In this week’s issue: WFNX deal nets Clear Channel third Boston FM – Blount buys WFEX – WXBR moves back in – WRKS calls go to Mississippi, its studio to WBLS – Baseball on the Radio: The Independent Minors
by SCOTT FYBUSH
*In the earliest years of this column, back in 1994 and 1995, one story dominated our headlines: the consolidation of Boston broadcast ownership under a handful of large cluster operators. Our first issues (then known as “New England Radio Watch”) chronicled the disappearance of independent owners and the rise of the earliest duopolies and triopolies and, eventually, even bigger clusters.
But as the early Granums and Infinitys and Chancellors gave way to today’s CBS Radio and Greater Media and Entercom, two things remained true in Boston: Clear Channel was trying to compete with a much smaller cluster than its rivals, and one old-line operator, Steve Mindich’s WFNX (101.7 Lynn), remained staunchly independent, immune to the run-up in prices that led many other independents to sell out.
On Wednesday, that all changed with the surprise announcement that Mindich had struck a deal to sell WFNX’s license – but not its call letters or modern rock format – to Clear Channel Media + Entertainment for a price widely rumored (but not yet confirmed) to be $11 million.
For Mindich, it means the end of a broadcast legacy that began in 1983, when the Boston Phoenix publisher paid $1.1 million for what was then WLYN-FM, a suburban signal that had recently segued from leased-time ethnic programming to “new wave” music as “Y-102.”
Over the next 29 years, 101.7 established a niche for itself as the radio voice of Boston’s alternative music scene, breaking bands, sponsoring contests and launching the careers of dozens of talented radio people who made their way through the studios that never moved from the old WLYN-FM digs, in a run-down building way off the beaten path in downtown Lynn.
(Just a sampling of the names with WFNX on their resumes includes Bill Abbate, later with WBCN and WZLX; Sharon Brody, now of WFNX; Nik Carter, later at New York’s WXRK; Joanne Doody, later at WXRV; Tom Irwin, aka “Tai the Morning Guy” and later at WRKO and WROR; Juanita “the Scene Queen”; and Neal Robert.)
In an interview with WBUR after the sale was announced, Mindich said he’d received plenty of unsolicited offers for the station over the years, including some at the height of the market that would have paid him much better than the Clear Channel offer.
“I realized given that sustaining the station over the last four years in particular has been extremely difficult, and the recession has just really killed us, I made the decision. It had to be done,” said Mindich, who was reportedly in tears when he made the announcement to the WFNX staff on Wednesday morning.
The station had approximately a dozen full-time staffers and several part-timers, and Mindich says “eight or nine of them” were let go immediately upon the announcement.
WFNX’s airstaff (D-Tension and Henry Santoro in morning drive, station veteran Julie Kramer in middays, Adam 12 in afternoons and Jim Ryan at night) were promptly replaced by automation, though Kramer and Adam 12 were back on the air for farewell shows Thursday and Friday.
The sale to Clear Channel doesn’t include an LMA, so the automated WFNX programming (and, Mindich promises, more farewell shows) will continue for the next several months until the signal is handed over to its new owner.
> See the WFNX studio and transmitter sites on this 2006 Tower Site of the Week installment <
*So what does Clear Channel plan to do with its new property? That was the, er, $11 million question on the minds of everyone in Boston radio as soon as the news began to spread.
It’s not hard to see why Clear Channel wanted an additional FM outlet in Boston: it’s the only top-ten market in which the giant broadcaster is significantly underpowered when compared to other big clusters in town. While Greater Media boasts five FMs, CBS Radio has four FMs plus powerhouse AM WBZ (1030) and Entercom comes to the plate with three FMs (two of them simulcasting) and two AMs, Clear Channel has been competing with two class B FMs and two less than full-market AMs. The FMs, rhythmic top-40 “Jam’n” WJMN (94.5) and mainstream top-40 “Kiss 108” WXKS-FM (107.9), dominate the younger demographics in the Boston market, while the AMs are talker WXKS (1200) and Spanish AC “Mia” WKOX (1430).
