In this week’s issue… Covering (and surviving) gas explosions, Hurricane Florence – Immaculate Heart expands in NYC – Coffey lands in Elmira – Remembering Pittsburgh’s Pintek, Binghamton’s Carter
By SCOTT FYBUSH
*This was a challenging week for broadcasters all up and down the East Coast, and we hope you’ll forgive us for straying beyond the usual boundaries of “NERW-land” to start the column down in eastern North Carolina. Hurricane Florence may not have packed quite the intense winds the worst forecasts predicted, but it still delivered a mighty whomp of rain and flooding into places such as New Bern, Jacksonville and Wilmington.
Those are more than just dots on the map for us. Over the last few years, we’ve been working closely with New Bern-based Wheatstone on a variety of projects, which means we’ve spent time down that way getting to know the good people there (and visiting a lot of the local radio stations – see our Site of the Week visits here and here to get a sense of the market.)
As we discussed on Wednesday’s Top of the Tower podcast, the long lead-up to Florence’s arrival gave the region’s radio and TV stations a host of challenges. The mandatory evacuations in counties all along the coast meant, in theory, that there shouldn’t have been any audience left within their coverage areas – but of course plenty of people stayed behind, whether by choice or lack of ability to get out. And that meant local radio and TV had an important role to play, if they could stay on the air.
We’ve talked about this challenge here in NERW and over on the podcast (this edition, almost exactly a year ago, includes a good conversation with disaster recovery expert Howard Price about Hurricane Irma), but it bears repeating: being truly ready for something like Florence isn’t something a station can do in just a few days before a storm arrives. Arranging for emergency access to studios and transmitters, keeping personnel (and their families) housed and fed and safe, ensuring availability of fuel for generators, negotiating TV simulcasts – these are all long-term projects that any station in a hurricane-prone area should be thinking about year-round.
How did the local stations along the Carolina coast fare? The early reports from down there are mixed, at best. You’ve probably seen the pictures from New Bern’s ABC affiliate, WCTI (Channel 12), which had to go off the air when its riverside studio (seen here in 2016) began to flood for the first time in its 55-year history there. (Some coverage continued on social media, but that’s of little use to people without power or connectivity to get online.) One of New Bern’s big radio clusters is right next door to WCTI, and they went silent, too, when the waters rose. Another big cluster kept its biggest signals on the air, but for a time lost any ability to get audio from local TV when its cable service went out. We don’t know as much, yet, about Jacksonville or Wilmington, though reports from the FCC over the weekend said several AM and FM stations in those areas were off the air. The crisis is far from over – the rivers are still rising, and even areas that stayed dry at the height of the storm may yet be indundated.
Wheatstone, by the way, stayed dry at its factory and offices, though some staffers suffered wind and flood damage at their homes. We’re pulling for our friends down there as their recovery begins, and we’ll continue to try to bring you some of the lessons learned.
*Florence came with plenty of warning, but in eastern MASSACHUSETTS there was no warning at all when houses began exploding and catching fire in the Merrimack Valley Thursday afternoon. Whatever was going wrong with Columbia Gas – and we still don’t really know many details – the breaking news brought immediate response from all of Boston’s big newsrooms. On TV, most of the big stations went wall-to-wall with coverage starting around 4:30 as the story broke; at least one, WCVB (Channel 5), was on the air nonstop until 1 AM. WBZ (1030) owned the story on radio, rousting reporter Karyn Regal from her day off to cover the story right around the corner from her home. WBZ’s all-news blocks end at 8 PM, but “Nightside” talk host Dan Rea is a former news reporter, and so his show became a continuation of the news coverage into the night.
Sadly, the victims of the explosions and fires included a member of the WBZ family: Billy Gibbs, the veteran building manager at WBZ-TV’s Allston studios, lost his home in North Andover, one of more than 50 houses that caught fire on Thursday. There’s a GoFundMe page set up for Gibbs and his family to help in their recovery, and if you can do anything to help them, your support would be greatly appreciated.
