Sunday, October 10, 1999

Big radio merger will change dial

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        How the mega-merger of Clear Channel and AMFM (formerly Chancellor Broadcasting) will change Cincinnati's radio dial will be interesting to watch.

        Clear Channel, Randy Michaels' former Jacor empire, just gobbled up the owners of country music giant WUBE-FM (105.1), “Young Country” WYGY-FM (96.5) and two sports talk stations, WBOB-AM (1160) and WUBE-AM (1230).

        Before the $23.5 billion deal Monday that made Clear Channel the nation's biggest radio station owner (with 830), Clear Channel already had eight Tristate stations, the maximum allowed under Federal Communications Commission (FCC) rules.

        Clear Channel has two talk stations, WLW-AM (700) and WKRC-AM (550); four rock stations, WEBN-FM (102.7), WOFX-FM (92.5), WVMX-FM (94.1) and WKFS-FM (107.1); one nostalgia music outlet, WSAI-AM (1530); and an all-sports station, WCKY-AM (1360).

        Given Mr. Michaels' history, it's a safe bet Clear Channel will try to keep some key pieces of AMFM to increase his monopoly here — and make it impossible for another group to mount a threat in this market.

        Being maxed out with eight stations shouldn't stop Mr. Michaels.

        Here are some possibilities:

        • Keep B105: Could Clear Channel keep WUBE-FM (“B105”), the heritage country music giant, and sell classic rock WOFX-FM (“FOX92.5”) or WKFS-FM (“KISS107”)?

        B105 has the demographics most advertisers (and Clear Channel) covets. The 1998 Country Music Association station of the year usually has the biggest audience age 25-54, beating WEBN-FM, WLW-AM, WGRR-FM and WRRM-FM.

        • Loot B105: If the FCC won't let Clear Channel keep B105, Mr. Michaels could strip all the “intellectual property” and transfers assets to another station. In other words, the country music, DJs and call letters could move to, say, 92.5 or 107.1, and be replaced on 105.1 with a different format.

        In the past five years, Mr. Michaels' twice did the same thing in some shrewd, cutting-edge deals.

        In 1994, Jacor bought the “intellectual and physical property” of old WCKY-AM (1530), then the city's No.2 AM station behind WLW-AM.

        Syndicated shows hosted by Rush Limbaugh and G. Gordon Liddy — and call letters dating back to 1929 — were moved down the dial to 550 AM, the struggling WLWA-AM.

        Jacor also acquired WCKY-AM's rights to CBS' baseball playoffs and World Series, the NCAA basketball tournament and Monday NFL games.

        In the same deal, Jacor bought everything but the tower, transmitter and license of WIMJ-FM (92.5), the FM sister station to WCKY-AM. The old light rock “MAJIC92” became classic rock WPPT-FM, “The Point,” to protect WEBN-FM's rock format.

        A year later, Jacor bought the “intellectual property” of classic rock WOFX-FM (94.9), and moved the call letters to 92.5.

        Going country with one FM station is a very viable option for Clear Channel, which has a “Buckeye Country” network. WCOL-FM in Columbus and WGAR-FM in Cleveland share research, promotions, contests and some on-air talent with Clear Channel country stations in Dayton, Tiffin, Marion and Lima.

        • Steal the BOBs: Clear Channel also could combine the assets of 1360 Homer, 1160 BOB and 1230 BOB2 into one decent local sports talk station.

        Tiny WBOB-AM and “BOB2” (WUBE-AM) have taken on WLW-AM, offering local sports talk from dawn to dusk, while the self-proclaimed “Sports Radio 700” airs non-sports shows with Jim Scott, Mike McConnell, Gary Burbank, Bill Cunningham and the Truckin' Bozo.

        Clear Channel could make an offer to The Two Angry Guys (the only local morning-drive sports show), Lance McAlister, Tim Lewis, Paul Sturgeon or Dave Lapham. The “BOBs” also have the Cincinnati Bengals, NBA and NHL games and Ohio State football and basketball.

        After solidifying the sports flank for 700 and 1360, Clear Channel could change the formats on 1160 and 1230 before selling them. • Bengals: The Clear Channel folks also have to make a big decision on the Bengals broadcasts on WBOB-AM and WUBE-FM.

        Bill Cunningham, WLW-AM operations director, has boasted about how much money his station makes with its “Best Bengals Coverage” programming — despite not having the play-by-play contract.

        Will Clear Channel go after the Bengals contract for one of its eight stations? Does Clear Channel see an upside to the Bengals moving into Paul Brown Stadium next fall?

        Is it worth the headache of dealing with Mike Brown, who banned Andy Furman and Tom Dinkel from Bengals' pregame shows the last time WLW-AM had the Bengals?

        Will Clear Channel keep the Bengals away from a competitor, who could build a FM network around the NFL franchise?

        Do Clear Channel managers want the freedom to criticize the Bengals (as they do now)?

        Or do they want to temper their criticism of ownership (as mandated in their Reds radio contract)?

        • Bust 'em up: Although Clear Channel must give up four stations here, those stations might not go as a block. Clear Channel could protect its monopoly by selling two FM stations to two different companies.

        One could be sold to Susquehanna Radio Corp., which owns soft rock WRRM-FM (98.5) and “Mojo” classic rock WMOJ-FM (94.9).

        Another could be sold to Blue Chip Broadcasting, owners of WIZF-FM (100.1), to double its holdings here. Owners of the urban contemporary “WIZ” picked up six stations — three each in Dayton, Ohio, and Lexington, Ky. — which had to be sold earlier this year to complete the Jacor-Clear Channel merger.

        Maybe former Jacor executive Frank “Bo” Wood would re-enter the radio business by picking up some of the 125 overlap stations to be sold in Clear Channel-AMFM markets.

        An unlikely suitor here, in my opinion, would be CBS' Infinity Broadcasting Corp., the next biggest player after the demise of AMFM. Infinity owns three stations here: Oldies WGRR-FM (103.5), Top 40 WKRQ-FM (101.9) and Lebanon's WYLX-FM (97.3).

        How this all shakes out won't be clear until the new millennium. But the maneuvering will be fun to watch.

        John Kiesewetter is Enquirer TV/radio critic. Write: 312 Elm St., Cincinnati 45202; fax: 768-8330.


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