It’s “Talk 1200” that’s been at the center of lots of the immediate format speculation for 101.7: after making a significant investment in upgrading the formerly Framingham-based WKOX into a Newton-licensed 50,000-watt signal featuring Rush Limbaugh and local hosts Jeff Katz and Jay Severin, the AM station has struggled to achieve even single-digit shares in the ratings.
Is that a function of 1200’s limited directional signal, which misses much of the outer suburban reaches most likely to be amenable to the talk format? Or is it simply a matter of being on the AM band while many listeners won’t venture away from FM? In recent years, Clear Channel has become more aggressive about moving its talk formats to FM in search of larger, younger audiences, thus far with mixed results – while Pittsburgh’s WPGB has been a success, Minneapolis’ KTLK-FM retreated to AM in favor of FM sports, and the jury is still out on more recent AM/FM simulcasts in Syracuse and Albany.
In this particular case, the outlook for a 1200/101.7 simulcast appears questionable at best: if the AM signal on 1200 struggles to reach the talk audience out along the I-495 outer beltway, especially at night, the class A FM signal on 101.7 from downtown Boston’s One Financial Center gives up the ghost not far outside Route 128, limiting its reach to Boston and its inner suburbs, not the area that’s traditionally been a stronghold for WXKS’ flavor of talk.
As for a big signal increase on 101.7, it’s unlikely at best. While Clear Channel controls several of the bigger signals short-spaced to WFNX nearby on the dial, including WWBB 101.5 in Providence and WGIR-FM 101.1 in Manchester, a signal shift to upgrade 101.7 still remains almost impossibly challenging. Perhaps the biggest obstacle is the intermediate-frequency (IF) spacing protection between 101.7 and WBUR-FM on 90.9 that would require any higher-powered signal on 101.5 or 101.7 to transmit from outside the core of the Boston market, surrendering the one big advantage WFNX gained in its 2006 move to its current site – good building penetration in the downtown core. (That factor alone may be enough of an advantage over the 1200 signal to justify putting talk there.)
What else could arrive on 101.7 if it’s not talk? Some flavor of male-leaning rock is a possibility, complementing the female-leaning WJMN and WXKS-FM and competing with CBS Radio’s classic rock WZLX, Entercom’s active rock WAAF and Greater Media’s alternative rock WBOS and classic hits WROR. Less likely are country (which would nibble away at Greater Media’s surging WKLB-FM but would be hampered by a weak suburban signal) and some flavor of adult contemporary, which could cannibalize Clear Channel’s own Kiss 108.
There’s a very real, very substantial hole on the Boston FM dial for two more formats as well, both of them fitting nicely with the existing 101.7 signal. A straight-on urban format like the ones that have brought Clear Channel big success in New York (WWPR) and Philadelphia (WUSL and WDAS-FM) might cannibalize too much of WJMN’s listenership. What about a Spanish-language format? Clear Channel has tried several AM approaches to the largely Dominican and Puerto Rican Spanish-speaking communities in the market, including the current “Mia 1430.” But the company’s attempts at Spanish-language FM in bigger markets have fallen somewhat flat in recent years, with a full-scale retreat in Philadelphia (where “Rumba” WUBA went from a full-market FM to a partial-coverage AM to oblivion) and only mixed results at WNUA in Chicago.
One more possibility that’s received relatively little speculation: even without acquiring WFNX’s branding, music library and staff (some of which Mindich may yet repurpose into a streaming-only version of ‘FNX), could Clear Channel keep 101.7 playing some form of alternative rock? Assuming it’s not off-limits due to a non-compete (which we’ll know more about when the sale agreement is filed, perhaps as early as today), modern rock is a format Clear Channel knows well in big markets including Los Angeles (KYSR 98.7) and Philadelphia (WRFF 104.5), it’s a good fit for 101.7’s strong signal over Boston’s college neighborhoods, and it’s a niche that will otherwise be left unfilled when Mindich signs WFNX off the airwaves for the last time sometime this summer.
No matter what comes to 101.7, or what sort of stripped-down “FNX” might survive online, that will be a sad day for Boston radio. In its heyday, WFNX was more than just a radio station. It was a cultural touchstone for two generations of young Bostonians, an entry point into the city for uncounted thousands of college students arriving from elsewhere, and a vital part of one of the best live-music scenes anywhere in the country. (Read Sharon Brody’s memories of her time in the unique WFNX culture here.)
