North East RadioWatch: 1998 in Review

by Scott Fybush

Quick jump to part 2

What can we say about 1998 in Northeast broadcasting? It was the year towers came crashing down, whether through ice, tornadoes, or construction was the year the FCC said it would get tough on pirates, yet silenced almost none for was the year consolidation really hit home with format changes and layoffs...and it was the year we all discovered how much fun could be had above 1600 kHz -- everywhere BUT the Northeast.

And since the old adage of "follow the money" is as true in broadcasting as it is anywhere, we'll start off with a look at the year in...


The monumental group deals of 1997 were far less common this year, if for no other reason than that just about everything that could be sold in 1997, was. But the groups that focused on smaller markets, like Pilot, Cumulus, and Citadel, still found room for growth. We said goodbye to some longtime group owners, including Maine's Guy Gannett and Tryon-Seacoast, Curt Gowdy in Massachusetts, Albany's Paul Bendat, and a little company called American Radio Systems -- and hello to Entercom and the revived Infinity Broadcasting. Here's where the cash changed hands, month-by-month:

Pilot Communications grows in Central New York with WKRT/WIII Cortland, and becomes the dominant operator in northern Maine with the $5.2 million purchase of WBPW, WQHR, WOZI, and WHRR. Tim Martz uses the proceeds from selling those stations to buy WNCQ and WZEA in northern New York. Maine Broadcasting ends a long tradition of ownership in the Pine Tree State with the $115 million sale of WCSH-TV and WLBZ-TV to Gannett. Sinclair sells Vermont's NBC affiliates, WPTZ and WNNE, to Hicks, Muse's Sunrise Television for $72 million -- and a group of radio stations, including Rochester's WBBF, WBEE-FM, WQRV, and WKLX, to Entercom for $126.5 million. (WPTZ and WNNE were then sold again in the summer, as part of a trade that sent them to Hearst/Argyle in exchange for WDTN (Channel 2) in Dayton OH, which Hearst had to sell in order to acquire nearby WLWT (Channel 5) in Cincinnati). Don Sandler sells WMSX (1410 Brockton MA) to Monte Bowen's Griot Communications for $410,000.

Sinclair goes from seller to buyer, getting Sullivan's WUTV and WUHF in Buffalo and Rochester. Paxson buys upstate TV, too, in this case the unbuilt CP for WAUP Syracuse. Cumulus gets huge in central Maine, picking up Tryon-Seacoast's WFAU, WABK, WKCG, WIGY, and WCME. Bruce James gets huge by northeast Vermont standards, adding Northeast Kingdom Broadcasting's WSTJ/WNKV St. Johnsbury to his cluster for $630,000. And Boston University shells out $1.9 million for WRCP in Providence.

A quieter month, with Fuller-Jeffrey spending $3.4 million for WCLZ AM-FM in Maine, Sandab adding WOCN to its WQRC on Cape Cod for $1.7 million, and Davis Radio selling WORC to the tastily-named "Chowder Radio Group" in Worcester for $715,000.

CBS dominates the headlines, winning approval for its purchase of American Radio Systems with an agreement to spin off most of ARS's Boston group, leaving WRKO, WEEI, WNFT, WEGQ, and WAAF in search of a new owner. Capstar spins off its suburban New York group, with Long Island's WBAB/WHFM, WBLI, and WGBB going to Cox for $48 million and the upstate/Connecticut group of WFAS AM/FM, WAXB/WPUT and WRKI/WINE going to Frank Washington for $15 million. Less than a year after entering Burlington with WEZF, Capstar adds WCPV and WXPS (and an LMA for WEAV) for $5.25 million. Further down the food chain, sales included WFAD Middlebury VT (Kathryn Messner, $115,000); WNGN Hoosick Falls NY (Auritaur); WNBZ/WSLK Saranac Lake NY (Saranac Lake Radio); WSRO Marlboro MA (Alex Langer); WMBO Auburn NY (to Craig Fox from Salt City, $103,000); and WCCM Lawrence MA (to Costa-Eagle from Curt Gowdy, $400,000).

Robert and Shirley Wolf pick up WCFR AM-FM Springfield VT to add to their station in Woodstock for $500,000; Sinclair says it'll buy public TV WNEQ Buffalo for $33 million.

CBS stays in the headlines as it closes the ARS purchase on June 4. Sinclair makes another public TV buy, offering $23 million for WMHQ Schenectady. Dame Media sells out to Clear Channel for $85 million, including WGY/WRVE/WHRL Schenectady-Albany and a 3 AM-3 FM group in Utica. The long bankruptcy saga of New Haven's WNHC ends with a winning bid by WYBC of $775,000.

