In this week’s issue… What’s next for Entercom after WBEB buy – WFAN’s Benigno on leave – WEEI’s airshift shuffle – Station sale in RI – VT channel-share kicks in
By SCOTT FYBUSH
*A quick bit of housekeeping before we head into this week’s column: are you on our Mailchimp-based email list? It’s quick and free to sign up in the right-hand bar of our website – and it’s a separate list from our paid subscriptions, which means that even if you’re a paying NERW subscriber (for which we thank you!), you’re not automatically getting our morning emails when there’s a new NERW, Tower Site of the Week, Top of the Tower podcast (check out our latest, featuring an extended interview about the all-digital AM HD experiment underway in Maryland!) or, especially, breaking news.
Breaking news like, for instance, the stunning announcement on Thursday morning that Philadelphia’s WBEB (101.1) was headed to a new owner – not to Beasley, as the rumor mill had been speculating, but rather to Entercom, which defrays some of the cost of the $57.5 million deal with a $38 million side deal spinning WXTU (92.5) back to former owner Beasley.
As loyal NERW subscribers, you expect some detailed analysis of this complex deal, and we’re here to serve, right over the fold…
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*First, the price tag: back in 2005, when Jerry Lee bought out the half of 101.1 that his late partner Dave Kurtz had owned, he paid $85 million for just half of the station, valuing it at an eye-popping $170 million right near the peak of the market. While WBEB has stayed at the top of Philadelphia’s ratings and revenues, it’s a sign of the overall slump in station values that all of WBEB is now worth almost exactly a third as much it was 13 years ago.
As trade publications have (rightly) praised Lee for his stature as one of the last standalone big-market commercial owners, they’ve somewhat glossed over the big downside of that 2005 deal with the Kurtz estate: because Lee had to pay so much to take sole control of WBEB, he ended up losing control of WBEB in the end. The nuts and bolts of the 2005 buyout included a $22 million loan at 10% interest, which by 2015 forced Lee to cede board control to his biggest creditor, Sam Zell.
In reality, for the last three years it hasn’t been Jerry Lee at the helm of “Jerry Lee Broadcasting, LLC,” the licensee of WBEB, which if anything makes it a bit of a surprise that it took this long for the station to be sold into the contemporary world of big station clusters. (Back in 2015, we speculated a sale was imminent, and it may be that only the turbulence in the world of big owners back then saved WBEB from a quick sale.)
While there may not be a huge pool of owners ready and able to buy a station like WBEB even now, there was at least one: once its acquisition of CBS Radio had settled down, Entercom was clearly poised to make a big statement in its hometown, especially with Beasley ready to take back WXTU to ease the cost of the deal.
So what happens next? The speculation started immediately about how Entercom might realign its cluster once WXTU leaves and WBEB enters. Lee’s emphasis on research helped hone WBEB into a category-killer that’s become one of the most dominant AC stations in the country, more contemporary than Entercom’s classic hits WOGL (98.1) and softer than Entercom’s very hot AC WTDY (96.5).
One school of thought says Entercom builds a wall of those formats, keeping all three FMs doing what they’re doing, with perhaps only a tweak to WTDY to take it even closer to a full-fledged CHR and to ease it away from WBEB’s niche. (Wilder speculation included a big flip on 96.5 to give all-news KYW a full-market FM signal, or a return to some version of the rhythmic format Beasley had programmed there as “Wired” WRDW-FM.)
But the end of the week brought a new twist we’ll be following closely: while Beasley is getting WXTU’s signal and format, it’s not getting Shelly Easton, who’d been programming WXTU since 2009. She’s staying with Entercom, where she holds the title of VP/music programming for the Philadelphia market. And that raises a new line of speculation: after collecting Beasley’s $38 million, would Entercom turn around and launch a new country format on 96.5 in direct competition with WXTU, which has had sole dominance of the format for decades now?
Over the next few months, there will be plenty of motion in the market as studios keep moving – WBEB will make a short move within Bala Cynwyd over to Entercom’s 555 City Line Ave. studios, while WXTU makes an even shorter move over to Beasley. (And all of Entercom will then move again next year to new digs near 30th Street Station in the city.) We’ll be keeping you posted as Entercom reveals its plans (if any) for format shuffling, as we learn if Beasley makes any changes to retaliate – and as the market’s other big owner, iHeart, decides whether to tweak any of its signals (modern rock WRFF, perhaps?) to go after any perceived openings from Entercom or Beasley shuffles.
