In this week’s issue… What next for Rush affiliates? (And what’s happening at Buffalo’s?) – Entercom completes Philly consolidation – New PDs in Erie, NJ – Morning duo reunites – Perry launches new Brockton station

By SCOTT FYBUSH

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*He didn’t come from NERW-land originally, but Rush Limbaugh’s career intersected two markets here at critical points: when “Jeff Christie” got his initial big-market breaks at WIXZ and KQV in Pittsburgh in the early 1970s, and then (after detours to the Kansas City Royals and KFBK in Sacramento) when New York’s WABC became his initial home base for his rise to national syndication 30 years ago.

So even before he received the Medal of Freedom during the State of the Union address, the news of Limbaugh’s lung cancer diagnosis last week already had significant NERW-land implications.

(photo: rushlimbaugh.com)

While Limbaugh himself long ago left New York for Florida (and isn’t even on WABC anymore, having been moved over to WOR once that station was sold to iHeart, parent company of Limbaugh’s syndicator), his midday show has remained the anchor of talk radio lineups across our region and across the country. Whatever you might think of the man or his politics (and there are plenty of places to discuss that that aren’t this column), there’s no question that whenever his health eventually takes him off the airwaves, it’s going to be a big deal for the radio industry.

Do we have thoughts about what happens next, and what the talk format should be doing? We do – keep reading!

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*Whenever Limbaugh’s obituary is written, you can be sure that it will say “he saved AM radio.” That’s not wrong, exactly – his entry into syndication indeed revived the fortunes of hundreds of AM stations that had been struggling to figure out their next acts once music listeners had largely migrated to FM. For at least some of them, the move to full-time talk kept ratings and revenues healthy for several more decades.

“Healthy,” however, may have come at a price: if Limbaugh’s original sound, full of comedic bits and back-and-forth with callers, attracted a fairly wide audience, the lessons the industry learned from Limbaugh pushed the talk format into an ever-narrower niche. If other syndicated or local hosts couldn’t match Limbaugh’s quick wit or the energy that came from his days as a top-40 DJ, they could out-Rush Rush by moving their politics ever rightward. Limbaugh himself moved from being a court jester poking at power to becoming a seat of power in his own right.

It was red meat for his base, of course, but as the format became ever more polarized, it had to draw its listeners from a smaller, older pool. By the early 21st century, “AM radio” had become synonymous, to many, with the sort of exclusively political, exclusively conservative talk that grew from Limbaugh’s roots. Stations that had spoken to entire communities for decades, whether it was WGAN in Portland, WHYN in Springfield, WHP in Harrisburg or WSYR in Syracuse, became all-day monocultures of political talk with little to offer to listeners who weren’t part of their specific political tribe – and it’s hard to argue that that was an overall healthy development for spoken-word, full-service radio.

And as that trend took firmer root, what did the industry do? It could have tried to address the narrowing of its appeal by developing a more diverse roster of talents or a broader spectrum of talk topics. Instead, it followed Limbaugh’s lead; if you liked his three hours of politics, you probably would like Sean Hannity or Ben Shapiro or Mark Levin, too, right?

Some alarm bells went unnoticed along the way: while Limbaugh had boosted new affiliates’ ratings dramatically in the 1990s, his magic seemed to fade in the new century. Eager to protect the millions of dollars it spent on his contract renewals, Premiere Radio Networks pulled Limbaugh over to signals owned by parent Clear Channel (later iHeart) – but listeners didn’t always follow. New “Rush Radio” formats in Boston (WXKS 1430, later 1200) and Pittsburgh (WPGB 104.7) didn’t catch fire, and former affiliates didn’t seem to lose much when Rush went away, either. (It’s telling that when iHeart ended up buying former Rush affiliate WRKO in Boston, it didn’t move Limbaugh back to that bigger signal from WXKS.)

*Which brings us back around to “what happens now?”

