Sending 2008 Away

Much like the NFL’s Cleveland Browns, we’re quite ready to consign 2008 to a distant memory, as soon as possible…though we have no general manager or head coach to show the door.

There were people who prospered in 2008 in the local media, but the list was rather small.

Local TV and radio stations cut staffing, cut hard, cut deep and did so over many months. (Even so, they were outdone in that regard by the flagging newspaper industry.)

The list of talented media professionals now “on the beach”, as the saying goes, is daunting…big enough to start some pretty big stations all on their own.

Is it any wonder that we here at the Mighty Blog of Fun(tm) want to look for optimism as we head into 2009?

Before you read the rest of this, we’d like you to read the annual “Year-End Rant” by our long-time friend and colleague Scott Fybush at his NorthEast Radio Watch. It’s posted here.

Scott’s been doing these “rants” about as long as we’ve known him…going on a decade, now.

He’s not only a professional colleague, but a trusted, personal friend…and more importantly for this, he’s one of those people with a rare handle on where the media business is, and where it could be going. His expertise is recognized literally worldwide.

In these darkest of times, Scott professes hope and optimism for the radio business, in particular.

He bases his hope on such things as the activity of local owners in small markets – owners that aren’t beholden to major stockholders, who didn’t overextend by buying fleets of stations with millions of dollars in debt, and who are concentrating on something old fashioned – serving their small, local markets directly.

In Northeast Ohio, stations like Dover-New Philadelphia’s WJER/1450 come to mind.

Once-and-again WJER owner Gary Petricola continues to focus on that small sub-metro area with local programming, with news, sports and even local on-air personalities.

He took his station back from Clear Channel after that mega-operator peeled off FM 101.7 to turn it into Canton-market AC outlet WHOF “My 101.7″…and probably had a bit of money left over from the couple of million dollars or so that the broadcasting giant originally paid him for both stations.

(We wonder if he’s thinking about adding, or would be able to add, one of those AM-to-FM translators to serve the core of Dover and New Philadelphia.)

And Mr. Petricola has competition, of course, with crosstown country WTUZ/99.9 also superserving the Dover-New Philadelphia “market” with local news and sports.

Or, how about Elyria-Lorain Broadcasting talk WEOL/930?

Lorain/Elyria is yet another small sub-market that is swallowed in the shadow of Cleveland.

Though WEOL does feature nationally syndicated hosts like Laura Ingraham and Sean Hannity, WEOL – and crosstown competitor country WOBL/1320-oldies WDLW/1380 – feature local news, sports and other efforts to serve the community…efforts the Cleveland stations do not make, since it’s not the core of the market.

Both areas are not exactly thriving, economically. In hard hit Northeast Ohio, the Elyria/Lorain area is right up there at the top of the “hardest hit” category.

But the owners of all of the above stations are far better positioned to weather the 2008-2009 economic storm.

One thing would seem to be clear…the insane run-up of station values is over, at least for now.

The big radio companies can no longer come in and wave a few million at small market clusters.

For that matter, big market stations are in the bargain bin as well, with the recent sale of three full-market FM stations in Denver from CBS Radio to Wilks for UNDER $20 million. Not for one station, but for the ENTIRE CLUSTER.

It’s not hard to imagine that some of those former local small and mid-market owners kept some of the piles of cash the big companies gave them for their former stations, and that some of them are looking to jump back in…at a low price.

Radio-Info.com columnist Tom Taylor has been pointing this out recently – saying there are a few of these former owners with money waiting to “pounce” on lower – and much more reasonable – station valuations.

But as our friend Mr. Fybush points out, it won’t be as easy as shouting “we’re back!”. Even the old-new operators hoping to revitalize their end of radio will have to change with the times:

Some signals will (and probably should) go silent, and some jobs will never come back. The old ways of doing business may need to give way to some creative destruction, too; radio has been far too slow to move past the idea of the :60 spot as the universal advertising medium, and that, too, will have to change.

What doesn’t change, though, is the fundamental idea of mass communications. In a world where everyone’s a content creator, this radio true believer thinks there’s still a place for that trusted voice sitting behind a microphone, giving his or her community the information – or the entertainment – they need and still want.

The TV side of the equation is more complex.

For one, TV stations are very dependent on their networks, and at least one of those networks is taking a big risk by putting its long-time late night talk host on at 10 PM, as the lead-in to the local news five nights per week.

The prime-time shows the networks offer are now pretty much all readily available to watch online, free and legally, from the networks’ own websites…bypassing that pesky transmitter.

And local news content is available without charge, complete with video, at each station’s website…supported financially only by brief commercials or banner ads.

Even without an advertising slump (car companies and dealers, etc. leading that way), local TV stations will have other obstacles, like drawn-out fights over cable TV carriage.

Just the other day, we saw Cleveland CBS affiliate WOIO/19 warning viewers that those who subscribe to the Wadsworth city-run cable system and the tiny “CableSuite 541” system in Conneaut could lose the station – and sister MyNetwork TV affiliate WUAB/43 – over such a dispute.