And even if Jerry Lee hasn’t been in full control of WBEB, it’s still the end of a 55-year era for him at 101.1 on the dial. We salute him on his long run, and we hope more broadcasters will take the time to listen to his wise words, especially on the importance of audience research.
*The world of sports radio in MASSACHUSETTS is also on the move in almost every imaginable way. Last week, we told you about WBZ-FM (98.5 the Sports Hub)’s physical move to Beasley’s Morrissey Boulevard studios in Dorchester, a facility that’s lined with video walls for the afternoon simulcast of the “Felger and Mazz” show on NBC Sports Boston.
That fancy studio will get even more of a workout starting this morning, when Sports Hub middayers Scott Zolak and Marc Bertrand begin simulcasting their 10 AM-2 PM show on NBC Sports Boston, too, giving the cable channel a solid eight-hour daily block of WBZ-FM simulcasting followed by five hours of its own live shows (give or take Celtics games during the season, of course.)
And as it gets ready to renovate WBZ-FM’s old Allston studios and move in later this fall, Entercom’s sports rival WEEI-FM (93.7) is flipping its schedule around starting August 13, returning Glenn Ordway and co-hosts Lou Merloni and Christian Fauria to the 2-6 PM slot that was Ordway’s original WEEI home from 1995 until his dismissal in 2013. The move will send Dale Arnold, now in afternoons, back to his familiar spot in middays, still with Rich Keefe as co-host.
Midday hosts Glenn Ordway, Lou Merloni and Christian Fauria will move to the 2-6pm timeslot currently held by Dale Arnold and Rich Keefe, who will make the reverse move to 10am-2pm. The move is being done to bring Ordway and Arnold back to the dayparts they are most associated with.
Both men were part of WEEI’s original lineup when it flipped to Sports in 1991, Arnold co-hosted middays with various partners from then until 2011 when he moved to weekends. He returned to the weekday lineup in afternoons in 2014. Ordway co-hosted afternoons from 1995-2013 before being let go. He returned the following year in the midday slot.
*In RHODE ISLAND, WSTL (1220 Providence) and its translator W229AN (93.7) are changing hands. New England Christian Media, which bought then-WRIB for a whopping $1.9 million back in 2006, is selling the signals to Nelson Diaz’ Diaz Holdings. Diaz picked up the option to buy the signals from the Radio Sharon Foundation, which began leasing them last November, replacing their former religious format with Spanish tropical as “Mega 94.9.” (The frequency refers to Radio Sharon’s other Providence translator, W235CN, which is also rebroadcasting WSTL but is not part of this deal.)
This time around, the WSTL AM and translator licenses, along with their East Providence transmitter site property, are going for $240,000, with Radio Sharon having already put $100,000 down and paying the remainder at closing.
*In VERMONT, Hearst turned off the Mount Ascutney transmitter of WNNE (Channel 31) over the weekend. WNNE’s UHF spectrum (it had been on RF 25) was sold at auction, leaving the WNNE license as a “zombie” that’s now functioning as a channel-share on sister station WPTZ (Channel 5)’s RF 14 transmitter up on Mount Mansfield. There aren’t many viewers who could see both WNNE and WPTZ over the air – that was sort of the point, after all, to having WNNE function as a satellite signal relaying WPTZ’s NBC programming, and it means viewers in the Upper Valley will largely lose their antenna access to NBC.
But for viewers in Burlington, Plattsburgh, Montreal and vicinity who rescanned their TVs, the zombie WNNE now appears as “31.1,” carrying the CW programming (including WPTZ’s 10 PM newscast) that had previously been labeled as “5.2” on the WPTZ license. (Why bother? That’s easy – the zombie WNNE now counts as a separate station for must-carry purposes, whereas it didn’t as WPTZ’s 5.2.)
*In CONNECTICUT, Mike Crispino has signed on as Joe D’Ambrosio’s replacement behind the UConn football and men’s basketball radio mic. Crispino, who’s on the MSG Network and is the voice of St. John’s University men’s basketball, will be heard on UConn’s new flagship, iHeart’s WUCS (97.9), while D’Ambrosio stayed behind at former flagship WTIC (1080).