Hicks, Muse begins streamlining its broadcast groups, merging LIN into Chancellor and affecting New Haven's WTNH in the process. Little FMs draw big money, with WQVR Southbridge MA bringing $2.375 million from Jeff Shapiro and WXLE Mechanicville-Albany drawing $2.6 million from Capstar. WJKE Stillwater NY sells to TV news guy Ernie Anastos for $900,000, dark WVIP Mt. Kisco NY is sold to nearby WGCH in Greenwich for $675,000, Flack Broadcasting buys WLLG/WBRV in Lowville and Boonville NY for $250,000, and Mariner finishes its collection of Maine classical FMs with Jon LeVeen's WAVX Thomaston.

You can go home again, as Newburyport native Bob Fuller proves by buying WNBP from Win Damon. You can also spend obscene amounts of money to instantly become a major player in Boston, as Entercom proves by handing over $65 million (and a Tampa FM) to CBS for WRKO, WEEI, WAAF, WEGQ, and WWTM. Steve Silberberg spends $500,000 for WWSR and WLFE up in St. Albans VT. Keating Willcox tightens his circle around Boston with the $380,000 purchase of WOON in Woonsocket RI. Jeff Shapiro keeps buying in central Massachusetts, this time spending $850,000 on WCAT AM-FM Athol-Orange. The other half of the old WAVX-WBYA simulcast sells, as Moon Song pays $265,000 for WBYA Searsoprt ME. Big City sells its only AM station, WRKL New City NY, to PolNet. The big guys come out to play, too, with Capstar merging into Chancellor in a deal valued at $4.1 billion, with a "b," and CBS announcing plans to spin off a minority stake in its radio and billboard divisions under the old Infinity Broadcasting name.

Guy Gannett bows out of broadcasting, selling its TV group (including WGME Portland, WGGB Springfield, and WOKR Rochester) to Sinclair, which then spins WOKR to Ackerley. CBS finishes selling the old ARS properties with the $5 million sale of WNFT to Mega. Buckley adds a fourth station to its Connecticut standards network by paying $630,000 for WMMW Meriden. Rob Rudnick pays $602,800 to move from running WNTN Newton to owning it. Tim Martz adds to his border empire with Jeff Shapiro's WNCQ Morrisville/WYSX Ogdensburg. And Gramcam donates Cape Cod's last commercial AM, WKPE Orleans, to UMass/Boston.

Nothing but big groups playing in the autumn leaves -- and the biggest of all is Jacor's $4.4 billion purchase by Clear Channel. Lowry Mays' group gets bigger yet by picking up WNNZ Westfield MA from Curt and Cele Hahn. Mega adds a second Boston station with the $4 million purchase of WBPS Dedham. Albany Broadcasting adds WIZR/WSRD Johnstown NY for $2.2 million, while Sinclair backs off its plans to buy WMHQ amidst financial troubles.

Disney/ABC lands a big fish in New York with plans to LMA WQEW from the New York Times. Wicks sells its broadcast group, including the largest cluster in Binghamton, to Citadel for $77 million. The Wolfs spin off WNBX Springfield VT to Spirit Broadcasting.

Lowell Paxson sells stations? Every once in a while, it seems -- as he spins off WBPT Bridgeport CT to Cuchifritos Communications for $22 million. Bendat sells its Albany group (WABY AM-FM, WKLI/WKBE) to Tele-Media of Eastern New York for $7.5 million. Cumulus buys still more in Maine, paying Dudman $4 million for WEZQ Bangor and WWMJ/WDEA Ellsworth. Smaller deals include WESO Southbridge ($175,000 to Evergreen -- no relation to the old group by the same name), WERI(AM) Westerly RI ($300,000 to become the latest part of BU's public radio group), and WXQZ Canton NY to Tim Martz.

Some of the other trends making headlines this year (and oddly, they're mostly the same ones as last year...):


This was the year the big groups sat down and began digesting many of their acquisitions from the big mid-decade buying sprees. Some of the results:

Simulcasting kept spreading within regional clusters, with Capstar leading the way. Manchester's WGIR reached out to the seacoast to begin running its programming in Exeter and Rochester, and WGIR-FM did the same with Portsmouth's WHEB-FM. Smaller groups did it, too -- in Maine with WCME and WKCG, in the New York suburbs with WINE and WPUT, in Worcester County with WORC and WGFP, in Vermont with WMXR and WCFR-FM, in northern New York with WYSX and WYUL, all over central Connecticut with WDRC and its Buckley brethren, and all over coastal Maine with WBQQ, WBQW, and WBQX. Other groups kept programming their stations individually -- but using formats shared with dozens of co-owned stations around the country, like Jacor's "Mix" and "Kiss" in Rochester and Chancellor/Capstar's "Jammin' Oldies" in New York and Albany.

