North East RadioWatch: 1999 in Review

by Scott Fybush


So here we are with just a year to go until the end of the millennium, (yes, I'm siding with the nitpickers on this one, especially since I have to work this New Year's Eve!), and at the rate broadcasters are going, we'll be down to two (maybe three) companies owning everything by the time we get there.

We'll begin our look back at the year that was with some of the trends that made news in 1999:

Market Clustering

Broadcasters, the FCC, and the Justice Department used 1999 to find out just how big they'd be allowed to go. This was the year when just about every big deal was accompanied by a notice of market share review -- yet virtually none of those notices was acted on. That's because the broadcast groups took matters into their own hands, shedding stations where needed to keep the government from feeling the need to step in.

In some cases, this was a good thing, allowing the creation of new regional groups from the assets shed by the big guys. In our region, the best example was Frank Washington's formation of Aurora Broadcasting to pick up the suburban New York clusters spun off in the Capstar/Chancellor merger.

In many other cases, the big groups simply traded among themselves to bring individual markets under the cap -- for instance, the trade in which Cox picked up more than a dozen stations in New Haven, Stamford/Norwalk, and down south from AMFM in exchange for KFI/KOST Los Angeles.

Beyond the mammoth conglomerates, a new breed of smaller regional groups began to emerge in 1999 as well. Newcomers like Vox and Conn River created new sales opportunities by combining stations in places like Concord, New Hampshire and Barre, Vermont, while more established operators like Charles River Broadcasting, AAA Entertainment (formerly Back Bay), Steve Mindich's Phoenix group, Albany Broadcasting, Tim Martz, and Keating Willcox' Willow Farm expanded their regional reach with additional purchases.

The name of the game for some of the medium-sized groups was filling in the gaps between clusters: Tele-Media picked up Concord, N.H., then headed back towards its Albany base with purchases in Nashua, Keene, and Brattleboro. Mega added Lowell and Ware to its Boston and Hartford properties. Citadel spread north from Providence to add Montachusett's Worcester stations and the Fuller-Jeffrey outlets in New Hampshire and Maine, then grew again across the region by buying Broadcasting Partners. Even public broadcasters got in the game, with Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine all acquiring formerly-commercial FMs for their public networks. And a few national groups made their first Northeast inroads: Regent, through its purchase of Forever, and Radio One, through its purchase of WCAV Brockton.

The region said goodbye to a few more old-line groups, most notably Fuller-Jeffrey's exit via a $63 million sale to Citadel (although J.J. Jeffrey promptly started a small group of his own). Also leaving the ranks of area broadcasters: Fairbanks, Arnold Lerner, Greenfield's Haigis family, Rhode Island's Urso family, and the Dynacom group in Vermont, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts. Carter Broadcasting sold most of its group, but hung on to WCRN Worcester and some LPTVs for old times' sake.

At year's end, the FCC threw a new wrench into the clustering process by allowing TV duopoly in the biggest markets. Groups like the new CBS/Viacom, NBC and Paxson, Tribune and Granite all jumped on board with their applications (and in CBS's case, setting the stage for at least one more radio sale in Boston). One more TV deal of note: Boston University closed out its short-lived TV experiment by selling WABU and its relays to Pax TV for just $40 million, essentially stick value for the signals.

And while no Northeast station sold for five figures or less this year, broadcasters who wanted a station for less than they'd pay for a house in Boston had at least a few options: WWLE Cornwall-on-Hudson, WVKZ Schenectady, WCSS Amsterdam and WMSA Massena were among the stations that changed hands for less than $200,000 in 1999.


A slow start, with ADD Media's $1.06 million purchase of Puritan's WLYN (1360 Lynn MA) the highlight. Up in ski country, Steve Silberberg paid $325,000 for new WVFM (105.7 Campton NH), creating a simulcast with his WXRV Haverhill. In Upstate New York, Forever sold WFRG(AM) (1450 Rome) to Bible Broadcasting, while dentist Dr. George Wolfe traded his WASB-FM (105.5 Brockport) for Canandaigua Broadcasting's WRSB (1310 Canandaigua), which he had been leasing anyway.

A strong month for sales in Boston's suburbs, as Fairbanks exited the market by selling WKOX (1200 Framingham) to "B-Mass Holdings" for $14.5 million, while Mega Broadcasting added WLLH (1400 Lowell and Lawrence) to its Spanish-language cluster for $936,000. In Rhode Island, Keating Willcox added to his Willow Farm group with WNRI (1380 Woonsocket), followed by the sale of his WOON there to its local management. Waltham's WCRB purchased WVBI (95.9 Block Island) to add to its classical network for $738,000. Across the border in Connecticut, Nievezquez Productions paid $725,000 for WPRX (1120 Bristol) and ADD picked up WNTY (990 Southington) for $850,000. Up north in Maine, Presque Isle's little WAGM-TV (Channel 8) was sold to Max Media. And Clear Channel closed its upstate New York holes between Rochester and Utica by trading with Cox for the Syracuse cluster of WSYR, WHEN, WYYY, WBBS, and WWHT.

Two Worcester-area stations were sold, WNEB to Great Commission (the WJLT folks) by Heirwaves and WWFX (the former WQVR) to Jeffrey Wilks' "WBA" by Jeff Shapiro. The regional groups grew a little, as Tim Martz added WMSA Massena to his North Country cluster, Steve Mindich paid $1.02 million to expand WFNX to Maine via Sanford's WCDQ/WSME, Roberts Radio picked up WGHQ and WBPM in Kingston, and a new company called "Vox Media" kicked things off by spending $1.5 million for WKXL Concord and $2.2 million for WSNO/WORK Barre. On the TV side, Nexstar bought Rochester's WROC from Sunrise amd Shop at Home took over WBPT Bridgeport, after the earlier sale to Cuchifritos fell through. THAT was the fine print; the headline for the month was the Hicks, Muse consolidation of Capstar into Chancellor, creating something called -- however briefly -- "AMFM."

