Tag Archives: WRKO

What’s next for Howie Carr?

Howie Carr in 2010

Howie Carr in 2010

At the bottom of Howie Carr’s column in today’s Boston Herald is this: “Howie will be back on the radio Monday at 3 p.m.” Since Carr had just been released from WRKO (AM 680), I figured he was going to do at least a temporary stint at the Herald’s Internet radio station — maybe even with his old sidekick Doug “V.B.” Goudie, who was put on waivers this week by Cox Media, the new owner of WFXT-TV (Channel 25.) (And who except us old folks remembers that it was Carr who gave Goudie his nickname, which stands for “Virgin Boy”?)

But as the redoubtable Scott Fybush of NorthEast Radio Watch writes Monday and today, Carr has numerous syndication options — none of them particularly attractive, but nevertheless very much in play. He’s still on the air in several smaller markets, and the possible deals he could cut are complicated and involve stations you’ve likely never heard of. But Fybush, as always, has the goods, and you should read him if you want to know every last tidbit.

As for Carr’s departure from WRKO, well, it says a lot about both Carr and his former employer that this isn’t a bigger story. When Carr tried unsuccessfully to get out of his contract and jump to WTKK (96.9 FM) some years ago, it was huge news. Now WTKK is gone, Carr doesn’t have a Boston radio outlet, and WRKO is sucking wind. Non-sports talk has been in decline for years, and Entercom management has seemingly done everything it could to hasten that decline, driving a once-great station into the ground. Carr had long been ‘RKO’s sole remaining asset, but high-priced talent isn’t part of the business plan these days.

And if you don’t think Carr has talent, you should have read him in the ’80s or heard his show in the ’90s. He knew more about Massachusetts politics than anyone alive, and he was absolutely fearless. But I’ve just defined the problem, haven’t I? In addition to letting his natural mean-spiritedness curdle into something uglier than that, Carr has also been phoning it in for years, both at the keyboard and behind the microphone.

But despite our very different political sensibilities, I am a former fan, and I’d love to see him rediscover what made him a must-read and -listen.

Photo (cc) by Mark Sardella and published under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

Gene Burns, 1940-2013

I was sad to learn over the weekend that radio talk-show host Gene Burns had died at the age of 72 (via Universal Hub). Burns, who brought intelligence and grace to the airwaves, held down the midday slot at WRKO (AM 680) from 1985 to 1993. Lesley University professor and radio consultant Donna Halper writes:

I will miss him because of what he represented — a more courteous style of conversation. Today’s talk hosts (on BOTH sides) often shout and name-call and insult the other side. Gene Burns was all about exchanging IDEAS; he was a libertarian, but he always respected callers who had other ideologies. In today’s polarized culture, it would be nice if more of us could get beyond the rhetoric and get to know each other better. Talk shows like his used to provide a forum for that to occur. I wish they still did.

The talk-radio world of the 1980s was radically different from today’s. There was a time on WRKO when, from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., you could listen to Ted O’Brien and Janet Jeghelian, then Burns and finally the legendary Jerry Williams during afternoon drive. Then you could switch over to WBZ (AM 1030) and hear another legend, David Brudnoy, from 7 p.m. to midnight — 17 hours of intelligent, (mostly) civil talk.

These days Dan Rea, Brudnoy’s successor at WBZ once removed, is the only host on the commercial dial following that tradition. If you want a smart discussion of news and public affairs, public radio is pretty much the only choice.

Was Ordway firing more about ratings — or money?

Yes, as a matter of fact, I am old enough to remember Glenn Ordway as the color man back when the legendary Johnny Most was doing Celtics play-by-play.

I have nothing especially profound to say about Ordway’s departure from WEEI Radio (AM 850), a station he helped build into a sports powerhouse and that is now lagging in the ratings behind relative newcomer WBZ-FM (98.5 FM), better known as the Sports Hub. I’m only pointing out the obvious by observing that if this was all about the ratings, then no one is safe, starting with John Dennis and Gerry Callahan.

The one thing I’d keep an eye on is whether the move to dump Ordway was about money as much as it was about ratings. Marc Ganis, a sports business consultant based in Chicago, tells Matt Stout of the Boston Herald that Ordway’s salary — $500,000, down from $1 million a couple of years ago — was seriously out of whack with what local stations pay these days. Chad Finn of The Boston Globe reports that Ordway’s replacement, Mike Salk, is expected to make about $100,000.

We’ve already seen the dismantling of political talk radio in Boston. WTKK (96.9 FM) recently switched to music. WRKO (AM 680), which, like WEEI, is owned by Entercom, has cut way back over the years, to the point at which afternoon host Howie Carr is the station’s only highly paid star. The one exception to the downsizing trend on the commercial dial is Dan Rea’s evening show on WBZ (AM 1030).

Sports talk starts from a much higher ratings base than political talk, so perhaps Entercom is willing to spend some money to get WEEI back in the game. But it’s not only about ratings these days. It used to be that if you put up the numbers, the advertising would come rolling in. The ad business has changed considerably in recent years, and it’s not that simple anymore. There are plenty of non-radio options for people to listen to in their cars these days.

Ordway is talking about pursuing Internet options, and I wish him well. The challenge is that Internet radio doesn’t make money, and is generally used to promote something else. Consider the city’s two online alternative-music outlets. WFNX.com and RadioBDC exist to extend the brands of The Phoenix and the Globe’s Boston.com site, respectively. I don’t think anyone expects them to become profit-generating monsters.

As for the battle between WEEI and the Sports Hub, it could be that the most interesting sports talk you’ll hear over the next few weeks and months will be about the stations, not what’s on them.

Photo (cc) by uzi978 and published under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

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?

Limbaugh back, Severin out

I find this less interesting than I would have a few years ago, so just read Jessica Heslam’s report in the Boston Herald. The main takeaways: Rush Limbaugh is coming back to WRKO Radio (AM 680). And Jay Severin is once again looking for work.