New England RadioWatch: 1996 in Review

by Scott Fybush

Another year of radio has come to a close here in New England, and in keeping with our annual tradition here at NERW, we proudly present our year-end review. This year we'll break from the station-by-station format, and instead present a month-by-month synopsis of the moments we'll remember in New England radio, 1996:

A quiet month, as New England suffered through one of the worst winters in recent memory. WSNG (610 Torrington CT) went dark, and WZPK (103.7 Berlin NH) was sold to Fuller-Jeffrey, although the sale would take most of the year to complete.
Prime Sports radio dropped its lease on WBPS (890 Dedham-Boston), switching to nonstop music for a week before starting its own leased-time sports format. New York morning jock John Lander moved to Boston and joined WBMX (Mix 98.5). Off the air: Experimental station KF2XBF, an FM facility at Boston's Logan Airport advertising Avis rental cars incessantly on 88.5.
Infinity made a big splash to start off the month, buying Granum's WBOS (92.9 Brookline-Boston) and WOAZ (99.5 Lowell-Boston) to give it four Boston-area FM outlets. WCMX (1000 Leominster MA) returned to the air with religion. WPMZ (1110 East Providence RI) returned to its licensed 5kw daytime-only signal after years of using 250 watts at night under dubious authority. WDIS (1170 Norfolk MA) went dark for a few days, then returned to the air. Portland got mega-opoly as well, as Saga Communications added country WPOR AM-FM to its existing 2 AM-2 FM group. Connecticut joined the club as well, with Commodore Broadcasting buying WSTC (1400) and WKHL (96.7) in Stamford to add to its existing AM-FM pairs in Norwalk and Brookfield.
The month started with an April Fools joke that turned out to be for real, as Infinity moved Howard Stern from evenings to mornings on WBCN (104.1), sending WBCN legend Charles Laquidara to sister station WZLX (100.7). A radio trip to Vermont and New Hampshire found almost everyone playing Alanis Morrissette's "Ironic" (which wouldn't change much for the rest of the year!) Mega-opoly hit Cape Cod with car dealer Ernie Boch's deal to buy Cape FMs WCOD (106.1), WUNX (93.5), and WUNZ (101.1) to add to his existing AM-FM pair. Hartford got it too, with Multi-Market paying $18 million to make WKSS (95.7) its third FM there. Boston talker WRKO (680) moved its schedule around, dropping Charles Adler's weeknight show in favor of "Two Chicks Dishing," and dumping "Sex Talk" later at night for the unavoidable Dr. Laura Schlessinger. Alexander Langer tried to move WRPT, a small, dark New Hampshire AM, into the Boston market on a different frequency, but was turned down in what would be only the first of a series of attempts.
Clear Channel Broadcasting tripled its size in New England, buying WHYN AM/FM Springfield MA and WWBB-FM Providence/WWRX-FM Westerly RI from Radio Equity Partners. Classical radio survived on Cape Cod, with the sale of financially-troubled WFCC (107.5 Chatham MA) to Boston classical outlet WCRB (102.5 Waltham MA). New to the air was WVFM (105.7 Campton NH), simulcasting WLKZ (104.9 Wolfeboro NH). Also new was WAEF (96.5 Bedford NH), which would end the testing in June and become classic rock WOXF "The Fox." WCNX (1150 Middletown CT) became musically-diverse WMRD, and Somersworth NH's WRGW (98.7) became standards WRDX "Radio Deluxe." Under new owner Philip Urso, WOTB (100.3 Middletown-Newport RI) ditched smooth jazz for a simulcast of modern-rocker WDGE (99.7 Wakefield-Peace Dale RI), with new WDGF calls following shortly. Your New England Radio Watcher got married, and promptly skipped the country for two weeks of Caribbean sunshine (and some radio listening as well).
Boston's country wars reached a cease-fire, with Evergreen's sale of WKLB-FM (105.7 Framingham-Boston) to Greater Media, owner of rival country station WBCS (96.9 Boston), in exchange for Greater Media's Washington DC stations. Mega-opoly grew again in Portland, with Fuller-Jeffrey's addition of WCSO (97.9 Portland), WLPZ (1440 Westbrook), and WHOM (94.9 Mt. Washington NH) to its three other FMs in and around the market. Just a few days later, CBS and Infinity made all the other deals look like peanuts by announcing a merger that would combine all their stations, including five FMs and and AM in Boston, among them legendary outlets such as WBCN, WBZ, and WZLX. On the air: WKFD (1370 Wickford RI), returning from a few years of silence under the new calls "WEGM," which never seemed to be recognized by the FCC. Some smaller sales: Classical WBOQ (104.9 Gloucester MA) from Douglas Tanger to his brother Woody's Marlin Broadcasting, WXCT (1220 Hamden CT) to Quinnipiac College, and two FMs and an AM in the Middlebury VT market to Pathfinder Broadcasting.
Talker WRKO marked Independence Day by reverting to its old top-40 format for a weekend, resurrecting the hits of 1968 with its current talk hosts as jocks. The Brattleboro VT area got a new soft AC station, as 107.1 (formerly WBFL) Bellows Falls and 101.5 in Marlboro became WZSH/WSSH, "Wish FM." 98.7 in Somersworth NH got another new format and calls, becoming AC WBYY, "The Bay." Cape Cod talker WXTK closed out the month by applying to move from 94.9 to 95.1.
