Saturday, July 14, 2007

Howie Carr and WRKO's Woes

If you follow Boston's radio scene at all, you've heard about the gigantic coup WTKK scored by "stealing" local Boston Herald columnist Howie Carr from WRKO, where Carr had done afternoon drive for many years. Adam Reilly also did a good writeup about Carr's departure in the Boston Phoenix, and Dan Kennedy has a good writeup about the decline of WRKO leading up to this.

Many other blogs are buzzing, too...I've done a little commenting here and there, but I have little to say about this myself here. On the surface, WRKO has screwed up badly by not offering Carr a contract when they had the chance several months ago...and FM competitor WTKK has gone a long way to fill a gaping hole left by Imus's departure followed by Mike Barnicle's "retirement" from WTKK.

Of course, how much of a "screw up" this is depends a lot on what the future holds for WRKO's right-wing talk format. The current morning host, ex-Speakah of da House Tom Finneran has always had potential but just isn't a good radio personality (ed.note: not alone he isn't...if they'd give him a good sidekick to fulfill the "radio professional" role, Finneran would probably be pretty decent). There's the usual right-wing fare on the rest of the day, the strongest of which is probably Rush Limbaugh, whom is a radio force nationwide but I've heard Boston is his weakest market (not surprising).

Rush alone does not a viable commercial station make. And don't forget WTKK still has some holes in the schedule even with Howie, and there's also WTTT nipping at the heels in the conservative-talker wars. So does this spell the end of WRKO's conservative-talk format?

If so, then letting Howie go might make a lot of sense, although the threat of legal action against him, and letting him keep doing his show, seem fairly odd no matter what. And I can easily see Rush migrating over to WTKK as well. The other shows can find homes here and there (probably on WTTT or perhaps WBIX depending on the show).

The wild card, of course, is the Red Sox. This year marked the beginning of the arrangement where most of the baseball games are carried on WRKO but previous home WEEI (which, like WRKO, is also owned by Entercom) remains where the sports-talk format lives. Most radio geeks have derided this as goofy at best, utterly stupid at worst...although Entercom has claimed there hasn't been much confusion for the listeners, and overall I suppose it adds up to (at least a little) more ratings since WEEI does pretty well all day, not just during the games.

But changing the format of WRKO probably doesn't mean the Sox games will move back to WEEI; the conventional wisdom is that the Sox played hardball with insisting on this WEEI-WRKO split because they didn't like the criticism of the team during WEEI's regular talk programming. So whatever new format comes around has to work around the games. That rules out a lot of options.

Liberal-talk on WRKO has been bandied about quite a bit, even the return of Air America Radio. But I don't see that happening; AAR still has budget problems which make it a risky option. And the last go-around of AAR on WXKS & WKOX was a miserable failure ratings-wise. You can blame that on the lousy night signals and poor overall promotion (and you'd be right) but regardless, it was still a failure before and that makes it no less a risky proposition as staying with conservative talk. Plus I'm of the suspicion that, even though it's more centrist in its politics, the fans of liberal talk are already pretty happy with local NPR offerings WBUR and WGBH.

Going way out into the realm of speculation, I wonder if Entercom is thinking way outside the box and might just sell WRKO for a few tens of millions of dollars. Certainly it solves the programming problem, albeit by cutting the Gordian Knot. But it would help offset the mucho dinero ($12mil per year for 10 years, IIRC) they're paying for the rights for Sox games, and it might essentially "force" the games back onto WEEI (which probably wouldn't be viewed as a bad thing by Entercom). Of course, selling off such a potentially valuable property as a radio station - especially one with WRKO's hefty signal - is rarely done and with good reason; when the Sox games were still on WEEI, Entercom made (I believe) about $35 million a year off of 850AM alone. While that's an extreme example, a well-run, well-listened-to station can rake in at least $5-$10 million a year, so Entercom could potentially earn the same value as a sale in less than a decade. Hence why a sale is somewhat unlikely.

Although if it DID happen, it'd be nice to see it go to WUMB. Hint, hint! ;-) I'm mostly kidding, of course...I'm a pubradio nut so it would be pretty cool to see the folk format on a real hefty signal (even AM, since HD Radio can help overcome the audio fidelity issues of AM). But I doubt WUMB could afford it without ridiculously generous terms of sale.

Anyways...personally, I wonder if Entercom is going to follow Clear Channel's example and target the under-served ethnic populations in Boston. Word around the campfire is that WXKS & WKOX have brought in decent billing in a surprisingly short time with the Spanish-language "Rumba" format. And there are literally a dozen pirate stations airing Caribbean news and music (mostly Haitian) around Boston. Why not a Caribbean-creole/Haitian format? Or maybe copy WJFD from New Bedford and put on Portuguese-language for all the Brazilian communities? It's comparatively cheap to do, and cheap to market (word of mouth is all you need), and obviously there's a market.

I guess time will tell!

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