In this week’s issue… Behind WABC’s new owner and low sale price – Owens out at WROR – PA cluster sells – Cox radio stations change hands – Craig says goodbye to Hartford – WEBE to leave its smokestack?
By SCOTT FYBUSH
*When Cumulus announced on Thursday that it had reached a deal to sell WABC (770) in NEW YORK, only one of three pieces of the announcement should have come as any sort of surprise.
That WABC was for sale was a foregone conclusion: once Cumulus parted out the two valuable FMs in the cluster, first WNSH (94.7) to Entercom and then WPLJ (95.5) to EMF, it was pretty much a given that WABC and its remaining FM sister, little WNBM (103.9), were available to interested buyers.
The identity of the buyer? That piece truly was a surprise – while John Catsimatidis has been a familiar face in New York political and business circles for years as the owner of Gristedes supermarkets, mayoral candidate and active political donor, his media activity until now had been limited to a weekend talk show on Salem’s WNYM (970) and a brief, unsuccessful attempt to back a purchase of the Daily News in 2015.
The price? For many, $12.5 million for what was once one of New York’s most important radio stations seemed shockingly low. But in the radio marketplace of 2019, and given what WABC has become, that number really shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise at all. Read on for our exclusive analysis of why – and where Catsimatidis might be going with his new property. (Plus two more huge stories from this busy pre-holiday week – the new ownership at Cox and the end of a Boston radio institution…)
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*So, about that price: yes, it’s a long, long way down from the $78 million Disney paid when it bought then-WEVD (1050) to add to WABC back in 2001. It’s a long way down, too, from the $30 million Clear Channel paid for WOR (710) in 2012.
But it’s not 2001 or even 2012, and WABC’s existence in 2019 is rather more precarious than either of those stations back when they fetched such large prices. You don’t have to listen for very long to WABC in its current state to realize that it’s not the essential voice of the city that it was in its talk heyday. With an aging audience, WABC’s ratings and revenues have declined precipitously – and of course owning any radio station, especially an AM signal, no longer provides the exclusive access to listeners’ ears that it once did. Even with its big 50,000 watts, WABC’s voice now competes with thousands of podcasts and streams for listeners’ ears; it’s no accident that its youngest talk voice, Ben Shapiro, is a blogger and podcaster first and a broadcaster only second.
Worse yet, all indications seem to be that WABC won’t be able to stay in its 2 Penn Plaza studios, where we’re hearing Cumulus’ lease is about to expire. Relocating a radio station in New York City doesn’t happen inexpensively, which likely took several million dollars off WABC’s sale price. And until the sale is filed with the FCC (which hadn’t happened as of Sunday night), we don’t know whether Catsimatidis’ Red Apple group is acquiring the valuable land under WABC’s transmitter site in Lodi, NEW JERSEY or whether it will have to lease that land from Cumulus (or try to relocate WABC elsewhere, at huge expense and likely reduction of signal strength.)
Against all those headwinds, what’s a billionaire to do with his new station? Given Catsimatidis’ political interests, it’s likely his version of WABC (which will keep its calls, on a long-term license from Disney) will be even more politically charged than it’s been under Cumulus. Catsimatidis says he intends to keep the station’s current staff – but will he want to hear more local voices on his new station? With relatively little local talk in the big city these days, any addition on that front would be heartening – and of course with his deep pockets, it’s likely WABC’s new owner won’t be quite as bottom-line driven as Cumulus and Citadel were.
*In other New York City news, iHeart’s WKTU (103.5) has a new PD, but he’s a familiar face in the building: Chris Conley, who’s already programming sister station WLTW (106.7), adds the more rhythmic sound of KTU to his portfolio. At KTU, Conley fills a role that’s been vacant since Rob Miller moved to a programming executive role in Miami earlier this year.
*Follow the bouncing talent balls to our next lead story: at WLTW, Conley oversaw the replacement of Bob Bronson in morning drive with Cubby Bryant, who moved down the hall from WKTU and created an opening Conley will still need to fill in his new role there.
And now Bronson has a new gig of his own, up the road at Beasley’s Boston cluster, where the announcement of his new morning show on WROR (105.7 Framingham) somewhat obscured the real news there – that one of MASSACHUSETTS‘ longest-running air talents is off the air, apparently not by his own choice.
That, of course, is Loren Owens, who had been with 105.7 in all of its various incarnations since way back in 1981, when he and Wally Brine teamed up on what was then WVBF. The Loren and Wally show outlived Fairbanks Broadcasting, outlived WVBF, outlived its subsequent country incarnations as WCLB/WKLB, and lasted through Greater Media and into Beasley as 105.7 became WROR, segueing through variations of classic hits and classic rock. (Only Matty Siegel at competitor WXKS-FM has lasted as long on Boston morning drive.)
Brine retired a few years back, but returned Friday for what turned out to be a relatively low-key end to the Loren and Wally legacy. The first hint that something was up came earlier in the week, when traffic reporter/sidekick Hank Morse tweeted that he was out after 20 years as the show planned to “go in a different direction.”
Owens, however, kept his plans quieter, officially announcing his exit only on Friday’s show itself. What happened to end his long tenure at 105.7? Nobody’s saying much (the Beasley press release announcing Bronson’s hiring didn’t mention Owens at all), but it appears contract negotiations for another renewal fell through.
While Morse is gone, the rest of the Loren and Wally cast (Loren Beckham-Falcone and Brian Bell) remain as part of Bronson’s new show, which debuts today. Bronson’s arrival at WROR returns him to a familiar market – he went to Emerson and was on the air and APD at the old WSSH (99.5), later serving as OM/afternoons up in NEW HAMPSHIRE at WZID (95.7 Manchester) before joining WLTW in 2009.