The mega-opoly machine cranked up again, with American Radio Systems adding Worcester's WAAF (107.3) and WWTM (1440) to its two AMs and two FMs in Boston. Gary Dickson of WMJX (106.7 Boston) left New England for morning duties in Houston, to be replaced by Mike Addams of sister station WBCS (96.9). A bizarre story from Cape Cod made headlines around the area for a few days, when a teenager cut the cables to the satellite receivers at WWKJ (101.1) and WJCO (93.5). Without the satellite formats, the stations went off the air for several days. The old WROR calls came back to town on Greater Media's AM 1150 (ex-WMEX), setting off speculation about the real purpose of the move. WKLB-FM's country career came to a close at month's end, as 105.7 became a simulcast of its former rival WBCS (96.9). In the Burlington VT market, WGFB (99.9 Plattsburgh NY) became modern-rock "The Buzz" under the WBTZ calls, setting off a rivalry with brand-new modern rocker WXPS (96.7 Vergennes VT). Watertown Radio Associates added WGAM (1520) and WRSI (95.3) Greenfield MA to its cluster of stations in the Brattleboro VT area. In the Portsmouth NH market, oldies WCQL (95.3 York Center ME) became hot AC WXHT "Heat."
Greater Media answered everyone's questions on September 5, with the debut of the new WROR-FM on 105.7, playing the hits of the 60s, 70s, and 80s, with an air staff including 105.7 vets Loren Owens and Wally Brine, WROR (98.5) vet Jim Roberts, and, once his non-compete expired, Joe Martelle, the former morning jock at the original WROR. The WKLB-FM calls moved to 96.9, where Carolyn Kruse became the only woman with her own morning show on Boston commercial radio. Boston's WBZ marked its 75th anniversary with a gala party September 19, along with a commemorative booklet and web site. Modern rocker WFNX (101.7 Lynn-Boston) made big noises about a "format change" September 30, but when the dust settled it was just the same thing with a new slogan, "Radio Anarchy Boston."
Children's radio came to the Boston airwaves on October 15 with the debut of Kidstar on WROR (1150). (The calls soon changed to WNFT, although it took Boston's largest daily paper two months to figure that one out.) WWFX (104.7 Belfast-Bangor ME) changed format to country, changing species from "the Fox" to "the Bear." Dark, at least temporarily, were WZPK (103.7 Berlin NH-Portland ME), which was silenced as its sale closed; WNRB (1510 Boston), which was off the air for a few days due to flooding; and WLOB (1310 Portland), which was also flooded out, and remained that way for the rest of the year. New to the air was WRJT (103.1 Royalton VT), bringing the AAA format of WNCS (104.7 Montpelier VT) to the Upper Valley area under the name "The Point." Returning to the air was WNEB (1230 Worcester MA), which had been silent since 1991, but came back under new owner Bob Bittner. Public radio WBUR (90.9 Boston) added a Cape Cod AM, with Ernie Boch's donation of his talker WUOK (1240 West Yarmouth) to Boston University. And WKOX (1200 Framingham-Boston) swallowed much of the foreign-language programming that had been on 1150, dumping satellite talk in the process.
Two format changes started the month in Portland, with AC WCSO (97.9) becoming hit radio "Q 97-dot-9," and WZPK returning as country WPKQ, simulcasting WOKQ (97.5 Dover NH). The Justice Department approved the CBS/Infinity deal, but ordered the companies to sell WBOS. Alexander Langer tried again to move WRPT to the Boston area, this time proposing a move to Ashland MA on 650 kHz. Dead, gone, and buried: The FCC pulled the licenses of long-dark WSJR (1230 Madawaska ME) and 1340 (WLVC Fort Kent ME). Boston's "Business 590" started rumors flying at month's end by publicly proclaiming the station to be not for sale, while admitting that Salem Communications had an option to buy.
Just three weeks after announcing it wasn't for sale, WBNW was sold to Salem, which promptly ditched the Bloomberg business format right in mid-sentence and began simulcasting its WEZE (1260). Picking up the slack was WADN (1120 Concord), which dumped what was left of its distinctive folk-music format for Bloomberg. New to the air: WSHX (95.7 Danville VT), another "Point" AAA outlet. WNEZ (910 New Britain-Hartford CT) was sold to Mega Broadcasting, switching to a Spanish AC format from CNN Headline News. Two AAA stations were sold: Up in New Hampshire, WNBX (100.5 Lebanon) went to Bob and Cheryl Frisch to become a simulcast of country WXXK (101.7 Newport NH), while in Connecticut, WKZE-FM (98.1 Salisbury), along with its sister AM, WKZE (1020 Sharon), were sold to Scott Johnson. WREF (850 Ridgefield CT) was sold to WLAD/WDAQ in nearby Danbury. With the demise of two SW Networks satellite services, several New England stations were left scrambling for new sources for smooth jazz and hard rock, with most going to services provided by Jones Satellite Network. One of them, WPLM (99.1/1390 Plymouth MA), took advantage of the opportunity by adding Ron Della Chiesa's "MusicAmerica" show to its lineup, partially satisfying fans who protested the program's cancellation on Boston's WGBH (89.7) a year earlier.

