The Year’s Top Ten Stories
By SCOTT FYBUSH
This week, we’re doing the “Top Ten Stories of the Year” portion of our Year in Review in two installments, counting down stories 10 through 6 today and then stories 5 through 1 on Tuesday, Dec. 31. We’ll wrap up the whole package on New Year’s Day with “Those We Lost,” and we’ll resume our regular NorthEast Radio Watch report with an update on Monday, January 6. In the meantime, our own Twitter and Facebook feeds and RadioInsight will be here with any breaking news!
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…
10. Imus in the Mourning
If it had happened any other week of the year, the death of veteran New York morning host Don Imus might not have made the cut for the year’s top ten – but without a regular NERW installment this week, it seems somehow appropriate to include the “I-Man” here at the top of this Year in Review segment.
Was he a genius who shook up the stodgy sound of New York’s WNBC with a burst of irreverent creativity that set the stage for a generation of morning zoos? An iconoclastic interviewer who probed deeper than most into his guests’ views, providing a speakers’ corner that was a must-listen for political junkies for years? A philanthropist who gave back millions of dollars to help kids with terminal illnesses and Iraq War veterans?
Or was he a misanthrope who made life miserable for many of the people who worked with him, eventually even driving his most prominent sidekick away? A troubled man whose issues with drugs and alcohol exiled him from New York to Cleveland before he staged a triumphant return, sparking the drivetime rivalry that pitted him against Howard Stern during what turned out to be a last golden age for WNBC in the early 1980s? A tired shell of himself who kept a show going for what many thought was years past his prime?
And of course, as so many have been discussing these last few days since news broke of his death Friday morning at 79, how much of his on-air schtick was rooted in racist tropes that had worn out their on-air welcome in the 21st century? The slurs he used against the Rutgers women’s basketball team in 2007 ended his tenure on MSNBC, WFAN and CBS Radio in part because they were far from a one-off event; stories emerged (and had been circulating for years internally) of Imus’ behavior behind the scenes at WFAN, as well as plenty of well-documented jabs on the air that might have gone without notice in the 20th century, but looked and sounded different in the 21st.
Don Imus was, of course, all of those things, in the complicated way that talented, difficult people often are. And a full accounting, when one is finally written, will – and should – remember him for both his triumphs and his failings. We’ll probably have more to say in that vein when our regular NERW column resumes next week; for now, what we can say with confidence is that the sound of New York City radio was distinctly different because Don Imus was there, and that alone merits his place on this list.
The year, of course, brought with it other losses – WBZ morning legend Gary LaPierre, two of the deans of Binghamton broadcasting, several prominent station owners, the engineer who reshaped the New York TV skyline after 9/11 – and we’ll have our full “Those We Lost” list in Tuesday’s final Year in Review installment.
(And what would have been in the number 10 slot before Imus’ death? Probably the closure of the “Fios1” regional news channels around New York City, which had been operated by Richard French’s RNN group under contract to Verizon. Their shutdown left dozens of talented journalists out of work and seriously reduced local coverage in the Hudson Valley, Long Island and New Jersey, prompting an outcry from local leaders; Verizon ended up picking up the “News 12” channels from rival cable operator Altice in their place.)
9. Sports Talk Shakeup
When we put WFAN’s Mike Francesa on this list at the end of 2017, we thought his retirement from afternoon drive would be the last time he’d get a prominent mention in this space. When he returned to the shift just a few months later, we still didn’t expect he’d have an annual position on this list. But here we are again at the end of 2019, and here’s Francesa again. After strong ratings in his first book back on the air, Francesa’s ratings slipped quickly. More to the point, perhaps, WFAN’s new Entercom ownership didn’t appear to have the same personal loyalty to him that he enjoyed under CBS Radio.
And so after a year and a half, Francesa retired again in December, this time with far less fanfare – and leaving behind some chaos in his wake. The team that was to have replaced him in afternoons splintered, with Chris Carlin and Bart Scott jumping to rival ESPN and WEPN-FM (98.7), leaving WFAN to pair Maggie Gray with new co-hosts as it tried to rebuild after losing Francesa (and overnight host Tony Paige, too.)
WEPN, meanwhile, surged in the ratings as it picked up former WFAN hosts and listeners. The demise of ESPN’s Deportes Radio Spanish-language service freed up WEPN (1050) on the AM dial, too, which became a full-time feed of ESPN’s national radio service and an overflow home for some play-by-play. On the play-by-play front, the Mets returned to Entercom from iHeart as their five-year WOR (710) contract ended. In their new dial position on WCBS (880), the Mets put Wayne Randazzo in the booth alongside Howie Rose, freeing up Josh Lewin for new roles that included occasional appearances among the revolving cast in the Red Sox radio booth.
Up in Boston, the big news at Sox flagship WEEI (93.7) was the morning shakeup that moved longtime rock-talk morning man Greg Hill downstairs from sister station WAAF (107.3) to help bolster WEEI in its battle against “Sports Hub” WBZ-FM (98.5), where another former rock morning show, Toucher and Rich, was winning the ratings battle.