And it was, of course, one of the last independents left standing, leaving in its wake only Steve Silberberg’s WXRV (92.5) up in the Merrimack Valley as a big stand-alone commercial FM voice in a city where WBCN and WCOZ and WCGY once defined what independent rock radio could be.
*As for the other remaining station in a WFNX network that once stretched from Rhode Island to Maine, Mindich also found a buyer for NEW HAMPSHIRE‘s WFEX (92.1 Peterborough) last week. The Peterborough station came to Mindich in a $1.5 million 1999 purchase, and we don’t yet know how much religious broadcaster Bill Blount is paying to add it to his own regional network that includes WBCI (105.9) in Bath, Maine and AM stations in Connecticut (WFIF 1500 Milford, WSDK 1550 Bloomfield), Rhode Island (WARV 1590 Warwick), central Massachusetts (WVNE 760 Leicester) and Derry, New Hampshire (WDER 1320).
Once Blount closes on the purchase of WFEX, it will flip from a WFNX simulcast to a simulcast of WDER’s Christian talk format, with a promise to add more local content from churches in the Monadnock region as the new station ramps up.
(What about the rest of the old WFNX network? Rhode Island’s WWRX 103.7 was sold to Entercom in 2004 to become the Providence-market WEEI relay, and in Sanford, Maine, the combo of WPHX 1220 and WPHX-FM 92.1 was spun off last year to separate local ownership, with the FM going to Aruba Capital Holdings as WXEX-FM and the AM to Carl Strube and Pete Falconi as WWSF.)
*Back in the Bay State, WXBR (1460 Brockton) is returning to its 60 Main Street studios now that the station’s outgoing owner, Michael Metter’s Business Talk Radio, has settled a rent dispute that ousted the station earlier this month. Initially said to be $6,000 behind on its rent, WXBR was apparently more like $15,000 behind, but that amount will be paid out of the proceeds when its impending sale to a Florida broadcaster closes. It’s not yet clear whether WXBR will remain in its longtime home once it’s sold; it’s the last tenant remaining in the building, once home to the Brockton Enterprise, the former parent to the station in its days as WBET.
*(College) Radio People on the Move: Graduation time at Emerson College means Mariel Wade moves up from music director to program director at WERS (88.9 Boston), replacing the departing Katie DiMartile. Kendall Stewart moves up from promotions to music director.
*Out there on Nantucket, this is launch week for Jeff Shapiro’s new WAZK (97.7), aka “97.7 ACK-FM.” The new station came together very quickly over the last few weeks, with almost daily updates on its Facebook page chronicling the installation of a new antenna, transmitter and studio equipment. A signal could be on the air at 97.7 as early as today, and programming may start by “Thursday or Friday,” the station says.
*Just three NERW-land stations were among the 31 around the country taking part in the first-ever “High School Radio Day” last Wednesday. Inspired by the success of the annual “College Radio Day” and timed to the anniversary of the May 1949 debut of WNAS (88.1 New Albany, Indiana), the nation’s first high school FM station, the day was designed to draw attention to the remaining signals broadcasting from high schools around the country – including participants WAVM (91.7) at Maynard High School in Massachusetts, WLLO-LP (102.9) at Londonderry High School in New Hampshire and WWPT (90.3) at Staples High School in Westport, CONNECTICUT.
*EMF’s “K-Love” is about to get a stronger signal in RHODE ISLAND, where translator W284BA (104.7 Warwick) is applying to relocate from Cranston to the WPRI-TV tower in Rehoboth, Massachusetts, where it would boost power from 38 watts to 70 watts, running from a directional antenna 745 feet above ground.
To make the move possible, EMF is changing the translator’s primary signal from WTKL (91.1 North Dartmouth) to WSNE (93.3 Taunton) – and if you’re now asking, “what does Clear Channel’s WSNE have to do with K-Love?,” we can answer that question: Clear Channel and EMF have partnered up in several markets around the country to extend the reach of “K-Love” via HD Radio subchannels on Clear Channel’s bigger FM signals, including, apparently, WSNE. (In exchange, EMF has transferred some of its surplus translators to Clear Channel.)