*It’s not just Boston where sports radio is making headlines, and in NEW YORK City, the headlines for Entercom’s WFAN (660/101.9) are unwelcome indeed: midday host Joe Benigno is facing sexual harassment allegations that led to a lawsuit last week. The suit, from a former ad executive who said there was an alcohol-fueled frat culture in the station, has drawn plenty of tabloid attention, but heading into the weekend, Entercom and Benigno said he’d be back on the air today. That changed abruptly on Saturday – now Benigno is on a leave of absence and it’s not clear when or if he’ll be back from the vacation he was on last week.
Over in Brooklyn, WBAI (99.5)’s decision to bring Leonard Lopate back to the city’s airwaves drew fire from some staffers. Jay Smooth, who’s been hosting a hip-hop show on WBAI since 1991, resigned in protest, saying the allegations against Lopate are incompatible with what WBAI’s culture is supposed to be.
*Here in western New York, Townsquare’s country WYRK (106.5) posted its usual big win in the Buffalo ratings last week – but its next ratings book will go on without brand manager Wendy Lynn. The 19-year veteran of the station has departed the Rand Building, without much explanation as to why and without a replacement having yet been named.
Over at WGRZ (Channel 2), veteran weatherman Kevin O’Connell is leaving after 25 years at the station. O’Connell, who’d been working a four-day-a-week schedule at age 70, had been in contract negotiations that were complicated when he testified as an expert witness in a court case and endorsed the lawyer in the case, in apparent violation of station policy forbidding such endorsements.
As Steve Cichon recounted on his Buffalo Stories blog, O’Connell’s Buffalo broadcasting career began as a teen DJ on WYSL (1400/103.3), where he eventually became PD before moving over to WBEN (930) on middays. O’Connell decamped to Los Angeles, working at KNBC (Channel 4) and hosting game shows, before returning to Buffalo and WGRZ in 1993.
*Over in Syracuse, we were remiss last week in not reporting a format change at the Galaxy cluster: WZUN (1070 Sandy Creek) has, as we’d expected, flipped from ESPN Deportes to a simulcast of “Sunny” AC WZUN-FM (102.1 Phoenix), a move meant not so much for AM listeners as to feed Sunny’s format to translator W291BU (106.1) serving Fulton and Oswego, where the WZUN-FM main signal gets shaky.
*Across the border in CANADA, Jamar McNeil joins Bell Media’s refreshed CHUM-FM (104.5 Toronto) in the morning, bringing a younger voice to the established Roger and Marilyn morning show. McNeil’s been in Chicago for 10 years now at WBBM-FM (96.3), where he was known as “JNiice.”
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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: July 24, 2017
*Is there any market more resistant to outside talent than Boston? The notoriously provincial listeners of eastern MASSACHUSETTS have been pretty consistent over the years in rejecting shows that originate from outside the market. With the possible exception of a few successful years for Howard Stern in WBCN’s waning days, Boston listeners want to hear Boston voices on their Boston morning airwaves…which is what makes it puzzling, at best, to read Beasley’s announcement that it’s importing the morning team from its WRIF (101.1 Detroit) to be heard in the morning on “Alt 92.9” WBOS (92.9 Brookline).
Starting today, the “Dave and Chuck the Freak Morning Show,” hosted by Dave Hunter, Charles Urquhart and Lisa Way, will be simulcast on both stations. “The Dave & Chuck the Freak show is both funny and relatable, and its cast is made up of masterful storytellers with an eye for the extraordinary,” said PD Cadillac Jack in the corporate press release. “When you combine their natural talent, great chemistry, and impeccable work ethic, the results are unparalleled, and we’re especially excited to welcome them to ALT 92.9!”
But will WBOS listeners welcome Dave and Chuck? It’s a sure bet that any mention of the Tigers, the Walter Reuther Freeway or Governor Rick Snyder will be an instant turn-off for Sox fans driving on the Pike – and that means that Dave, Chuck and Lisa will have to try to be fairly generic, which is usually the last thing anyone wants a morning show to be. (For contrast, just look down the hall from WBOS to Beasley’s WROR, which has had literally decades of morning radio success with the these-guys-could-only-be-in-Boston voices of Loren and Wally.)