Another regional group cashed out, as J.J. Jeffrey and Doc Fuller sold most of their Fuller-Jeffrey stations to Citadel for $63 million. (Jeffrey kept the Portland and Brunswick AMs as the core of a new group, Atlantic Coast). For $66 million, a new group called "Aurora" made a splash in Fairfield County by buying WEBE and WICC. On the smaller scale regionally, Tim Martz added WVNC Canton to that North Country group, Albany Broadcasting went up to ski country with a $6.1 million purchase of WJJR and the "Cat Country" stations (WJAN/WJEN) in Rutland, Back Bay went to Connecticut with the $2.2 million purchase of WKCD Pawcatuck, and Montachusett added WORC-FM to its WXLO in Worcester for $3.5 million.

Charles River Broadcasting went rockin' on the Cape, adding WKPE-FM to its classical WFCC out there. Aurora made its second acquisition, paying $20 million for WFAS AM-FM in Westchester. Closer to Boston, KJI Broadcasting picked up $10 million for Brockton's WCAV as urban group owner Radio One came to town. Boston University bowed out of its TV experiment by selling WABU-TV and its New Hampshire and Cape Cod satellites to PaxTV for $40 million. New Hampshire Public Radio moved north by buying WXLQ Gorham, while Maine Public Broadcasting did them one better by getting WHQO Skowhegan donated (an easy way for former owner Cumulus to stay below the ownership caps). Up in Canada, the CHUM Group added to its Ottawa holdings by purchasing CFGO and CJMJ from Rawlco to join its CFRA and CKKL. And after Sinclair's deal to buy WMHQ-TV Schenectady fell through, Tribune stepped in to pay the public TV folks $18.5 million for the station.

J.J. Jeffrey's new Atlantic Coast group kicked off the month with the $1.15 million purchase of WRED Saco, quickly overshadowed by Aurora's $11.5 million purchase of Capstar's old Danbury group (WINE, WRKI, WAXB, and WPUT). And for just $100,000, Ernie Anastos added WKAJ Saratoga Springs to his WQAR up that way.

The fireworks came from sedate little Carter Broadcasting, as the Carberry family collected $22 million from Catholic Family Radio for their stations in Boston, Providence, Springfield, and Portland. Also leaving the business this month: Philip Urso, who sold WADK Newport and WERI-FM Block Island to Astro Tele-Communications for $1.8 million. Just across the state line, Spring Broadcasting bolstered its New London cluster with the $1.9 million addition of WVVE Stonington. Keating Willcox' Willow Farm group added Brockton's WMSX for $674,000. Up north, Alex McEwing sold WGLY-FM Waterbury to Radio Broadcast Services for $700,000; Sharp Broadcasting picked up WLTN AM-FM in Littleton and Lisbon, N.H. for just $415,000; and J.J. Jeffrey added station #4 to Atlantic Coast: WXGL Topsham, for $1.3 million. Out west, Tele-Media pushed into Massachusetts from its Albany base, paying $4.65 million for Aritaur's Pittsfield combo, WBEC AM-FM, plus WZEC in Hoosick Falls, N.Y. This month's big-group deal? Entercom's buyout of Sinclair's radio properties, a whopping $821.5 million worth. In our area, that meant new owners for Buffalo's WGR, WBEN, WWWS, WWKB, WKSE, and WMJQ.

The Vox group doubled in size (and then some) with the addition of the Dynacom group, running the length of the Connecticut River Valley from White River Junction down to Greenfield. Steve Mindich added a third WFNX relay, paying $1.5 million for WNHQ Peterborough. Clark Smidt cashed out from his years in New Hampshire ownership, selling WNNH Henniker to his new employer, Tele-Media. Mega headed for central Massachusetts with the purchase of WARE in (where else?) Ware. In Upstate New York, IZ Communications paid $188,000 for WCSS Amsterdam, Clear Channel paid $3 million to take over the rights to buy WHCD Auburn, and Regent's $44 million buyout of Forever meant new owners for big clusters in Watertown and Utica.

28 years after they split, CBS and Viacom prepared to reunite, although the only broadcast impact in our region was the impending duopoly between WBZ-TV and WSBK in Boston. Cox and AMFM sorted out some of their cluster-size issues by trading Cox's KFI and KOST in Los Angeles for more than a dozen AMFM properties, including WPLR New Haven and the four-station Norwalk/Stamford group. Deep in the financial shadows of those big transactions, Excalibur picked up WCVR/WWWT Randolph to pair with its Rutland group, Keating Willcox added WGAW Gardner, Alexander Broadcasting picked up WLIR in Rockland County, Mercury paid $535,000 for WHLD Niagara Falls to make station #5 in Buffalo, and Tim Martz added yet another station to that North Country group, unbuilt CP WAZV Norwood. Across the border, Power Broadcasting sold its stations in Ontario and Quebec to Corus, the Group Formerly Known As Shaw.