(The Conneaut system carries Erie CBS affiliate WSEE/35, a fact not mentioned in that WOIO spot, of course.)

From what we’re hearing now, which we hinted at in an earlier item, that’ll be just the tiniest of icebergs in that category in the coming weeks and months for local TV stations and viewers…involving large cable systems.

And none of this even mentions one of the biggest hurdles this year – the digital TV transition, which takes place just a second before midnight on the night of February 17, 2009. That process will take a lot of attention over the next month and a half – or more – at all local full-power stations.

The first part of 2009, if not the entire year, will be tough for all media – especially if the economic downturn shows no signs of ending soon.

But we’re hanging onto some optimism.

Whatever form it takes, well-produced local content on both the TV and radio sides is a product with many takers. The question – will the financials allow such content to prosper?

Is venerable Akron market talker WNIR/100.1 “The Talk of Akron” looking smart here?

We’ve taken a few (mostly playful) shots over the years at the locally-owned station’s well-known reputation for cheapness.

We’ve mentioned roughly 100 times that the station still runs its car dealer remotes via unequalized phone lines. We’ve noted that WNIR’s studios best resemble trashed college dorm rooms, and its equipment may be actually taped together.

But…the station continues with its full schedule of locked-in local programming, 5 AM to 11 PM weekdays, 6 AM to 7 PM weekends. There’s no talk of layoffs on Route 59 between Kent and Ravenna as far as we know…slow and steady, the station goes on as it has for decades.

It continues to be at or near the top in the Akron ratings, though there’s some argument to be made for the fact that the station’s audience skews older…and that’s something WNIR will have to address at some point. At times, WNIR seems perpetually frozen in time at about 1984.

The important stuff is local content, with studios and offices long paid for, with very little capital expense….even for WNIR’s sister low-power TV operation, which is not at all required to go digital this coming February 17th.

The station never built fancy studios in Summit County after changing its focus from Portage County to Akron back in the 1980s, around the time the 100.1 signal increased to 4200 watts to greater cover the area.

In general, when the entire media business crumbles around you, would you rather be inside an old studio with aging equipment and worn carpet…or standing outside a new studio complex without a job?

Yes, “The Talk of Akron” seems built for survival in times both good and tough.

And we couldn’t list “local service” stations that have done this ownership thing right, without giving a nod to the fine folks at Akron’s Rubber City Radio (WAKR/1590 -WONE/97.5 – WQMX/94.9), who continue a long tradition of local programming and community service.

The cluster has been full since the late 1980s, when the company bought now-country powerhouse WQMX to add to the historic pairing of WAKR and WONE. The company’s home on West Market Street has seen modest, but still functional improvements.

Though Rubber City did buy other stations – four in or near Lansing MI – they did so nearly a decade ago…and probably weren’t caught up in inflated pricing. The company has resisted the temptation to “build an empire”.

Like the other stations above, the Akron-based group has continued to concentrate on local service and programming to connect its stations to the community.

We’re not at all optimistic about the print side of things. Even before the economy dove south, newspapers were dealing with a growing sense of doom.

Back in 2006, we reported on the then-pending sale of the Akron Beacon Journal…which eventually ended up passing from Knight-Ridder, through McClatchy, to Canada’s Black Press.

We chided the Beacon Journal’s Debra Adams Simmons, who said – quoting from a Beacon Journal article – “I believe that the Akron Beacon Journal will continue to exist, whether or not the (parent) company is sold.”

Here’s our response from the 2006 item:

Huh?

Ummm…when was the last time a major daily newspaper with no in-city competition actually FOLDED? Sure, companies could make drastic changes in the newspaper and its contents, but the newspaper business isn’t in THAT bad a shape…at least yet.

Now, back to the end of 2008 going into 2009, where the newspaper business IS in that predicament, and then some.

Just about any expert on newspaper finances you can find is predicting that dozens and dozens of newspapers in cities large and small will be folding in the next few years…printing no more.

Just up the Ohio Turnpike and I-75 in Detroit, that city’s two daily newspapers announced they’ll no longer provide home delivery of their print editions four days each week. Readers of the Detroit News and Detroit Free Press will have to get the content online on those days, or if they want newsprint in their hands, they’ll have to hoof it to a newspaper box or store.

And both newspapers and TV newsrooms are sharing resources like never before (read: saving money on costly local news coverage).

We’ve already written about the agreement between some NBC and FOX owned TV stations, where a shared assignment desk will send out single crews for such things as spot news, press conferences or other news both stations would otherwise separately cover.

We hadn’t yet mentioned the recent pact between the Washington Post and the Baltimore Sun (the New York Times article on it is here), where the two separately-owned newspapers will divide routine local news coverage in the Maryland suburbs between them, among other things.

We’re wondering if similar agreements won’t become commonplace in the newsrooms of Northeast Ohio, and elsewhere, in 2009…assuming all the local newspapers survive at all as separate entities. And we’d almost bet the OMW World Headquarters that a TV news crew sharing arrangement will pop up at local TV stations in the Cleveland market sometime in 2009.

