The Year’s Top Ten Stories

By SCOTT FYBUSH

It’s time once again for our Year in Review, the 25th time we’ve gathered up our headlines from the previous 12 months and tried to sum it all up for you. Year in Review installments wrap up tomorrow with “Those We Lost,” and we’ll resume our regular NorthEast Radio Watch report with an update on Wednesday, January 2. (And in the meantime, our own Twitter and Facebook feeds and RadioInsight will be here with any breaking news!)

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The fourth installment of our Year in Review (catch up on yesterday’s installment here) spotlights what were, in our opinion, the biggest stories of the year across the region we cover. Think we left something out? Weigh in below in the comments…

1. Whither Tribune?

It’s not really a NERW-land specific story, it’s true, but Tribune’s attempt to sell off its national group of TV stations has plenty of NERW-land implications.

At first, it seemed Sinclair would be the winning suitor, with a $3.9 billion bid that posed a whole bunch of regulatory challenges. Sinclair proposed to spin off several of the biggest Tribune stations to stay under the national ownership cap, including New York’s WPIX (Channel 11) and Chicago’s WGN-TV (Channel 9); even so, it took FCC intervention (reinstating the now-counterintuitive UHF discount) to make the potential deal even remotely plausible.

But even with a change in power in Washington providing a more friendly regulatory climate, Sinclair couldn’t get the deal through the Commission, which opened the door for another player. Nexstar’s $4.1 billion deal fits under the ownership cap, and if it goes through, it will take the Texas-based company into a new level of major-market ownership, putting WPIX and Philadelphia’s WPHL in the company of dozens of small- and medium-market TV stations Nexstar already owns.

And it will mean some spinoffs in places where Nexstar and Tribune both own: in Connecticut, either Nexstar’s WTNH/WCTX or Tribune’s WTIC-TV/WCCT-TV will have to be spun off; in Pennsylvania, there are conflicts in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (WBRE/WYOU for Nexstar, WNEP for Tribune) and Harrisburg (WHTM for Nexstar, WPMT for Tribune) to be resolved as the deal heads for closing in 2019.

2. Entercom/CBS Radio, Year Two

After the blockbuster CBS Radio/Entercom deal that was our undisputed lead story for 2017 came the hard work in 2018 of actually physically moving all the stations that were affected. No Entercom/CBS market faced bigger challenges than Boston, where the three-way shuffle with Beasley and iHeart meant eight radio stations had to move studios, some of them swapping with other trade partners in a complex technical dance that kept engineers busy all year.

The most dramatic moves both involved stations called “WBZ.” Beasley’s pickup of WBZ-FM (98.5 the Sports Hub) meant construction of a flashy new audio/video studio complex at its Dorchester cluster headquarters. And iHeart’s addition of WBZ (1030) meant a late-summer move that took the market’s oldest radio station from its home of 70 years in Allston to a shiny new newsroom and studio in Medford.

The moves were more than just physical, as iHeart learned to operate the first all-news station in its huge nationwide lineup. Veteran newsroom manager Rob Sanchez came on board midyear, amidst staffing changes that included the exit of midday anchor Rod Fritz, assistant news director Jon MacLean and production guru Michael Coleman – and at year’s end, a shuffle of talent that moved Jeff Brown to mornings and Josh Binswanger to afternoons.

In New York, nobody moved, but WCBS (880) got new imaging as it lost the rights to use the CBS “eye” logo. WCBS picked up New York Mets rights for the next few years, and it lost Alex Silverman, who moved south to take over from the retiring Steve Butler at the helm of sister station KYW (1060) in Philadelphia.

Physical moves are in the offing in that market in 2019, as Entercom consolidates the former CBS stations from three separate locations to a new corporate headquarters near 30th Street Station. Well, not all of the former CBS stations – the other big move for the company in 2018 was its purchase of WBEB (101.1) from Jerry Lee Radio LLC, ending that station’s long run as a rare big-market independent FM. To get WBEB into its cluster, Entercom had to shed WXTU (92.5), which it sold back to Beasley, for a net outlay of just $20 million for top-rated WBEB.

3. Some Stability for WBAI

Some year, perhaps, we’ll have a Year in Review without any big news from Pacifica’s New York outlet.