There's something about this month -- last year, it saw Jacor selling to Clear Channel, and this year, it was AMFM's turn to be assimilated by Lowry Mays and company. For $56 billion, Clear Channel entered big markets like New York and Boston, strengthened its hold on Albany, Hartford, and Providence, and extended tentacles (through the AMFM-by way of Capstar-by way of Knight stations) into Burlington, Manchester, Portsmouth, and Worcester. And that was just the Northeast! Elsewhere, Citadel's $190 million purchase of Broadcasting Partners Holdings put the company in a powerful position in markets from Calais to Augusta to New Bedford to Buffalo. Vox grew again, nearly completing its collection of Concord-market stations with WJYY, WRCI, and WNHI for $3.6 million. Vermont Public Radio picked up formerly-commercial WBTN AM-FM to expand into the Bennington area. And down in the Catskills, Charles Stewart Senior picked up WWLE Cornwall-on-Hudson for $100,000, while DeWit Broadcasting bought WWHW Jeffersonville from its namesake, William H. Walker.

Just two sales, both of them clusters: Tele-Media bought WKNE AM-FM Keene and WKVT AM-FM Brattleboro from Richard Lightfoot and WHOB Nashua from Mario DeCarlo, while Harron paid $11.8 million to combine its WMTW-TV with the Portland/Lewiston-Auburn group (WMWX, WLAM AM-FM, WZOU, WTHT) from Arnold Lerner.

Winter's snows found two TV sales, as WWLP Springfield headed from Benedek to LIN and WENY-TV Elmira went to Kevin Lilly's Lilly Broadcasting LLC. On the radio side, AAA Entertainment (formerly Back Bay) jumped Long Island Sound to buy WBEA and WEHM from H-Radio Partners. Citadel closed the gap between Providence and New Hampshire by spending $24.5 million to buy WXLO and WORC-FM from Montachusett. Conn River added WHAI AM-FM Greenfield and WMXR/WCFR-FM just up the river in Vermont. And for just $137,500, Ernie Anastos took horse racing off WVKZ Schenectady and set the stage for a simulcast with his WUAM Saratoga Springs.


There was, of course, more to broadcasting in 1999 than just money changing hands. Some of the year's other noteworthy trends:

We've been saying it for years, but 1999 was truly the year of FM talk, at least in Boston and New York. Greater Media seized the opportunity after Entercom decided to drop Imus from WEEI, using the I-Man as the foundation of a new FM talker (albeit not, as had been expected, at 92.9). In New York, it was CBS's turn to lay WNEW-FM's long-suffering rock format to rest by going all-talk. Was it worth it? It's far too soon to tell, though the odds seem to favor the Boston effort, if only because the main format competitor, Entercom's WRKO, spent the year repeatedly shuffling its local talk lineup to little effect.

The rhythmic ("Jammin'") oldies format that entered the region's airwaves in 1998 continued its march in 1999, adding Buffalo, Rochester, Kingston, and Hartford, plus an interesting rhythmic variant at Boston's WQSX. Adult standards made a surprising comeback, led by WPLM-FM Plymouth on New Year's Day and followed by new entries in Albany, Rochester, and Portland, not to mention a post-WQEW return to the New York market via WNSW Newark in May. For the most part, though, programmers played it safe in 1999, with almost every format change and new sign-on going to country, AC, or news-talk. (The glaring exception: Radio One's new Boston-market entry, WBOT Brockton, the long-awaited first urban FM station in a market where that format had been relegated to an AM daytimer for far too long.)

If any format can be said to have lost ground in 1999, it would have to be smooth jazz. Boston-area fans of the format lost WPLM-FM at the end of 1998, followed by WSJZ (much to their dismay) in August. In Albany, the format was gone for a few weeks as WHRL dropped it and crosstown WZMR picked it up. Down in Mount Kisco, WZZN also dropped smooth jazz when it became a simulcast of WFAS-FM.

Public broadcasting
Maine Public Broadcasting may have had the law on its side, but the statewide network suffered a public black eye when it seized on the apparently-vacant 90.5 frequency to apply for a new station in Camden. That was the spot on the dial where WMHB at Colby College had moved in 1981 to accomodate another new MPBC station, and it soon emerged that WMHB didn't have the license it thought it did for the channel. MPBC refused to back down, and eventually won the license for 90.5 in Camden. WMHB found some volunteer engineering help and ended up, at least for now, on 89.7.

Later in the fall, MPBC became the only public broadcaster in the nation to ask voters for money for DTV conversion. Flooding its own airwaves -- and those of commercial stations -- with heavy-handed messages warning that Big Bird might disappear if voters said no, MPBC won easy approval for a $9.4 million bond issue. Other public broadcasters found less-expensive ways to pay for DTV conversion, with Syracuse's WCNY and Binghamton's WSKG exploring an alliance to share many of those costs. (At year's end, only Boston's WGBH-DT was anywhere close to providing actual public DTV anywhere in the region). For public radio, it was a year for network expansion: Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont all added new signals in previously-unserved areas, as did Binghamton's WSKG (via WSQA Hornell) and Rochester's WXXI (via WJSL Houghton). Even Buffalo's WNED found a happy ending to its fiscal problems at its AM outlet, as the Buffalo News led a campaign to raise the money needed to keep AM 970 on the air.

Outside New York and Boston, DTV remained but a promise for Northeast viewers in 1999. New York saw one new signal (WWOR-DT) during the year, with more to follow in 2001, while Boston's WBZ continued work on the tower upgrade that will provide a home for the DTV signals of WCVB, WGBH, WGBX, and WBZ itself. Out in the hinterlands -- and that means anything from Providence to Buffalo -- DTV remained something we read about in the trades. Think of it as 1947 on the timeline of analog TV: it was out there, a few rich early adopters in the big cities had it, but for the rest of us it would be a year or two before those first test patterns came on the air.