Whew. We need some more optimism.

We’ll close out with this from Scott Fybush’s “Year-End Rant” at NorthEast Radio Watch…where Scott specifically talks about radio:

But hope for the future of radio, in some form, is not gone. It is not beyond salvaging. There is still magic to be had in these old airwaves, for those with the patience and vision to see beyond the short-term gloom.

We’re hoping to, indeed, see beyond the gloom…and our most sincere wishes to all of you in local media, that 2009 will end up being a Much Better Year.

It could hardly be worse, after all.

Happy New Year! We’ll be back “full strength” on Monday…

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Heading Off

As promised, this is our final regular news update for 2008.

We’ll do our best to put up any major breaking media news (station sales, major format or personality/anchor changes) during the Christmas holiday period…but we won’t be updating regularly until January 5, 2009.

We will put up a very brief, non-newsy personal “Year End” message from your Primary Editorial Voice(tm) somewhere around the end of 2008.

So, if it’s not here in this update, it’ll have to wait until…next year. (No, we’re not run by the Cleveland Browns, and we aren’t planning a coaching change in a week or so…)

THE HD LIVE VIEW: Other than Local TV FOX affiliate WJW/8’s “SkyFOX HD” helicopter, and the remote cameras Gannett NBC affiliate WKYC/3 controls at Progressive Field, all local TV news remote live shots in Cleveland have taken place in 16×9 standard definition – until now.

Scripps ABC affiliate WEWS/5 unveiled the ability Saturday to do live, fully-digital HDTV news remote shots.

OMW hears that a full-digital path allows the HD live shots on “NewsChannel 5” – we saw one Monday with reporter Bob Jones standing alongside the Shoreway in downtown Cleveland. (We’ll try to get a screen shot here sometime later today.)

The remote HD capability also allows the station’s reporters and photographers to feed back remote HD video that they previously had to put into the system back at 30th and Euclid.

At this point, not all “NewsChannel 5” remote live shots will be in HD, as we hear “about half” of the necessary conversion has been made. But we hear the station is working on the remaining transmit and receive equipment, and all should be in digital format, soon.

The move at WEWS is part of the nationwide conversion of TV station remote broadcast equipment to a new band – which is being spearheaded by the folks at Sprint Nextel.

The cell phone company is paying for replacement equipment as part of its approval from the FCC to use spectrum in the current analog “broadcast auxiliary services” band, and the new equipment is digital…

SPEAKING OF DIGITAL TV: The OMW Mobile made a trip late last week up Broadview Road, to Parma…and the transmitter site of WKYC/3, to get some answers on the status of the construction of the new tower that’ll hold the new digital antennas for WKYC and for ideastream PBS affiliate WVIZ/25.

We just got to the edge of the driveway leading into the WKYC facility, but from there (and the sidewalk), we could see numerous tower sections on their sides in front of the WKYC transmitter building.

OMW hears that a concrete base has been poured for the new combined WKYC/WVIZ tower, but our recent severe winter weather conditions may have put a damper on putting the tower up in the past week. Neighbors near the WKYC site told us late last week that they hadn’t heard any tower construction recently…

COLUMBUS RADIO: The Columbus Dispatch’s “Broadcast Bits” column today confirms our earlier reporting on the death of liberal talk on Bernard Radio’s WVKO/1580.

Cowtown Communications’ Gary Richards, who had leased the frequency since December 2007, reportedly closed out his run by playing some of his favorite music until 12 midnight. We tried to listen online, but the WVKO stream had already been changed over to the feed which will continue to carry liberal talk after the station’s demise.

The Dispatch item confirms that local Catholic group St. Gabriel Radio, which owns WUCO/1270 Marysville and WFOT/89.5 Lexington, is taking over 1580 AM “at 9 a.m. Wednesday”.

We can’t confirm that timing, either, but we did catch St. Gabriel’s online feed adding a legal ID for WVKO at midnight late last night/early this morning. We wouldn’t be surprised if 1580 is already carrying the St. Gabriel-fed EWTN Radio programming.

Back at the now-former WVKO website, being run (as it had been during the format’s on-air days) by the Ohio Majority Radio advocacy group, schedule changes announced for the non-radio web feed include a return of former Air America Radio host Randi Rhodes, with her Nova M Radio show being carried live on the stream at 3 PM.

As far as the legal status of WVKO is concerned, we heard on the station’s final “Fight Back with Dr. Bob Fitrakis” show Monday that the St. Gabriel group is “leasing towards purchase” of the 1580 signal…so it appears to us that it’ll be a local marketing/lease agreement with an eventual purchase option.

As such, we don’t think it’ll be immediately filed in the FCC database for WVKO…but we do expect an actual sale sometime down the road, because the group does buy its stations outright.

Meanwhile, the chatter about Mr. Richards hoping to buy the FM side of WVKO (103.1 Johnstown) is just chatter at this point.