Any mention of 1996 would be incomplete without remembering the radio voices who left us during the year. Longtime WBZ radio newsman Darrell Gould died on March 1 at age 57. Darrell had been with WBZ for almost 30 years, and worked at many other New England stations before that. Bill Marlowe, whose booming voice was synonymous with the big bands and pop standards in Boston, died July 21 at age 71. Sunny Joe White, the programmer who brought WXKS-FM "Kiss 108" from nowhere to the top of the market in 1979, died on September 7, at the far too young age of 42. And late-night listeners everywhere lost a friend on October 29, when Norm Nathan died at age 70. Norm was the voice of jazz in the 50s and 60s on the old WHDH, and found a whole new audience in the 80s and 90s doing talk on WBZ.

We also can't close out 1996 without thanking everyone who's helped make NERW what it is. Special thanks to Garrett Wollman, NERW research director and co-creator of the Boston Radio Archives website, for fixing all my bad HTML and filling me in on all the FCC's action. Thanks as well to all the NERW correspondents out there who've kept me posted on what's happening in their parts of New England (and especially to Bill Dillane in Connecticut and Doug Bassett in Vermont). A big thank you to all the station owners, programmers, jocks, newsfolk, etc. who have gone out of their way to let NERW know what they're up to (and to zing us when we've gone astray!). Bill Pfeiffer and the AIRWAVES Radio Journal helped get NERW out to all of you out there, and we wish him the best of luck in the coming year. Dan Strassberg offered technical assistance, while Donna Halper, Peter George, Roger Kirk, and Joe Ross provided historical background. Bob Bittner gave radio talk a forum on his WJIB, WKBR, and WNEB in the Boston area. Pete Ferrand kept up a steady stream of comment and advice from New Hampshire. Thanks to all of you, especially those of you whose names I'm almost certainly leaving out by accident! And most of all, a huge NERW thank you to Lisa Fybush, "Mrs. NERW," who's been patient beyond compare through all the late nights (and honeymoon station visits) that go into producing NERW.

To close things out, NERW has an announcement to make:

There is now a separate, moderated mailing-list to receive New England RadioWatch immediately upon publication. If you wish to receive NERW in this way, ask the majordomo to subscribe you by sending the single word subscribe (and nothing else) in the body of a message addressed to (Requests sent to the list directly will be ignored.) NERW will continue to be sent to AIRWAVES and to the boston-radio-interest mailing-list, so if you are a subscriber of either of those, you do not need to subscribe separately to the new list.

And with all of that, there are still plenty of questions to keep NERW occupied into 1997. We'll be there for you as WBOS gets a new owner, as American Radio Systems tinkers with its new WAAF (and, perhaps, with 70s rocker WEGQ as well), as Salem puts new calls on 1260, as -- well, you get the idea. A happy, healthy 1997 to all of you out there...and stay tuned!

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