Consolidation cost jobs, too, with an unusually high rate of turnover at Capstar stations a recurring theme of NERW all summer. Much of the airstaff at WGIR-FM and WHEB-FM had turned over by year's end; ditto WSRS and WTAG in Worcester (although Upton Bell, at least, landed on his feet at WSRO/WRPT).

The big-city groups ended 1998, in many cases, dealing with the physical aspects of consolidation. Boston's Greater Media group vacated three different studio/office sites -- Prudential Tower, Salada Tea Building, and 1200 Soldiers Field Road -- for a new home on the "Media Row" of Morrissey Boulevard in Dorchester. CBS made plans to move WBMX from the ARS facility on Huntington Avenue to the former WBOS/WSJZ studios next door to WBZ. Entercom stayed tight at the old ARS digs. In Hartford, CBS announced a 1999 move that would take WTIC AM-FM out of Hartford city limits for the first time in 75 years, to the WZMX/WRCH offices in Farmington. Rochester's CBS stations moved within city limits, to an office building just a short walk from the other two big groups in town. And Sinclair was negotiating with Buffalo officials to build a new waterfront studio for its 4 AMs, 2 FMs, and 2 TVs.

Public radio and children's radio weren't immune -- Boston's WBUR added two Rhode Island AMs to its Cape Cod satellites, WUMB picked up a Cape Cod AM, and Vermont Public Radio experimented with a second service, while Radio Disney spread like wildfire after taking root in Boston, adding outlets in Providence, Hartford, and at year's end, New York City.

The losers in the consoldiation game, of course, were the quirky little stations and their listeners, with gems like Albany's WXLE, Rochester's WMAX/WMHX, the long-suffering WHIM in Rhode Island, and of course WQEW in New York falling victim to the almighty dollar.

Which brings us to...

Unlicensed Radio

At this time last year, it looked like the FCC was getting serious about shutting down the growing number of broadcasters who decided they had something worth saying that wasn't being heard in the corporate world. Many of them, like Radio Free Allston and WDOA in Worcester, were visited by the Commission in 1997. But while those visits continued in 1998, something started happening: the pirates fought back, and refused in many cases to be silenced -- and it turned out there wasn't much the government was willing to do to keep them silent.

A few cases in point: In February, a group of Hispanic broadcasters in New Haven began broadcasting on 104.5 as "La Nueva Radio Musical," reviving a format that disappeared in 1997 with the sale of WXCT in Hamden. The FCC visited in March, and again in April, and yet again in May, but the station kept on chugging, fueled by a widely-signed petition supporting its broadcasts and the slow progress of repeated appeals to the repeated orders that it shut down. An hour's drive north, "Prayze 105" in Bloomfield was finally ordered closed by a federal judge in September, almost two years after it began operating as a commercial urban gospel outlet -- yet continued to transmit as it appealed the order. Others, like a Spanish-language 97.1 in Hartford and numerous expanded-band foreign-language pirates in Worcester and the Merrimack Valley, were never even visited by the FCC (although it did shut down "WSCW" at Worcester State College, "I-97.3" in South Portland, and a 6955 kHz shortwaver in Tewksbury). But the lesson many operators must have taken away from 1998 was, just keep operating, claim victory (if need be, by citing reams of irrelevant case law on barely-literate web pages), and wait out the slow progress of legal LPFM -- about which, more in the year-end Rant.

The Weather

The year's third big story kept hitting in one form or another. A January ice storm toppled towers from Bangor (WEZQ) to Watertown (WTNY), left millions in the dark for weeks in the St. Lawrence Valley, and created states of emergency in Quebec, Ontario, and northern New York. Tornadoes swept across upstate New York in May, taking Binghamton's WIVT-TV off the air and levelling its tower. It wasn't the weather, but a construction crane installing the STL tower next door at the new Greater Media studios, that punched a hole in the roof of WLVI's Dorchester studios August 4, sending the WB56 news crew over to Channel 5 to operate for a few days. And the winds of a Labor Day storm killed two people in Syracuse, while toppling two towers at WNSS and silencing several other stations briefly.

