How we got here: A look back at how commercial radio in Boston was destroyed

Photo (cc) 2010 by Dan Kennedy

With the bankrupt corporate chain iHeartMedia now in the process of dismantling WBZ Radio (AM 1030), the city’s only commercial news station, I thought I would repost a story I wrote for The Boston Phoenix in 1997 — a look at the state of radio in Boston one year after passage of the disastrous Telecommunications Act of 1997.

Sound and Fury

Corporate consolidation has destroyed commercial radio. Here’s how it happened — and how to make it better.

The Boston Phoenix
November 13, 1997

It’s cold in Rick Anderson’s office, on the third floor of a red-brick building just outside Roxbury’s Dudley Square. Not see-your-breath, rub-your-hands cold, but cold enough for Anderson to have topped off his casual attire with a heavy flannel shirt. Cold enough for a visitor to keep his sports coat on.

Anderson, 41, is the program director of WILD Radio (AM 1090), where he has worked off and on since 1984. A trim man of medium height, with a shaved head, close-cropped mustache, and goatee, Anderson speaks in the smooth, confident tones of an experienced radio announcer. In fact, in addition to his management duties, Anderson works the afternoon drive time shift, playing new hits by black artists such as SFTP (“My Love Is the Shhh”) and Bobby Brown (“Feelin Inside”).

Anderson boasts that these are good times for WILD. Since adopting a format of what he calls “straight urban music” last year, the station’s ratings have ticked up. And though the station is hardly a threat to ratings monster WJMN (94.5 FM), a/k/a JAM’N, whose music formula occupies the same niche, Anderson insists that WILD has more credibility in the black community.

“It’s all good music,” he says. “It’s just that at one end it’s done by black people, at the other end it’s done by white people. We really know the music. They do a lot of — research.” Obviously pleased with the comparison, he leans back in his chair and smiles.

But there’s another, even more crucial difference between WILD and WJMN. At a time when radio has come to be dominated by megacorporations that gobble up multiple stations in a given market, WILD is one of the last of the independents.

On February 8, 1996, a furious, multimillion-dollar lobbying effort by corporate interests paid off big time, when Bill Clinton signed the Telecommunications Act of 1996 into law. Though most of the focus was on the deregulation of the telephone, cable, and television industries, the law also contained a sweet plum for the radio industry — or, rather, for the industry’s wealthiest players. Ownership restrictions in a given market were loosened from four stations to as many as eight. National restrictions, formerly set at 40 stations, were eliminated altogether.

Not surprisingly, this green light set off a feeding frenzy. More than 4000 of the nation’s 10,000 or so commercial radio stations have changed hands since the bill’s passage. The combined price tag: a whopping $25 billion, or slightly more than this year’s federal budget deficit.

The consolidation of Boston’s stations came mainly in two big gulps. The first took place in June 1996, when Westinghouse Electric Company, owner of CBS Radio, purchased Infinity Broadcasting for $3.9 billion, creating a nationwide chain of 82 stations. The second came this past September, when Westinghouse bought out American Radio Systems for $2.6 billion. After the merger is complete, Westinghouse will be the nation’s radio powerhouse. Chancellor Media will have more stations, but Westinghouse/CBS will have more listeners at any given moment. (See “Monopoly Pieces” for an explanation of how listenership is measured.)

As a result, Westinghouse/Infinity and ARS control 10 Boston stations, accounting for some 70 percent of the radio advertising market. Under US Department of Justice antitrust guidelines, Westinghouse will have to sell or trade stations to get that figure down to 40 percent before the sale wins final approval, probably in early 1998. That will still make Westinghouse the big bully on the block. And that bully has the potential to flex its muscle more in the years to come because once it scales back to 40 percent, there is no cap on future ad-sales growth. Continue reading “How we got here: A look back at how commercial radio in Boston was destroyed”

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Assessing Haverhill’s media (II): Radio

Tim Coco at the John Greenleaf Whittier Birthplace
Tim Coco at the John Greenleaf Whittier Birthplace

Later this year the Banyan Project is scheduled to roll out its first cooperatively owned news site in the city of Haverhill, to be called Haverhill Matters. Banyan founder Tom Stites’ vision is to serve what he calls “news deserts” — low- and moderate-income communities, mainly urban, that are underserved by traditional media. What follows is the second of several blog posts in which I will attempt to assess the media landscape in Haverhill as it exists today.

