Tag Archives: Greater Media

WTKK and the ongoing collapse of corporate radio

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This commentary was previously published by the Huffington Post.

Update: I’ll be on New England Cable News on Friday at 7:15 a.m. to talk about WTKK and the future of radio.

At 10 a.m. on Wednesday, Jim Braude and Margery Eagan signed off for the last time from the morning talk show they had hosted on Boston’s WTKK Radio (96.9 FM). A few minutes later, the station reemerged as Power 96.9, a faceless entity blasting out robo-music of some sort. And Boston found itself with just one full-time talk radio station. (The station was quickly redubbed Nova 96.9, apparently because of this.)

The demise of WTKK has been portrayed as another nail in the coffin of right-wing talk radio. The estimable D.R. Tucker calls it part of “a downward spiral for a key element of the conservative entertainment complex.” And, yes, that’s surely part of it.

But what we are really seeing is the demise of commercial radio in general, as corporate owners (Greater Media in WTKK’s case) attempt to squeeze the last few nickels of profit out of a medium that may be in its final stage of collapse.

By the end, WTKK wasn’t even a right-wing talk station. Braude, a liberal, and Eagan, a moderate, hosted a civil show that was more about entertainment than politics. Moderate politics and humor were the rule during midday. The only right-winger was afternoon host Michael Graham, whose idea of a good time was to make fun of people with dwarfism.

It was a far cry from the days when WTKK’s signature host, Jay Severin, would call Al Gore “Al Whore” and refer to Hillary Clinton as “a socialist” and “a pig.” Then again, Severin himself was long gone, having made the mistake of joking about sex with interns at a moment when his ratings were falling.

During the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, Boston was a terrific town for talk radio, the home of pioneers such as David Brudnoy, Jerry Williams and Gene Burns, among others. Yes, they leaned right, but their approach was intelligent and respectful (OK, Williams often wasn’t respectful), and they were immersed in the local scene in a way that few talk-show hosts are these days.

So now we are left with one full-time talk station, WRKO (AM 680), home to right-wingers Rush Limbaugh and Howie Carr, a local legend whose shtick descended into bitter self-parody years ago. (Limbaugh’s syndicated show recently moved back to WRKO from a weak AM station owned by Clear Channel.) It certainly hasn’t helped either WTKK or WRKO that their ratings pale in comparison to two full-time sports stations — a phenomenon that didn’t exist during the heyday of local talk.

The only bright light is Dan Rea, who helms a very conservative evening program on all-news station WBZ (AM 1030). Rea, a former television reporter, eschews the shouting and demeaning putdowns in favor of smart conversation.

What happened to talk radio in Boston? I would point to three factors. And I would suggest that none of these are unique to our part of the country. Boston may be on the leading edge, but these same trends could sweep away talk elsewhere, too.

Corporate consolidation. Since the passage of the lamentable Telecommunications Act of 1996, corporations have been buying up radio stations in market after market, transforming what was once a strictly local affair into a bottom-line-obsessed business.

As far back as 1997 I wrote in the Boston Phoenix that the rise of chain ownership would eventually kill local talk. We are now seeing that come to fruition. The automated music stations that are on the rise may not garner many listeners. But they are cheap, which means that their owners can bleed some profits out of them regardless.

“In our current media environment, corporate owners seem to have less tolerance for the station that is unusual, the station with the niche audience,” media scholar and radio consultant Donna Halper wrote for Media Nation earlier this year. “Part of what makes radio unique as a mass medium is its ability to befriend the listener. So losing a favorite station is much like losing a friend.”

The rise of public radio. Boston is home to an exceptionally vibrant public radio scene. Two stations with strong signals — WBUR (90.9 FM) and WGBH (89.7 FM) — broadcast news, public-affairs programming and (yes) talk all day and night, and enjoy some of the largest audiences in the Boston area. (Disclosure #1: I’m a paid contributor to WGBH’s television station, Channel 2.) Other, smaller public stations broadcast far more eclectic musical offerings than anything on commercial radio.

This trend is related to corporate consolidation, as it was the slide in quality on the for-profit side that sent many listeners fleeing to nonprofit radio. If anything, that trend will accelerate.