We don’t know if Bernard Radio is still offering the station for sale, if another party is coming in (there are unconfirmed rumors) to take over 103.1, or if Richards will be able to garner financial help from investors said to be linked to Dial Global syndicated host Ed Schultz.

Schultz’ show has been replaced by Air America Radio’s Thom Hartmann on the now-Ohio Majority Radio-run former WVKO webstream, though we’re pretty sure his Dial Global stablemate and Columbus favorite Stephanie Miller is still offered there…

COLUMBUS RADIO 2: The Dispatch column also reminds us to update the coming schedule changes at North American Broadcasting talk WTDA/103.9 “Talk FM” in the Columbus market.

We’d already seen the schedule on the front of the “Talk FM” website, with major holes in the station’s schedule prompted by the loss of two shows – the station itself moved morning drive Premiere talk fest “Bob and Tom” to sister rock WRKZ/99.7 “The Rock”, and Clear Channel talk WTVN/610 reclaimed Premiere midday host Glenn Beck.

After it gives up “Bob and Tom” to WRKZ exclusively on January 8, WTDA will pick up TRN FM’s “Mancow’s Morning Madhouse”, featuring Erich “Mancow” Muller.

If you’ve never heard of him, “Mancow” is the guy who held up traffic on the San Francisco Bay Bridge as a stunt, to parody then-President Clinton’s airport runway haircut.

Since then, he’s moved his “morning zoo”-type show more into conservative talk territory…Muller has been a regular contributor to TV’s FOX News Channel.

With Beck moving to WTVN, the 10 AM-1 PM slot on “Talk FM” in Columbus will be filled by Westwood One’s Dennis Miller Show, that program moving up from a 1-4 PM clearance on the station.

Miller will be followed by one of two shows WTDA is taking back from Clear Channel, a two hour clearance (1-3 PM) for self-syndicated financial advice guru and FOX Business Network host Dave Ramsey…who has been airing on WYTS/1230 “Talk 1230”.

WTDA will then move The Content Factory’s Dan Patrick to a delayed 3-6 PM afternoon drive clearance, followed by its only local show, “Shark on Sports” – moving to a one-hour time slot – 6-7 PM.

The 7-10 PM time slot on “Talk FM” will be filled by another syndicated host currently heard on WYTS – Talk Radio Network’s Michael Savage.

We’re not sure Glenn Beck for Dave Ramsey and Michael Savage is all that great of a trade for WTDA…but both Clear Channel and its Premiere syndication arm were clearly driving this bus.

We don’t know yet how WYTS will replace Ramsey and Savage, or if the station will opt to carry Westwood One’s “Fred Thompson Show” to replace the delayed afternoon drive delayed clearance of outgoing host Bill O’Reilly’s “Radio Factor” show.

We’re wondering if a host like United Stations’ Lou Dobbs is in the mix somewhere. Right now, Dobbs’ afternoon drive show is heard in the region on Newark’s WCLT/1430…as well as the station’s HD3 simulcast on WCLT-FM/100.3…

TERRY LANDS: A former local FM program director will now call the panhandle of Florida home.

AllAccess reports that former NextMedia AC WHBC-FM/94.1 Canton “Mix 94.1” program director/morning co-host Terry Simmons is on the move again…from another NextMedia station, hot AC WDBY “Y105” in Danbury CT, to Cumulus hot AC WJLQ “Q100” in Pensacola FL…where he’ll be PD and afternoon host.

The connection getting him to northwest Florida would be Cumulus programming SVP Jan Jeffries, noting to AllAccess that he worked with Simmons at WHBC-FM while consulting the Canton station…

AND FROM ALL OF US…: Us, being your Primary Editorial Voice(tm), our regular contributors and anyone else connected to OMW, to all of you…Merry Christmas, Happy Chaunkah, and any other joyous holiday wishes you so richly deserve.

We’ll close out the year with a year-end message in a week and change, and return for good on the first Monday in January…

Assorted Holiday Stuff

As we wind down before Christmas and New Years, an announcement.

As we hinted earlier, OMW will indeed be on official “Holiday Hiatus” starting late tomorrow. We’ll post a “year-end” message around the end of 2008, but not much more.

We’ll definitely return on January 5th, 2009. If there are any major, breaking media news items, we’ll try to at least mention them here – even during the hiatus.

But the level of “major, breaking media news” is very high over this holiday break…i.e. it’ll basically take a major radio or TV station sale, a radio format change, a major local radio or TV personality’s exit or retirement and such to bring us here. We won’t be attending to the usual minutiae during the hiatus.

But to clear out our “hold file”, here’s some of that minutiae now…

SUNDAY, NOT SUNDAY: OMW hears that Local TV FOX affiliate WJW/8 Cleveland may be cutting its Sunday morning newscast, with at least one high-profile layoff attached to that budget-related move.

We still find the newscast on the “FOX 8” schedule for this coming Sunday, but don’t know if it will air this coming weekend.

We’re told that the station is likely to air infomercials in that Sunday morning time slot…and are working to confirm the rest of the details…

AIR1 AIRS IT OUT: Educational Media Foundation’s Christian music network “Air1” has another Northeast Ohio translator. Well, they’re trying.