Digital TV

The fourth big story of 1998, DTV became a reality this fall for a handful of lucky viewers in Boston, New Haven, and New York with the money to spend on a DTV set. By year's end, Boston's WCVB-DT, Marlborough's WHSH-DT, New Haven's WTNH-DT and New York's WCBS-DT offered limited schedules of high-definition (or, in WHSH-DT's case, digital multiplex) programming, with more stations set to follow in 1999. For the region's smaller markets, DTV remained mostly wishful thinking, with stations not due to convert until 2001 or later.

Programming and Call Changes

Maine's WXGL began the new year by rocking out as "Galaxy 95.5." WHIM in Warwick RI flipped to Radio Disney. WZBZ Plattsburgh NY was silenced by the ice storm, but returned under new ownership with the historic WDOT calls. In Glens Falls NY, the WBZA calls and talk format moved up the dial from 1230 to 1410 (ex-WSTL), with 1230 becoming all-sports WMML. Rhode Island's WWKX/WAKX dumped "Kix" for dance-oriented "Hot 106."

New London's WNLC(AM) went dark (for good, as it would turn out). Brookfield CT's WINE went classic country, simulcasting WPUT Brewster NY. Jacor's Rochester stations did major flipping, with WVOR becoming hot AC "Mix 100.5" on the 12th, and AAA WMHX/WMAX-FM becoming soft AC "Sunny 106" and smooth jazz WRCD becoming CHR "Jam'n" just after midnight on the 18th. Attica NY's country WBTF became modern AC WXOX ("The Spot"), Owego NY's WEBO became an AM modern rocker, and Mount Kisco NY's WZZN flipped from classic rock to smooth jazz. In Boston, WXKS(AM) picked up business talk in the mornings. New to the airwaves were Sound of Life's WGKR Grand Gorge and WGWR Liberty, as well as WFNX translator W267AI in Boston.

Jacor's Rochester stations got new calls, with "Sunny" WMHX/WMAX-FM becoming WISY/WYSY, while "Jam'n" WRCD became WMAX-FM. In Westerly RI, noncomm WBLQ signed on with rock. Nashua's WSMN went to local talk. On Cape Cod, AC WJCO "The Coast" stunted with all-Chumbawamba (remember THEM?) before becoming CHR "Star" WYST. Plenty of call sign changes: WHIM to WDYZ ("Disney"), Providence's WRCP to WRNI under its new BU ownership, Owego's WGRG to WLTB ("LiTe"), Binghamton's WMGC(TV) to WIVT, and on the shortwave side in Maine, WVHA to WHRA in Scotts Corners and the new calls WBCQ for Allan Weiner up in Monticello.

"The Valley's AM", WTSV Claremont NH/WNHV White River Junction VT, flipped from satellite adult standards to satellite sports talk. Cortland's WIII goes classic rock, Attleboro's WARA becomes leased-time WJYT, Westport NY's WMEX goes from classical to rock, Boston's WUMB and its satellites dump the Quiet Storm at night for a blues-based mix of music, and WLWC(TV) New Bedford-Providence dumps UPN for the WB. In New York, WNSR becomes WBIX to match its "Big" nickname. Upstate, Rochester's WBBF calls move from AM to FM, to the oldies outlet formerly known as WKLX (the AM side will become WEZO when the calls officially switch in may). In the Watertown market, WLKC became oldies WOTT, and WTOR Youngstown-Lake Ontario began testing on 770. WKZS Auburn became WMWX as "Mix," the dark WNLC(AM) changed calls to WWJY, WZEA Ogdensburg NY signed on with a CHR format, and over in Toronto, the CBC signed on its CBLA (99.1) with a gala ceremony at noon on the 19th -- although technical problems with several FM relays meant that CBL (740) would get a reprieve until the end of 1999.

Boston's WNFT went from simulcasting WAAF to R&B oldies "Touch," the Seacoast's WXHT went modern rock-ish, Webster MA's WXXW went from talk to oldies as "the Bus." Several new stations sprouted in May: Sound of Life's WHVP Hudson NY, Barry Lunderville's "Kiss" WXXS way up in Lancaster NH, Winslow ME's WWWA with religion (moving from WMDR Augusta, which went to a children's religion format), "Party Radio" WXXP on Long Island, and WCRQ Dennysville ME. In the New York market, leased-time WNWK became "Caliente" WCAA and WJDM's 1660 outlet became WBAH, "Radio Unica." Call changes: WRDM Bloomfield CT to WDZK "Disney," and the CP for WAUP Syracuse to a Pax-compliant WSPX. Silent this month: WIGS Gouverneur NY, for good.