*We now know for certain where the WRKS calls are being parked after more than 30 years on the air in NEW YORK City at 98.7: as part of the intellectual property YMF bought from Emmis, they’re being parked on one of YMF’s former Inner City Broadcasting stations. The new “WRKS” is the former WZNO (105.9 Pickens MS), a Jackson-market station that, somewhat ironically, runs an FM sports format just like WEPN-FM (98.7), the former WRKS in New York.
And what becomes of the now-vacant WRKS studios in the Emmis complex at 395 Hudson Street? It appears they’ll have a new tenant soon: YMF. As part of the Inner City Broadcasting bankruptcy that transferred WBLS (107.5) and WLIB (1190) to YMF, the stations have been looking for a new home to replace their expensive rented space on the top floor of the 3 Park Avenue tower – and now WBLS is reportedly heading to the former WRKS studio, which is sitting empty now that 98.7 is operating from the WEPN studios.
(WBLS’ move downtown, if it happens, will leave even fewer studios in midtown Manhattan – only Cumulus’ WABC/WPLJ and WEPN at 2 Penn Plaza, along with SBS’ WPAT-FM/WSKQ-FM on West 56th Street and Univision Radio’s cluster at 485 Madison Avenue; pretty much everyone else is now in lower Manhattan.)
Speaking of WEPN, it has ended its English-language ESPN simulcast on WNJE (1040) in Flemington, New Jersey: that signal is now carrying ESPN Deportes Spanish-language sports, a few months ahead of the planned flip to Deportes on WEPN’s AM 1050 signal this fall. (It’s likely a temporary format on 1040, which is heading from Nassau to Goldman Sachs as part of the Nassau Broadcasting bankruptcy.)
*It’s almost Memorial Day weekend, and that means another installment of “WABC Rewound.” The loving look back at Musicradio 77 hasn’t been heard over the air on WABC in a few years, but it keeps on going over at Allan Sniffen’s Rewound Radio, where it kicks off Saturday morning at 8 and runs through midnight next Monday.
*We’ll have another installment of our “Baseball on the Radio” series at the end of this week’s column, but before we get there – how about a bit of lacrosse? On Saturday night, our hometown Rochester Knighthawks won their third National Lacrosse League championship, and that meant a great night for WBEE (92.5) morning co-host/producer Jeremy Newman.
He took over as the Knighthawks’ arena host/announcer this season, and he was right out there on the Blue Cross Arena turf (wearing jersey number 92!) when the team hoisted the Champions Cup. (There was even a “Newman” bobblehead distributed to fans at one Knighthawks game earlier in the season…)
The Knighthawks, incidentally, are heard locally on WROC (950), the Entercom sports sister station to WBEE.
*A Syracuse-based sports talk show will be visiting the ESPN Radio mothership in Bristol, Connecticut later this week as part of the Worldwide Leader’s annual “Audio Alley” event. “Upon Further Review” is heard in the afternoon on Galaxy’s ESPN outlets (WTLA 1200/WSGO 1440 and FM translators at 97.7 and 100.1) and is simulcast on the 9.2 subchannel of ABC affiliate WSYR-TV, where the show originates. There won’t be a video feed of hosts Chris McManus and Steve Infanti, reports CNYRadio.com, but WSYR 9.2 will simulcast the audio of the show and Infanti, WSYR-TV’s sports director, will produce a report for the TV station’s newscasts.
*Radio People on the Move: at WFAS-FM (103.9 Bronxville), Mike Allan moves up from part-time status to full-time middays, while former middayer Bobby Farrell moves to weekends.
*The Northeast Gospel Network, based at WNGN (91.9 Argyle-Glens Falls), has added a new signal northeast of Utica. WVVC (88.1 Dolgeville) is running 11 kW (vertical-only)/102′ from a site near Caroga Lake, at the edge of the Adirondacks. (It’s tied in with religious WVVC-LD channel 40 in Utica as well.)