In many markets, that decision won’t be a local one. The growth of Clear Channel/iHeart meant that an ever-growing portion of Limbaugh’s affiliate base was effectively in-house. Manchester, Portsmouth, Boston, Cape Cod, Worcester, Providence, Springfield, New Haven, Albany, Poughkeepsie, Syracuse, Rochester, Harrisburg, Williamsport, Erie, and more than a hundred other markets around the country – in all those markets, iHeart national or regional format managers will decide what will fill the noon slot when the time comes, and it’ll likely be whatever Premiere offers as the national replacement.

Entercom will have some deciding to do, too; even after losing Limbaugh in Boston, it kept the show at other big stations, including WTIC in Hartford, WPHT in Philadelphia and WBEN in Buffalo. At WTIC and WBEN, especially, there’s continued to be a focus on local talk, which might offer some more robust options. (More on that in a moment.) And for the smattering of other operators carrying the show in smaller markets, like Blueberry in Maine, Townsquare in Utica and Binghamton, Cumulus in New London, York and elsewhere? More syndication, no doubt – and more polarization, at that.

There won’t be a “next Rush,” any more than there was a “next Stern” or, for that matter, a “next Paul Harvey.” While there’s still plenty of creativity and diversity in spoken-word programming, one of the legacies Rush and the talk radio environment of the last 30 years will leave behind is the reality that new voices these days are blossoming in places other than AM talk radio, especially in podcasting. Could talk radio ever have captured the young audiences that are hooked on political podcasts like “Pod Save America” or “Chapo Trap House”? It might have been a lost cause – but in the world of talk radio Rush created, we’ll never know.

*We mentioned WBEN (930 Buffalo) a few paragraphs ago, and here’s why: as one of the more polarized of the old-line full-service talkers that went all-in on Rush, it was back in the headlines last week for more reasons than just Limbaugh.

Whatever controversy may have surrounded Limbaugh’s medal, few would argue that WBEN talk host David Bellavia was unworthy of the Medal of Honor he received last year for his service in the Iraq War. Before the medal was awarded, Bellavia had moved up from frequent fill-in host to full-time co-host in afternoons with Tom Bauerle. He took a leave from the WBEN airwaves to travel the country for the Army after receiving the medal (he was, for instance, at the Super Bowl last weekend with a military contingent) – and alert eyes noticed last week that the 2-6 PM slot on WBEN was no longer listed as “Bauerle and Bellavia,” but simply as “Bauerle.”

WBEN (still functioning under interim management after the ouster of longtime GM Greg Ried) told the Buffalo News that Bellavia will remain with the station in other roles – but for now, those other roles remain unclear, while afternoon drive on WBEN remains the solo domain of the very polarizing Bauerle.

*Across town, Buffalo’s public broadcaster rebranded last week. While its radio operations (classical WNED 94.5 and news-talk WBFO 88.7) are aimed largely at audiences on the U.S. side of the border, WNED-TV (Channel 17) has long identified itself on the air as “WNED Buffalo-Toronto,” directing much of its programming and fundraising across the border at the millions of potential viewers in greater Toronto and beyond.

That became more official with the rebranding of “Western New York Public Broadcasting Association” to “Buffalo-Toronto Public Media,” along with a new WNED logo that follows the new national PBS graphics launched last year.

*Up north, the National Labor Relations Board ruled against Stephens Media in a labor law complaint, ordering four fired employees in Watertown and Massena to be rehired. The NABET-CWA union ended up at an impasse with Stephens back in 2018 after failing to reach an agreement over Stephens’ plans to add more voice tracking at its stations, leading to the complaint with the NLRB. The board says Stephens appears to have fired WMSA (1340 Massena) morning host David Romigh for “protected union activity,” and it says that while production/social media director Michael Stoffel was rehired after being laid off, the move violated bargaining rules. Romigh, Stoffel, chapter president Dianne Chase and Frank Laverghetta were all ordered reinstated, though Stephens says it will appeal some aspects of the ruling.

*In New York, iHeart’s WOR (710) has restored one local hour to its evening schedule after last month’s job cuts eliminated its local evening “WOR Tonight” show hosted by Joe Concha and Cooper Lawrence. WOR moved the syndicated Buck Sexton show into the 6-9 PM slot, and now it’s getting a New York-specific hour of Sexton’s show that will be exclusive to WOR from 6-7 PM.