An Alert OMW Reader tipped us off to the presence of W291BV Solon at 106.1 FM, a 13 watt facility carrying the “Air1” programming, which originates from the company’s network studios near Sacramento, California.

We were bored the other day, so headed for the OMW Mobile to get a bead on the facility. (Not the programming, which we can already hear on at least two translators already.)

As it turns out, W291BV is a few furlongs away from Thistledown, in Warrensville Heights just north of the North Randall border on Emery Road.

Our excursion and look into the FCC database took us to a site behind a pizza restaurant (Google Street View link here), where we found the W291BV antenna about three-quarters of the way up a cell phone tower, with an FM yagi receive antenna about halfway up.

That FM receive antenna – pointing to the northeast – is presumably using off-air pickup to get EMF’s full-power Air1 affiliate in Ashtabula County, WCVJ/90.9 Jefferson. We heard the WCVJ legal ID in our time within W291BV’s signal range.

But…it’s apparently not ready for prime time yet. Even parked right at the tower site, in the pizza restaurant’s parking lot, the station was distorted and unlistenable – let alone along the I-271/I-480 corridor it presumably intends to serve.

There’s some sort of technical problem, and we don’t know if it’s with their transmitter or with the pickup of WCVJ, or both.

106.1 is probably being shoehorned onto the dial in Warrensville Heights within an inch of its life.

It’s being squeezed by two powerful Clear Channel FM stations on each second-adjacent side – WMJI/105.7 and WMVX/106.5. It’s co-channel with WBBG/106.1 Niles and WVNO/106.1 Mansfield, though the distance should be enough there.

The EMF folks seem determined to plug every little hole in the FM band…in Akron, they recently started up the surprisingly-well-performing Air1 translator at 102.5, which can be heard on car radios north of Cuyahoga Falls, even…

TROY NEFF: This is our next to last item regarding self-made Toledo “media commentator” Troy Neff.

The former host of Clear Channel WCWA/1230 “FOX Sports 1230″‘s brokered morning drive talk show moved out of “Troy who?” status earlier this month, when every media outlet in the market reported his stabbing in a road rage incident near his suburban Toledo financial planning office.

Not long after, Neff lost his WCWA brokered show after firing off a self-admitted “profane” E-Mail to Clear Channel staff, upset over what he thought was the “banning” of mentioning his name on WCWA’s much more popular sister news/talk station, WSPD/1370.

Since then, Neff has also been bounced from the weekly “Toledo Free Press” newspaper, over questions about his unlabeled use of content from a financial planning news service he pays for. Quoting:

A sample check revealed at least six published contributions that were copied from a service that provides content for financial advisers’ newsletters. Offending columns included those published Dec. 14, Oct. 31, July 4, May 23, Aug. 3, 2007 and July 26, 2006. The original material was distributed by P.P.S. Advertising Ltd., but the columns were published under Neff’s name. Although he is not required to, Neff said he runs a disclaimer on the material in his client newsletter. He did not submit the disclaimer to Toledo Free Press editors.

A P.P.S. spokesperson said the material is copyright-free, but the spokesperson was not aware of any precedent for a newspaper columnist using the material under his or her name.

OMW also hears that Neff is no longer on the panel of ABC O&O WTVG/13 “13abc”‘s public affairs show “Conklin and Company”.

Thus, for the moment, it would appear the correct descriptive term for Neff is “financial planner”, and since we don’t cover news about financial planning businesses, it’s the next-to-last mention for him here.

Mr. Neff has indicated that he’ll return to the Toledo radio airwaves, presumably by buying time on another station – such as Cumulus talk WTOD/1560 or Matrix talk WNWT/1520.

Since we don’t take ads here, and aren’t sending him a bill for the publicity…we’ll dutifully announce the new “home” of his brokered show, and that’s about it for him here…

CBS SELLS OFF DENVER: CBS Radio has found an actual buyer to take its Denver cluster.

In an age where radio stations are about as difficult to sell as cars, CBS will flip its three Denver FM stations to Wilks Broadcasting for $19.5 million in cash, reports AllAccess this Monday morning.

It’s part of the company’s already stated long-term strategy to exit non-major markets (Denver is the 21st largest Arbitron market).

And we mostly mention it here because Wilks and CBS have already done business before in Ohio…Wilks purchased the CBS Radio cluster in Columbus back when the company first started selling off smaller market stations.

Quoting Wilks CEO Jeff Wilks:

“We continue to believe in the power and the future of radio, and look forward to adding Denver to our portfolio of radio broadcast stations. Denver is the market where I started my career and I’m excited to come back and operate these three leading stations.”

We don’t know if Wilks has enough money – cash or otherwise – to buy CBS Radio’s cluster of four Cleveland stations…AC WDOK/102.1, hot AC WQAL/104.1, classic rock WNCX/98.5 and alt-rock WKRK/92.3.

But with Wilks certainly able to find Ohio on a map, maybe they’d be interested.

