In this week’s issue: Emmis, ESPN spin the New York FM dial – Remembering Pete Fornatale – Cumulus, Townsquare swap signals – Sixers switch radio homes – New owner for Ontario’s Haliburton Broadcasting
by SCOTT FYBUSH
*Few days in NEW YORK City radio history have produced so many surprises as this past Thursday.
We knew, of course, that ESPN had long coveted an FM outlet to overcome the signal deficiencies of its New York flagship WEPN (1050), a perpetual laggard in the ratings battle against CBS Radio’s behemoth WFAN (660). But of all the possibilities floated for a new WEPN-FM, the news on Thursday came as a nearly complete surprise: a complex deal involving ESPN, Emmis Communications’ WRKS (98.7) and YMF, which recently took over Inner City Broadcasting’s WBLS (107.5) and WLIB (1190).
Now that the dust has settled, here’s how it all plays out – and what we think it all means:
For listeners, the effects of the deal began to appear on the FM dial almost as soon as the ESPN press conference was underway Thursday morning: WRKS began simulcasting with WBLS in what was billed as a “celebration” of 30 years of urban radio on “Kiss 98.7.”
That simulcast, which ended Friday night as the stations went into their separate weekend programming, was the result of a $10 million deal under which YMF is acquiring the intellectual property of WRKS: the “Kiss” nickname, the station’s playlist and some of its airstaff. Starting today, YMF begins the challenging task of merging the “Kiss” DNA with its own WBLS, bringing together two stations that have been competitors for more than a generation.
Here’s what we know so far about that piece of the puzzle: WBLS will keep its own Steve Harvey morning show instead of taking WRKS’ Tom Joyner. In middays, it’s WRKS’ Shaila (who displaces WBLS’ own Deja Vu.) Jeff Foxx remains in afternoons on WBLS (leaving the syndicated Michael Baisden without a New York home), and at night Lenny Green comes over from WRKS, replacing Keith Sweat on WBLS. We’ll know more this weekend about what moves where, but we’d expect WBLS staples such as Hal Jackson, Imhotep Gary Byrd and the Sunday gospel and Caribbean blocks to remain in place.
At least one longtime WRKS weekend staple, DJ Red Alert, made an emotional signoff Saturday night and apparently won’t be making the move to WBLS. Nor, apparently, will be Felix Hernandez and the Sunday edition of his “Rhythm Review,” though he’ll continue to be heard Saturdays on WBGO (88.3).
And as for the branding? All signs of “Kiss” disappeared from the WBLS website right at midnight – so in effect, it appears YMF may have paid more for the privilege of eliminating WBLS’ biggest competition than for much of the branding that went with WRKS.
(If you’re keeping track of these things at home, WRKS went out with a tw0-hour live edition of its “Week in Review” talk show, hosted by veteran newsman Bob Slade, whose time at 98.7 goes back to the days before “Kiss”; he was accompanied by a studio full of WRKS jocks to say goodbye. The last song heard on Kiss was “Brothers Gonna Work it Out” by Willie Hutch, followed a moment later on WBLS by Michael Jackson’s “The Way You Make Me Feel.”)
*Over at 98.7, it’s ESPN Radio as of 12:01 this morning, simulcasting WEPN (1050) – but what’s on the air is less complex than the tangled financial web behind the scenes. Emmis has been one of the more debt-heavy big broadcasters out there (notwithstanding that it bought WRKS itself for a very reasonable $68 million back in 1994) and its arrangement with ESPN will help to pay off some of the $240 million Emmis now owes creditors.
Here’s how Emmis plans to make all this pay: on the content side, Emmis is getting $10 million from YMF for the WRKS intellectual property, plus additional quarterly payouts of 15% of any revenue increase WBLS shows as it adds WRKS content. On the signal side, the Emmis lease of 98.7 to ESPN is a twelve-year deal starts out at $8.435 million for the first year and increases by 3.5% each year through 2024.
But wait – there’s more! That money won’t flow directly to Emmis as it comes in. Instead, Emmis is structuring a new subsidiary that will hold the 98.7 license and its lease proceeds as collateral for a new $75 million loan from Wells Fargo and TIAA, the national teachers’ insurance company. It’s the proceeds from that loan that Emmis will use to pay down some of its more immediate debt.
In effect (at least if we understand this all clearly), what Emmis is doing here is extracting pretty much every bit of value it can from the 98.7 license without actually selling it outright. Emmis says the entire deal – intellectual property, signal lease, additional payments from YMF and all – will bring in $96 million, and that’s probably more at this point than the 98.7 signal would fetch on an open market in an outright sale.