*Heading out to the Berkshires, there’s now a price tag on Townsquare’s planned purchase of the Vox/Gamma cluster: the national small- and medium-group owner will pay $3.535 million for the three AMs, two FMs and one translator that make up most of the Berkshire County radio market (WBEC-FM, WBEC, WUPE/WUPE-FM, WNAW and WSBS), plus $20,000 to Northeast Airchecks LLC for WSBS’ Great Barrington translator. That’s about $400,000 more than Galaxy had agreed to pay for those stations before its deal with Vox/Gamma failed to close.
*We send our sympathies to our MAINE radio friends mourning the sudden loss of Mike Poulin, the central Maine radio veteran who died Friday night at Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston, apparently after suffering a heart attack. Poulin’s four-decade career included long runs at WMME (92.3 Moose) and more recently at WEBB (B98.5) in Augusta, where he was doing afternoons. He was also tracking middays at Townsquare’s “Capital 95.9” (WJZN 1400 plus translator). Poulin was just 62.
Five Years Ago: July 22, 2013
What’s Entercom up to in northeast PENNSYLVANIA? It appears this week will mark the end of “The Mountain” and its AAA format on WDMT (102.3 Pittston) and the launch of a new sports talker to compete with Bold Gold Media’s “Game” simulcast based at WICK (1400 Scranton) and Shamrock’s ESPN outlet, WEJL (630 Scranton)/WBAX (1240 Wilkes-Barre) and their FM translators. Our content partners at RadioInsight report that Entercom has registered a series of new domains including “102theScore.com” and, interestingly, “SportsHub102.com,” borrowing the nickname of its sports arch-enemy in Boston, where Entercom’s WEEI competes against CBS Radio’s “Sports Hub” WBZ-FM. WDMT already has one key piece of the region’s sports puzzle, carrying play-by-play of the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins of the American Hockey League.
*In MAINE, our friend Bob Bittner has scored another broadcast bargain. We’re still in awe, more than two decades later, at Bob’s alacrity in snapping up what was then WLVG (740) in the Boston market for just $277,115 at auction in the early 1990s. Now he’s picked up a 5,000-watt fulltime AM signal for just $16,200.
The station is WFAU (1280 Gardiner), and it comes with a big catch: Blueberry Broadcasting is selling it so cheaply because it’s not operating at full power. Last November, it applied to operate with its nighttime antenna pattern during the day because of problems with its antenna switching system, and it went silent at the beginning of July after Blueberry determined that the cost of repairs would be “prohibitive.”
Bittner’s purchase, by way of his Blue Jey Broadcasting, includes the station’s current three-tower array and the land below it; will he fix the station at that site, or will he move it elsewhere? Either way, we expect WFAU to return as a simulcast of Bob’s WJTO (730 Bath), playing a soft mix of AC and standards; it certainly won’t return with the format it was using before it went dark, when it was part of Blueberry’s “Fox Sports Maine” simulcast – later flipped to CBS Sports Radio. That format continues on WIGY (97.5 Madison) and WVOM (1450 Rockland).
Ten Years Ago: July 21, 2008
The lead financier behind Route 81, the radio group that made a big impact in central PENNSYLVANIA and upstate New York in recent years, has taken over operations of the company’s stations after a foreclosure sale last week.
WallerSutton owned 50% of Route 81’s clusters in Elmira (WENY AM-FM, WENI AM-FM, WCBA, WGMM), Scranton/Wilkes-Barre (WNAK, WCDL, WAZL, WLNP), Carlisle (WHYL) and Coatesville (WCOJ); now its subsidiary WS2K Acquisition has taken control of those stations in the wake of last Monday’s foreclosure.
The stations remain on the air under their current management, though we hear there were some problems with last week’s paychecks clearing, leaving employees unpaid for several days; we’re also hearing there are new owners on the way to WHYL and WAZL. More next week…
(There’s a Massachusetts connection to WallerSutton as well; in addition to Route 81, its other radio investment is in J Sports LLC, owner of “ESPN Boston” WAMG 890/WLLH 1400.)