2018 was not that year, of course: WBAI started things off with a dysfunctional transmitter and $2 million in unpaid back rent to its landlord at the Empire State Building. Sell the big class B commercial license? Swap for someone else’s noncommercial or AM signal? No – Pacifica’s local management instead attempted a PR offensive, staging a rally at City Hall to little support from the public or political leaders.

At the national level, though, new leadership found a way out of some of WBAI’s problems. With the help of the Public Media Company, Pacifica arranged a loan to pay off the debt to Empire State and pay for WBAI to move a few blocks away to the Durst Organization’s 4 Times Square master FM site. That loan begins to come due in 2019, and we’ll see how Pacifica pays it off and whether WBAI finds its way back into the headlines again,

4. Connoisseur Shrinks, Townsquare Grows, Galaxy Restructures

Jeff Warshaw’s Connoisseur group was at the center of two of the bigger radio deals of the year as it shed two of its clusters. In Hartford, Connoisseur dealt WDRC-FM (102.9), three of its four “Talk of Connecticut” AMs (WDRC, WMMW, WSNG) and a New Haven translator to Full Power Radio, boosting John Fuller’s presence in the market and leaving Connoisseur with just its four-FM cluster (WFOX, WPLR, WEZN and the LMA for WYBC-FM) in New Haven.

Connoisseur also exited Trenton, selling big top-40 WPST (94.5) and its two AM sisters, WNJE and WCHR, to Townsquare. And Townsquare, in turn, was also a buyer in Utica, where it paid cash to add classic rock WOUR (96.9) to its already dominant cluster of three FMs and one AM.

Breaking WOUR away from the rest of Galaxy’s Utica cluster gave Ed Levine the cash he needed to buy out his downstate investors, allowing him to restructure Galaxy’s remaining stations and event businesses in Syracuse, Utica and down south with the addition of seven local investors, including SU basketball coach Jim Boeheim.

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5. More Consolidation in Canada

Think we have ownership consolidation in the US? Look across the border to Canada to see how much more dominant a few big owners can get. A few big players now control almost all of Canada’s radio and TV, and one of them changed hands with the half-billion dollar deal that took Newcap’s properties under the wing of Stingray, until now best known as a provider of streaming music channels.

In Quebec, RNC Media and Attraction Media exited the scene in 2018; RNC sold its smaller markets off to giant Cogeco, which gained radio presences in every significant Quebec market, while its Montreal and Quebec City stations are in the process of being sold to Leclerc, pending regulatory approval. Attraction Media’s Sylvain Chamberland purchased that company’s radio stations under the banner of his new Arsenal Media.

6. Translators On The March

“AM Revitalization” remained a bit of a misnomer in 2018. The FCC held one last filing window to allow any remaining AM stations without FM translators to apply, which resulted in dozens of new construction permits around the region. (Fybush Media was proud to assist several clients through that process, of course.)

For some AM owners, translators did provide exciting new life: little daytimer WCGR (1550 Canandaigua) spawned two big signals serving the Finger Lakes and Rochester as classic rock “The Lake,” Matt Lightner brought “Jack” to Altoona on a translator attached to WYUP (ex-WWGE), and the list goes on.

In other areas, the push to fill every available crevice of the FM dial created interference battles that are dragging into 2019 and beyond.

And while “AM Revitalization” may have revitalized the owners of AM stations, it didn’t, on the whole, do much for the AM band itself. The old WPTR (1540) in Albany, later WDCD, surrendered its 50,000-watt license, unable to find a niche in a market full of FM signals. Empire Broadcasting took its three AMs silent, seeking buyers for those licenses and their associated translator CPs. In Boston, the old 50,000-watt site of WMEX (1510) was demolished as new owner Ed Perry tried to get it back on the air at reduced power from a different location.

7. Mike’s Back On

You can always count on sports radio to provide at least a few big headlines each year, and New York’s WFAN was right there in the fray in the first few months of 2018. Veteran afternoon voice Mike Francesa was gone, right? Finally free of his long-running battles with management, off to a new digital platform, and yielding his shift to a new three-headed show with Chris Carlin, Maggie Gray and Bart Scott? Right?