*This deal, of course, raises a whole slew of new questions and changes in the competitive dynamic in New York. A few bullet points:
- Is this the first shot in an FM sports war? CBS Radio is no stranger to FM sports, and it knows from its Boston experience that an aggressive new FM sports player (its own WBZ-FM, three summers ago) can make a major dent in an established AM sports veteran (Entercom’s WEEI, which eventually had to make an FM move of its own.) In Philadelphia, CBS recently made a defensive move to FM at WIP, which had been fending off Greater Media’s WPEN-FM but was feeling pressure from sports rights-holders who wanted their games on FM. In New York, it’s been a very tilted playing field, with CBS Radio’s dominant WFAN (660) holding pretty much all the cards – better signal, better play-by-play rights, much bigger ratings and revenue – against ESPN on 1050. But 98.7’s full-market class B FM signal from the Empire State building will be a game-changer, and it arrives just as several big radio rights deals are up for renewal. ESPN has already signaled that it will be a deep-pocketed contender for the Yankees rights now held by CBS Radio’s WCBS (880), and if the Yankees believe FM will bring their games a younger audience, there’s every reason to believe CBS won’t hesitate to pull the trigger on a new WFAN-FM if that’s what it needs to retain those rights. The Mets, now heard on WFAN, are also in play for next season, and while they lack the cachet of the Yankees, they’d still be a big consolation prize for “ESPN 98.7” if CBS hangs on to the Yanks. ESPN will bring the Jets, Knicks and Rangers to FM on 98.7, and at some point the Giants, Nets and Devils, all heard on WFAN, will surely want their own FM exposure. Bottom line: WFAN-FM may not happen right away, but it’s only a matter of time. (And when it does, the betting line is that it will replace top-40 “Now” on WXRK 92.3, the lowest-rated and lowest-billing of CBS’ three New York FMs.) One more bit of irony here: it was Emmis that took the big risk to create WFAN as the nation’s first all-sports station 26 years ago – on 1050.
- How will ESPN program 98.7 to compete with WFAN’s talk lineup? The “Worldwide Leader” has been smart enough in recent years to know it can’t compete against local-local-local WFAN with the national program lineup that comes from its studios in Bristol, Connecticut. On 1050, it’s already been programming more than half its weekday hours locally, and that will continue on 98.7, albeit with some schedule shuffles. Stephen A. Smith moves from evenings to middays, taking a new 1-3 PM slot alongside Ryan Ruocco, and he was also on hand to kick off the new FM signal at 12:01 this morning. Mike Lupica’s now being heard at noon for an hour, and Dave Rothenberg now hosts the 6-9 PM slot. If you’re counting at home, that’s 14 hours of local programming a day (Jared Max’s 4-6 AM local shift, plus nonstop local from noon- midnight) alongside ESPN’s flagship morning shows, Mike & Mike at 6 and Colin Cowherd at 10.
- What’s the future for urban radio in New York, especially at Emmis’ remaining signal, WQHT? The numbers Emmis set out for WRKS’ declining revenue are daunting: “Kiss” took in $16 million three years ago, slumping to just $11 million in revenue last year. (If you’re following along at home, yes, that means that within a few years Emmis will take in more in lease revenue from ESPN than it was making in total revenue as “Kiss,” without any of the associated expenses.) For fans of urban radio, there’s reason to be concerned about the future. With Magic Johnson as a partner, YMF appears to be committed to keeping WBLS alive over the long term, but it’s hard to forget that the reason Johnson and his YMF partners ended up with the station in the first place was the bankruptcy of longtime owner Inner City. With WRKS gone and former sister station WEMP (101.9) now in the hands of Merlin Media (with Emmis as a minority partner), the only station remaining directly in Emmis control in New York is WQHT (97.1). Can “Hot 97” succeed as a standalone in a heavily-clustered market? It’s not the only market where Emmis is trying to make a go of a standalone hip-hop station, and it’s working pretty well in Los Angeles at KPWR (105.9). But unlike LA, there’s a strong competitor in the hip-hop arena in New York, Clear Channel’s “Power 105.1” WWPR. Will WWPR stick with hip-hop, or might it try to fill the more adult R&B vacancy now being created by WRKS? Expect some turbulence in New York’s FM music landscape in the months to come.