Since Denver is now Wilks’ largest market by far, the company has no major market assets that CBS could eye for a swap.

We remember back when the company first announced the CBS Radio acquisition in Columbus. Our off-blog response was nothing short of astounding, with people familiar with Wilks warning us of massive layoffs and changes (many of which did actually happen) from a “bottom line” company.

Fast forward to today, where CBS Radio itself has been laying off people in droves in Cleveland and elsewhere, in the economic downturn that has claimed a lot of radio jobs…

FIGURING THE FACTOR: The “who’ll replace Bill O’Reilly on radio” picture is clearing up.

After rumors of negotiations with former New York City mayor and former Republican presidential candidate Rudy Guiliani, it turns out that one of Guiliani’s 2008 primary opponents will take over the Westwood One “Radio Factor” show.

The syndicator has announced that former U.S. Senator and “Law & Order” star Fred Thompson will officially take the radio reins from O’Reilly (PDF press release) starting March 2nd.

O’Reilly is leaving long-form radio with his last show on February 27th, reportedly to, let’s see here, “concentrate on his FOX News Channel TV show”. The “O’Reilly Factor” host is expected to still record short-form radio commentaries for Westwood One.

Before running for the nation’s top job in the 2008 Republican primary race, Thompson had been tapped as a “special commentator” and fill-in for Paul Harvey by the folks at ABC Radio Networks.

(And to make this story even odder, yet ANOTHER 2008 Republican presidential contender, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, has added short-form ABC Radio commentaries to his weekend FOX News Channel talk show. We’re not sure if another radio network has, say, Ron Paul on speed dial.)

The new “Fred Thompson Show” will, like O’Reilly’s show before it, only take the two-hour 12 noon-2 PM Eastern slot.

The situation’s also a bit murkier, since the radio arm of O’Reilly’s primary TV employer, FOX, has already announced that it’s moving its own syndicated evening host/former FNC personality John Gibson into the 12 noon-3 PM slot in mid-January.

O’Reilly’s show has very limited Northeast Ohio clearance, with a live clearance on Spirit Media talk/variety WELW/1330 Willoughby, and a late night weekend play on Media-Com talk WNIR/100.1 “The Talk of Akron”.

We don’t know what WELW will do from noon to 2 PM, but we’d bet on WNIR keeping the Westwood One satellite receiver tuned to record Thompson when he starts in March…

WNEO’s Continuing Transition Work

UPDATE 12/22/08 10:08 AM: OMW hears from Western Reserve PBS that Time Warner Cable is indeed now using the station’s digital feed to feed the station to its analog cable subscribers.

It’s not known yet, however, when (or if) TWC’s former Adelphia systems in the Cleveland area will add the HD version of WEAO/49.

TWC systems in other parts of Northeast Ohio already carry the HD feed of Western Reserve PBS. When Time Warner took over the Adelphia systems, it added the HD feed of WEAO to the paper lineup cards almost immediately, but never actually added the station for former Adelphia subscribers.

The addition has become somewhat more critical for Western Reserve PBS, because of the recent end of the 24/7 PBS HD feed – which basically turned the digital/HD sides of WNEO/WEAO and Cleveland’s WVIZ/25 into a simulcast until the past month or so…

——–

After switching one of its two signals to digital-only, Western Reserve PBS still has more to do.

And as expected, the Kent-based PBS outlet has officially filed to ask for an early 500 kW power increase for Youngstown market outlet WNEO/45 Alliance, which shut off its analog and original digital signal in mid-November in favor of its previously-approved 44 kW digital signal from its tower in Salem…a digital signal move to the former analog 45.

Like many local stations, WNEO had already filed for what the TV engineering/FCC folks call “maximization”, aiming to take advantage of the maximum allowed power for a digital facility.

In WNEO’s case, the increased power level of 500 kW got FCC approval for a construction permit recently…but that permit, as we reported earlier, specified that it couldn’t go on the air until the digital transition, late in the night on February 17th/morning of February 18th next year.

Last week, WNEO parent Northeastern Educational Television of Ohio, Inc. (Western Reserve Public Media) filed a request for a special temporary authority – to light up the station’s 500 kW construction permit power level before the February digital transition.

Despite the fact that a few fortunate souls even far afield from Salem have been pleasantly surprised at the current 44 kW facility’s performance, the new signal has also generated a host of viewer complaints from any number of people directly in the Youngstown/Warren area – the target market for WNEO/45.

The Western Reserve PBS folks helpfully point this out in detail, in the filing (PDF file) asking for the early 500 kW power-up:

Transition Related Viewer Reception Difficulties. Since November 19, 2008, when WNEO ceased analog and pre-transition digital broadcasts, WNEO’s call center has received roughly 150 calls from over-the-air viewers reporting reception problems.

The station’s call center staff attempted to determine the number of reception problems that were caused by viewer errors, and found there were very few, if any.

NETO believes that the majority of viewers who have contacted the call center cannot receive the WNEO-DT signal because of the signal strength of the post-transition 44 kW facility. In addition, the station has received several dozen e-mails from viewers who also reported similar reception issues.

