The Year’s Top Ten Stories

By SCOTT FYBUSH

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It’s that time again: at long last, we’ve arrived at the end of a challenging year, both for the industry as a whole and for your editor personally. And that means we take a break from our weekly roundup of industry news for our 21st annual Year in Review edition. Year in Review installments will appear daily beginning today, all week long through our wrap-up on Friday, January 2, so check back every day for a new installment. We’ll resume our regular NorthEast Radio Watch report on Monday, January 5, 2015, and Tower Site of the Week is back Friday, January 9, 2015. (And in the meantime, our own Twitter and Facebook feeds and RadioInsight will be here with any breaking news!)

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Back to part three: The Year in People, Formats and Calls

Over the last two days, we looked month-by-month at all of the programming, people and callsign changes we covered during the year (see our January to June list here, and July to December here.) And we looked at the year in station sales here.

But what stories made the biggest headlines in 2014? With a tip of the hat to the departed Casey Kasem, we’re counting them down in our annual list of the news items and trends that caught our attention throughout 2014…

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10. More news for New Hampshire

If your phone number starts with “603,” you get your liquor from a state store at a highway rest stop and you’d never, ever vote for a candidate who supports a tax increase, you make your home in the Granite State – and for more than half a century, you’ve probably gotten your local news fix from one place, Manchester’s WMUR (Channel 9).

Rehearsing for the NH1 newscast (photo: Rick Zach/WBIN)In a state whose TV landscape has long been dominated by the big signals from across the state line in Boston, there haven’t been many other choices for local news coverage on the air that have had any staying power. But there also haven’t been many owners quite like Bill Binnie, the multi-millionaire who’s been plowing his fortune from the plastics industry into the construction of a broadcast empire in northern New England.

After several years of planning and hard work, Binnie cut the ribbon this fall on his new broadcast center, a state-of-the-art radio and TV facility carefully implanted in the shell of an historic school building in Concord. In addition to studios for his New Hampshire radio stations, the new building includes a newsroom and top-notch HD production facility for “NH1 News,” the most serious local challenge WMUR has faced in pretty much its entire existence.

Can a new offering, even one as well done as NH1 News, break a habit as long-established as WMUR viewing? Binnie is investing in promotion (including a strong NH1 News presence on his radio stations), but NH1’s host station, WBIN-TV (Channel 50), is struggling to get attention on a very crowded TV dial. If channel 50 is known for anything at all, it’s zany weather guy Al Kaprielian, who’s still an evening fixture on the station…but it’s worth noting that Kaprielian’s forecasts are being kept completely separate from the NH1 News operation.

We’ll be watching closely through 2015 as the looming presidential race turns the spotlight on New Hampshire to see how NH1 News measures up to the challenge.

9. A troubled sale in Elmira

welmRobert Pfuntner’s Pembrook Pines station group in New York’s Southern Tier was hardly the only broadcast cluster to face bankruptcy problems in 2014. But it had a much rougher than usual transition to new ownership, thanks in part to an in-market competitor. Pfuntner’s Elmira/Corning cluster of two FMs, two AMs and a translator was originally destined to go to a new group, Titan Radio, controlled by former TV manager Randy Reid. But that $2.75 million deal (which also included an AM and FM in Bath) didn’t close in 2013, and early 2014 brought a new deal. This time, it was crosstown broadcasters Paige Christian and her husband Bill involved: Paige’s Sound Communications was to get Pfuntner’s Olean and Salamanca stations, while Bill’s Great Radio LLC would end up with the Elmira/Corning stations to go with Fox affiliate WYDC-TV, operated by his Vision Communications.

But Reid and another in-town competitor, Community Broadcasters, intervened, arguing that Bill Christian in fact had direct involvement with the Sound stations, creating a huge ownership-cap issue with the addition of the Pfuntner cluster. While the Olean/Salamanca stations still ended up going to Sound, Great Radio pulled out of the Elmira deal, leaving bankruptcy trustee Dick Foreman to find a new buyer. At year’s end, the Elmira stations were on their way instead to Binghamton-area tower owner Gordy Ichikawa for $1.13 million, though the deal hasn’t yet closed.

