In this week’s issue… One big owner in NY’s westernmost market – PA sports talent shifts – A new “Passport” on the air along I-80 – Affiliation change in Canada

By SCOTT FYBUSH

Jump to: MENHVTMARICTNYNJ PACanada

*The usually sleepy western NEW YORK city of Jamestown was in the national news last month for the grand opening of the new National Comedy Center (it is, after all, the hometown of Lucille Ball). This week, it’s making national radio headlines with the sale of Cross Country Communications’ WKZA (106.9 Lakewood) and WLKW-FM (95.3 Celoron) to Media One Group, uniting essentially all of the market’s commercial operations under a single roof.

WKZA and WLKW
WKZA and WLKW

“106.9 Kiss FM,” with its hot AC format, and its newer talk-sports sister “95.3 the Lake” had been pretty much the only in-town competition to Media One’s dominant cluster, which had already combined news-talk-AC WJTN (1240)/AC WWSE (93.3) with oldies WKSN (1340)/country WHUG (101.9) and rock WQFX (103.1 Russell PA). (By the way, “Kiss” was also the station that brought national attention to the “Scary Lucy” statue that attempted, however clumsily, to commemorate Lucille Ball in a lakeshore park in her hometown.

Media One will pay $300,000 (plus 85% of accounts receivable on the closing date) to Cross Country for Kiss and Lake, but it won’t be keeping 95.3, which would put it over the market ownership cap; instead, it will turn around and donate the 95.3 signal to EMF, which will likely flip it to its K-Love format. The deal will end the Cross Country joint venture, which was 60% owned by Hall Communications and 40% by Newman Broadcasting.

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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: August 21, 2017

*When there’s a fire burning a quarter-mile up in the sky, the pictures aren’t very dramatic, but the fire early Wednesday morning at CANADA‘s tallest free-standing structure, Toronto’s CN Tower, was still plenty alarming.

You know what this isIt’s still not quite clear what caused one of the cables up to the tower’s antennas to catch fire, but the smoke from the fire tripped an alarm that caused security to cut power to all of the antennas, which are housed inside a fiberglass sheath above the “Skypod” that houses the observation decks, restaurant and the two floors full of transmitters.

Firefighters took elevators up the tower to the top of the Skypod, 1500 feet above Toronto, where they climbed into the sheath to ascend about 100 feet of ladder to the burning cable, where they used carbon dioxide extinguishers to put out the fire.

For a few hours, that took the CN Tower’s FM and TV signals off the air; these days, that accounts for only a small fraction of TV viewership, which is mostly on cable or satellite, and about half of the market’s FM signals, though most of the FMs stayed on the air from auxiliary transmitters at other locations.

The fire was out a little after 7, and regular broadcasting resumed quickly afterward. It’s believed to have been the first fire in the 40-year history of broadcasting from the tower.

*The Guinness Book of World Records has finally recognized what those of us here in Rochester have long known: WHAM-TV (Channel 13)’s Don Alhart has been on the job longer than any other local TV anchor in the world. Alhart, 72, started at what was then WOKR in 1966 (on June 6, as he’ll gladly remind you!), but it took a while for the Guinness folks to properly honor his achievement. Last year, Guinness listed Dave Ward of KTRK in Houston (49 years on the job) as the record holder – but Ward started in November of 1966 and retired this past spring. Now it’s Alhart who has the official certificate (and no plans, as of now, to end a run that’s at 51 years and counting.)

*We’re saddened indeed to have to share news of the death of Kevin Fennessy, who lived a full life of radio in New York, Pennsylvania, Florida and a few other states along the way. A native of Philadelphia, Kevin’s career started in the suburbs (WJJZ, WAAT and WTTM in Trenton) before he landed at WPEN (950) in 1972. Kevin worked nights at WCAU-FM (98.1), then at WCAO in Baltimore, WAMS in Wilmington, KQV in Pittsburgh and WOAI in San Antonio. In 1982, he landed at WHAM here in Rochester as PD, then programmed WKBW in Buffalo and WFIL in Philadelphia. Fennessy also worked at WPXY in Rochester and WEGX in Philadelphia before moving deeper into management, sales (at WFPG in Atlantic City) and eventually ownership. In more recent years, he’d owned WAAT (750 Olyphant) and WFBS (1280 Berwick) in northeast Pennsylvania and done production at WMCA/WWDJ in New York before relocating to Florida, where he’d been doing VO work before suffering health setbacks. He’d had a heart attack and stroke last week that led to his death Saturday, and he’s dearly missed by a whole community of radio people he mentored along the way.