(iHeart is also rolling out a new website design for some of its music stations, starting with AC and classic rock formats including New York’s WLTW and WAXQ.)

*On Long Island, today’s the first day for the reunited morning team of Steve Harper and Leeana Costa, who take over wakeup duties at JVC Media’s WPTY (105.3 Calverton-Roanoke) on the East End.

Harper’s four-decade career on Long Island included a long run at WBLI and then at Connoisseur’s WKJY (98.3), where he was paired with Costa from 2011 until 2018. Harper signed on with JVC last year to do afternoons at WPTY-HD2 (“Oldies 98.1”) and work with the company’s events business; Costa had been doing nonprofit work since her exit from WKJY in 2018.

*More Radio People on the Move: in Glens Falls, Mike Ryan is out as APD/MD at Pamal’s WKBE (107.1 the Point), where he’d been working since moving over from sister station WFLY in Albany. Over in Utica, Roser’s “Bug Country” (WBGK/WBUG) has added a local night jock to its lineup: Calico “Cali” Yaworski will add evenings on Bug to her existing work as morning show producer on sister WUTQ (100.7) and weekends on “Kiss” WSKS/WSKU. On Bug Country, she replaces the syndicated Lia show.

*In Newark, NEW JERSEY, controversy continues to dog public jazz station WBGO (88.3), where CEO Amy Niles resigned amidst protests from staffers. Development director Josie Gonsalves says she was fired after speaking out about what she said was racism within the station and a change of focus from Newark to the larger audience in New York City.

Bob Ottenhoff, who founded WBGO in its current incarnation as a listener-supported jass station in 1979 (it had previously been run by the Newark schools), was named interim CEO as the station conducts a search for new leadership and a review of its internal policies.

In central Jersey, Matt Stockman is the new PD at contemporary Christian WAWZ (“Star 99.1”) in Zarephath. Stockman comes to Star from the national K-Love network in California, a useful background as he tries to keep the local station strong in the face of powerful K-Love signals at both ends of its coverage area, WPLJ (95.5) in New York and WKVP (106.9) in Philadelphia.

*Speaking of PENNSYLVANIA‘s biggest market, it sees a big move today as Entercom brings the final station under the roof of its new corporate headquarters at 2400 Market Street, across from 30th Street Station. Over the last few months, Entercom has moved its music stations (top-40 WTDY, classic hits WOGL and AC WBEB) from suburban Bala Cynwyd, as well as sports WIP (94.1) and talk WPHT (1210) from 400 Market Street in Center City.

All-news KYW (1060) was the last and most complicated move, and if all goes well it will sign on from the new studios today at 2 PM. If you’re keeping score at home, this will be KYW’s third move this century: after many decades along Independence Mall, KYW moved one block east to 400 Market when then-owner CBS sold the Independence Mall studio building, then relocated to 15th and Spring Garden a few years later to rejoin then-sister station KYW-TV (Channel 3) in its new home.

Even before CBS sold its radio stations, it had begun moving them out of shared facilities with its TV stations; KYW was one of the last former CBS stations still co-located with TV, and its move leaves only KCBS in San Francisco sharing a building with KPIX-TV, at least for now.

*Mega-Philadelphia LLC can move forward with construction of a new translator for its WEMG (1310 Camden), now that the FCC has denied a petition from Prometheus Media Project that attempted to stop hundreds of new FM translators from hitting the air. The FCC had dismissed Prometheus’ petitions back in 2018, and it ruled that the latest petition from the advocacy group didn’t raise new substantial or material issues. The new translator, W293DS (106.5), will aim west over the Main Line from the Roxborough tower farm.

In Erie, Vinny Marino is the new PD at Cumulus’ WXKC (Classy 100) and its classic hip-hop HD2 sister, 104.3 the Vibe. Marino moves west from New Jersey, where he’d been on the air at WWZY (The Boss 107.1) in Monmouth County.

*In New England, most of the news this week came from MAINE, where an audition led to a permanent on-air job for Kelly Towle, who makes salsa in Portland as the founder of Plucked Fresh Foods.