Attachment A (found in the linked PDF file) lists locations where viewers have complained about the interim signal. The list pretty much includes every community in the Youngstown/Warren market including – and this is odd – both Alliance, WNEO’s city of license, and Salem, the location of WNEO’s transmitter site.

(We’re no engineering experts, but we could see terrain issues in there, somewhere, causing difficulties even in those two communities.)

Meanwhile, Western Reserve PBS has one other digital problem on its plate – and it’s a problem many other stations have.

Though it recently switched digital 45.1/49.1 to run the station’s regular schedule in upconverted SD and many PBS shows in HD, the station has a number of PBS programs it does not run live off the satellite – and has to record for later use.

Though shows like “NewsHour” and PBS prime-time shows are aired by WNEO/WEAO live in pattern, in HD, off the PBS satellite feed – the following shows are recorded and converted:

Nature
Nova
Antiques Roadshow
Austin City Limits
Soundstage
This Old House Hour
All kids programs that are fed in HD, which the station is not airing in HD
All how-to programs

The good news is that this situation is temporary.

Western Reserve PBS station manager Bill O’Neil tells OMW that the station is readying the ability to record/timeshift PBS shows in HD:

We have HD capable servers in place. We are now moving to upgrade our station router to HD capability. We have quotes and are about ready to order. We’d like to have it all in place by February 17th.

It’s a similar problem to one faced by commercial stations, which are having to deploy HD recording/timeshifting capability to run syndicated programs in HD.

Mr. O’Neil also tells us that they’re awaiting word on when Time Warner Cable will, as it has with other stations, use new equipment to create a new analog feed for cable viewers – pulling a “center cut” from the station’s digital/HD feed to drive analog cable channel 9 (in Cleveland).

TWC is apparently now using this method to create the analog/downconverted feed for a number of local stations that we don’t believe have a direct fiber feed, including CW affiliate WBNX/55 and the other Northeast Ohio PBS affiliate, WVIZ/25.

(WVIZ just converted its 25.1 digital channel to the same mixed feed WNEO/WEAO has been using…we’re told that the 24/7 PBS HD feed was pulled nationwide last Wednesday.)

Though the goal is not necessarily to improve analog picture quality – it’s to ensure continued carriage for analog cable subscribers after February 17th – the move has dramatically improved picture quality for the stations listed above…at least in our eyes.

As far as the 500 kW pre-transition upgrade for Western Reserve PBS’ WNEO/45, Mr. O’Neil tells us:

We have high hopes that the FCC will move quickly on the STA for WNEO’s power. Medical facilities have been notified as required by the CP. The transmitter manufacturer has indicated the ability to provide an engineer quickly to “turn up the juice”.

Of course, even if the FCC doesn’t act quickly, WNEO will be able to make the power increase at the February 17th transition…

WVKO Losing Liberal Talk

Just a couple of weeks after Bernard Radio liberal talk WVKO/1580 Columbus celebrated its first anniversary, the format is about to go away.

Those associated with the current format, operated in a local marketing agreement by Gary Richards’ Cowtown Communications, are announcing that the liberal talk format’s last day will be Monday, December 22nd.

From the station’s website:

WVKO AM will be changing format from “Progressive Talk” to “Religious” before the year is over. The station has been purchased, and the new owner will air Catholic Programming instead of Progressive Talk.

That “Catholic Programming” link leads you to the website of St. Gabriel Radio, the group which already owns two Catholic-themed radio stations in Ohio – including WUCO/1270 Marysville, which is being operated out of St. Gabriel’s Columbus studios. (WFOT/89.5 Lexington, near Mansfield, is the other station.)

WUCO is something of a rimshot as far as Columbus is concerned. The apparent pending purchase of WVKO, which hasn’t yet made it to the FCC website, would give the group an in-market signal.

But it displaces the “progressive talk” format in Columbus for a second time. The format was resurrected by Mr. Richards and company on WVKO just over a year ago, some time after Clear Channel flipped liberal talker WTPG/1230 to conservative talk “Talk 1230” WYTS…which also carries Premiere Radio sports talk mainstay Jim Rome.

As those associated with the about-to-die left-leaning talk format on WVKO start soaking in the news, the station’s local programming has turned into something of a wake/goodbye.

The Saturday “Blue State Diner” show with news director Michael Alwood featured talk about the station’s impending demise, with Mr. Richards himself talking about it via a call-in.

Richards told the show that they’re trying to return the format “in some form” in the Columbus market, but didn’t have a lot of specifics.

But, a followup call from a man claiming to be a long-time attorney of the WVKO general manager said Richards’ company is “in talks with” WVKO owner Bernard Radio – over the possibility of purchasing the company’s other Columbus market station, WVKO-FM/103.1 Johnstown.

Whether Mr. Richards can do that, financially, is anyone’s guess. The current WVKO(AM) LMA operation has operated, by his own admission, as a “below shoestring operation”, and he and others associated with the operation knew that Bernard Radio was actively shopping both stations.