Five Years Ago: August 19, 2013

*There was a time when Jason Wolfe was on top of the eastern MASSACHUSETTS radio heap. Within just a few years of his promotion to the PD chair at WEEI (850) back in 1997, Wolfe oversaw a run that took the station to some of the highest ratings of any all-sports format in the country, bolstered by a lucrative association with the two-time world champion Red Sox, not to mention the ’08 champion Celtics.

Jason Wolfe (WEEI photo)
Jason Wolfe (WEEI photo)

Wolfe’s star kept rising as WEEI expanded to cover most of central and northern New England via a network of affiliates, and in 2006 he picked up the title of “VP for AM Programming” at Entercom as he assumed oversight of talker WRKO (680 Boston) as well.

But all good things come to an end eventually (just ask the 2011 and 2012 Sox), and in recent years Wolfe had a more difficult job. After fending off less-potent sports challengers over the years, CBS Radio’s launch of “Sports Hub” WBZ-FM (98.5) in 2009 stole away much of WEEI’s younger audience just as the big-ticket Entercom/Sox contract was beginning to take its toll on WEEI’s bottom line. Down the hall at WRKO, ratings eroded in the face of potent competition from Greater Media’s WTKK (96.9) and less potent competition from Clear Channel’s WXKS (1200).

While WRKO recovered somewhat as its competitors flipped formats, it’s been a bigger struggle for WEEI, where Entercom waited two long years to bring the sports format to an FM signal that could better take on the Sports Hub. Veteran WEEI voices such as Dale Arnold, Pete Sheppard and Glenn Ordway exited – and last week, it was Wolfe’s turn.

“The company has to do what the company has to do in order to protect its interests and build going forward,” Wolfe told the Herald after GM Jeff Brown gave him his notice.

Wolfe’s dismissal takes away the last major link to WEEI’s 1991 start as an all-sports station, when a young Wolfe came on board as a producer, later rising to assistant sports director and then PD. There’s no official announcement yet, but it’s widely rumored that Kevin Graham, currently the PD at KFNZ (1320) in Salt Lake City, is headed to Boston to replace Wolfe; there’s no word yet on who’ll be programming WRKO.

There’s a new signal signing on today on Cape Cod. WKFY (98.7 East Harwich) is the fourth FM in John Garabedian’s Codcomm cluster, joining adult hits WFRQ (Frank 93.5), top-40 WHYA (Y101) and classic rock WPXC (Pixy 102.9). The class A signal transmitting from Chatham lit up Friday with a loop of Patti Page singing “Old Cape Cod,” promoting a launch today as “Koffee 98.7,” offering something “not found on any radio dial or stream.” What will that sound like? GM Tim Levesque says it will be a mix of “oldies, classic album cuts and modern artists loved by older listeners.”

*The top story of the week from NEW YORK was a sad one indeed: the news on Wednesday that Mark Cooper, morning host at Cumulus’ WPDH (101.5 Poughkeepsie)/WPDA (106.1 Jeffersonville), had died at age 49 after suffering his second stroke in a year. Cooper had been a morning fixture at WPDH since 1998, paired with partners including John Tobin, Mike Colvin and most recently Robyn Taylor. Cooper had gone on medical leave from WPDH in July, less than a year after his return to work following his first stroke in August 2012. Taylor’s hosting mornings solo on WPDH for now; it’s not clear when the grieving staff at WPDH will be ready to make plans for a permanent replacement.

Ten Years Ago: August 18, 2008

*After more than 18 years at the pinnacle of the NEW YORK sports-talk radio scene, “Mike and the Mad Dog” are history at WFAN (660).

Mike Francesa and Chris “Mad Dog” Russo spent very little of the summer working together, separated by alternating vacations amidst newspaper headlines suggesting increased tension between the long-running co-hosts. And then, on Thursday, the memo came out – Francesa had signed a new long-term contract to stay at WFAN, while Russo was gone from the station that made him famous.

Russo’s next career move is unclear right now. While rumors have him heading for satellite radio – and a noncompete clause in his contract (which remains in effect) bars him from competitor WEPN until next spring – the Dog was back on the WFAN airwaves Friday, calling in to his former show to say goodbye.

