Commentary by Art Vuolo, Jr.
The business is changing in ways we could never have imagined. My goal is to keep this column under a thousand words, but that will be a challenge. So much is happening and much of it, although good for the big corporations which own most radio stations, is not particularly good for us, the listeners.
On the evening of December 6th I was fortunate enough to attend and videotape the memorial service and incredible tribute to the late Sonny Eliot. It was held at Wayne State University and it offered far more laughs than tears. That's the way Sonny would have wanted it. An all-star line-up, which even included weathercaster giants Jerry Hodak and Chuck Gaidica, was emceed by Jim Brandstatter and it did not disappoint any of the 500 plus in the audience. One of the other talents who spoke about Sonny was WWJ's longtime morning news anchor Joe Donovan. Little did we know, nor could we have imagined, that eight days later Big Joe would be gone from the airwaves after more than 40 years in Detroit. Some felt he quit on the air. Others thought he just had enough and walked off the job. He did feel it was time to "hang it up" and retire from his daily routine, but nobody was prepared for his sudden departure done in such an unceremonious fashion. At around 9:50 a.m. (that number sounds familiar) on December 14 he thanked his listeners and said goodbye to Detroit. Yes, it was about the time that a major and horrible news story was breaking from Newtown, Connecticut with the Sandy Hook school shooting.
Joe Donovan came to Detroit as a Big 8 CKLW newsman in 1970 and his big voice carried over well to his job at WWJ where he helped launch the all-News format in 1976. It will be interesting to see who succeeds him. He or she will have to blend smoothly with co-anchor Roberta Jasina, who remains with the station. Interestingly, WWJ is about to move into brand new state-of-the-art studios right next door to their current address on American Drive in Southfield. One of the names being mentioned is WOMC morning news guy Bob Schuman, and with WOMC and WYCD also moving into the same building with all of the other CBS stations, his commute would remain the same. In the meantime, midday anchor Greg Bowman is doing a fine job getting our day started.
One of the other stories that needs to be addressed is Clear Channel Detroit giving away one of its AM stations to the Minority Media and Telecommunications Council (MMTC) as a "tax write-off." Friends, if the companies which actually own AM stations can't see any value in them, why should they expect we, the listeners, to tune them in?
To put this situation into greater perspective, this is the same station that was once WKMH, "Your Tiger Station." They had Tiger baseball even before WJR! On Halloween night of 1963, this 1310 AM frequency was transformed into WKNR 'Keener 13' and in less than two months propelled itself to Detroit's number one pop music station, which anyone over 50 still remembers with fondness. Here on this web site, Mike Austerman has already listed its numerous incarnations since. Personally, I am surprised that Salem Communications didn't want the frequency. They own secular and Christian talk stations on WDTK-AM (1400) and WLQV-AM (1500) neither of which have good signals, but then it wouldn't have been a donation. I wonder if the Mother Waddles Foundation would be interested?
One of the most amazing part of this "killing off" of WDTW-AM (1310) is that it does not include the six broadcast towers along the south side of I-94 between Telegraph and the Southfield Freeway. They have been there since 1948. It also creates an imbalance of the local talk radio scene, since most stations are conservative right-wing stations. AM-1310 was a left-wing progressive outlet. So, whomever gets the frequency will have to find a new plot of land to build a new transmitter site. This is probably due to the condition of the six current towers and the value of the real estate they occupy. It's all about the money. It always is.
Speaking of AM transmitter sites, Sima Birach is enduring the wrath of residents near the border of Wixom and Milford in Oakland County as he attempts to erect a seven tower site for two of his AM stations; WPON-AM (1460) and WCXI-AM (1160). Currently 1460 is off the air, but 1160 is still broadcasting from two towers along US 23 at North Road in Fenton. Locals fear the towers will be an eyesore and cause health issues from excessive radiation. C'mon people, stop being ridiculous. Neither should be a factor. AM radio is certainly facing a lot of challenges.