To refresh a little history here, Bernard Radio is the operating arm of the D.B. Zwirn investment fund, which took over the former Stop 26-Riverbend stations out of bankruptcy. It, like other similar groups, are likely operating stations like these solely to keep their value for an eventual sale to another company or companies.

Of course, the radio sales market has basically cratered due to the economy and continuing credit crunch. St. Gabriel Radio has been doing its own fundraising to get the money to buy stations like WVKO.

Can Gary Richards find a path back to the radio dial on the FM side? Who knows?

WVKO-FM – which has been running a Spanish-language music format – is probably the worst FM rimshot in the Columbus market, which is full of them. It is a class A signal from far northeast of Columbus, near its city of license (Johnstown). Maybe that helps keep down the price.

We haven’t driven the Columbus market recently to check out the signal, but 103.1’s signal would appear to be but a rumor for the southern and western parts of Franklin County – even if the flutter could be reduced by turning off the FM stereo pilot in a talk format.

But…Richards and his Cowtown Communications are about to have no radio signal at all, as of Tuesday.

The station’s final day of programming will feature what all involved say will be “an extended” edition of Dr. Bob Fitrakis’ “Fight Back” show on Monday afternoon.

For the moment, at least, the WVKO website will continue. It’s actually been under the administration of the Ohio Majority Radio folks, who have already put up another online petition to return the format to the Columbus airwaves.

The site says it’ll also still offer up a progressive talk webstream featuring many of the station’s current syndicated talk stars…

Bill Gordon Dies

Long-time Cleveland TV and radio host Bill “Smoochie” Gordon has passed away at the age of 83.

The station which carried Gordon’s “One O’Clock Club”, Scripps ABC affiliate WEWS/5, confirms his death in a story posted on its NewsNet5 website. The Plain Dealer’s Michael Heaton has an obituary which was just posted on Cleveland.com.

The Cuyahoga County Coroner’s Office says Gordon was found dead in his Euclid apartment Thursday, and that the death is believed to be of natural causes.

In addition to his TV fame, hosting “One O’Clock Club” with legendary WEWS personality Dorothy Fuldheim, Gordon had an extensive radio career, and was heard on stations like WHK/1420 and WERE/1300, the latter one of the pioneering talk radio efforts.

Our Swiss Cheese Memory(tm-“Sam Beckett”, “Quantum Leap”) tells us we also heard Gordon do talk on the old WBBG/1260 “SuperTalk 1260”, the former WIXY which later took a big band format (“Big Band Grandstand”) – after a stint as religious WMIH, it’s today’s Radio Disney O&O, WWMK…

Beck Back To Old Columbus Home

UPDATE 12/19/08 1:31 PM: OMW hears that displaced WTVN/610 midday host Joel Riley will be designated the “primary fill-in” for the station’s two remaining local hosts, Bob Conners and John Corby…duty which should give him at least a few weeks of airtime over the course of a year, since both Conners and Corby have extensive vacation time.

We’re told Riley will also continue with Corby and Joe Bradley in the Friday “Big Bass Brothers” segment on Corby’s show, and that he could have other duties in the Clear Channel Columbus cluster.

Our original item is below…

———-

Premiere syndicated midday talk show host Glenn Beck is heading back to his long-time Columbus radio home.

Clear Channel talk WTVN/610 has announced that Beck’s show will return to the 9 AM-noon slot on the station, displacing local host Joel Riley, starting on Monday, January 5th. The move mirrors one made up here in Cleveland, where Beck came back to WTVN sister station WTAM/1100, replacing local midday host Bob Frantz.

Frantz landed in the WTAM evening slot.

WTVN’s new schedule starting January 5th does not list a weekday show for Riley. The rest of the schedule is unchanged, with evenings still occupied by soon-to-be-Premiere/ABC Radio host Sean Hannity and ABC’s Mark Levin. Riley had occupied evenings until moving into middays.

OMW hears, however, that Joel Riley and his producer are “remaining with the station” with different roles. We haven’t heard yet what those roles will be.

After WTVN originally bounced Beck in favor of local talk with Riley, it tried to convince him to move to sister talk WYTS/1230 “Talk 1230” – a move Beck and Premiere vetoed.

That sent Beck over to North American Broadcasting talk WTDA/103.9 “Talk FM”, which eagerly put him into the 10 AM to 1 PM slot.

You do the math here…is “Talk FM” heading for another format?

With Beck’s move back to WTVN, and the previously announced move of Premiere’s “Bob and Tom” to WTDA’s sister rock outlet – WRKZ/99.7 “The Rock” – that leaves a 6 AM to 1 PM hole in the “Talk FM” schedule in early January.

We haven’t heard any format change rumblings out of WTDA yet, but we also haven’t heard what the station will do to replace seven hours of prime programming time it’s about to lose.

We also don’t know if WTDA afternoon drive sports talk host “Mark the Shark” is still being heard at all on his old home at 99.7, after the “Bob and Tom” move to that frequency…