Brian is on the line, and he’s got an idea. City officials in Haverhill have announced that they plan to reopen a former rest stop along Route 110, closed 15 years ago when it became overrun with drug dealing and illicit sex. Brian’s suggestion: a webcam.

Tim Coco, host of “The Open Mike Show” on WHAV Radio (as well as the station’s founder and chief executive), wonders out loud what Mayor James Fiorentini would make of Brian’s idea. He cracks a joke about the National Security Agency watching the webcam.

“That doesn’t offend your sense of security then?” Coco asks.

“No, I wouldn’t even think about it,” Brian responds.

And so it goes for two hours, as Coco talks about Haverhill news, history and trivia with a handful of callers.

Since 2004, Coco has been running WHAV out of his advertising agency, Coco & Co., located in an office park off Route 495 in the Ward Hill section of Haverhill. The station is mostly online (at www.whav.net) and mostly automated.

But Coco’s got big ideas. By mid-2014, he hopes to have obtained a lower-power FM license from the FCC so that he can reach all of Haverhill — something that is only barely possible now with the station’s weak AM signal, at 1640. He also hopes to pump up the station’s live, local public-affairs programming, replacing all or most of the oldies music that now fills most of the day.

“The Merrimack Valley requires an independent voice,” Coco wrote in a fundraising pitch titled “WHAV’s Democracy, Independence & Sustainability Project.” “With support, the reborn and not-for-profit WHAV is not only well-positioned to become that institution, but serve as a model for other community media efforts.”

I spent the better part of a day with Coco last week. A 52-year-old Haverhill native, he is a former journalist, having worked at the original WHAV (founded in 1947 and affiliated with The Haverhill Gazette, then an independent daily newspaper) and, later, at The Daily News of Newburyport and as the editor of an environmental trade magazine based in Manchester, N.H.

Although the current version of WHAV is only nine years old, Coco clearly sees the station as an extension of the original, which, like so many stations, fell victim to corporate buyouts. The small studio from which he broadcasts “Open Mike” every Monday from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. has been rather grandly dubbed the Edwin V. Johnson Newsroom, after a beloved WHAV news director and Haverhill High School teacher. Among the past employees of WHAV are retired WBZ news anchor Gary LaPierre and Tom Bergeron, the host of ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars.”

“I read the news, Tom Bergeron read the jokes and look where he is today,” said Coco with a laugh. “That is the lot of news people, isn’t it?”

Coco is a well-known public figure in Haverhill. He is a member of the Haverhill Licence Commission, serves on various civic boards and in 2012 was a candidate for the Massachusetts Senate. (He stepped away from “Open Mike” during the campaign.) Although he lost the Democratic primary to the eventual winner, Kathleen O’Connor Ives, he is quick to point out that he won Haverhill. Coco and his husband, Genesio “Junior” Oliveira, have fought a high-profile battle to prevent Oliveira from being deported to his native Brazil — a battle that Coco hopes is over now that the Defense of Marriage Act has been ruled unconstitutional.

At one time, many communities had their own independent radio station. But cultural and regulatory changes — the Telecommunications Act of 1996 being an especially harmful example of the latter — led to the consolidation of the radio business and the rise of chain ownership. Coco is passionate about these changes, and in June hosted a fundraising event for the station with a showing of “Corporate FM: The Killing of Local Commercial Radio.” (I took part in a panel discussion that followed the screening.)

Reviving old-time radio

What Coco is attempting with WHAV is the revival of the old-fashioned local radio station. Right now, he admits, he does it essentially with smoke and mirrors. “I’m embarrassed to say, actually, that we’re doing it the way corporate radio does it, which is a lot of automation,” he said. “Believe me, it’s less than ideal, and I want to get to a point where we’re staffed at least 18 hours a day.”

Nevertheless, there is some local programming, such as “Open Mike,” as well as syndicated programming from left-leaning services such as Pacifica and Free Speech Radio News that are not often heard on the airwaves. Thom Hartmann, a syndicated liberal talk-show host, is on from 3 to 6 p.m. every weekday. Old-time radio dramas, including “Our Miss Brooks” and “Gunsmoke,” are heard at 10 p.m.

