By SCOTT FYBUSH
Today, we’re doing the “Top Ten Stories of the Year” portion of our Year in Review, and we’ll wrap up the whole package on New Year’s Eve with “Those We Lost.” We’ll resume our regular NorthEast Radio Watch report with an update on Monday, January 3. 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. Sports Hub’s Dominant Year
Few stations in any market had quite as good a year as Beasley’s WBZ-FM in Boston. The “Sports Hub” has been consistently ahead of Audacy’s WEEI for years now, but in 2021 it opened what’s fast becoming an insurmountable lead, ending the year with four consecutive months as the market’s overall top-rated station. Even without play-by-play for much of the year, when BIA released its summary of calendar year 2020 radio revenue at the end of 2021, the Sports Hub’s freewheeling personalities and local flavor propelled it to nearly $30 million in revenue, putting it in the #6 position among all stations nationwide – ahead of even New York’s onetime revenue behemoth, WFAN.
While WEEI tried to answer the challenge by refreshing its lineup after the exit of some of its founding voices from 30 years ago (this was the year that both Glenn Ordway and Dale Arnold said their farewells), the Sports Hub also expanded the reach of its “Toucher and Rich” morning show, which entered syndication in the fall to pick up new affiliates – Townsquare’s modern rock WCYY, now a three-signal network in and around Portland, as well as sister sports station WEZQ in Bangor.
9. All-Digital AM Hits the Air
It’s still more of a science experiment than a money-making proposition, but listeners in the northeast who were curious about the all-digital MA3 HD Radio system for AM radio had the chance to hear two signals broadcasting that way in 2021.
For AM signals that aren’t drawing audiences or advertisers anymore in analog (and that’s a lot of them, these days), the promise of the MA3 mode has been wider reach and the chance to bring higher-quality sound and data services to the 30% or so of car radios that now have HD built in. Cumulus was first to turn on the system in May, using the more or less throwaway signal of its WFAS (1230 White Plains) to provide a “New York market” clearance for its Westwood One syndicated talk shows and to see if the more robust digital signal could penetrate into the RF-clogged big city. (Initial reports seem to indicate the crowded “graveyard” channel couldn’t quite achieve that goal; at year’s end Cumulus was poised to add a sister FM station, WNBM 103.9, to the simulcast, flipping it back to WFAS-FM with talk in January 2022.)
On the much cleaner 650 channel, Alex Langer’s WSRO in the Boston suburbs joined the MA3 lineup later in the year, with early reports suggesting its 1500-watt daytime signal was producing clear reception into Boston and well to the north into New Hampshire.
The limited promise of MA3 digital was a rare bright spot in an otherwise tough year for AM. The 50,000-watt signal of WFME (1560 New York) went silent after the valuable land under its towers was sold, returning with an anemic kilowatt from New Jersey later in the year. A few AMs surrendered their licenses completely after losing tower sites, including WNAP (1110 Norristown PA) and WLNL (1000 Horseheads NY).
8. Auction, Window Fill FM Dial (Even More)
There weren’t many holes left to fill on the crowded NERW-land FM dial in 2021, but there was plenty of demand for the few openings that did exist. The FCC’s FM Auction 109 offered a handful of small commercial FM opportunities that got snapped up by aspiring broadcasters, including two channels on Long Island’s East End (one went to EMF, the other to local broadcaster WLNG), the 97.3 facility in Orange MA that belonged to now-deleted WJDF (it went to Steven Wendell, owner of nearby WGAW in Gardner), 100.9 on the fringes of the Erie PA market (it went to the ERIE Radio Company), a new frequency in the Poconos (it went to established local operator Bold Gold), a long-vacant Rutland VT channel (it went to Vermont Public), and a channel in Jefferson NH that went to Lakes Media LLC.
For noncommercial broadcasters, the FCC filing window that ran through October and early November provided another chance to secure new construction permits for the first time in seven years. At year’s end, the FCC was still processing the hundreds of applications that arrived for those signals, including public broadcasters and religious groups from one end of NERW-land to the other.
7. Buffalo Morning Team’s Exit
The line between “edgy enough to avoid boring audiences” and offending today’s listeners who expect more sensitivity has been a difficult one for morning shows to navigate in recent years, and in 2021 Buffalo’s venerable 97 Rock (WGRF) tripped hard over it.
It was a random Wednesday morning in March when “Morning Bull” cast member Rob Lederman launched into a conversational bit where he compared the skin tones of several famous Black women to toast shades, commented on whether he’d date them depending on the shade of their skin, and – let’s just say that Lederman noted on the air that “I may get in trouble for this” before making the remarks, and he did.
The remarks made it into the show’s daily podcast before they started to draw fire, but once that ball started rolling, it went downhill fast. Lederman was fired almost immediately. Show host Rich “Bull” Gaenzler and co-host Chris Klein were suspended, then fired – and then longtime PD John Hager was also cut loose.