Technological change. Earlier this year The Phoenix sold the FM signal for its independent rock station, WFNX, to Clear Channel — but kept streaming online. The Boston Globe, meanwhile, hired a few of the people who were laid off when WFNX left the air and now streams its own indie rock station, RadioBDC. All of a sudden, we’ve got a war between two local music stations, neither one of which can be heard over the air. (Disclosure #2: I’m an occasional contributor to The Phoenix.)

These days it’s not difficult to stream Internet radio in your car, which is where most radio listening takes place. Pandora, Spotify and out-of-town music stations (WWOZ of New Orleans is a favorite of mine) are powerful draws, which gives the local flavor of online stations like RadioBDC and WFNX a considerable edge over computer-programmed corporate radio — or, for that matter, subscription-based satellite radio.

It is this last development that gives me reason for optimism. Radio has always been held back by the physical limits of the broadcast spectrum. In a world in which those limits don’t exist, “radio” stations must compete on the strength of their programming rather than their stranglehold on the AM and FM dials.

Seen in that light, the end of WTKK is just another step on the road toward what may be a brighter, more diverse radio future.

WTKK continues to inch toward the grave

Talk radio station WTKK (96.9 FM) continues to inch its way toward the grave. The latest word is that the operation will shuffle off this mortal coil on Wednesday as corporate owner Greater Media paves the way for robo-music of some kind.

Today I’m among those interviewed by Boston Globe reporter Callum Borchers on what went wrong. In a nutshell: lack of a clear identity in recent years, compounded by the rise of sports radio.

At the Boston Herald, Gayle Fee reports that WTKK’s principal remaining asset — the morning team of Margery Eagan and Jim Braude — may end up at former rival WRKO (AM 680) or at public station WGBH (89.7 FM).

Update: And it’s finally official.

Michael Graham is gone as WTKK rumors swirl

Michael Graham has left WTKK Radio (96.9 FM), according to AllAccess.com. I certainly won’t miss him, but his departure, unfortunately, would appear to presage Greater Media’s rumored decision to relaunch WTKK as an automated music station. Here’s more from Radio Insight.

Talk radio, as we all know, is not what it used to be. But if WTKK is taken out of play, I wonder if Entercom might decide to reinvigorate WRKO (AM 680), which has all but disappeared except for Howie Carr’s afternoon-drive show. If Jim Braude and Margery Eagan are out at ‘TKK, then they deserve a slot somewhere.

Meanwhile, Dan Rea continues to do well evenings at WBZ (AM 1030) with a talk show that is as conservative as any on the air — but that is also intelligent and respectful of its listeners. Is there a lesson in that?

Greater Media may pull plug on talk format for WTKK

Screen Shot 2012-12-11 at 7.34.32 AMThe Boston Herald reports today that Greater Media could be preparing to get rid of the talk format at WTKK Radio (96.9 FM) because toxic hosts like Michael Graham are increasingly repellant to advertisers.

The story, by Ira Kantor, has some resonance because rumors of the move have surfaced off and on for many months. An interesting new wrinkle Kantor found is that someone has registered music-related domain names like 969bostonsbeat.com and 969thebeat.com in preparation for a switch. When I looked them up I discovered that whoever put in for them had paid a little extra for privacy protection. There’s no way of knowing whether they were registered by Greater Media or an entrepreneurial squatter, but the fact that they were only registered last week is surely indicative of something.

Kantor also quotes Friend of Media Nation Donna Halper, who thinks Greater Media will keep WTKK as a talk station but is nevertheless hedging its bets. Halper tells Kantor:

I am firmly convinced [Greater Media] will make things work for them and find a way to keep it around, but have a Plan B in the event they need to turn on a dime and have something that will attract a younger audience, because right now it’s not talk radio.

WTKK has had a schizophrenic format for quite a while. Its morning drive-time hosts, Jim Braude and Margery Eagan, are civilized and funny. Braude is a liberal and Eagan is — well, sort of liberal, sort of moderate. But whenever I tune in, they seem to be talking about something other than politics.

The afternoon drive host, meanwhile, is Graham, a right-wing bully who replaced the even more noxious Jay Severin a couple of years ago.