A couple of decades ago, of course, a story this big in the Merrimack Valley would have meant wall-to-wall coverage not only on the Boston stations half an hour to the south but also from the many local newsrooms that then dotted the valley. Today, there are fewer local options: there was, we’re told, coverage in Spanish from Costa-Eagle’s WNNW (800 Lawrence), though its transmitter site was right in the midst of the disaster area and was reportedly off the air for part of Thursday. WHAV-LP (97.9) over in Haverhill rose to the occasion, as expected, using its local news crew on the air through the night. But there’s no longer an English-language WCCM in Lawrence, nor did we hear much about anything from WCAP over in Lowell. (And at least one NERW reader observed that the big FM stations nominally licensed to the area, WXRV Andover and WEEI-FM Lawrence, stayed with their usual formats just like the rest of the Boston FMs.)
How ready is your station to cover something as big and predictable as Florence, or as big and unpredictable as a Merrimack Valley gas explosion? How well trained is your audience to know you’ll be there for them if something like that happens in your market? It’s a question all of us in broadcasting should be more ready to answer.
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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: September 18, 2017
*The TV spectrum auction is beginning to claim its first signals, and it’s starting in NEW HAMPSHIRE, where Bill Binnie’s WBIN-TV (Channel 50) disappeared last week from the RF 35 digital perch it’s occupied since the DTV transition.
WBIN has been slowly fading away ever since the February announcement that Binnie would get $68 million in auction proceeds for its spectrum. Binnie immediately pulled the plug on his ambitious NH1 News operation, which had been programming evening newscasts on WBIN for the past year and change, leaving WBIN as a repository for syndicated reruns, an over-the-air home for several diginets including Antenna TV, and whatever value remained in its must-carry rights on cable and satellite across the sprawling Boston TV market.
Binnie unlocked that value in June with the announcement that he was selling WBIN’s license to Univision’s WUTF (Channel 66), which is paying just under $10 million, net, for the license. For viewers who can get WUTF’s RF 27 signal from its tower in Hudson, Massachusetts (and that’s a lot more viewers than could get the anemic WBIN signal from New Hampshire!), a rescan starting on Friday yielded up an SD “WBIN 50.1” over the WUTF transmitter, with at least one of WBIN’s subchannels moving to WUTF’s 66.5.
*Connoisseur Media launched a new signal in New Haven, CONNECTICUT at 10:23 this morning: “Mod 102.3” is translator W272DO, which Connoisseur bought from Best Media for $275,000, and which it’s feeding from the HD2 of WPLR (99.1 New Haven). It’s doing alternative rock, programmed by none other than Connoisseur OM Keith Dakin, who was PD at the old WFNX in Boston.
*What do you do with a tiny little AM in a big cluster in a big market? In eastern PENNSYLVANIA, the creative marketing folks at iHeart Philadelphia teamed up with Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) to sponsor “Breakthrough Radio,” which debuted last week on WDAS (1480 Philadelphia) and the HD2 of WDAS-FM (105.3).
The format mixes upbeat pop music with informational segments produced by CHOP, and it replaces the smooth jazz “JJZ” format that had been on those signals for the last four years.
Five Years Ago: September 16, 2013
We’re halfway to a resolution of one of the longest-running questions in NEW YORK radio: where will the Mets and Yankees end up?
For the team in pinstripes struggling to secure a wild-card berth, there’s now a solid long-term home in place after many years of one-season renewals. When the Yankees take the field to start the 2014 season, they’ll remain with their longtime broadcast partner, CBS Radio, but instead of being heard on WCBS (880), their radio home since 2002, the Yankees will air on WFAN (660) and WFAN-FM (101.9) in what’s being reported as a $15 million a year deal.
For both the team and CBS, the move makes all the sense in the world. Whatever their recent woes on the field, the Yankees are still the most prestigious franchise in baseball (as even this Sox fan can grudgingly admit), making them a natural fit with what’s arguably the most prestigious sports radio brand in the country.