How important is a morning team with 30 years of history? Interestingly, 97 Rock’s ratings didn’t take much of a hit, and remained strong after Cumulus shifted its other big morning show, Shredd and Ragan, over to the older rock station from younger-skewing WEDG (103.3 the Edge).
6. After Rush… Who’s Next?
As 2021 dawned, it was hardly a secret that the biggest name in talk radio was terminally ill. Rush Limbaugh had already been on and off the air, handing off his show to fill-in hosts while undergoing cancer treatments. In his noon Eastern time slot, Limbaugh still dominated the industry three decades into national syndication, with clearances across multiple ownership groups at the top talk stations in almost every market.
So you’d think that syndicator Premiere would have had a solid succession plan in place to make sure that Limbaugh’s death would be followed by a smooth transition into a new show that would at least try to carry out the near-impossible task of hanging on to as much of Limbaugh’s audience as could be retained.
When Limbaugh died February 17, though, it quickly became apparent that not only wasn’t Premiere at all ready with a replacement, neither were other syndicators or the affiliate groups that had depended on Rush for their talk revenue.
For several months, the Limbaugh timeslot chugged on with… more Rush, initially in the form of tributes and best-of shows, then morphing into a vaguely creepy mixture of new segments from other talk hosts interspersed with vintage Rush bits “inspired by” current news events.
Without any clear direction from Premiere, some affiliate groups began to bolt, either picking up lower-tier syndicated offerings or (especially at larger Audacy-owned stations in Buffalo, Wilkes-Barre, and eventually Hartford and Philadelphia) going to local lineups in midday for the first time in decades.
By late May, Cumulus and its Westwood One syndication arm had settled on podcaster Dan Bongino as their answer to the noon slot, and by June Premiere finally abandoned the attempt to keep Rush on the air somehow, handing the noon slot over to Clay Travis, who’d started in sports talk, and late-night talker Buck Sexton. While each show came with a guaranteed in-house affiliate base, the result was still a splintering of what had been the last timeslot where a single host still completely dominated national talk.
For Cumulus, the problem was only intensified at year’s end, when Bongino’s refusal to follow the company’s vaccination mandate made his future in the slot uncertain – but for the entire commercial talk industry, the real problem going forward may become clearer in 2022, as we see how the format fares without one unifying voice at its helm in a contentious election year.
5. New Format on the Block
The one format change that got the most notice in 2021? That was easy: on October 22, Audacy got the attention of New York’s radio community when it pulled the plug on “Country 94.7” and launched a new throwback hip-hop station in its place.
WNSH had struggled with the country format ever since Audacy (then Entercom) acquired the station in a 2019 trade with former owner Cumulus. Under Cumulus, 94.7 was the flagship for its national “Nash” country lifestyle brand, which provided a reason to keep the format going in a market that’s never been especially friendly to country music.
Without that national framework, WNSH had to stand on its own, which became a more difficult task during COVID as country stars were unable to bring their tours to New York and the events piece of the business dried up.
Audacy is hoping the new “Block” format (with new calls WXBK) will be better tuned to New York’s ethnic diversity. In 2022, we’ll see who gets brought on board as airstaff under new PD Skip Dillard, a veteran of competitor WBLS. We’ll also get to see how much patience Audacy leadership has with this new format and with the struggling “Alt” format down the dial at WNYL (92.3), now without a morning show, as pressure builds to find an FM home for the all-news formats at sister stations WINS (1010) and WCBS (880). (As we’ve written in this space frequently, it’s a tough balance – can Audacy avoid losing the news stations’ hefty revenues as AM listenership declines, while also avoiding the revenue hit it would take by giving up separate FM music formats and revenue in favor of simulcasts? It’s a particularly tough challenge in New York, where moving only one of the two all-newsers to FM would be practically a death sentence for the other one left as AM-only.)
4. Canada Goes Truly National
It’s been one of our familiar themes in our year-end roundups for a few years now, as we’ve watched broadcasters on both sides of the border turn to an increasing amount of national content.
With so many stations operating remotely anyway, not to mention budget pressures brought on by pandemic-induced revenue drops, 2021 brought still more nationalization at US broadcasters such as Audacy, which now routinely uses national talent outside morning drive in its smaller markets.
But it was Canada where the trend really took hold, starting right at the start of the year as Bell relaunched most of its hot AC and top-40 stations from coast to coast under a unified “Move” brand. In May, the company followed up by taking 25 of its classic hits stations to another common brand, “Bounce,” replacing well-known local identities such as “K-Lite” in Hamilton, “K-FUN” in Kitchener/Waterloo, “Bob” in Peterborough and Brockville and “Big Dog” in Truro, Nova Scotia.
