Text and photos by SCOTT FYBUSH
One of the big things we’ve missed about not being able to travel so much the last few years is the chance to follow along closely as things change in one of our favorite radio markets, New York City. Instead of spending a few days at a time visiting New York friends several times a year, we’ve only made it down for a day at a time, once or twice a year – but we’ve still tried to make the most of it.
Take, for instance, this June day in 2013, when we had just a few hours to drop in and see the results of what were then some fairly recent changes in the city’s radio scene.
Just a few months earlier, Emmis had leased out the former WRKS (Kiss 98.7) to ESPN, sold the Kiss intellectual property to YMF Broadcasting’s WBLS (107.5) – and then taken in WBLS and sister station WLIB (1190) as tenants at its Hudson Street studios, creating a one-two-three punch of urban radio in the building that paired the more adult R&B sound of WBLS and the black gospel of WLIB with the younger hip-hop sound of WQHT (Hot 97).
(And in the meantime, Emmis lost another tenant: after selling what had been WRXP 101.9 to Merlin Media, “FM News 101.9” WEMP lived and died in the old 101.9 studios right here in the Emmis space; after returning briefly to music, 101.9 ended up being sold to CBS Radio to become WFAN-FM, leaving behind a couple of mostly empty studios.)
The Hudson Street space was in the middle of one stage of a multi-phase renovation in 2013, with office areas freshly upgraded, while the studios still looked very much as they had when this space was first built out in the early 1990s. Those WQHT studios and the bullpen area just outside those fishbowl windows were soon to get some national TV exposure on the VH1 reality show “This is Hot 97,” but that shoot hadn’t quite started yet at this point, if memory serves.
Down the hall, the former Kiss 98.7 studio didn’t stay empty long after ESPN began operating on that frequency. YMF moved WBLS into the former Kiss space (and WLIB into a production room down the hall) after moving out of its uptown digs, which we featured here back in 2010. And a few months after we visited, Emmis completed the circle by buying WBLS and WLIB outright, ending the odd joint-operation situation here that found two receptionists at the front desk, one for WQHT and one for the YMF stations.
Just down Hudson Street at number 345, it had been barely six months since CBS Radio completed the clustering of all of its New York stations by moving WCBS (880) downtown from the eighth floor of the Broadcast Center complex. It was the second move in just over a decade for WCBS, which had spent most of its all-news lifetime up in CBS’ “Black Rock” headquarters building at 51 W. 52nd Street in the heart of midtown, and the latest version of the WCBS news center drew heavily from its Broadcast Center predecessor, albeit with some funky downtown industrial flair this time around.
Just as in the Broadcast Center studios, the new WCBS digs feature a mirror-image pair of on-air studios; this time around, the anchors in both studios look right out through big windows at the editors’ desk just outside. The newsroom features wall murals of prominent news events, with Ed Murrow’s visage gazing down from one end amidst a row of edit booths that line the back of the newsroom. And while WCBS now shares a street address with its competitor/sister station WINS (1010), the two stations couldn’t be more separate – they’re on different floors of the CBS complex with separate staffs who rarely interact.
While WBLS, WLIB and WCBS were joining the great downtown migration of New York studios, one station was swimming against the tide. When ESPN took over 98.7 in 2012, it was still operating New York flagship WEPN (then on 1050) from the 2 Penn Plaza studios it shared with WABC (770) and WPLJ (95.5) in an arrangement dating back to the days when Disney owned those ABC Radio stations.
In early 2013, ESPN’s lease arrangement with WABC/WPLJ (by then Cumulus stations) came to an end as Disney moved the entire ESPN New York operation (including the local website) from 2 Penn Plaza uptown to the ABC building at 125 West End Avenue. This space has a long and colorful history, starting as a parking garage (which explains the oddly sloping hallway floors in part of the structure!) and then as the hub of the ABC radio networks. While ABC Radio News continued to occupy one side of the floor, the former network talk studios on the other side weren’t in use after that piece of the ABC network operations had been transferred to Cumulus.
That, in turn, created an excellent opportunity for ESPN, which inherited a suite of extremely quiet studio/control room pairs that it was able to repurpose fairly quickly and efficiently with new studio furniture and SAS consoles to become the new home of WEPN-FM, ESPNNewYork.com and WEPN(AM), which flipped to Spanish with ESPN Deportes Radio after a few months of simulcasting with its new FM sister.
(In one of those “only in the 21st century” arrangements, ESPN programs 98.7 from here but still sends its audio downtown to WEPN-FM’s legal main studio at Emmis, where public files and EAS are maintained; 1050, meanwhile, is actually programmed out of an ESPN Deportes facility in Miami, and even the local talk segments are fed down to Florida for ad insertion and such before returning to the master control here to be sent out to the transmitter in New Jersey.)
And don’t miss a big batch of New York IDs next Wednesday, over at our sister site, TopHour.com!
Next week: Westerly, Rhode Island