If Greater Media brings the hammer down on talk, I’d like to see Braude and Eagan land somewhere. In the current radio market, though — shrinking, moving online, with those that are still on the air embracing cheap robo-programming — it’s hard to imagine where.

WTKK fires Severin

Jay Severin

In what I’m sure will be a surprise to no one, Greater Media has announced that WTKK Radio (96.9 FM) talk-show host Jay Severin has been fired. Boston Globe story here; Boston Herald story here.

Severin was suspended last week, apparently for making some pretty loathsome remarks about sex with interns. Standard fare for the hatemongering Severin, but his $1 million salary and his plummeting ratings made getting rid of him an easy call.

Meanwhile, Globe columnist Scot Lehigh proves that Severin lied about him recently regarding Lehigh’s reporting that Severin had lied about having received a Pulitzer. Fun piece (“lying about lying,” Lehigh calls it), though the only folks who thought Severin was telling the truth about Lehigh were the most hopeless of his sycophants. Which means they won’t be convinced now, either.

Severin has already been scrubbed from the WTKK website. Jay who? We don’t know anyone named Jay.

Was Media Nation the first to predict that Severin wouldn’t be back? You tell me.

And just think: Severin’s departure comes on the same day that we learn fading Fox phenom Glenn Beck will be leaving his daily show later this year. Beck is supposedly going to work on unspecified projects for Fox.

Is there more to Howie’s suspension?

Howie Carr

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. So maybe Howie Carr’s suspension from WRKO Radio (AM 680) is just a suspension. But let me inject some uninformed speculation into the matter. The once-great station has been running on fumes for some time. Maybe its corporate owner, Entercom, has decided to force an end game, let Carr out of his contract and turn ‘RKO into an outlet for, oh, let’s say Spanish-language infomercials.

The Boston Globe’s Erin Ailsworth reports that Carr was suspended for a week for badmouthing the station on the air — something he has done continuously since he was forced into staying in 2007. (Apparently it’s gotten worse lately.) Carr is said to be unhappy that Rush Limbaugh’s syndicated show recently moved to Clear Channel’s WXKS (AM 1200), part of a national “Rush Radio” network.

Funny, but I thought one of the reasons the station replaced Rush with Republican political consultant Charley Manning was that Howie and Manning are buddies, and that Charley might keep the petulant star more or less in line. I don’t have any numbers in front of me, but Boston radio observers have long noted that this is one of Limbaugh’s worst markets. The idea of not fighting to keep Limbaugh and going with a local show struck me as pretty smart, even if Manning’s show is a work in progress.

Carr does seem to be wallowing in bitterness lately. For instance, he recently wrote in his Boston Herald column that President Obama wouldn’t have made it through college and law school if he weren’t black:

Of course, no one expects Barack Obama to really know anything. We understand, all too well, exactly how he got through Columbia and Harvard Law. He had certain … intangibles, shall we say.

That’s pretty rancid even by Howie’s standards. No, I’m not leaving anything out — the ellipses are his, not mine.

Back in 2007, Carr tried to jump to WTKK (96.9 FM), which wanted him as its morning guy. Unfortunately for Carr, he turned out to have a contract more restrictive than Curt Flood’s, and he was forced to stay.

What’s not known is whether Greater Media, which owns ‘TKK, still wants him. Morning drive is now ably helmed by Jim Braude and Margery Eagan. Would ‘TKK move Jay Severin out of afternoon drive to make way for Carr?

Moreover, given the changed economic climate, it certainly seems unlikely that Greater Media would still be willing to pay Carr $7 million over five years.

The other mystery factor is how much Entercom really wants WRKO to succeed. There’s a lot of audience overlap between ‘RKO and another Entercom station, WEEI (AM 850), a sports-talk outlet that also carries the Red Sox. No doubt the company wants WRKO to make money, but not at the expense of its more-valuable sports station.

Carr is a legitimate talent, but it’s been years since he’s showed more than an occasional glimmer. His suspension comes at a time when he probably has little leverage. Maybe he’ll be back on the air in a week as though nothing happened. But you have to wonder if Entercom executives have finally decided it’s time to do something drastic about its faltering talk station.

Photo (cc) by Paul Keleher and republished here under a Creative Commons license. Original at Wikimedia Commons.