(Just how national did Bell get in 2021? Steve Faguy concluded that of 109 stations nationwide, only six big market music stations – think CHUM-FM in Toronto or Montreal’s CHOM – escaped national branding, along with eight news-talk stations.)
It was hardly just a Bell thing, either: Rogers, which already uses national music brands such as “Kiss,” brought its all-news and news-talk stations under a common “CityNews” identity, from CKWX in Vancouver to CFTR (“CityNews 680”) in Toronto all the way out to CJNI in Halifax. And in the Maritimes, Stingray followed the trend by unifying many of its stations under the “Q” classic rock and “Hot” top-40 brands.
3. Big Year for the Little Guys
With the usual exception of EMF Broadcasting, most of the industry’s bigger radio groups did little by way of station sales or purchases once again in 2021. For smaller players, though, the flattening of radio station values provided a good opportunity to try some regional expansion – if you can get an AM station with a translator, or even a small AM/FM pair, for less than the cost of a suburban house, why not try to grow your holdings?
That’s what owners like Dave Radigan were doing: he expanded from a single AM with translators in Owego, New York, adding an AM/FM cluster in nearby Sayre, Pennsylvania and then a second AM/FM cluster in Towanda, giving him pretty much the only radio operation between Binghamton and Elmira. Elsewhere in Pennsylvania, Pat Grooves’ Major Keystone LLC expanded its “Loud” hip-hop format into the Lehigh Valley via two AM/translator combos, then struck a deal to buy four AMs and several translators from Cumulus later in the year for further expansion in 2022.
Pennsylvania’s small towns were fertile territory for Matt Lightner and Maryland’s Steve Clendenin, too, as they added signals in places like Philipsburg and Latrobe to their holdings at relatively bargain prices.
In New England, the Landry brothers’ Sugar River group took advantage of Dartmouth College’s exit from radio to add WFRD (99.3) to their Upper Valley cluster, while Bob Bittner picked up WBAS (1240) and its FM translator on Cape Cod.
And while it’s no longer a “small” group, it was a big year for the regional Family Life Ministries network, as it made some substantial additions to its holdings in both New York’s Southern Tier and across central Pennsylvania.
2. Exit Time for the Veterans
2021 was a year when long-serving employees in almost every industry started looking to the exits, wearied by increased workloads, COVID-related changes to their businesses and perhaps seeking some new directions in life. It’s no surprise, then, that it was a particularly busy year in local radio and TV for voluntary retirements – and no surprise either that never-ending budget cuts brought on some less-than-voluntary exits, too.
The list was a long one this year. On the radio side, it included veteran sports-talk hosts like WFAN’s Steve Somers in New York and WEEI’s Ordway and Arnold, talk and news hosts such as WTIC’s Ray Dunaway, WCBS’ Rich Lamb and WINS’ Larry Kanter, Paul James and John Montone. Music hosts weren’t immune: Maureen Holloway’s exit from CHFI in Toronto was likely less than voluntary, as was the loss of “Fingers” from WBAB on Long Island. Dave Kane signed off after many decades rocking Rochester on WCMF.
Big changes in the fast-consolidating TV industry meant the departures of a slew of well-loved anchors and meteorologists around the region. Whether it was Maureen McGuire (above) at Rochester’s WROC, Keith Radford at WKBW in Buffalo, Cindy Williams at WCSH in Maine, Kim Lemon at WGAL in Lancaster or Tom Messner at WPTZ in Plattsburgh/Burlington, it meant literally decades of local news and weather institutional knowledge walking out the door – and it’s almost a certainty that the newer faces replacing them won’t be around for anywhere near as long as those veterans stayed in their markets.
1. COVID, Year Two
There was, once again, no competition for the year’s top story. But if the first year of the COVID pandemic at least brought some brand-new challenges the broadcast industry had never faced, the sequel in 2021 felt like more of a grind for everyone, didn’t it?
As technology for remote broadcasting improved, station owners tried to figure out what the future of brick-and-mortar studios would look like. Even before the pandemic, iHeart had already started planning for slimmed-down studio spaces as more of its programming became nationalized and remotely tracked; that process picked up steam in 2021 as the company shut down some studio locations (on the New Hampshire seacoast) completely and plotted relocations and downsizing in other markets, such as Pittsburgh.
When the pandemic’s first waves waned in spring and summer, a return to “normal” started to look at least plausible, with many offices reopening, events and remote broadcasts returning and play-by-play sports resuming in more or less pre-pandemic fashion. The arrival of vaccines added some hope but brought some conflict, too, as companies tried to implement mandates but faced staff pushbacks in some areas. At year’s end, the rise of the omicron variant added a new layer of uncertainty as we all wait and hope, devoutly, that our lead story in 2022 can be anything else.