- 1050 goes Spanish. After a few months of simulcasting with 98.7, ESPN will flip its AM 1050 signal in September, using it to give Spanish-language ESPN Deportes Radio a full-time New York clearance. While the 1050 signal isn’t full-market, it’s still a 50 kW AM with a good reach over the five boroughs. ESPN Deportes tends to focus heavily on soccer (er, “futbol”), which is a big winner among Mexican-American audiences in the southwest but may not play as well among New York’s huge Puerto Rican and Dominican communities, but the key here is simply a presence for the network in the nation’s number-one market. Deportes on 1050 may also make for a nice bargaining chip for Yankees or Mets rights; in Spanish, those teams are both heard on Univision Radio’s New York cluster right now. It’s also not clear what becomes of the 1050 simulcast on WNJE (1040) in Flemington, New Jersey, which ESPN has been leasing from Nassau to augment the 1050 signal to the west; that area doesn’t have much of a Hispanic population, though the 1040 day signal does reach some Spanish-speaking audiences in the Lehigh Valley.
- What about those HD subchannels? Emmis has been leasing 98.7-HD2 to “Hum Desi Radio,” which programs to New York’s Indian community, but over the weekend Hum Desi shifted to WQHT’s 97.1-HD2, displacing “MyRXP,” the rock stream that was the last surviving bit of the old WRXP (101.9) in its pre-Merlin days. As of Sunday, 98.7-HD2 was carrying dead air, as was a new 98.7-HD3; at midnight, they lit up under ESPN control with ESPN Deportes on HD2 and the national ESPN News feed on HD3.
- Will there be new callsigns? As of late Sunday, no requests had been filed for call changes at any of the affected stations, so for now it’s still WRKS on 98.7, WBLS on 107.5, and WEPN on 1050. We’d expect 98.7 to become WEPN-FM at some point soon.
- And what about WFME? There are plenty of apparent winners in this complex deal – Emmis gets much-needed cash, ESPN gets its FM outlet and a place to park ESPN Deportes, YMF gets rid of the biggest competition to WBLS. But then there’s Family Stations, which is trying to sell its WFME (94.7 Newark NJ). Until Thursday morning, there was every reason to believe ESPN was a prime contender for that New Jersey-based class B signal; despite its limited signal compared to the full class Bs on Empire, it was still the biggest FM on the market – or so it seemed. And if you’re the broker who ends up with the WFME listing, you’re probably wondering, “what now?” There are sure to be other prospective buyers – it’s still one of the largest FMs in the country by population reach, after all – but taking ESPN’s Disney cash out of the picture seems likely to reduce the price Family will get for 94.7 when it finally sells.
*If not for the WRKS upheaval, we’d have led this week’s column with another huge story from New York: the death of one of the city’s best-loved rock DJs.
In a 48-year career spent entirely in the city, Pete Fornatale lived the dream, starting in 1964 as an exceptionally talented student DJ on WFUV (90.7), the radio station at his alma mater, Fordham University. At WFUV, Fornatale pioneered free-form rock programming on what had been a staid “educational” FM station, and he quickly parlayed that skill into paying work at WNEW-FM (102.7), one of the city’s first commercial free-form rockers. Fornatale was on WNEW-FM from 1969 until 1989, fighting to keep the free-form torch burning in an increasingly structured world of commercial radio formats. In 1982, he launched “Mixed Bag,” a Sunday bastion of themed free-form programming that came along with Fornatale when he moved down the dial to WXRK (92.3) in 1989 to do middays.
In 1997, Fornatale returned to WNEW-FM for what turned out to be that station’s last gasp as a classic rocker, but that lasted only a year, and by 2001 he was back where he’d started at WFUV, where “Mixed Bag” settled in nicely to what had by then become a professionally-run AAA format, a successor in a way to the free-form radio Fornatale had started there back in the sixties.
Fornatale also became a successful author, writing books that included an early history of music radio (“Radio in the Television Age,” co-written with Josh Mills in 1983) and his story of the Woodstock festival.
Fornatale died Thursday, several days after suffering a stroke. He was just 66. WFUV will remember him with a special broadcast next Saturday (May 5) in his old “Mixed Bag” timeslot, from 4-8 PM.
*Up the dial at Clear Channel’s WLTW (106.7 New York), Jillian Kempton is the new assistant PD, coming to “Lite FM” from Philadelphia’s WBEB (B101).