Declaring 1999 "The Year of LPFM" turned out to be about as useful as declaring the '80s "The Al Franken Decade" -- except that Al Franken was at least funny. For all Bill Kennard's good intentions, the year ended without any constructive result from the Notice of Proposed Rule-Making on the LPFM issue. Broadcasters found every imaginable reason to oppose the idea, Congress hewed to the will and pocketbooks of the broadcasting lobbyists, and meantime the skirmishes in the field and in the courts produced no useful precedent to decide the issue. The religious satellite networks continued to pursue their legal brand of LPFM (aka "translators") by filling every imaginable crevice on the band (and many unimaginable crevices) with relays for WPCS, KAWZ, WJFM, et al. And the listeners? Funny, nobody heard from the listeners in 1999... (more on this topic coming in The Rant!)

Remember those? 1999 was a year with no earth-shattering defections and no big-name contract fights. Instead, the fights centered on non-compete agreements, as courts tested the recent Massachusetts decision that ruled most such clauses unenforceable. In Rhode Island, Carolyn Fox broke hers -- briefy, anyway -- to take over the Imus slot on WWRX (moving the I-Man to WWBB) before former employer WPRO stepped in for the fight. Up in Maine, Lori Voornas tried the same thing (ironically, with support from Citadel, the same company fighting Fox in Providence) as she jumped from Saga's WMGX to the new WCLZ "98.9 the Point." Albany morning team Mason and Sheehan sued Clear Channel after being ousted from WXCR, saying Clear Channel had hired them away from WPYX solely to remove competition to Howard Stern on WQBK/WQBJ. Rochester's Brother Wease found himself being sued by several former co-workers for sexual harassment.

Not all the personnel moves took place in the courts, of course: Bob Raleigh did it his way, retiring on the eve of his 65th birthday and handing overnight duties on WBZ to Steve LeVeille, with Paul Sullivan getting the 10-midnight hours being vacated by David Brudnoy's cutback in his own airtime. Across town at WRKO, mornings and evenings were a revolving door, as the Two Chicks broke up, Tai took over nights for a while (then left), Jay Severin did late nights from New York for a few months (only to emerge later at WTKK-FM), Jeff Katz and Darlene McCarthy's morning show tanked, McCarthy moved to nights with Lori Kramer, and Andy Moes and ex-pol Peter Blute moved into mornings. Confused? Imagine how the listeners felt...

Also retiring in style: "Yankee Kitchen" host Gus Saunders, after an amazing 56-year run that started on, of all things, the Yankee Network.

There was some good news, for once, from the radio news front: WRKO dropped Metro Networks to rebuild its own newsroom, led by veterans like Rod Fritz and Worcester's Paul Tuthill. Lowell legend Bob Ellis parachuted safely away from the demise of English-language programming at WLLH to land at Lawrence's WCCM, while across town, WCAP hired Boston refugee Dave Faneuf to rebuild its once-proud (well, your editor worked there, anyway) newsroom. In Albany, WABY tried all-news, but Clear Channel was poised at year-end to move production of news at WGY (and in Syracuse at WSYR) to Rochester's WHAM.

Speaking of Clear Channel, 1999 saw the first CHR war in which half the jocks weren't even in the market, thanks to the modern miracle of voicetracking at Rochester's "Kiss 107" (variously on 107.3 and 106.7 as WMAX-FM, WKGS, and WYSY, not that anyone, even the FCC, seemed to care). More on that, too, in the Rant.

In Canada

The moves from AM to FM continued, with this year's victims including CJRW (1240) Summerside, PEI; CJSS (1110) Cornwall, ON; CKRN (1400) Rouyn-Noranda, QC; CKVL (900) Val d'Or, QC; CHOW (1470) Welland, ON; and CKTY (1110) Sarnia, ON -- with many more to follow next year. Those, of course, were just the beginning; this was also the year in which the CBC signed off the AM dial in Montreal (CBF 690 on Jan. 21, CBM 940 on May 13) and then, in an emotional moment, in Toronto (CBL 740 on June 19). The Montreal frequencies were filled again by year's end, with the Dec. 14 sign-ons of CINF 690 and CINW 940, while the Toronto frequency will be awarded in January 2000.

The CBC had some other issues to deal with in 1999, most notably a six-week strike in February and March that knocked out local programming and sent many network shows into reruns. CBC also struggled with plans to establish a "Radio 3" service for younger listeners.

On the commercial side, owners cautiously dipped a toe or two into the waters of duopoly in markets like Ottawa and Saint John, but many were more concerned with issues like an increase in Canadian-content music requirements (raised to 35% for most stations) and the start of digital radio service in Toronto and, soon, in Montreal and Windsor as well.

The Year in Formats and Calls

New Year's Day brought soft AC to WPLM-FM in Plymouth, replacing smooth jazz with "Easy 99.1." It also brought standards to WNBP in Newburyport as "Legends 1450." On Long Island, WGSM (740 Huntington) dropped Radio Disney when the format moved to New York's WQEW. WGSM became a simulcast of WHLI (1100 Hempstead) and standards. Up in Maine, home shopping came to an end on WJJB (900 Brunswick), replaced with a simulcast of WCLZ-FM. Also going simulcast: WXEX (99.7 Wakefield-Peace Dale) with classic rock WHKK (100.3 Middletown), dropping modern rock. New calls this month: WPTR-FM (96.3 Voorheesville) becomes WAJZ ("Jamz"), unbuilt WAKX (97.9 Jewett NY) becomes WRIP, and the new noncomm CP in Woodstock VT gets WCKP. New to the air: WYAR (88.3 Yarmouth ME). Gone: CBF, Montreal (Jan. 21).