As the Yankees’ aging roster attests, this is a team that’s committed to stability, so it’s in the team’s DNA to stay with CBS after the success both sides of the relationship have enjoyed these last dozen seasons. The long-term deal may also demonstrate the wisdom of what seemed at first to be a counter-intuitive move on CBS’ part: after buying the former WEMP (101.9) and flipping it to WFAN-FM, many (this page included) believed it was only a matter of time before WFAN became FM-only and the national CBS Sports Radio feed replaced local sports at 660 AM, a belief that now appears to have been misguided.
*It’s convention time all over the radio landscape, and whenever we can, NERW’s on the scene to bring you coverage. Alas, we couldn’t make it to Amsterdam for the big international IBC convention, nor will we be in Florida for the Radio Show. But those annual conventions aren’t quite as special, somehow, as the Binghamton Broadcasters Reunion that takes place only once every two years.
Saturday night was that once-every-two-years moment, and Ray Ross and his crew outdid themselves this year with an event that drew more than 200 current and former Binghamton radio and TV folks to the Doubletree Hotel downtown.
Each biennial edition of the reunion adds new names to a growing roster of award recipients: this year, the honorees included WNBF (1290) salesperson/weekend polka host Barb Mack, who accepted her Broadcaster of the Year award with nods to both her “radio family” filling the room and her real family, including her late father, Bill, who originated the polka show and died in 2002. (Mack was introduced by her WNBF colleague Roger Neel, himself a past “Broadcaster of the Year” honoree. Dana Potter, midday host at WLTB (101.7 Johnson City), was recognized as a “Living Legend” for his many years on the air in town, going back to 1978 at WENE/WMRV (and before that at an Explorer post sponsored by WNBF!)
*One of the most respected broadcasters on Long Island has died.
Jack Ellsworth was born Ellsworth Shiebler, but in the early years of his career in the 1940s he took the radio name he’d use for the rest of his long career as he moved around from Rhode Island to New Jersey’s WVNJ to Long Island. First at WGSM (740 Huntington) and then in 1951 at WALK (1370 Patchogue), Ellsworth became a fixture on the dial, eventually becoming WALK’s station manager and then president and CEO.
After 30 years at WALK, Ellsworth and his wife Dot moved into radio ownership, taking over WLIM (1580 Patchogue) and transforming it into an on-air home for Ellsworth’s beloved big band music. The Ellsworths sold WLIM in 2001 and Jack returned to WALK, where he was hosting a mid-morning show until his health took a turn for the worse after Dot’s death in July.
Ellsworth, who’d just published his memoirs, “Memories in Melody,” did his last show on WALK August 1, and he died Thursday of renal failure, at age 91, leaving a void among the many radio professionals he’d supported and trained over the decades.
Ten Years Ago: September 15, 2008
*Forty years after he signed on in morning drive at WRKO, Dale Dorman has disappeared from the eastern MASSACHUSETTS morning radio dial. With no fanfare, Dorman did his last show at WODS (103.3 Boston) on Friday, departing on his own initiative, reports Boston Radio Watch.Dorman came to WODS five years ago this month, making the shift to Oldies 103 after a 23-year run in afternoons at WXKS-FM (Kiss 108), not to mention stints at WROR and of course the decade-long morning gig at WRKO before that.
Are there more changes yet to come at WODS? Another Boston radio veteran, Harry “Bud” Nelson, was missing from his weekend shift this past weekend.
No replacement has been named for Dorman, but we’ll be watching closely as this high-profile opening gets filled. (And we suspect we’ll hear “Uncle Dale” on at least a part-time basis on WODS in the weeks to come.)
Speaking of afternoons on Kiss 108, there’s a big change coming today: Ryan Seacrest’s syndicated “On Air” continues its relentless march across the nation, occupying the 10 AM-1 PM weekday slot on Kiss. That moves Shelly Wade (voicetracked from sister station Z100 in New York) to 1-3 PM and pushes Romeo back to a 3-8 PM slot.
Fifteen Years Ago: September 15, 2003
*When the book is written someday on the history of FM radio in NEW YORK (wait — I am writing that book, come to think of it), an entire chapter might well be devoted to the formats that proved to be the biggest turkeys of all time. And when that chapter is written, there’s a new candidate for lead entry: WNEW (102.7) and the first incarnation of “Blink.”