A jaunty jingle (“Catch the Wave!”) is interjected at regular intervals. Among the funders: Northern Essex Community College, of which Coco is an alumnus (he is a graduate of Lesley University), and the Merrimack Valley Economic Development Council (Coco is a board member).

Most important, there is local news, some of it reported by Coco. He also has a part-time public affairs manager, Nathan Webster, as well as two summer interns. Local weather is provided by Hometown Forecast Services in Nashua, N.H., which Coco says is more Merrimack Valley-specific than what the Boston stations are able to offer. “Community Spotlight” consists of brief announcements about local events and community organizations.

Screen Shot 2013-07-29 at 10.05.50 AMWHAV’s microscopic news operation can’t compete with what’s offered by the daily Eagle-Tribune and its affiliated weekly, The Haverhill Gazette. But Coco said his station sometimes breaks stories, and as example he cited one that he reported himself — a downtown development proposal being led by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston. (Here is The Eagle-Tribune’s story on the proposal.)

“They do feel us a little bit now,” Coco said. “We have been beating them on stories, and they’re starting to pay attention.” (As I wrote last week, Eagle-Tribune editor Al White declined my  request for an interview.)

How many people does WHAV reach? It’s a difficult question to answer. One month last fall, Coco said, some 62,000 unique users tuned in to the Internet station, though he added that drops off considerably during the summer. He said he has no way of knowing how many listeners tune in to the AM signal, or to the simulcast that runs during parts of the day on local-access cable stations in Haverhill, Andover, Methuen and the New Hampshire communities of Plaistow and Sandown. (The station was thrown off the Groveland cable system in 2007. Coco claims the action was taken because the then-host of “Open Mike” was criticizing local politicians.)

But there’s no question the station’s listenership should increase if Coco succeeds in obtaining a low-power FM (LPFM) license from the FCC. Coco will apply this October, and could receive approval within about nine months if there are no competing applications or other complications. The proposal — for a 23-watt signal — “should well cover Haverhill,” Coco said. The broadcast frequency is likely to be 98.1 FM.

The LPFM program was created in 2000 to offset the decline of local commercial radio. LPFM licenses are available only to nonprofit organizations, and in 2011 Coco formed Public Media of New England as a 501(c)(3) entity to act as WHAV’s umbrella operation.

The Banyan connection

As WHAV expands, it’s going to need more programming in general and more local programming in particular. Coco is a member of the organizing committee for Haverhill Matters, the cooperatively owned news site that the Banyan Project is scheduled to launch before the end of 2013.

Coco expects to broadcast repurposed content from Haverhill Matters on WHAV, and added that he can also play a role in providing some of the “institutional memory” for Haverhill Matters that may be lacking with “newbie reporters.” Although Haverhill Matters will hire a full-time professional editor, Banyan Project founder Tom Stites and the organizing committee also talk about using interns from Northern Essex Community College, neighborhood bloggers and the like.

Haverhill Matters and an expanded WHAV both represent ambitious visions for local, independent media organizations, and it will take a certain amount of blind faith — my phrase, not Coco’s — for those visions to become a reality.

For instance, when I asked Coco about his plan to increase spending at WHAV from $38,000 in 2013 to $93,000 in 2015, he replied matter-of-factly, “It is a projection, but it has to.” And he expessed skepticism about Stites’ plan to raise $54,000 for Haverhill Matters by persuading 1,500 people to pay $36 each.

“It isn’t feasible, and this isn’t feasible,” Coco said, referring to Haverhill Matters and to his own efforts at WHAV. “And I do have some long-term worries in both cases.”

Later in the day, Coco played tour guide, driving me around Haverhill, from a downtown damaged by an urban renewal project that never quite came to pass to more rural sections such as Winnekenni Castle and the John Greenleaf Whittier Birthplace, for which Coco serves as president of the board of trustees.

“I feel like George Bailey from ‘It’s a Wonderful Life,’” Coco said “I really didn’t get to leave Bedford Falls. Whether we remain Bedford Falls or become Pottersville remains to be seen.”

Coco believes that strong, independent local media are a key to keeping his Bedford Falls vision of Haverhill intact. The next few years will be crucial to determining whether he and the folks at Haverhill Matters can succeed.

Photo (cc) by Dan Kennedy.