Both of Southbridge's stations changed formats, WESO from standards to satellite oldies, WQVR from country to temporary silence, then to classic rock WWFX "the Fox" from a new transmitter site aimed at Worcester. Up in Campton NH, WVFM (105.7) switched simulcasts from WLKZ to Haverhill's WXRV. WJJB changed simulcast again, joining WJAE (1440 Westbrook) as "WJAB" with sports. Hartford's WPOP swapped One-on-One for the hometown sports network, ESPN Radio. One frequency change, up in Presque Isle: WOZI moved from 101.7 to 101.9 and a new stick up on Mars Hill. In Canada, CHR came to Toronto in the form of CISS (92.5), which dumped country, became "Power 92" under new owner Rogers, lost the rights to the name, and promptly became "Kiss." Call changes: WODZ(AM) Rome to WYFY, WYSY Irondequoit-Rochester to WKGS (to go with its "Kiss" nickname), WBAH to WWRU on 1660 in Elizabeth NJ (creating no end of confusion with WWRL on 1600 and WWRV on 1330!), CJBZ Ottawa back to CFGO, and WMEX Westport NY to WCLX, setting the stage for those calls to return to Boston at year's end.

The month dawned with a confusing set of format changes in Augusta, as the country format from WKCG (101.3) moved north to WCTB (93.5 Fairfield), while WCTB's "River" AC format became "Star" at 101.3. Just south of Elmira, 96.9 in Ridgebury PA returned to the air as religious WREQ "Q96.9." Johnstown's WSRD (104.9) migrated to the Albany market, becoming modern AC "The Point" from Altamont. In Portsmouth, WOKQ got some country competition from 95.3 York Center ME, migrating from "Heat" WXHT to country WUBB "B95.3." Standards returned to New York via 1430 in Newark, which dropped ethnic WNJR to become "Sunny" WNSW. Ethnic programming resurfaced on WRKL in Rockland County, which was sold to PolNet and began simulcasting WNVR in the Chicago suburbs. Last, but far from least, March 31 brought the end of "Eagle 93.7" WEGQ, replaced with rhythmic "Star," WQSX. Call changes: WPOR(AM) Portland to WBAE (we'll see why soon), WVAY Wilmington VT to WMTT, WBIX New York to WTJM ("Jammin'), WHTT(AM) Buffalo to WMNY, and -- though never used on air -- WSRD Johnstown to WAAP Altamont. New to the air: WEIB (106.3 Northampton), testing for most of 1999.

WSKI Montpelier kicked off the month by swapping satellite oldies for adult standards. Up in Plymouth NH, WPNH-FM went modern rock as "The Planet". Watertown's WOTT transitioned from oldies to "real rock." WABY(AM) Albany started an all-news format, while up on Lake Champlain, WEAV (960 Plattsburgh) dumped its country simulcast for talk. In Connecticut, WKCD Pawcatuck ditched smooth jazz for modern AC as "Channel 107-7" mid-month. Call changes: WZMT Hazleton PA to WXBE ("The Bear," echoed by WXAR for WKQV-FM Olyphant later in the year), WWVY Hampton Bays to WWXY (preserving the WWXY-WWYY-WWZY order in the "Y107" group), WXLE Mechanicville to WABT ("Beat"), WYKR(AM) Wells River VT to WTWN. New to the air: WZEN Farmington NH, first testing, then with oldies (Apr. 19) and WZKZ Alfred NY with country.

Radio Disney came to Syracuse on WOLF AM-FM/WKGJ May 3. Jammin' Oldies (or its generic variants) arrived in Hartford (displacing classic rock on WZMX), Rochester (displacing the CHR "Kiss" simulcast on WMAX-FM, er, Honeoye Falls, later "Cool"), and Kingston (displacing automated CHR on WBPM as "Rhythmic 94.") "The Point" moved over in Albany, as WKLI/WKBE asserted their right to the trademarked name, sending 104.9 to the end of the alphabet as "Z104.9" (and, later, WZMR). The sports talk on WSKW Skowhegan found a new FM simulcast on WIGY-FM Madison, replacing WHQO 107.9 in Skowhegan itself. Standards arrived on AM 1490 in Portland to match the new WBAE calls, and religion arrived in Rome on AM 1450 to match the WYFY calls on the former WODZ(AM). Other call changes: WCDQ/WSME Sanford ME to WPHX-FM/AM, WPNT parked on the former WAQY(AM) East Longmeadow MA, WWFY replacing WGTK on 100.9 Middlebury VT, "Y-100." New to the air: WRRO 93.7 Addison VT, soon to be traded with WWFY; WYDN-TV 48 Worcester with Texas-programmed religion; CHOW-FM Welland ON, replacing 1470 AM and all them towers on Regional Road 58 (sob). Gone for good: CBM Montreal (May 13).

The month began with two format changes up North, as WXQZ Canton NY dumpe its country simulcast to become rocker WRCD ("Rock 101.5"), while WPAC Ogdensburg ditched its longtime CHR sounds to gop classic rock. Albany's WABY-FM slid from standards to very soft AC (later to grab the WKLI calls and "K-Lite" moniker from 100.9). NERW hit the road for a get-together in Providence, then for Toronto and the demise of CBL (more sobs). Meantime, Pax took over the former Boston University TV stations, installing its programming and new calls (WBPX Boston, WDPX Concord, WPXG Vineyard Haven), while the former WBPX in Norwell became WWDP. Rhythmic oldies hit Buffalo, replacing "Alice @ 92.9" on WLCE with "B-92.9" on WBUF. Call changes: WSAH "Shop At Home" replaced WBPT-TV in Bridgeport. New to the air: Pax's WPXJ Batavia/Rochester/Buffalo (June 17), WWHW Jeffersonville NY with weather service audio, CHKS "K106" Sarnia (replacing CKTY 1110), WRVD Syracuse. Gone for good: as noted, CBL Toronto (6/19).