Not so fast – as the New York tabloids began reporting in late April, a restless Francesa was having serious second thoughts after WFAN became part of Entercom, opening a new path for him to negotiate a return directly with CEO David Field. And so at the start of May, Francesa was right back on WFAN’s afternoon shift, displacing Carlin, Gray and Scott to an earlier midday shift.

Francesa wasn’t the only AM radio icon in the headlines in the first half of the year; Don Imus’ long run in morning drive sputtered to an end in March on WABC (770) and a small handful of remaining affiliates. Imus didn’t even stick around for his entire farewell show, signing off from his western ranch a few minutes into his second hour. Imus sidekicks Sid Rosenberg and Bernie McGuirk took over WABC’s morning drive, to lukewarm ratings.

8. WEEI Gets Sensitive

WFAN couldn’t have all of the headlines to itself, and up in Boston its new sister sports station WEEI obliged, delivering an only-in-Boston stew (chowder?) of unforced errors and vaguely racist overtones when host Christian Fauria read a tweet from Tom Brady’s agent in a phony Asian accent. That came on the heels of another WEEI host, Alex Reimer, getting suspended for mocking Brady’s daughter on the air – and by the end of February, WEEI management (under pressure, in particular, from the Globe‘s Shirley Leung) called an audible.

For an entire day, WEEI’s local hosts were off the air, undergoing sensitivity training while the station aired NBC Sports Radio syndicated shows. And while one of the station’s few African-American hosts, Dale Holley, left soon afterward (a move he said he was already planning), things did indeed quiet down for a while at WEEI.

(It probably didn’t hurt that the hosts had good news to talk about as the Red Sox rocketed through a 108-win season all the way to a World Series win – and of course that was going to find its way into our Year in Review.)

9. Repack-a-palooza

Do you watch TV over the air? If so, you’ll get to be very good friends with your rescan button over the next year or so. After the excitement of the multi-billion-dollar spectrum auction in 2017, the local TV industry got down to business in 2018, signing off the signals that had been sold at auction and negotiating and implementing channel-sharing agreements to keep many of those stations alive as “zombie” licenses. WNBC in New York was among the biggest stations to give up its own spectrum; Univision paired off in many of its markets (sometimes with itself, in Philadelphia with Tribune’s WPHL); in the Lehigh Valley, four strange bedfellows – public TV WLVT and its new “zombie” WPPT, independent WFMZ and religious WBPH – all shared bits on WBPH’s VHF transmitter.

Now comes the even more complicated work of relocating hundreds of stations nationwide to new frequencies within the new downsized TV spectrum (RF channels 2-36). With available tower crews very limited and already overworked, it’s a big challenge for engineers and tower owners as they try to juggle tower and crew capacity, mount and dismount temporary antennas and comply with strict Congressionally-mandated deadlines for each of the nine phases of the repack.

10. WLNG Sold

It was bound to happen eventually. Robert King, the incredibly low-profile owner of one of the most beloved stations in the radio fraternity, WLNG (92.1 Sag Harbor), died back in 2011 – and ever since then, the King-Nelson family had been quietly shopping the station for sale.

When the news came late in the fall, it sounded pretty good: the new owners, “Bark Out Loud Dogs Media,” weren’t a big conglomerate – just Sandra Foschi and her husband, Bill Evans, the weatherman from WABC-TV and a frequent voice on WPLJ radio – and they promised to keep all the quirky things that made WLNG more than just an average small-market radio station. Their eye-popping $3.9 million deal for the station was mostly for its waterfront studio real estate, leaving the license and transmitter site valued at a more reasonable $700,000.

WLNG’s success, of course, came in spite of most of the things we all think we know about radio in the 21st century: lots and lots of jingles, a huge playlist, lost dog reports, frequent remote broadcasts, and so on. It might not work in most places or with most audiences, but WLNG’s special bond with its community has kept it a dominant force on the East End ever since King bought the place back in 1969.

We’re still hopeful that the new owners can continue that success, but early signs suggest change is in the air, with jingles and specialty features already disappearing and even (gasp!) dead segues being heard between songs on a reduced playlist. We’ll be watching closely in 2019 to see how things play out as the FM signal approaches its 50th anniversary next summer.

(We’ll wrap up our Year in Review coverage tomorrow with a comprehensive look at the year in radio and TV obituaries.)

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