A bankruptcy court silences WNHC New Haven temporarily. Up in St. Johnsbury VT, WNKV becomes WKXH, "Kix" with hot country. Down the river a bit, WCFR-FM Springfield starts simulcasting WMXR Woodstock. The "Y107" trimulcast around New York city becomes a quad-cast, as WRNJ-FM Belvidere NJ gets assimilated as WWYY (107.1).

WZEA in Ogdensburg NY switches to its permanent format as "Yes FM," hot AC WYSX. WPKM Scarborough ME becomes another "W-Bach" outlet, WBQW. Ithaca's WTKO swaps sports for oldies. WCME in Maine simulcasts newly co-owned WKCG Augusta. Call changes: WNGN Hoosick Falls NY to WZEC, in preparation for the (still yet-to-happen) simulcast with WBEC-FM Pittsfield MA. The WNGN calls drop down the dial to WNGX Argyle on 91.9. New to the air: Country WBBI Endwell NY, in the Binghamton market. Gone: CKLY Lindsay ON on 910 (moved to FM), and the never-built CP for WGKP Rensselaerville NY.

Hartford's WHCN goes to hard rock. Fire-damaged WVIP in Mount Kisco NY comes back to life as a partial simulcast of WGCH in Greenwich CT. WGFP Webster begins simulcasting with WORC in Worcester, while WGMF Watkins Glen NY switches its simulcast from WNGZ-FM to WWLZ Horseheads NY. New to the air: Sound of Life's WHVP Hudson NY, Allan Weiner's WBCQ shortwave, and the Pax TV network, on the 31st.

WNHC returns to the air on the 15th under WYBC's ownership (and, a few weeks later, the WYBC(AM) calls) with a diverse format. In tiny Cobleskill NY, standards WLAL becomes talk WXBH. Bangor's WWBX starts calling itself "Mix 97.1." In New Hampshire, standards WZNN Rochester and WMYF Exeter become WGIN and WGIP, relaying the news-talk programming of WGIR Manchester. WCFR(AM) Springfield VT becomes business talk. WYUL Chateaugay NY stops stunting after more than a year and starts simulcasting WYSX Ogdensburg, and WRND Manchester NH returns to the air simulcasting WEVO to keep the license alive. WNDS Derry NH relaunches nightly news (with legendary weather guy Al Kaprielian) on the 28th. Plenty of call changes: WXXW Webster to WORC-FM, WIPX(TV) Bridgeport to WBPT-TV, WNPE-TV Watertown to WPBS-TV, and yet-unbuilt WBDJ(TV) Waterville ME to WMPX-TV.

Hartford's WZMX broadens its classic rock format as "The Point." Jerry Williams does his last show for WRKO as the station goes to Entercom ownership. Up in Thomaston ME, WAVX joins the "W-Bach" family as WBQX. In New York, Stillwater's WJKE "The Jockey" stays AC but becomes WQAR "Star." Canandaigua's WCGR (1310) gets leased to WASB in Brockport, going religious as WRSB. The WCGR calls return to their old home at the 1550 daytimer in Canandaigua, formerly WLKA. The oldies format on WDLC Port Jervis NY moves to the FM side on WTSX, with WDLC going to satellite adult standards.

Watertown NY's WCIZ moves from 93.5 to 93.3 with an improved signal. WMMW Meriden CT joins the WDRC(AM) standards quasi-simulcast through the modern miracle of voice-tracking. Ray Flynn, former Boston mayor and Vatican ambassador, becomes a weekend WRKO talk host. Albany's WXLE dumps AAA for AC as "Magic" -- briefly. Call changes: WNDR Mexico NY to WVOQ, WMBO Auburn NY to WKGJ, WCFR Springfield VT to heritage call WNBX, WKXE White River Junction VT to WWSH-FM, and unbuilt CP WAQF Batavia to Pax-proper WPXJ-TV. New to the air: Sound of Life's WSSK Saratoga Springs and Syracuse Pax outlet WSPX on the 24th. Gone for good: WWJY, ex-WNLC, New London CT.