High atop Mt. Rialto, the lights in the Elegante Ballroom flickered and died as WFNX's modern rock network replaced WCDQ -- now WPHX-FM -- in Sanford, Maine. AC replaced religion on WGLY (later WDOT-FM and then WLKC) Waterbury VT, sending the WGLY calls over to 1070 Plattsburgh and the programming, eventually, to 91.5 (nee 91.7 WCMK) in Bolton. Up in Ogdensburg, WSLB 1400 dumped its oldies simulcast for talk. Call changes: WMHQ Schenectady became WEWB, "WB45," WMAX-FM South Bristol became WLCL (sending the much-abused WMAX-FM calls down to Georgia for some R&R), and WNFT Boston became WAMG, "Mega 1150," reclaiming the sole record for most calls on a single Boston station. New to the air: Vermont Public Radio's WVPA St. Johnsbury (July 21). Gone for good: CKTY Sarnia and CHOW Welland, both noted during NERW's swing through Ontario and Michigan mid-month, which also caught the new 100.3 in Barrie, CJLF, testing with religion (it would sign on in August).

A switch of simulcast in Poughkeepsie, as WTND "Thunder Country" broke rank with WTHN Ellenville and WTHK Hudson, instead going for AC with WCTW Catskill as "The Cat" (the WCTJ calls would follow later in the month on 96.1). Catholic radio came to Western New York in the form of WLOF, ex-WXOX Attica and ex-modern rock. The standards on WEOK Poughkeepsie and local talk on WALL Middletown gave way to mostly-satellite talk on both as "News Talk 13." Satellite R&B oldies replaced satellite oldies on WUZZ Watertown; neither listener noticed. FM talk finally came to Boston on August 27, as Imus moved to WSJZ (later WTKK) on 96.9, followed in September by local talkers the rest of the day. Call changes: WCPT ("Point") replaced WKLI Albany, with WKLI then replacing WABY-FM on 94.5 Ravena. New to the air: Dennis Jackson's WRIP (97.9 Windham NY) August 5, WEXP (101.5 Brandon VT) testing at month's end, Connecticut Public Radio's WRLI out on the East End of Long Island on Aug. 7, and the long-unbuilt WCDJ Truro, with very low power and an intermittent schedule.

FM talk arrived in New York as well, with September 13 "the day the music died" at WNEW (102.7), replaced by Opie & Anthony, Leslie Gold (ex-WRKO), Tom Leykis, but not Howard Stern, who stays at WXRK for the moment. On the AM dial, WLKW Pawtucket also went talk, while WKBR Manchester dumped sports-talk for country (after a few false starts). Up in Canton NY, WVNC dropped AC for...AC, now under the calls WVLF and the "Valley 96.7" nickname. Also going AC, from oldies: WLTN-FM Lisbon NH. Up in Maine, WBYA Searsport dropped its simulcast with talker WVOM to become "Quality Rock 101.7." Call changes: WGMF Watkins Glen NY became WBZD, warehousing the calls for Sabrecom's station in Williamsport PA (it would change back by year's end); WKAJ Saratoga Springs to WUAM "The Moon"; WXEX Wakefield-Peace Dale RI to WHCK; WBVC for the 91.1 CP in Pomfret CT; and WRKW for the 92.9 CP in Saugerties NY.

Vermont Public Radio entered the Bennington market by buying WBTN AM-FM and flipping the FM to a VPR simulcast. Clear Channel's generic "Mix" format painted the town beige in Springfield as it took over WHYN-FM. Smooth jazz went shuffling in Albany, as Clear Channel dropped the format from WHRL (which in turn went modern rock, picking up that format from WQBK/WQBJ, which went "active rock"), followed three weeks later by Albany Broadcasting taking WZMR from modern AC to smooth jazz across town. Talk made some gains in the Hudson Valley, replacing standards at both WGHQ Kingston and WGNY Newburgh. In Amherst, WFCR took over WTTT(AM) on a 24-hour basis for public radio talk programming, renaming the station WPNI. WCAV Brockton began a two-month flirtation with the cutting-edge "all dead air" format, setting new standards for cost-slashing in the programming department. WKZE Sharon CT dropped country for (mostly 70s) AC. CHR came to Rutland by way of WEXP and its permanent format. Across Lake Champlain, WCLX Westport NY prepared to go progressive rock with many staffers from the original WEXP (back in Plattsburgh-Burlington a few years ago). Call changes: WMEX came back to Boston (well, Natick anyway, on 1060). The WJLT calls that were on 1060 moved to 650 Ashland, ex-WRPT. WSHX Danville VT grabbed the WDOT calls left hanging in the big WGLY-WCMK swap from the summer. WERI-FM Block Island became WADK-FM (and would dump AAA for standards later in the fall). New to the air: CKUE Chatham ON, with modern rock; WRKW Saugerties, testing before launching a rock format Nov. 1. Gone: WEHH Elmira Heights, at least temporarily.

Citadel announced (but doesn't implement - yet) a major frequency shuffle of Binghamton's AMs, sending WNBF down the dial to 680, WKOP from 1360 to WNBF's old 1290, and spinning off the 1360 signal to the former owner of 680, standards WINR. Outside Rochester, WNNR Sodus dumped rock for country as "Big Dog." WARE in Ware went Spanish under Mega. Out on Cape Cod, WYST switched satellite services from AC to oldies. WIPS in Ticonderoga NY joined the "Radio Lake Placid" simulcast with WIRD/WLPW/WRGR. Downstate, WZZN Mount Kisco went a-simulcasting with WFAS-FM White Plains, using the ungainly calls of WFAF. Call changes: Still running dead air, WCAV Brockton became WBOT. Toronto's CHOG became CFYI.