Francesa, meanwhile, becomes the solo star of a show that thrived on his tension with his former co-host. While there will new cast members added to the afternoon shift by the time the show relaunches Sept. 5, Francesa says they won’t fill the same co-host role that Russo did. For now, Francesa’s show will continue to be simulcast on the YES Network (which replayed the Friday call-in several times).

For WFAN, this is just the latest disruption to a program schedule that had been set in stone for almost two decades. The station’s morning shift, now featuring Boomer Esiason and Craig Carton, is still struggling to recapture the ratings and revenue Don Imus brought in for years – and rumors continue to circulate that the Mets, a staple of WFAN’s lineup since the station’s debut in 1987, may shift flagships next year.

Fifteen Years Ago: August 18, 2003

*As we go to press (so to speak) Sunday night, the Blackout of 2003 is well on the way to the history books: power is back on across the region, and the radio and TV dials are back to normal. But it’s worth a moment to update our Friday recap of how broadcasters from Long Island to Cleveland handled the power failure – and to offer some lessons to broadcasters looking to make sure they don’t go dark the next time the power goes off. We’ll start with the market-by-market look at who stayed on and who didn’t:

New York City: Up here at NERW Central, we spent much of our dark evening listening to the outstanding coverage on WCBS, which pre-empted the Yankees game to stick with news. WCBS was one of a handful of stations to stay on without significant interruptions; WOR kept its entire staff going through the night at its 23rd floor studios overlooking a darkened Times Square – and its transmitter site stayed up on generator power for more than 24 hours (on the old Continental 317, not the newer Harris – and with engineer Tom Ray going on the air to talk about the situation, then staying on by accident giving out the transmitter phone number!)

Bloomberg’s WBBR is designed to stay on the air no matter what (two generators, two separate transmitter facilities, a UPS and a backup studio at its New Jersey transmitter site), and it did. WABC stayed up and running with only minor technical glitches; its programming was less smooth, however, as it moved from the scheduled Sean Hannity show, to news broadcast from the ABC network radio facility on West End Avenue, back to Hannity (who planned to send affiliates a taped “best-of” show but ended up going live to the nation with blackout coverage) from the WABC studios, and into the night with Steve Malzberg and Monica Crowley mixing news and rumors.

Less fortunate broadcasters included WFAN, which had trouble getting its generators working at its Astoria studios and its High Island transmitter and was off the air until just before the Yankees game, which it then picked up from WCBS, the Mets having been blacked out at Shea. WFAN then simulcast WCBS overnight before running a best-of Imus show on tape from the transmitter. Later Friday, Jody McDonald drove to Philadelphia to do the midday show from sister WIP – and then Chris “Mad Dog” Russo did five hours of live talk from the transmitter site, with no phones! WFAN was back to Astoria in time for Friday night’s Mets game.

WINS lost power late in the afternoon at its New Jersey transmitter site, returning later in the evening with coverage that was simulcast on WNEW, which went “Blink”less from its auxiliary transmitter at the WINS site.

On the TV side, the Empire State Building was mostly dark, as only a handful of stations had generator facilities in the cramped transmitter spaces there. We’ve already noted that WCBS-TV (Channel 2) maintained its tradition of always being on in a crisis – but we neglected to note that WNBC (Channel 4) also had a generator at Empire that enabled it to stay on the air until 1 AM, when its live coverage (from the emergency studio 6C at 30 Rock, and later from a sixth-floor balcony) ended and the station shut down the generator overnight to move to its auxiliary facility at the Armstrong tower in Alpine, N.J. WABC, WPIX and WNET were all on from Alpine, it appears; WNYW and WWOR were off the air until late Friday when power was restored at Empire. (And Pax’s WPXN stayed on the air from its New Jersey transmitter site with infomercials and Pax programming…) One more note: Cable TV news is not a useful medium in a blackout – and Time Warner’s New York 1 proved the point, going off the air when the power (and cable) went out and staying off through midday Friday.

In MASSACHUSETTS, John “Ozone” Osterlind is taking an involuntary two-week break from morning duties at Entercom talker WRKO (680 Boston) after learning the hard way just where the boundaries to his “bad boy” act lie. Early last Tuesday morning (August 12), Osterlind and co-host Peter Blute were reportedly discussing the Palestinian situation when Osterlind suggested that the solution would be to eradicate the Palestinians. That was too much for station officials (though afternoon host Howie Carr can refer to “towelheads” without penalty) – and Osterlind was sent to the beach for two weeks, with a variety of guest hosts filling in.