Jacor flips things in Rochester again, turning "Jam'n" into "Kiss" at 5PM on the 7th, on both WMAX-FM 107.3 and ex-Sunny WYSY 106.7, which slipped unannounced into a "Jam'n" simulcast on Nov. 25th. Sunny remains on WISY 102.3, which keeps calling itself "Sunny 106" for a full week after Thanksgiving until the new "Sunny 102" voicetracks are ready. In Vermont, WXPS dumps sports talk for hot country as "Kix" and changes COL to Willsboro NY (simulcast WEAV Plattsburgh changes format as well). The "VPR World Channel" makes a debut as an interim format on WWPV Colchester VT. In New York, "Jammin' Oldies" takes over from "Big" on WBIX 105.1 -- and from "Magic" on Albany's WXLE a few weeks later. More urban sounds enter Albany at month's end, as country WPTR-FM goes to hip-hop "Jams." American popular standards are replaced by Radio Disney at WQEW New York, but Radio Disney is replaced by standards at WGSM Huntingtoon. Standards also return to WPLM Plymouth, WNBP Newburyport, and WMYF (ex-WTMN) in Portsmouth NH, which dumps sports talk on 1380. Pat Monteith adds another station to her WUMB empire, as WKPE(AM) Orleans is donated and becomes WFPB(AM). Call changes: WADN Concord MA to WBNW, WMNM Port Henry NY to WXNT, WWXY Briarcliff Manor NY to legendary WYNY, and WCLZ(AM) Brunswick ME to WJJB. New on the air: WASB-FM Brockport NY on the 13th and WXXE Fenner NY on the 21st.


Among those who once toiled in the business, this year we mourned:


My thanks to each and every one of you who's tuned in this year with a bit of news, gossip, a correction, a question, or a piece of history. NERW exists every week because of all of you, faithfully flipping the dials everywhere from the Canadian Maritimes to Buffalo and far beyond. Special thanks to all of you who met up with us face to face at club conventions, on NERW road trips, and at the NERW Lunch in Connecticut last October. Very special thanks, of course, go to two people without whom this column could not exist. GARRETT WOLLMAN is the technical brains behind NERW, providing server space, HTML coding, maintaining the entire Boston and Upstate New York Radio Archives, and catching (at least some) dumb mistakes before they see the light of e-mail. LISA FYBUSH, aka "Mrs. NERW," continues to patiently tolerate "five-minute" detours to tower sites that inevitably end up taking an hour to reach on dirt paths, not to mention a home filled with airchecks and other paraphernalia. My profound gratitude to both...and here's to a great New Year to you all!

And finally...

The NERW Year-End Rant

(Opinions expressed herein are only those of the author and not necessarily those of MIT, Software Tool & Die, Time Warner, or Bill Kennard...)

When the year 2028 rolls around, will anybody be actively seeking airchecks of radio in 1998? Somehow, I doubt it. For years, radio people have complained loudly that it's getting too corporate, too sterile -- but this year, somehow, it really started sounding that way. Need proof? As I sit here writing this, I'm listening to an aircheck of WVMX, Cincinnati, Jacor's "Mix 94.1." I could easily flip from tape to radio and listen to WVOR Rochester, Jacor's "Mix 100.5," and hear the same format, same liners, same everything. (And were I to hop in the car, I could tune in "Mix" as I drove through Youngstown, Cleveland, Sandusky, Lima, and Dayton as well.)

But corporate cookie-cutter radio is a symptom of the problem, not the disease itself. The problem lies with the state of broadcast regulation at the end of the decade. Here's my simple proposal to fix eveything (humble, huh?):

  1. Freeze all new translator applications. The translator service was once a tiny part of the FM broadcast industry -- until the FCC changed the rules to allow noncommercial stations to feed translators by satellite. The idea was to let public radio stations out West provide service to remote areas. The reality was far uglier: "noncommercial" religious operators in places like Twin Falls and Pensacola discovered a nice little loophole to get their programming into hundreds of markets around the country without requiring -- in fact, in a way that explicity forbade -- a bit of local presence. No ownership limits, either. The result has been an FM band increasingly cluttered with translators, sometimes blatantly interfering with useful local services. Just look at poor WPKN in Bridgeport, which has been fighting a losing battle against a translator just down I-95 in Port Chester NY, relaying a station in Abilene, Texas on a first-adjacent channel. Aren't translators supposed to be a secondary service? We thought so, too.