Forever is shuffling its simulcasts in Huntingdon, east of Altoona. It’s been a while since the AM/FM pair there has originated its own programming; in 2004, WHUN (1150 Huntingdon) began simulcasting news-talk WFBG (1290 Altoona), while the FM on 106.3, formerly WQHG, shuffled through callsigns as it flipped from a simulcast of oldies WALY (103.9 Bellwood) to “Froggy” country from WFGY (98.1 Altoona). The 106.3 signal changed city of license along the way, too; it’s now WFZY, licensed to Mount Union. As of last Monday, WHUN is relaying news-talk WRSC (1390 State College), while WFZY is relaying classic rock WBUS (93.7 Boalsburg), with new calls WBSS.
Fifteen Years Ago: July 21, 2003
A short column this week (is everyone away on vacation?) – but some big news to tell you about in MASSACHUSETTS: Sporting News Radio laid off about 20 staffers at its struggling WWZN (1510 Boston) last week, axing its morning show and its ties to the Boston Globe in the process. Among the layoffs announced Friday were morning hosts Kevin Winter and Holden Kushner, who had been doing that shift with Ryen Russillo. Russillo stays with WWZN as part of an expanded “Die Hards” afternoon show (with current hosts Anthony Pepe and Mike Winn); Eddie Andelman and Dave Jageler stay on board as well with their noon-3 PM show, and the station still has the Celtics’ broadcast rights. Other than those shows, though, WWZN will now be a relay of Sporting News’ national network programming…and Boston has never been a kind market to nationally syndicated sports talk.
In NEW HAMPSHIRE, Barry Lunderville is about to add another station to his growing holdings, as he gets ready to take over operation of WMOU (1230 Berlin) from Steven Griffin’s Jericho Broadcasting. Lunderville, who owns WLTN (1400 Littleton), WLTN-FM (96.7 Lisbon) and WXXS (102.3 Lancaster), tells the Berlin Daily Sun that he had the chance to buy WMOU three years ago and regretted passing it up. He’ll take over with an LMA from Jericho on July 28, adding a simulcast of WLTN-FM’s morning show (with local inserts); it appears that WMOU’s long-running “Forum” talk show may be over, now that host Rod Ross has left the station and moved to Florida.
We’ll start our NEW YORK report way out on the East End of Long Island, where WWHL (92.9 Southampton) changed calls to WHBE last week. 92.9 is still carrying the AAA programming of “EHM,” while WEHM (96.7 East Hampton) itself has flipped to Bloomberg business news. A call swap is expected; meantime, the WEHM Web site is a confusing mess, with graphics that still proclaim “96-7 EHM” and text that reads “92-9″…
Twenty Years Ago: July 18, 1998
Can you say “rat’s ass” on the radio in Boston? It’s a safe bet that the folks at CBS-owned WBCN (104.1) wouldn’t give a you-know-what if Howard Stern used the phrase in the morning — but it was enough to end Bob Lobel’s career on the radio side of (also CBS-owned) WBZ last Sunday. The WBZ-TV (Channel 4) sportscaster was hosting his weekly call-in show with Upton Bell when prolific caller “Butch from the Cape” dialed up to offer his comments about the World Cup, including the observation that most native-born Americans probably don’t give a — yes, that phrase — about the competition.
Within seconds, the “batphone” at 1170 Soldiers Field was ringing, as program director Peter Casey ordered “Butch” to be cut off the air. And that was all it took for Lobel to leave the show. In following days, both sides of the controversy took to the pages of Boston newspapers (and to the mailing list associated with NERW) to make their cases. Lobel says he was “censored,” while Casey argues that WBZ is a family radio station that shouldn’t tolerate the use of such language on the air.
In any event, Lobel and Bell have been replaced with Steve DeOssie and Dan Roche for the time being, and “Butch” says he’s taken WBZ off his speed-dial. As for us here at NERW, we’ll keep you updated if we decide we give a — oh, never mind!
One big piece of news in MAINE this week, as Mariner Broadcasting completes its set of the Pine Tree State’s classical outlets, with the purchase of WAVX (106.9 Thomaston) from Jon LeVeen. Mariner put WBQQ (99.3 Kennebunk) on the air a few years back, and just took over WPKM (106.3 Scarborough), flipping it to WBQW and a simulcast of “W-Bach.” LeVeen tells NERW he’s not sure whether Mariner will continue originating programming at WAVX, or whether it will become a third simulcast.