Twenty Years Ago: August 17, 1998

There’s been a lot of speculation over the last few months about the fate of American Radio Systems’ Boston stations — even an article in another radio column just a few weeks ago that authoritatively claimed Jacor would be the next owner of WRKO, WEEI, WAAF, WEGQ, and WWTM. As of this afternoon, the rumors are over. David Field’s Entercom is paying $65 million to buy the stations from CBS, which was required to sell the stations as part of the antitrust settlement of its purchase of ARS. CBS also gets two Entercom stations in Tampa, WYUU (92.5 Safety Harbor FL) and WLLD (98.7 Holmes Beach FL). Although it’s based in Philadelphia, Entercom’s first entry into the Northeast radio market came just last year with its purchase of the former Heritage Media group in Rochester. The Boston (and Worcester) stations are the company’s first entries in New England.

What happens now? Let’s put NERW in analysis mode here and take a look at Entercom’s new prizes: WRKO (680) tops the list in both ratings and prestige. With nearly two decades under its belt as a talker (after those 14 glorious years as a top-40 rocker), the 50 kilowatt giant remains a solid ratings performer, despite some recent turbulence in morning drive. Entercom’s background is more on the FM side than AM, but recent acquisitions of AM giants like Seattle’s KIRO and Kansas City’s KMBZ and KCMO suggest that the company is getting more comfortable on the other side of the dial. With solid performers like Dr. Laura, Rush Limbaugh, and locally, Howie Carr in the afternoons, changes at WRKO seem unlikely. WEEI (850) and mostly-simulcast WWTM (1440 Worcester) have carved out a solid niche in the sports arena, fending off competition from the now-defunct sports weekend at WBZ (1030), as well as the mostly-syndicated fare on WNRB (1510). Along with WAAF, they’ll give Entercom a solid footing among younger male listeners. On the other side of the equation, neither of WEEI’s major sports franchises (the Red Sox and Celtics) has been performing well of late, and despite WEEI’s 1994 move from 590 to the former WHDH at 850, it’s still saddled with a directional signal that misses many western suburbs at night. WWTM helps by day, but is no more effective at reaching Framingham or Natick after dark. Entercom’s only other sports outlet is KFXX in Portland, Oregon.

On the FM side, Entercom gets two rimshotters. The better of the two signals, at least in greater Boston, is WEGQ (93.7 Lawrence). The erstwhile WCGY moved its transmitter to Middleton a few years back, improving reception around Boston, but it’s still hampered by second-adjacent stations in Taunton and Providence to the south. As for format, classic rock is one thing Entercom knows how to handle. Will the company’s solid grasp of the format help the “Eagle” differentiate itself from CBS’ WZLX (100.7)? It had better, if only to pull WEGQ out of the 17th place spot where it landed in the Spring book…

Last on the list, but perhaps the most interesting, is WAAF (107.3 Worcester). For years, WAAF has tried to pretend it’s actually located 40 miles east, even though its signal within the city of Boston can most kindly be described as “variable.” But with the help of plenty of advertising dollars, along with publicity that can’t be bought (like last spring’s “Mayor Menino is Dead” April Fools’ stunt), WAAF continues to do fairly well in the ratings. What’s more, its active rock format is Entercom’s specialty. So what happens next? Well, another Entercom specialty is frequency and call shifts. This is the company that traded KCMO’s 810 dial spot for WHB’s 710 in Kansas City, flip-flopped its sports (KFXX) and nostalgia (KKSN) outlets in Portland, and moved the legendary WBBF calls from AM to FM in Rochester. Could WAAF finally become a legitimate Boston signal on 93.7, with Eagle getting regional reach on 107.3 (a signal which regularly draws ratings as far away as Springfield)? Wouldn’t surprise us.

We’ll start the rest of this week’s news in NEW YORK with the sale of Albany’s second public TV outlet. Sinclair has agreed to pay $23 million for WMHQ (Channel 45), with the station returning to commercial operation once the sale closes (it began its life in the 80s as commercial independent WUSV before being sold to WMHT), either as a UPN or WB affiliate. Sinclair gets an upstate New York sweep with this one — they now own or are purchasing WUTV (Fox) in Buffalo, WUHF (Fox) in Rochester, and WSYT (Fox, with an LMA on UPN affiliate WNYS) in Syracuse, as well as a large radio group in Buffalo.