And there’s yet another move on the way for W292DV (106.3), the translator that had big dreams of serving midtown Manhattan but couldn’t overcome interference issues. Even at its newly-reduced 25-watt status from a site in Long Island City, Queens, the translator has been facing interference complaints from Press Broadcasting’s WKMK (106.3 Eatontown NJ), which has been actively soliciting listener reports at its website. Now owner Michael Celenza has applied to downgrade W292DV once again, this time shifting it to just 10 watts from the North Shore Towers apartment complex on the Queens/Nassau line, the same location where WQBU (92.7 Garden City) has long had its transmitter. From there, the 10-watt W292DV would serve only a small chunk of eastern Queens and adjoining Nassau County. For now, at least, the translator is still shown as relaying WVIP (93.5) from New Rochelle, and it’s recently been heard with the country programming from WVIP’s HD3 subchannel.
MONDAY MORNING UPDATE: There’s still more deal-making percolating out there, and it finds Cumulus exiting several of its smaller markets in the region in a swap with Townsquare. Townsquare is adding the Cumulus (ex-Citadel) clusters in Binghamton, New Bedford, Augusta-Waterville and Bangor (along with six other markets outside the region) to its lineup, while Cumulus takes former Townsquare properties in central Illinois and $116 million in cash. The deal reinforces Townsquare’s lineup in upstate New York (where it’s already in Buffalo, Utica, Albany and very close to Binghamton in the Oneonta area) and gives the company its first foothold in New England. Much more in next week’s NERW…
*In Binghamton, Sonny King is out as morning man at classic hits WBBI (107.5 Endwell); Clear Channel’s “Big 107.5” is now running an all-Premium Choice lineup that features Washington-based Loo Katz tracking morning drive.
In Syracuse, CNYRadio.com reports WOLF-FM (105.1 DeRuyter)/WWLF-FM (96.7 Oswego) has named Syracuse native (and Emerson College graduate) Taylor Smith as its new midday jock; she’s been working as the stations’ promotions director for several months now.
CNYRadio also reports Roser Communications is trying to sell the WRCK callsign that came along with its purchase of Utica’s 100.7 FM. That signal is now WUTQ-FM, and Roser has parked the venerable WRCK calls (which spent almost 30 years at 107.3 on the dial, now EMF’s WKVU) on what had long been WADR 1480 up in Remsen.
SUNY Oneonta has swapped the callsigns between its full-power and LPFM licenses: WUOW-LP (104.7 Oneonta) is now WUWO-LP, while WUWO (88.5 Milford) is now WUOW. It’s that 88.5 facility (augmented by a 91.3 translator in Oneonta) that will be the new permanent home of WUOW’s public radio format, while the LPFM license will be transferred to a new licensee.
*PENNSYLVANIA‘s only NBA team is changing radio homes, and it’s not waiting until the start of the next season to do it. The Philadelphia 76ers were once a cornerstone of the all-sports format on CBS Radio’s WIP (610), but as WIP and CBS kept adding more play-by-play rights, the Sixers found themselves at the bottom of the priority list, often being shuffled to talker WPHT (1210) now that the Phillies have become WIP’s star attraction, followed by the Flyers.
Instead of being the number-four team at WIP (which also has the Eagles), the 76ers are becoming the star attraction at Greater Media’s “Fanatic,” WPEN-FM (97.5 Burlington NJ). It’s being described as a “multi-year deal” that starts at the beginning of the NBA playoffs, and it will also put most Sixers games on WPEN (950).
*Where are they now? Former KDKA (1020 Pittsburgh) PD Marshall Adams has landed a new job that takes him south again. Adams was programming WBT (1110) in Charlotte, N.C. before coming home to Pittsburgh and KDKA, and now he’ll be programming a new Cumulus-owned all-news outlet in Atlanta. The new format will launch next month on what’s now oldies WYAY (106.7), challenging established talkers WSB (Cox) and WGST (Clear Channel) for the spoken-word audience in Atlanta.
In Allentown, “Mackenzie” is the new middayer at WZZO (95.1), where she replaces veteran PD/middayer Tori Thomas. (Operations manager Craig Stevens has taken on Thomas’ PD responsibilities at ‘ZZO.) Mackenzie comes to the Lehigh Valley from WZRX (107.5) in the Lima, Ohio market; coincidentally, a tower you can see in this week’s Tower Site of the Week.
*It didn’t take long for that silent NEW JERSEY class D signal to return to the airwaves. WPDI (104.7 Hazlet) is the reincarnation of the former WDDM (89.3), which was forced from its old frequency by the arrival of Catholic WFJS-FM (89.3 Freehold) last year. It’s carrying the “Radio Asia” programming from WPRB (103.3 Princeton)’s HD2 channel, which is a continuation of the former “Dhoom FM” Indian format that had been heard on WDDM.