Brockton's 97.7 stunted with "Wild Thing" for a weekend before going urban as "9-7-7 the Beat." WNHQ Peterborough NH joined the WFNX modern rock network, ending its simulcast with WJYY Concord. WEIB Northampton began its permanent format, a smooth jazz-urban hybrid similar to what it was testing with all summer. Don Crawford swapped religion for standards at Rochester's WDCZ(AM), now "Legends 990" WLGZ, and prepared to do the same at the once-and-future WPTR Albany. Up in Portland, Citadel put Lori Voornas back on the air at WCLZ-FM Brunswick, reborn as hot AC "the Point" and aimed straight at Saga's WMGX, Voornas' old station. Two more changes were set for year's end: WRCI Hillsborough NH dropping the classic-rock simulcast of WNHI Belmont to duplicate news-talk WKXL(AM) Concord, and WXNT Port Henry NY returning to oldies as WLCQ. Call changes: WGMF returned to Watkins Glen, replacing WBZD. Boston's WPZE grabbed the "Mickey Mouse" calls of WMKI to reflect its format. WRHD Riverhead became WFOG but went silent, at least for a while. New to the air: Montreal's 690 and 940 returned under commercial ownership as all-news CINF ("Info 690" in French) and CINW ("940 News" in English) on Dec. 14. Gone for good: WRND Manchester returned its license and signed off, soon to be followed by CIQC 600 and CKVL 850 in Montreal, the predecessors of CINW and CINF.

We finish the Year in Review, as we do every year, by remembering those who left the broadcasting world for good in 1999:

The Rant

Back in the fifties, conventional wisdom said radio was dead. All its traditional functions -- from soap operas to dramas to comedies to the evening news -- had been supplanted by television. Maybe you've seen the cartoon with the little boy in the attic asking Grandpa what that "radio" in the corner was for; it wasn't considered far-fetched at the time.

It's been half a century since then, and the only thing that's radio-related up in my attic is all the memorabilia of one of the most successful periods any medium in history has enjoyed. You know the story as well as I do: radio found the personal niche TV couldn't. It spoke to the teenagers who discovered their voices and their music in the fifties. It invented 24-hour news just in time for the turmoil of the sixties. It rediscovered the scorned technology called FM in time to shine anew in the seventies. It learned talk could change a nation's politics in the eighties. And as the nation's economy soared from height to height in the nineties, radio found out just how much money it could make.

It was the worst thing that could have happened to radio.

It's easy -- too easy -- to blame the big corporate owners, to say that every time Clear Channel or AMFM or Citadel or CBS added to their clusters, it was another nail in the coffin. But there's nothing inherently bad about group ownership, even out-of-town group ownership. Look back at the classic stations of radio's second Golden Age (we'll say for the sake of argument that it began around 1960 and ended that June day in 1982 when WABC went talk) -- WRKO, KHJ, KFRC all controlled by RKO; WBZ, WINS, KFWB all Westinghouse-owned; CBS setting stellar standards for news and public service half a continent away from corporate headquarters at stations like KMOX and WBBM.

It's too easy to blame the FCC. Hindsight tells us the mistakes began with Docket 80-90 and the flood of new FM stations in the late eighties that never had a chance to be viable if they played by traditional standards of local service and live programming. Hindsight tells us there was no way to square the repeated increases in ownership limits with the stated committment of at least some commissioners to opening the airwaves to new voices.

It's too easy to blame programmers for relying on research over instinct, for ignoring the rising tide of evidence that listeners are tiring of insanely long stopsets and responding by turning away from the radio to other media.

It's too easy to blame owners for being willing to sell stations that have been part of their community for decades to buyers who have no intention of continuing that legacy. Faced with a similar choice, and with the inflated prices being paid for stations (20 or more times cash flow is not uncommon now in large markets, where 10-12 was the standard just a few years ago), who among us would reject the chance to cash out on a life's hard work?

It's too easy to blame listeners for not demanding better. Radio is just one small part of an ever-growing media diet, shouting to be heard above a cable and satellite TV dial that now offers something for every imaginable niche, a Web that brings to the home an unfathomable range of music and talk, not to mention an explosion of print offerings that would have been unimaginable half a century ago.

Radio is again threatened, this time in ways far more serious than the flickering test patterns of early Fifties' television. Back then, the industry knew it had to change to survive. This time around, I'm not so sure, and in my uncertainty lies the core of this year's rant.


Like most of you reading NERW every week, I've always loved radio. I remember, as a child, looking out the window at the AM array a half-mile away while trying to pull in "distant" stations (Belleville, Ontario, seemed a world away) on my little GE portable. I studied the history and the personalities and the legends. I built my little homebrew pirate station. I spent too much of college at the radio station and not enough in class, and even before graduation I began the career path I always thought I'd pursue, working my way from weekend morning small-town news to the mighty clear-channel fire of WBZ.

Even after that career road hit a dead end, stalled by the continual closing of radio newsrooms and subsequent lack of opportunity in the business, the love of radio remained, if anything made even stronger by the distance created by a new career in television. Vacations included (or better yet, focused on) visits to studios and tower sites. My aircheck collection grew. And of course, every week ended (and continues to end) with an evening at the computer reflecting on the week's changes in our region through the writing of this column.

But something happened in 1999: The spark went out. Each week's news melted into an unmemorable string of mergers and conglomerations and meaningless changes of format and call. The excitement of hearing an aircheck of another market faded, again and again, at the realization that (with a few notable exceptions) it was all the same voices reading the same inane liners around the same 40 or 50 or 80 songs from the same corporate playlist. Even listening to the airchecks I'd taped myself during travels began to seem more like a chore than a pleasure.