8. Canadian Consolidation Continues
Another running theme on this list has been the dramatic shrinkage of ownership diversity north of the border, and 2019 was no exception. Quebec’s third commercial TV network, V, had been in the hands of big corporate owners several times in its 33 years on the air, including cable giants Videotron and Cogeco and the Bell Globemedia conglomerate.
More recently, it was independently held, a rare holdout these days – but that’s about to change, now that Bell Media has announced a deal to buy the network. Assuming the CRTC approves the deal, it will put V and its stations under the same ownership as the English-language CTV network and Bell’s satellite/fiber distribution network, leaving only a handful of small operators such as Newfoundland’s NTV, Channel Zero’s CHCH Hamilton and CHEK in British Columbia as independent players.
On the radio, the conglomeration continued, too: having swallowed the former Newcap group, Stingray added to its roster with stations in Niagara, while Acadia Broadcasting swallowed up CIGO in Port Hawkesbury, one of the few Nova Scotia signals it didn’t already control. And while it didn’t add any new signals in 2019, Bell took advantage of its national radio footprint to launch “Pure Country” as a coast-to-coast brand, replacing local country brands in many small and medium markets and installing some national shows outside of drivetime.
7. FM Rockers Turn Fifty
1969 was a huge year in music (maybe you heard something about Woodstock?), and so its fiftieth anniversary was bound to be an important one, too, in the industry. A few of the stations that pioneered FM rock formats back then were still around at the half-century mark, and they were in a mood to celebrate.
Here in Rochester, WCMF (96.5) was honored by the Rochester Music Hall of Fame, with a special nod to longtime midday jock Dave Kane; the station then threw a 50th anniversary concert of its own over the summer. Pittsburgh’s WDVE (102.5) had its 50th in November, complete with an alumni reunion party, a concert and a commemorative beer. Even in Boston, where WBCN didn’t make it even to its 40th, memories were still running strong – longtime morning man Charles Laquidara came home from Hawaii to fill the Wilbur Theatre with an evening of stories and memories.
The even bigger anniversary, of course, will come in 2020 as Pittsburgh’s KDKA hits its century mark; whether or not November 2, 1920 was in fact the “birth” of American radio (it wasn’t), the year will still be filled with stories about the 100th anniversary of broadcasting, and we’ve already set aside a space on next year’s list for that.
6. Connoisseur and Friends
It was an interesting year for several of the small- and medium-sized players on the radio ownership scene. Seven Mountains Media continued to expand its range beyond western and central Pennsylvania, especially in Elmira, where it started the year buying Community Broadcasters’ clusters, then ended it by adding George Hawras and Kevin Fitzgerald’s three full-power FMs and a host of translators). Seven Mountains also picked up WSBG/WVPO in the Poconos; keeping it in the family, Forever (owned by the husband and father of Seven Mountains’ owners) grew with the purchase of Delmarva’s stations, including the big WSTW Wilmington signal that reaches into the Philadelphia suburbs, as well as the independent WLBR/WQIC cluster in Lebanon.
Community also sold off its Ogdensburg stations, paring back to just Watertown in the region. Jeff Andrulonis sold more of his remaining Olean cluster, which had already gone silent. Vox took control (but not yet ownership) of the former Sison cluster in Burlington.
But the biggest of the smaller players in 2019, by far, was Jeff Warshaw’s Connoisseur group, which made some cleverly strategic deals that consolidated its position in a ring of markets around and just beyond New York City. A swap with Cumulus took Connoisseur out of the competitive Lehigh Valley, but bolstered Warshaw’s position in southern Connecticut, adding news-talk WICC (600) and AC WEBE (107.9) to a cluster that already included three other FMs, among them WEBE’s archrival WEZN (Star 99.9). That move allowed Connoisseur to consolidate studios, closing the old WEBE/WICC offices in downtown Bridgeport – and helped to begin building some cross-Sound connections, with WEZN’s morning show set to begin simulcasting in 2020 on sister station WALK-FM on Long Island.
Connoisseur also exited a competitive market outside its home turf, swapping its Erie cluster to iHeart in exchange for just two signals in Frederick, Maryland, a little closer to Connoisseur’s center of gravity and, more importantly, a small market where its new acquisitions, WFRE and WFMD, are dominant players, just as the Connecticut and Long Island stations are.
Will Warshaw’s gamble on a leaner and tighter group of stations pay off? We’ll be watching that story closely heading into 2020 – and also a similar paring-down at Emmis, which retained management of its New York cluster and ownership of the WEPN-FM license (leased to ESPN), even as it got a cash infusion by selling its WBLS and WQHT licenses to a new company, Mediaco, held mostly by Standard General, with Emmis keeping a 23.5% stake.
What stories will be our top five for 2019? Stay tuned – the next installment of Year in Review comes your way Tuesday morning!