*There’s a morning show change in central NEW JERSEY, where WAWZ (99.1 Zarephath) parted ways last week with its morning team of Johnny and Stacey Stone. No replacement has been named yet.
*There’s a translator on the move along the US 6 corridor in northwestern PENNSYLVANIA, where Frank Iorio’s WNAE (1310 Warren) will soon have a 250-watt directional FM relay operating from its AM tower. The translator started out as W238BB (95.5) down the road in Corry, and it’s been edging its way eastward, operating briefly as W241BM (96.1) from a site about five miles east of Corry before filing to move up the dial to 96.7 in Warren. WNAE runs a talk format, with local hosts Dale Bliss and Mark Silva in the morning and syndicated talkers the rest of the day. With 5000 watts by day, WNAE’s AM signal gets out well in the Warren area, but it drops to just 94 watts at night, leaving a coverage gap the new FM signal will help to fill.
While Philadelphia’s new talk station, WWIQ (106.9 Camden NJ), waits for the arrival of Rush Limbaugh in its noon-3 PM slot, it keeps plugging interesting guest hosts into that daypart. Last week’s roster included Casey Bartholomew, late of “New Jersey 101.5” (WKXW-FM Trenton); this week, veteran Jersey/New York City jock “Big Jay” Sorensen will be heard on Wednesday afternoon.
*In CANADA, Moses Znaimer’s MZ Media has found a new frequency for the signal it’s bringing to Collingwood, on the south shore of Georgian Bay. MZ had applied for 104.9, but the CRTC awarded that frequency to Bayshore Broadcasting instead, telling MZ to find another spot on the dial. That turns out to be 102.9, where the new MZ signal (which will bear the calls CFMO) will be adjacent to sister station CFMX (103.1 Cobourg). (Both CFMO and CFMX are, or will be, mostly simulcasts of classical CFMZ 96.3 in Toronto, with some local content inserted.)
In order to free up 102.9, MZ will pay to move CFGI on nearby Georgina Island from 102.7 to 92.3. On 102.9, CFMO proposes to operate with 9.37 kW (23 kW max DA)/255 m, while CFGI will run 600 watts on 92.3.
*Ted Bird’s move to CKGM (990) was one of the worst-kept secrets in Montreal radio, and now it’s out of the bag: just days after leaving CKRK (103.1 Kahnawake), he’s joining Elliott Price and Shaun Starr on morning drive at “TSN Radio 990.” Montreal media guru Steve Faguy reports Bird will get a salary bump from $50,000 or so a year at K103 to $250,000 (and a two-year contract) at CKGM. (And what about CKGM’s move down the dial to a stronger signal on 690? That’s still expected to happen sometime before autumn, Faguy says.)
*How about some more Baseball on the Radio? Around this time each year, we take a quick spin around the “independent” minor leagues, noting the handful of unaffiliated teams that still have radio deals in an age when most have gone to streaming – if they have any radio coverage at all.
In the Atlantic League, there’s on-air radio for the Camden Riversharks, returning to WBZC (88.9 Pemberton) for a second season that will include the league’s All-Star game; the Lancaster Barnstormers, moving from WLPA (1490) to WLAN (1390) this season while keeping Dave Collins behind the mike; the Long Island Ducks, in their second year of weekend games on WJVC (96.1 Center Moriches); the Somerset Patriots, back on WCTC (1450 New Brunswick); and the York Revolution, in the last year of a three-year deal on WOYK (1350 York).
Over in the Can-Am League (now down to five teams with the Brockton Rox on hiatus and playing collegiate-league ball this summer), there’s a new radio deal for the Rockland Boulders, who’ll have their second-season action carried on both WRCR (1300 Spring Valley, with studios right at the stadium, Provident Bank Park) and WFAS (1230 White Plains). Les Capitales de Québec remain on CHRC (800).
The Frontier League’s easternmost outpost, the Washington (PA) Wild Things, remain on WJPA-FM (95.3) while sister station WJPA (1450) carries the Pittsburgh Pirates.
We’ve got one more installment left to go: our June 17 issue will include the radio lineup this year for the New York-Penn League, which starts its short season the following evening.