*Friday also brought a more subtle format change over at iHeart’s Boston cluster, where WKAF (97.7 Brockton) segued from “The New 97.7” to “97.7 the Beat,” swapping out more current urban AC for rhythmic classic hits. WKAF PD/afternoon jock Chris Malone exits, with WZLX (100.7) PD Chris Tyler taking over programming and morning host KJ moving to afternoons. (Romeo, who does afternoons at WXKS-FM, will add middays on 97.7 to his Kiss duties.)
That wasn’t the only format change at iHeart Boston; on the HD subchannels, “Pride Radio,” the company’s national LGBTQ-focused format, replaces the “Evolution” dance format on the HD2 of “Bull” WBWL (101.7).
*A quiet format change north of Boston has removed the “Big 105.3” oldies format from WUBG (1570 Methuen) and its Malden-based FM translator. Those Costa Eagle-owned signals have flipped to EMF’s K-Love contemporary Christian programming, while “Big” lives on in streaming-only format as “Boston’s Big FM.”
*The news from Cumulus in New York seemed to drown out another ownership change in the region, answering the question of what will become of Cox Media Group’s remaining radio stations. An equity group led by Apollo Global Management, which is already acquiring the Cox TV stations (including Fox affiliate WFXT in Boston), will also pick up most of Cox’s radio assets, including Long Island’s WBLI (106.1) and WBAB (102.3)/WHFM (95.3). While the new group had been making FCC filings under several other names, including “Terrier Media,” it will use the Cox Media Group name once it completes its acquisition of the Cox properties. (The new “Cox Media Group” also rolls in Northwest Broadcasting’s assets, including Fox affiliates WSYT in Syracuse and WICZ in Binghamton.)
*More Radio People on the Move in the Empire State: Jeff Weber, best known in the region for his years at the helm of the Business TalkRadio Network, takes over as Pamal’s market manager at Albany Broadcasting. Weber, who’d most recently been working at LM Communications in South Carolina, replaces AJ Bodden at the Pamal/Albany cluster.
Over at iHeart Albany, the search is on for a new morning host at WRVE (99.5 Schenectady), as Kevin Rush announces he’ll do his last morning show on “The River” July 19. Rush will be moving to Florida, while co-host Tracy Villaume remains in place.
Up north, today marks the start of a new simulcast in the Adirondacks, as Ricki Lee’s WRGR (102.1 Tupper Lake) drops its classic hits “Lake FM” format and enters an LMA with North Country Radio’s WSLP (93.3 Saranac Lake). The new simulcast will be branded as “The Best Hits, Mix 93.3/102.1,” and will reach more of the Tri-Lakes area than either station did individually.
*In CONNECTICUT, Gary Craig’s exit from WTIC-FM (96.5 Hartford) on Friday wasn’t a surprise; he’d announced his planned departure back in January, and he finished up 38 years on Hartford morning radio with a retrospective show Friday that featured music and stories from 1981, when he started on TIC-FM. (He’d been there ever since, except for four years in the 1990s across town on WKSS.)
Ryan “Salt” McMillan moves down from Entercom sister station WWBX (Mix 104.1) in Boston, where he was part of the Karson and Kennedy morning show, to take over today alongside Christine Lee on the new “Christine and Salt Show.”
*One of the most distinctive FM transmitter sites in the country will soon be history, it appears. As Connoisseur takes over WEBE (107.9 Westport) from Cumulus, it has applied to move the station’s class B signal from the side of the United Illuminating smokestack in downtown Bridgeport over to the “Hi-Ho Tower” on Booth Hill in Trumbull, home to its new sister station WEZN (99.9 Bridgeport). From the Booth Hill site, WEBE would run 20.5 kW/204 m, trading some of its current 50 kW power for greater height.
*Way Down East in MAINE, the end of the weekend brought a format change at WCRQ (102.9 Dennysville), which flipped from “Today’s Best Hits, The Border” to country as “Border Country 102.9.”
*There’s a big station sale as well in north central PENNSYLVANIA, where the Backyard Broadcasting cluster in Williamsport is going to its third owner in six years. Daniel Farr created a new “Backyard” group when he acquired the stations – sports WWPA (1340/101.3), classic hits WBZD (93.3 Muncy), classic rock WZXR (99.3 South Williamsport)/WCXR (103.7 Lewisburg), country WILQ (105.1) and AC WLMY (107.9) – from the breakup of the original Backyard. After paying $5.5 million for the stations in 2013, Farr will get $5.9 million by selling the group to Van Michael’s new Backyard Broadcasting of Pennsylvania. Michael owned WILQ and former sister station WLYC (1050) back in the 1990s.
Down the road in State College, Seven Mountains Media is expanding the reach of its “WOWY” oldies brand, adding a new simulcast on WHUN (1150/97.7) and WHUN-FM (103.5) in Huntingdon to the existing WOWY (97.1 University Park).
The WOWY simulcast replaces a similar classic hits format that had been branded as “Hunny 97.7/103.5.”
*In Pittsburgh, Tim Martz’ Radio Power group has split its two translators to separate formats, launching an urban AC format on WAMO (660 Wilkinsburg) and its 107.3 translator last week. The new “107.3 the Beat” calls itself “Pittsburgh’s Old School & Today’s R&B,” aiming for an older audience than the urban “WAMO 100.1” format, which remains on the 100.1 translator, fed by the HD3 of Entercom’s WBZZ (100.7).
Radio People on the Move: later this year, Raphael “Raph” Opida will move from nights at iHeart’s WIOQ (Q102) in Philadelphia, taking over early afternoons at sister station KIIS (102.7) in Los Angeles. There’s no word yet on who’ll replace Raph in Philadelphia, which was his first big-market stop after getting his start here in Rochester at WPXY.