*This strange format, which mixed top 40 currents, 70s and 80s R&B oldies, a pink logo that led to the derisive moniker “Barbie Radio” – and, lest we forget, lots and lots of JLo-related gossip, breathed its last at 4 o’clock Friday afternoon (Sept. 12), when Viacom pulled the plug , sending PD Steve Kingston, morning team Lynda (you-know-who’s sister) Lopez and Chris Booker, middayer Tim Virgin, afternooner Allison Stewart, night guy Todd Newton, late-night contest winner Post Midnight and most of the rest of the staff packing. (Anyone who had “five and a half months” in the office pool for how long Blink would last can now collect their prize…) Surprisingly, the “Blink” name remained, at least for the moment, as WNEW morphed into a softish AC station that made no bones about its new target audience: “Music Women Love.” (First two songs: “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing” and “Uptown Girl.”)
*VERMONT is down to two TV newsrooms (one of which is really across the lake in Plattsburgh, N.Y.) with the shutdown on Friday of the news operation at WVNY (Channel 22) in Burlington. WVNY’s latest stab at doing local news lasted about four years, and it was a pretty classy attempt right up to the end. The last newscast Friday night began, we’re told, with a series of teases that included one for “the fat lady sings” – and it ended with the theme from Newhart playing over an outside view of the studios as anchor Eric Greene paraphrased Bob Newhart’s signoff, telling viewers “I had the strangest dream; for the past four years, I’ve been hosting a newscast in Vermont.” Greene is one of about two dozen WVNY staffers out of work; we wish them all the best as they search for new jobs.
*September’s a beautiful time to visit Vermont – especially, it seems, if you’re an FCC field agent. On the heels of Radio Free Brattleboro’s run-ins with the Commission, two agents turned up September 3 at Free Radio Burlington, the 87.9 operation that we first noted in this space July 14. Turns out FRB has been on the air for two years, or so it claims, though it was apparently not broadcasting when the agents paid their call. Thus far, FRB seems to be a little more adept at handling the FCC than its cousins in Brattleboro; the 87.9 signal has remained silent while FRB continues its Webcast and station organizers figure out what to do next.
(And an editor’s note – just a few hours after that Sept. 15, 2003 NERW hit the web, we welcomed little Ariel Fybush into the world. She’s really not so little these days…)
Twenty Years Ago: September 18, 1998
*Boston’s oldest noncommercial FM will enter the 21st century in a new home, and with a new round of controversy. Emerson College’s WERS (88.9) dedicated its new home at 180 Tremont Street this week with the help of prominent station alumni, including WZLX (100.7)’s Charles Laquidara. But the decision to allow Laquidara, WBOS (92.9)’s Robin Young, and others to preempt the usual student broadcasts to play guest DJ met with static from students who say they weren’t consulted.
*WERS has long been the only major college station in Boston run solely by students, with no involvement from alumni or community members. Tufts’ WMFO (91.5), MIT’s WMBR (88.1), and Brandeis’ WBRS (100.1) all use community members along with students, while WUMB (91.9) and WBUR (90.9) are run by professionals with almost no student involvement. In an on-air roundtable led by Laquidara, students said the college seems to be more concerned about money (the station runs an annual deficit of about $400,000) than programming. Emerson officials denied the accusations, saying students should have been consulted about this week’s preemptions. WERS’ new home in the Ansin Building (named after the parents of WHDH owner Ed Ansin, who donated much of the building’s $1.8 million cost) replaces the station’s old second-story offices at 126-130 Beacon Street. It also closes a huge circle in Boston radio history; the building was built by Edison Electric Illuminating to house its then-new WEEI almost seven decades ago.
*In other MASSACHUSETTS news, the WBZ-TV tower that rises over Route 128 from Cedar Street in Needham is about to rise a bit more. CBS is getting ready to add some 400 feet to the tower to accomodate new antennas for WBZ-TV, WGBH-TV, WGBX, and WCVB-TV — and their respective digital counterparts. (This helps to explain why the DTV CPs for these stations specified tower heights several hundred feet higher than the existing tower).