC Radio News, with a later stint at WMCA (570), died May 8 in a Florida nursing home. Berman’s career began in Pittsburgh, first at WEDO (810 McKeesport) and later at KQV and WTAE. He retired to Florida five years ago, where he was diagnosed with lung cancer. Berman was 71.

*On the NEW HAMPSHIRE/VERMONT border, Great Eastern is swapping formats at several of its Upper Valley signals. The “Pulse” talk format that had been airing on WMXR (93.9 Woodstock VT) has moved to WTSL (1400 Lebanon NH), consolidating the separate talk lineups that had been on both signals. The new “Pulse” on WTSL will also have an FM simulcast, as translator W232AP (94.3 White River Junction) has been granted Special Temporary Authority to simulcast AM 1400.

The move frees up WMXR to flip to classic hits as “MAXX 93.9,” also carrying Red Sox and Patriots games.

In Bennington, Vermont, WBTN (1370) has a new owner on the way. “Shires Media Partnership,” a community group formed to preserve the station’s local programming, will pay Southern Vermont College $100,000 for the station. The new nonprofit group includes representation from the Bennington Area Chamber of Commerce and the local cable access channel, and students from the college will continue to have access to the station as well, its leaders say.

Fifteen Years Ago: May 27, 2003

The era of “dollar-a-holler” talk programming on RHODE ISLAND’s WALE (990 Greenville) came to a close at seven o’clock Wednesday morning, when North American Broadcasting handed over the keys to Cumbre Communications, which won WALE’s bankruptcy auction in Phoenix on Tuesday for a whopping $2.35 million. For the price, Cumbre gets a station that’s seen much better days. Though it claims “50,000 watts” of power, its signal never matched up to the boastful coverage maps handed to prospective talk hosts (see the example above). While the maps claimed coverage of Boston and beyond, WALE’s daytime signal heads east into Providence and out over the fishes – and you don’t even want to ask about the night signal, assuming anyone bothered to make the switch on time. (Station personnel were reportedly told, should an FCC inspector show up, to offer to get a manager – and then head for the back door and keep walking!) Add to that the talk programming that arrived over bad voice-grade phone lines (usually sold under deceptive pretenses to starstruck folks with no radio experience who were told “we want to make you a talk host”), and it’s likely that nobody much noticed, or mourned, when NABC’s programming ended on WALE last week.

In MASSACHUSETTS, Pat Whitley is back to a full-time weekday gig on WRKO (680 Boston), taking over the 9-noon slot that Doreen Vigue and Darlene McCarthy have been holding down as the “Daytime Divas.”

In Randolph, VERMONT, WWWT (1320) flipped format last week, switching from satellite oldies to a simulcast of news-talk WSYB (1380). The move comes just a few months after sister station WCVR (102.1) dropped country to begin simulcasting Burlington rocker WCPV (101.3 Essex NY).
North of Syracuse, in Fulton, WAMF (1300) is recovering from a fire that destroyed the Schuyler Commons shopping plaza, home to its studios, last Sunday (May 18). Don DeRosa’s station was able to resume broadcasting from its transmitter site on Lakeshore Road, but the studios (including a new digital audio system that had just been installed the previous day) are apparently a total loss.

Twenty Years Ago: May 30, 1998

Say goodbye to the number-two public TV station in Buffalo. The Western New York Public Broadcasting Council voted last week to sell WNEQ (Channel 23) in order to pay for the digital conversion of flagship public broadcaster WNED-TV (Channel 17). WNEQ signed on in 1987, with the stated intention of offering viewers in Western New York and Southern Ontario a more diverse diet of public television. In the ensuing years, however, WNED made the decision (in NERW’s opinion, a misguided one) to leave its antiquated-but-functional studios for a huge (and hugely expensive) brand-new broadcast palace in downtown Buffalo. The costs of that project made it difficult for WNED to program Channel 23, and (at least according to published reports) contributed to the decision to sell WNEQ. WNED will need to do some fancy footwork at the FCC to sell WNEQ as a commercial station. Channel 23 is allocated noncommercial to Buffalo, but Channel 17 is allocated as a commercial license, a relic of its days as pioneering NBC O&O WBUF-TV in the 1950s. WNED hopes the FCC will agree to reallocate channel 17 as noncomm and channel 23 as commercial. We’ll keep you posted…

In other news from NEW YORK, there’s a new station on the air in Eastern Long Island. Jarad Broadcasting’s WXXP (105.3 Calverton-Roanoke) went on at noon on Wednesday, as dance-CHR “Party 105.” Jeff Levine, PD of sister stations WLIR (92.7 Garden City)-WDRE (98.5 Westhampton), handles PD duties for WXXP as well.

The former WNWK (105.9 Newark NJ) is now New York’s latest Spanish-language station. Heftel Broadcasting flipped the switch to “Caliente 105.9, tu pulso Latino” this week. No word yet on how New York’s WQHT — “Hot 97” — feels about another station using the Spanish translation of its name.

Confirming what we’d suspected, WIGS (1230) in Gouverneur is indeed dead and gone, reducing the “FSR Network” to WGIX (95.3 Gouverneur) and WSLB (1400 Ogdensburg). Now we’re told WSLB is only being mentioned in top-hour legal IDs, with “95.3” the sole identification at other times. Further up route 11 in Chateauguay, WYUL (94.7) has reportedly turned on its permanent oldies format.

Morning show movement: Buffalo’s “Alice,” WLCE (92.9), is now getting its morning show from sister ARS station WTIC-FM (96.5) in Hartford. The “Craig and Company” show started this week on WLCE, after a weekend of heavy promotion. Krista Bettino moves down the Thruway from WHTT (104.1 Buffalo), where she was Danny Neaverth’s morning sidekick, to WPXY (97.9 Rochester), where she’ll do the same with Scott Spezzano. WPXY also adds Music Director duties for night guy Mike Danger.