At the same time, I knew it wasn't just my own personal burnout. Every once in a while, the light came back on. It happened in Canada in June, seeing the outpouring of nostalgia and emotion -- is "love" too strong a word? -- that accompanied the shutdown of the CBL transmitter in Hornby. It happened every time a flip of the dial to the public airwaves turned up one of those moments on "This American Life" or the "Lost and Found Sound" segments that reminded me of the incredible potential that still lives in the medium of radio. It happened in the tributes to Jean Shepherd and John Otto and Bob Raleigh, voices stilled for good or merely retiring. And it happened in those times, every once in a while, when my dial (or my Web browser) ran across one of those stations that still connected deeply to its community. As big as Steve LeVeille's 38 states all night long, or as small as the bingo-playing crowd over little CKRZ, Ohsweken, there's something all of these moments drove home to me in 1999.

Radio is magical.

In the push for profit, though, radio has forgotten how magical it is. And the magic of radio is the only thing that will keep it alive in any form for very long in the 21st century, in the face of attack from new challengers. Already, most of us can sit down at our computers and sample thousands of stations from all over the world, not to mention hundreds of Webcasters transmitting to small Net-only audiences. For many, radio is no longer a necessity to hear the music we want; that comes by way of cable and satellite's digital music services. By this time next year, we'll be able to walk into Best Buy or Circuit City and pick up a car satellite receiver that will allow us to listen to dozens of commercial-free music services anywhere in the country. And within a few years, it's a good bet that the Net will have gone wireless, enabling Webcasters to reach into the final frontier of the moving vehicle (hey, I'll get CBC back at long last!).

So how has the radio industry reacted to these threats?

Local programming has continued to disappear from the airwaves. Big groups like Clear Channel now routinely program entire formats on a national level, often with voicetracked jocks from halfway across the country and contests that are impossible to win at a local level. (It's a good sign, at least, to see the Florida Attorney General's office investigating some questionable actions on that front.) At many stations, even the once-sacred morning show has been replaced by Stern, Bob & Sheri, Bob & Tom, Joyner, or one of their clones.

Local news? With few exceptions, fading fast, especially in medium markets. Radio is still the best and fastest way to convey breaking news, yet broadcasters continue closing newsrooms and moving anchors to centralized facilities hundreds of miles away. The more the industry forgets about the importance of local news, the more the listeners stop thinking of radio as a source for community information. An entire generation is now growing up with no thought of using radio for local news. Can the industry ever win them back?

Community service? What was that, again, exactly? Again, with few exceptions, the idea of serving the community has been reduced to the occasional PSA and perhaps one or two fund-raisers a year. This year, we even ran across one station that had the gall to try to charge non-profits for running community calendar announcements. Whether it means to or not, radio is sending its communities a strong signal that they're no longer important.

That's especially true in markets where formats and frequencies and call letters are shuffled with wild abandon on a near-monthly basis. How can we expect listeners to develop any loyalty to radio when they can't feel any sense of attachment to a jock or a station that might not be there when they turn on the radio tomorrow?

The radio industry, hand-in-hand with regulators, is also foreclosing on its own future through its short-sighted response to the LPFM proposals that made their way through the FCC this year. There's a message buried deep within all those pirate busts and LPFM letters of support: These are people who want to be part of radio, and communities that want to be served by radio -- and big radio isn't serving them properly. So how did big radio respond? With head in the sand and ears tightly shut, almost every big radio group quickly signed on to engineering studies showing massive threats to their signals and a lobbying effort aimed at a legislative end-run around the FCC to ban LPFM in Congress. The FCC itself is hardly a shining beacon of logic in all of this: Even as it slowly creaked forward on an LPFM proposal, it kept filling every imaginable future LPFM frequency with satellite translators explicitly prohibited from offering local community service. (Why is nobody else seeing a connection here?)

Sure, the radio industry may preserve the sanctity of its 100-kilowatt FM blasters for a few more years. But guess what? The people being shut out of LPFM are, in many cases, exactly the same people whose new blood and fresh ideas will be needed in a few years to breathe some life into radio's stagnant corpse. Just when radio most needs the next Todd Storz and Rick Sklar and Alan Freed, they'll have found there's no room for them in an industry programmed entirely from Covington and San Antonio and Denver, and they'll be off doing their creative thing in some other medium, lost forever to radio.

Radio is squandering the strengths that are uniquely its own, instead becoming a bad clone of the satellite and Web-based services that can do automated music services and national programming so much better (no missed breaks, no sudden format changes, no 20-minute stopsets to drive the audience away). The profits may keep going up for another few years, but in the long run, as debt service comes due and listeners continue to disappear, the course is clear, and it ends up in the attic:

"Look, Grandpa, a RADIO. What was that?"

It doesn't have to be that way, and at the local level in some communities (whether as small as Concord, N.H., or as big as New York City) it's not. But it will take committment at the very top of the radio food chain to bring radio back to the strengths that will keep it a valued medium into the 21st century.

Radio can connect its listeners to their communities in ways no other medium can. If we don't start using it that way again, it will, to paraphrase Ed Murrow, be nothing more than a hard drive and a satellite receiver in a box.

Happy New Year, everyone.


To all of you who have helped make NERW possible during 1999, my sincerest thanks. Your contributions are NERW, and I value all of them. Specific thanks, as always, to GARRETT WOLLMAN, the technical brains behind NERW and the man who makes it possible for all of you to receive the newsletter each week, and to LISA STEIN FYBUSH, "Mrs. NERW," whose patience in the face of radio is not only invaluable but downright heroic.

We'll see you next week.

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