    Let's be explicit here: This is not a tirade against religious broadcasting. There are plenty of religious broadcasters who do a fine job of serving their communities, and in some cases, entire regions (like Sound of Life in the Hudson Valley or Family Life in upstate New York.) This is about that oft-forgotten phrase "public interest, convenience, and necessity" -- remember it? Absent some evidence that a station imported from the other end of the country will serve some local purpose, the limited space on the FM band ought to be reserved for local broadcasters...which brings us to:

  2. 1999 -- The Year of LPFM: The current FCC is the first to show active interest in making legal LPFM a reality, which is bound to make for an interesting year at the Portals. The proposals on the table range from the status quo of no LPFM all the way to what amounts to a recreation of the old (3 kilowatt) class A service. What's reasonable? A successful LPFM service needs to balance an opening of the airwaves to additional voices against the physical reality of a limited FM dial.

    Let's start with the "additional voices" part. Remember Docket 80-90? What was supposed to be a chance to open broadcast ownership to many new players turned into a chance for existing owners to buy out competition and grow from 1 AM/1 FM to up to eight stations in a market. We can thank a deregulatory FCC for this "gift." It wasn't just the simple expansion of ownership limits, but an increasingly liberal definition of "city of license." Just a quarter-century ago, Rochester's FM dial consisted almost exclusively of stations licensed to, logically enough, Rochester. A scan of today's dial will turn up: Avon, Brighton, Honeoye Falls, Palmyra, Canandaigua, Webster, Sodus, Brockport, and Irondequoit, just to name the stronger signals. Where are the studios for all these stations? Rochester, Rochester, Rochester, Farmington, Rochester (with a token "main studio" in Bloomfield), Penfield, Newark, Brockport, and Rochester. It doesn't take a genius to see that none of these stations is aimed predominately at listeners in its alleged "city of license" -- yet we persist with an allocation system that turns a blind eye to this reality. Check out the August 27 NERW and the link to the FCC decision on WNVE and WMAX-FM to see what I mean. So what does all this have to do with "diversity of voices?" The successful clusters work by consolidating as many station operations in one facility as possible, thus allowing less-successful and less-powerful stations to draw on the resources of the bigger stations. Force a station like, say, the 93.3 A in Avon to stand on its own -- with a real main studio and offices actually located IN Livingston County, and a serious news and public affairs presence devoted to Livingston County, and it could never survive. And if this leaves you saying, "There are too many new FMs being authorized out there, with no good reason for being other than an available spot on the dial, and no good way to survive other than being bought out by a big group and operated as a rim-shot to a larger city nearby," then I've just made my point.

    The solution? It's too late to turn things back and force true local origination for these little satellite rimshotters, but it's not too late to fix the city of license problem by allowing a one-time-only chance for rimshotters to move into a "metro" market where technically possible. After that, though, no more new allocations unless those stations agree to meet the old-fashioned main studio and public service requirements, ascertainment boards and all. Think that might stop the spread of 80-90 rimshotters dead? Me too.

    That, in turn, opens a door for LPFM -- because while a commercial class A station can never afford to focus its energies solely on, say, Avon NY (pop. 6283), a non-profit 100-watter just might.

    That's the "diversity of voices" part. The physics part brings me around to my starting point with those pesky satellite-fed translators. With only 100 FM channels to draw from, the band is getting awfully crowded, not just in big cities, but out in the sticks as well. Long-distance FM reception used to be a normal thing; your editor grew up listening to Buffalo and Syracuse stations as often (if not more so) than Rochester. Try doing that now, and all you'll get is adjacent-channel splatter from 80-90 allocations shoehorned to within an inch of their lives...not that it matters, because there's nothing distinctive to hear from Buffalo or Syracuse anyway. For an LPFM service to have space on the dial, something's got to give. What's it going to be? Seems to me that the noncomm satellite translators are not only filling exactly the sort of niches on the dial that LPFM could use -- but they're secondary services that COULD be bumped if the FCC had the courage. Say it with me now..."public interest, convenience, and necessity." Behind transmitter shack A: A satellite dish pulling down programming from Pensacola, Abilene, or Twin Falls. Behind transmitter shack B: Local folks -- maybe not very slick, maybe not on the air 24/7 every day, maybe playing something completely bizarre, but local. Which one fits the letter of the FCC's mandate better? I know where I stand on this one.