Don't get me started on why we don't have a non-political FM talk station in southeast Michigan. As I write this column, I'm listening to a wildly entertaining FM talk station, but it's coming from New Jersey via my Internet radio because there are no local talk stations on FM other than sports-talk 97.1 The Ticket. Sometimes we just need a break from the sports fanatics.
A lot of people in the broadcasting industry are buzzing about a mega-merger that saw the king of TV ratings, The A. C. Nielsen Company, buying the king of radio ratings, Arbitron. What affect will this have? It's hard to forecast right now, but consider it another chapter in the book of consolidation. If this wasn't a large enough transaction, the rumor mill is gaining heavy momentum on a potential deal that would see Clear Channel Media and Entertainment bought out by ultra-powerful Comcast! I'm not going to even speculate what this would mean for radio, but most "experts" feel it would be good (but for whom?). In case you didn't know, Comcast already owns NBC/Universal and a host of other entities. Ya know, Mrs. Smith doesn't make the pies anymore either.
Yes, Clear Channel is the company that recently fired over 200 people across the country just a couple of weeks before Christmas. Happy Holidays. One respected radio trade publisher said that it's very common for a large company to make a reduction in personnel before a major divestiture. My curiosity is if will it happen during the "deadest business week" of the year...between Christmas and New Year's Day. Clear Channel is also the same company that planned one of its first "group firings" on January 20, 2009, the day of President Obama's Inauguration just so it would get lost in the news. This is also the same company that this past week took over New York City's heritage AM station WOR. They handed out a slew of pink slips firing a number of famous radio hosts, including Dr. Joy Browne. WOR, for years, was known for LOCAL programming, but now analysts feel national shows like Limbaugh, Hannity and Beck will shift from Cumulus-owned WABC over to WOR, while shows syndicated by Cumulus, which now owns WABC, will be featured on THEIR property. As confusing as it sounds, what's actually happening is radio stations, especially talk stations, are simply becoming clearing houses for programs that they own. Very sad.
This is also the time of year for significant changes as on-air personalities seem to disappear or shift to another frequency after the holidays. Stations which adapt the popular all-Christmas music format often use such programming as a transition to something new, or at least different. My money is on 105.1 FM locally. It's been, classical WQRS, hard rock WXDG, soul-oldies WGRV, and pop as Magic WMGC, but lately it's had no definitive sound. What will it be on January 2nd? Can't even guess, but I hope they do something smart. After Jim Harper left a year ago, the Magic name was dropped and 30+ year market veteran, Chris Edmonds, is being "wasted" on an all-music presentation. Who is calling the shots? What is surprising is that 105.1 FM's owner, Greater Media, is a good company which normally makes smart decisions. Stay tuned to this one. Personally I'm still bummed that Clear Channel dropped 100.3 WNIC and now calls that station "Fresh 100.3" which makes me think of Subway, not a radio station. I want to eat fresh, not listen to fresh. Who is making these decisions?
Since we're in "speculation mode," fans of the longtime popular morning duo Dave & Chuck the Freak at Windsor's 89X (CIMX-FM 88.7) are wondering at which Detroit area station they'll reappear after their six month non-compete expires in May. You can bet the farm it will be a station on this side of the Detroit River. WDTW-FM (106.7) recently brought in Alan Cox from sister station WMMS in Cleveland for wake-up duties at The D, but it wouldn't surprise me if Dave (Hunter) & Chuck (Urquhart) the Freak landed at the Clear Channel building in Farmington Hills. What DID surprise me was the dismissal of popular Mix 92.3 star Frankie Darcell. Surely another urban station will pick her up soon. Popular hosts in large cities nationwide have been dropped by their respective stations, not because of bad ratings, but because they are making too much money. Money continues to be the answer to almost every question regarding local media.
What kind of year will 2013 be for Southeast Michigan radio listeners? The only thing I will predict is that the local radio dial will be considerably different one year from today and you will probably learn about it all right here on michiguide.com. I hope I'm lucky enough to report some of it for you, but it is 20...13! Happiest Holidays to you and yours, and please let me know your thoughts on any of what I had to say.
Contact Art Vuolo, Jr. via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org