In this week’s issue… Craig to retire – WOR’s new night show – Regional broadcaster closes studios – WSKG realigns radio lineups – Remembering Steve Dodge
By SCOTT FYBUSH
*Maybe it’s this week, or maybe it was last week – the details are lost in the mists of the very earliest history of the internet, but one way or another, the column you’re reading this week is now 25 years old.
When we started as “New England Radio Watcher” on USENET’s rec.radio.broadcasting back in 1994, the biggest story of our first few years was the consolidation of the industry, first in the form of some of the earliest duopolies, and then much bigger clusters as ownership regulations were relaxed.
And in that business back then, especially in MASSACHUSETTS, there was nobody taking as aggressive advantage of the new rules as Steve Dodge, chairman of Boston-based American Radio Systems. Which is why we’re saddened indeed this week to start our 25th anniversary column with news of Dodge’s untimely death. On Wednesday, Dodge was on his bicycle in Bonita Springs, Florida when police say he made an illegal turn into traffic, where his bike was hit by a car, killing him at age 73.
Dodge’s career in media began after his service in the Navy; he then graduated from Yale and went to work for BankBoston, which assigned him to analyze the cable TV industry of the 1970s. That experience led him to form his own cable company, American Cablesystems, which he sold to Continental Cablevision in 1988.
Dodge’s next chapter was radio, starting with his formation of Atlantic Ventures, which was in the right place at the right time to acquire WEZO (101.3)/WNYR (990) in Rochester from Malrite – and then to go big, buying what had been RKO General’s Boston stations, WRKO (680) and WROR (98.5) for more than $28 million. In 1993, Atlantic Ventures merged with Stoner Broadcasting and Multi Market Communications to create American Radio Systems, which quickly began snapping up properties as the FCC relaxed its ownership rules.
In Boston, Dodge’s ARS bought WRKO’s longtime competitor WHDH (850), then acquired the intellectual property of WEEI (590), moving WEEI’s sports format up the dial and abruptly ending WHDH’s long radio history. In Rochester, ARS tested the edges of the FCC’s new limits with its 1997 acquisition of the Lincoln Group’s cluster (WHAM/WVOR/WHTK/WHRR/WPXY) in Rochester, creating a test case in which the Justice Department intervened, forcing a big chunk of the Lincoln Group to be spun off to Jacor and setting the stage for several subsequent realignments in the market.
And then in 1998, ARS itself succumbed to the consolidation trend, selling its 98 radio stations to CBS for $1.6 billion. By then, ARS included significant clusters in Hartford and Buffalo, as well as in growing medium markets such as Sacramento and Charlotte. Once again, ownership limits forced some spinoffs – in Boston, WRKO, WEEI, WEGQ (93.7), WAAF (107.3) and WWTM (1440 Worcester) went to Entercom, creating a new cluster that would again be reshuffled 20 years later when Entercom itself acquired CBS’ radio stations.
One piece of ARS didn’t go to CBS, though; Dodge kept the tower sites, creating a new company called American Tower Corp. It, too, became (and remains) a behemoth, timed out perfectly to capture a huge increase in marketplace demand for tower space not only for broadcasters but also for cellular and other wireless needs. Dodge stepped away from American Tower, later starting a real estate development company building luxury homes and commercial developments on the North Shore and in southwest Florida.
Argue all you’d like about whether or not the consolidation of the 1990s was a good thing, or about whether American Tower’s dominance of that industry is a plus – but there’s almost nobody in the business this week with an unkind word to say about Steve Dodge himself and the many careers and companies he built for himself.