Starting March 2, Towle will be spicing up mornings at Saga’s “Coast 93.1” WMGX, where she’s been tapped to succeed Eva Matteson, who retires in a few weeks. Towle will co-host mornings on WMGX with Blake Hayes, and she’ll still be selling salsa after her airshift is over.

Up north, Dale Duff has departed the brand manager position at Townsquare’s Bangor sports station, WEZQ (92.9 the Ticket), after seven years on the job. He’s headed back to WHOU (100.1 Houlton), where he began his career way back in 1974 – but he’ll be doing much more than just broadcasting to the small border town of Houlton. That’s because WHOU has expanded its reach down I-95 to serve more of Maine via a live video streaming sports site, WHOU.live. In his new role with WHOU, Duff will be working to expand the station’s live sports coverage to more events in the Bangor area. He’s an institution there, having spent 16 years doing sports at WLBZ (Channel 2) and then 19 years at WZON (620) before joining WEZQ in 2012.

*In MASSACHUSETTS, Ed Perry launches local programming this morning at 9 on WBMS (1460 Brockton) and translator W266DA (101.1).

Since returning the former WBET/WXBR to the air last year, Perry has been simulcasting sister station WATD (95.9 Marshfield); the WATD simulcast will continue in morning drive, but Joe McMillan will take over with separate programming after that on WBMS. Perry will break his other AM, WMEX (1510), away from the WATD simulcast next month, when he’ll launch an oldies format there.

Out west, Townsquare’s WUPE (1110 Pittsfield) has to answer to the FCC: it issued a notice of violation after hearing WUPE’s daytime signal on the air at night for three consecutive evenings last November and December.

And we’re sad to report the death of veteran engineer Dan Kelleher, who worked at stations ranging from the old WGRG (WUPE’s predecessor) to WPLR in New Haven before landing at WTAG/WSRS in Worcester. During his run with those stations, Kelleher cleaned up WTAG’s 1930s-era transmitter site in Paxton, building a small museum of the station’s history and even opening it to the public several times for open houses and live broadcasts.

Kelleher died Jan. 29, at 69; his family requests donations in his memory be made to Worcester’s WICN public radio, to Emanuel Radio Network (WNEB) in Worcester or to community station WIOX in Roxbury, NY.

*In CANADA, there’s a new HD2-only format in Toronto, where “Indie 88” (CIND 88.1) had been stunting with a wheel of formats on the new digital signal before landing on an active rock format that complements the alt-rock format on its HD1.

North of Toronto, May 24 will be the launch date for the new “K Country 93.7” (CKOU) in Georgina, with a signal reaching from the southern end of Lake Simcoe down into the exurbia of York Region.

The new station is currently hiring an airstaff for its launch; owner Torres Media says that will include local newspeople as well as country jocks.

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4 COMMENTS

  1. In York, PA, Cumulus dropped Rush Limbaugh from WSBA (910/93.9) in January; Fox Across America now airs from noon to 3pm. Further, Brian Kilmeade from FOX & Friends had some months earlier replaced Sean Hannity from 9am to noon.

  2. In a way I believe the rise of Rush Limbaugh contributed to the rise of NPR and other public radio. The listeners who were displaced from other talk formats needed a place to go. And that also IMO contributed to many of these stations becoming more news and talk, and less music.

  3. Scott, your comments on the evolution of Rush from “Top 40 Talk Jock” to becoming a “power seat in his own right” are the most accurate I’ve ever read. He’s also the poster-child for “personality” and consistency on radio. The stations he’s appeared on for decades have enjoyed those 3 hours as a beacon of predictable unpredictability. His health issues have all of us concerned and if Premiere Radio was smart they’d be seeking out his replacement today. There’s not another Paul Harvey. Even his son couldn’t fill the void. Howard is Howard. One of a kind. There just might be a podcaster out there (or another broadcaster) who will pique the interest of his/her audience and be thrust into the national spotlight. It will be hard to find but it’s should be a priority right now.

    Thanks for your service.

    Dave

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