8. Bad year for the Corporation

North of the border, the mad rush to consolidation on the commercial side of radio and TV was largely a done deal by the time 2014 dawned.

cbc-ghomeshiOn the public side, though, the cutbacks were just beginning. With a Conservative government firmly in place and ideologically opposed to state-run broadcasting, the CBC suffered even more budget cuts in 2014 on top of the cuts it had already weathered in the last few years. At year’s end, that included announcements of serious upcoming reductions in local TV news (along with the addition of a TV simulcast of local radio morning shows, not much of a replacement for cutting back the evening news from 90 minutes to as little as 30 minutes in markets as big as Montreal.)

French-language Radio-Canada completed its on-air transition to “Ici,” fending off opposition by the new Montreal ethnic TV station that had earlier claimed the “Ici” name for itself.

And then came Jian Ghomeshi and the scandal/lawsuit threat/PR disaster that not only appears to have ended Ghomeshi’s own career but also severely damaged his “Q” show, which was supposed to have become a staple of both CBC radio and television in its slimmed-down new form.

Will CBC survive? It always does – but its glory days seem to be receding quickly.

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7. Hartford’s indie FMs fade away

wdrcfm-newlogoOnce upon a time – and by that we mean “at the beginning of 2014” – Hartford was an unusual medium market. In addition to the usual roster of CBS and Clear Channel corporate cluster offerings, the Insurance City boasted a pair of distinctive independently-run FMs with big signals. At 102.9, Buckley’s WDRC-FM kept the “Big D” flame alive with a lineup of oldies and local personalities that was rather atypical for a big FM in the “classic hits” era. At 106.9, Marlin’s WCCC-FM rocked out much harder than most of today’s FMs; better yet, both stations boasted AM sisters with their own distinct formats – talk on WDRC’s four-signal “Talk of Connecticut” network and classical music on WCCC (1290).

But independent FM tends to be a family business, and the deaths of Rick Buckley earlier in the decade and Marlin patriarch Alexander Tanger in August spelled changes at the signals they’d once owned. Buckley’s signals sold first, going to Jeff Warshaw’s fast-growing Connoisseur group for $7.9 million. As soon as the ink was dry on the closing papers in July, nearly all of the WDRC-FM staff was out. And while Connoisseur kept the calls and some semblance of the format, the new classic hits WDRC-FM became a very different radio station, sharing air talent with WPLR (99.1) down in New Haven and trading its older oldies for more 70s and 80s rock.

Over at Marlin, August brought a $9.5 million deal to LMA and eventually sell the WCCC stations to EMF Broadcasting, which did what it always does: after the WCCC-FM staff had one day of farewells, 106.9 and 1290 flipped to satellite-fed K-Love.

6. Speaking of Connoisseur…

connoisseur-logo-lgIt wasn’t just Hartford where Jeff Warshaw’s group made some big moves in 2014. Connoisseur was part of one of the year’s biggest radio swaps in the region, the May deal that closed the books on Qantum Communications.

Qantum traded its entire 29-station lineup, including four Cape Cod FMs and a big pile of Southern signals, over to Clear Channel, all for just two signals that Clear Channel had parked in its Aloha Station Trust: Long Island’s giant WALK-FM (97.5) and its sister WALK (1370).

Connoisseur in turn paid Qantum $50 million for the WALK stations (or, really, for WALK-FM), adding that huge AC signal to a Long Island cluster that already included AC competitor WKJY (98.3), classic hits WBZO (103.1), rock “Shark” WWSK (94.3) and standards WHLI (1100). WHLI quickly added 1370 as a simulcast, and WALK-FM moved in with the existing Connoisseur cluster, giving the group solid dominance of Nassau County and a much stronger foothold in western Suffolk against the other big operator there, Cox.

Both Connoisseur and Clear Channel ended up doing some signal tweaking, too: WDRC-FM on 102.9 went directional, sacrificing its reach toward New Haven to allow new sister WBZO on 103.1 to lose its DA and improve its in-market coverage of Long Island’s North Shore.

And Clear Channel? Its pickup of the Cape Cod cluster set the stage for our next big story, coming in our next Year in Review installment on Friday…

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> > > Continue to part five: The Year’s Top Stories, #5-#1

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