    There's one problem with this solution, of course, and it's bound to be the biggest problem in making LPFM a viable reality -- the "not on the air 24/7 every day" versus the scarcity of available channels. Except in the most outlying of areas (and these days, you'd need to go to an unnamed township in northern Maine), there's no way everyone who wants to get an LPFM on the air will be able to have their own frequency all day long. Somehow, the FCC will have to divvy up the available resources, whether through time-sharing or through power reduction, to get everyone to fit. I hear the free-marketers calling from the cheap seats in the rear, "Auction 'em off!", but that seems antithetical to the concept of a nonprofit community service. How about this, instead: Require applicants to demonstrate financial ability to operate the station and to offer programming and staffing plans. Award the license, or time-shared portions of licenses, to applicants whose plans are best able to provide quality local programming to their chosen community. Sound radical? It's what the FCC used to do way back when. Which brings me to part 3 of my wish for 1999:

  3. Enforcement: Remember when the FCC had teeth? When DJs with their "third phones" took transmitter readings and lived in fear that an FCC inspector would knock on the door for a surprise visit? Assuming today's FCC inspector could even find a station that's moved three times in three years under three owners (hey, while I'm ranting -- how about reinstating an anti-trafficking rule, too?), he'd be likely to find an empty studio with a PC playing voicetracks or dropping IDs into a satellite feed and not a human in sight. That scenario, of course, assumes you can find an FCC inspector who's still employed. For LPFM to work -- and for broadcasting to remain a quality service in any form -- the FCC needs to be given the resources by Congress to do its work properly.

    That means regular inspections, both scheduled and surprise, to make sure stations are operating at proper power levels, reducing power and changing pattern at sundown, not throwing out spurs on other frequencies, maintaining their tower and studio facilities, and IDing legally. It also means coming down hard on violators -- and by hard, I mean license revocation without appeal for repeat offenders. Sound harsh? Hey, a license is a privilege. The rules aren't that hard to understand. Can't follow them? The consequences will be made very clear...and the result will be a little less clutter on the dial.

    For LPFMs, such inspection will be particularly critical, since the FCC would (in my dream world) be enforcing time-shares and the like among operators who might not be terribly inclined to cooperate. The result of lax enforcement of local ownership requirements, transfer of control, and failure to observe time limits will be chaos on the dial, and one need only look at radio circa 1926 to see what THAT was like.

    It might even take more than money -- it might require splitting the Mass Media Bureau of the FCC away from the rest of the agency, allowing the commissioners to focus on broadcasting to the exclusion of telephony, datacasting, cable, and other unrelated areas. (I'll admit to some hypocrisy here: I wouldn't be above using some of the licensing fees from ridiculously profitable areas like cellular phones to fund my Mass Media FCC...)

    The goal, in short, is to get rid of...

  4. Sloppy radio: Take a spin across your local dial some weekend. Odds are you won't have to tune too far to find any one of these:

    You're probably laughing by now, but the aircheck cabinet here at NERW Central has tape of all of the above, in multiple examples.

    This wouldn't have happened 20 years ago, and I think the reason, in large part, is consolidation. A station with a local owner is likely to have that owner monitoring the station for a good chunk of the day. A station group that consists of only one or two stations can't allow either station to fail. In a group of 400 stations, eight to a market, it is inevitable that some stations will fall by the wayside (except in the very largest markets, where even the smallest stations are worth too much to be allowed to slide downhill).

    What message do listeners take home from stations that sound just plain lousy on the air? For starters, even if they enjoy the uninterrupted music, they can't enter the station in their Arbitron books if you don't tell them who you are. Beyond that, listeners will lose respect for radio that sounds lousy on the air. And the last thing radio needs right now is for listeners to lose even more respect for it. This is not a problem the FCC can be expected to fix, even in the most pro-regulatory culture imaginable.

And that's where I'll close my year-end rant. Whether you're just starting out in high school or college radio, or putting on the first licensed LPFM (and it WILL happen, although surely not in the way I've envisioned, because the FCC's just not thinking that way these days), or running an 80-90 drop-in with a mostly-automated format in a small town, or programming a 50 kilowatt blowtorch in a major market, make quality radio in 1999. Treat every station you own as an important broadcast voice, spend money to promote it properly (on and off the air), make every effort to train the up-and-coming broadcasters who will one day be your station's future, play by the FCC rules (all of them, all the time, as they're written), don't skimp on engineering budgets, connect with your community, and have fun doing it.

Look at the stations that do -- they may not all be pulling 40% profit shares for the boss in New York or Cincinnati, but they're making a profit and giving something back to their communities in the process. Be one of those stations in 1999 -- so that 30 years from now, some young aircheck collector just might be begging for a dub of your station "back in the good old days."

Happy New Year, everybody.

Previous issues of North East RadioWatch

The Boston Radio Archives
The Upstate New York Radio Archives