We’re sorry to report the death of veteran WSNJ (1240 Bridgeton) announcer Paul Hunsberger, whose career at the station began way back in the early 1940s. After serving with the U.S. Army in Europe during World War II, Hunsberger returned to south Jersey and WSNJ in 1948, working first as an account executive and eventually as the host of “Off the Cuff,” a daily conversation program that ran for nearly half a century.
During that time, Hunsberger interviewed more than 10,000 people and boasted of never having repeated a guest. Hunsberger officially retired in 2011, but WSNJ president Jim Quinn says he was still selling advertising for the station as recently as early April. Hunsberger died Monday at age 93.
*The news in MASSACHUSETTS is all about small new signals at the bottom of the dial.
In Middleborough Center, the Talking Information Center has applied for a license to cover for WRRS (88.5), a new 400-watt signal that will carry TIC’s radio reading service. WRRS is actually the second station in Middleborough carrying TIC programming, alongside Steve Callahan’s WVBF (1530), which runs TIC when it’s not carrying other local shows. TIC had owned a low-power FM in the Berkshires, WRRS-LP (104.3 Pittsfield), which it recently transferred to the Berkshire Benevolent Association for the Blind.
While we’re out west, we note that WJNF (91.7 Dalton), an as-yet-unbuilt CP, is being transferred (for no cash) from Calvary Chapel of the Berkshires to Fitchburg-based Horizon Christian Fellowship, which runs WJWT (91.7 Fitchburg) and six satellites around southern New England.
Another growing regional Christian network, the Augusta, Maine-based Light of Life, is hoping to get its new signal on Cape Ann built before the construction permit expires June 12. Light of Life has applied to modify the CP for WWRN (91.5 Rockport) to decrease the power and antenna height, going from 800 watts/285′ DA down to 530 watts/187′, non-directional, from a rooftop about a quarter-mile away from the original CP site in Gloucester.
*Speaking of MAINE, the big story up there this week was the retirement of Bruce Glasier, veteran sports director at Portland’s WCSH (Channel 6). Glasier was the original weekend sportscaster at WCSH when it began doing weekend newscasts in 1977, and by 1979 he was the lead sportscaster there on weekdays. The station marked Glasier’s last broadcast Friday with plenty of tributes, including a nice photo gallery on its website.
*In RHODE ISLAND, Cox Cable is replacing the “RI News Channel” (cable channels 5/1005) with a new brand, “OSN-Ocean State Networks.” The news channel had been programmed by ABC affiliate WLNE (Channel 6) until the beginning of January, when NBC affiliate WJAR (Channel 10) took over that role. OSN will make its official debut on Wednesday, but it’s already carrying loops of WJAR news programming.
The new OSN will also include the Cox-produced local sports programming that has been airing on cable channel 3; it’s not clear what becomes of the channel 3 relay of the 10 PM newscast from Boston’s WLVI (Channel 56), the last relic of Boston TV news on the Cox Rhode Island system.
*There’s a new broadcaster coming to eastern CANADA, as British Columbia-based Vista Broadcast Group picks up the 24 Ontario stations of Haliburton Broadcasting. The move is being orchestrated by Westerkirk Capital, which is taking Vista and its 38 B.C., Alberta and Northwest Territories stations private, buying all the outstanding shares not controlled by Vista’s management group. Haliburton has been one of the fastest-growing small-market broadcasters, spreading its “Moose FM” brand from its original base in “cottage country” north of Toronto across much of small-town Ontario. There’s no announced price tag yet for this deal.
In the Ottawa/Gatineau market, there’s testing underway again on CIRA-5 (1350), the new relay of Montreal’s “Radio Ville-Marie” (CIRA 91.3) – but another broadcaster hoping for a new AM signal has been turned down. Papoo Holdings wanted a 1000-watt signal on 1630, broadcasting in Arabic and mainly relaying its CHOU (1450) from Montreal. Another ethnic broadcaster already operating in Ottawa, CHIN Radio’s CJLL (97.9), objected to the proposal, arguing that the Papoo proposal would have a negative impact on its own business. The CRTC agreed, saying Papoo’s proposal was at odds with its own multilingual broadcasting policy, which favors stations such as CJLL that serve multiple ethnic groups and provide considerable local content.