April 27, 2012

The Art of the Deal in New York City Radio: 98.7 Kiss FM and ESPN Radio

Stephen A. Smith will get a new time slot from 1-3 p.m. beginning
Monday on the new ESPN New York 98.7 FM

How Complex is the 98.7 Kiss FM to ESPN Deal? Very.

By AKIEM BAILUM Guest Blogger Twitter: @Li495Akiem

98.7 is being “Kissed” goodbye this weekend.

The details of this Emmis/ESPN deal involving such a legendary station as WRKS-FM 98.7 Kiss in New York City are complicated and can be hard to follow, but some of which have already been brilliantly explained here on Urban Radio Nation.  But here’s the story as I see it a little more in-depth.

98.7 has been LMA’d by ESPN from Emmis. Technically, it means that Emmis is still the principal owner of the station, but ESPN is, for all intents, and purposes, leasing it. The lease is said to be for an estimated 12 years, all the way until the year 2024.

What will happen with 98.7 is that it will become the new flagship station for ESPN Radio. A change in the WRKS calls is almost certain to happen over to WEPN, the calls of their current AM flagship station on signal-plagued 1050 AM. ESPN has also announced that in September, 1050 AM will be the new home of ESPN Deportes Radio (Spanish-Language Sports). There was suggestion in radio circles that Radio Disney (currently on 1560 in the Big Apple) should switch places on the AM band with ESPN 1050.

Word is also that ESPN will pay Emmis $8.4 million the first year of the local marketing agreement with it gradually increasing by a small percentage each subsequent year.

DJ Red Alert during 98.7 KISS FM's run as a Hip Hop station. 
For Kiss-FM, its intellectual property is being picked up by YMF Media, the new owners of 107.5 WBLS. After Inner City Broadcasting’s recent bankruptcy filing, all former Inner City stations including both BLS & Gospel outlet 1190 WLIB are now owned by YMF. The only Inner City outlet not acquired by YMF was 102.9 KBLX in San Francisco. It was purchased by Entercom (who already has a huge presence in the Bay Area) for an estimated $25 million. The Kiss brand will be merged into WBLS.

The deal means 30 years of history and legacy of old-school hip hop & R&B @ 98.7. Numerous legendary DJs & personalities have had stints at the radio station. These include: Kool DJ Red Alert, Chuck Chillout, the nationally syndicated Michael Baisden, and most recently, Ed Lover. Baisden, by the way, has written a letter on his website saying farewell to Kiss FM.

Emmis is also the owner of WQHT-FM Hot 97. What must DJ Cipha Sounds, Funkmaster Flex, Angie Martinez, & everyone else there be thinking as they’re now losing their older-leaning sisters @ 98.7 for more FM sports blabbery. In many ways, being sister stations, Hot 97 & 98.7 Kiss fed off of each other.

And unlike WBLS which recently has been in a ratings slump, 98.7 Kiss FM according to recent Arbitron readings had been on a ratings bonanza, even overtaking ‘BLS, Hot 97, & Clear Channel-owned Power 105.1 WWPR as the number 1 black-targeted station in the Tri-State area.

This is the 2nd time that a heritage radio station has gone off the air already in 2012. Earlier this year, Mobile, Alabama lost a heritage Top 40/CHR station 97.5 WABB-FM. Dittman Broadcasting who owned the station was trying to lessen their presence in the radio business, leading to the loss of the Top 40 outlet. 97.5 in Mobile was sold to the Educational Media Foundation, which operates two national Contemporary Christian networks, Air1 as well as the much more well-known K-Love Radio Network. WABB’s send-off is already being regarded as one of the most memorable in radio history.

It was widely speculated that if ESPN were to purchase a radio station, it would be WFME 94.7 out of Newark. They are NYC’s affiliate for Family Radio which has already closed sales of stations in Washington & Philadelphia. The DC outlet in question is 107.9 WFSI (Annapolis). CBS moved a Spanish Tropical station WLZL-FM “El Zol 99.1” to their new 107.9 to place an All-News station at 99.1. The move was primarily to suck money away from heritage News station WTOP so CBS stations like WCBS-AM 880, 1010 WINS-AM, and WBBM-AM can move higher on the national billing charts for radio stations. At least this year, it didn’t work as The WTOP Radio Network is still king of billing.

There are many layers to this story and how it’ll affect many other players in radio both locally & nationally. Let’s start with…

Black radio:

Despite WBLS & Kiss FM already trying to sugarcoat the move saying that it “unites” the two radio stations into one on 107.5 (“One Family, One Station, Our Voice”), that’s a huge problem with this move. There is no excuse for a huge city like New York to not be able to support two stations targeted to the extensive African American communities of Gotham.

Notice to any other radio owners in the Big Apple: it still can. I already penned an earlier piece here talking about how black radio in Houston, Texas is an underserved market. After the Praise 92.1 format change to All-News, there are only 3 stations on H-Town’s FM dial directed at Space City, USA’s vast (and expanding) African American demographic. Radio One’s KBXX 97.9 the Box (Hip Hop) & KMJQ Majic 102.1 (Old School R&B). There’s also the HBCU Texas Southern University’s KTSU 90.9.

While not as in as underserved as a position as in H-Town, black radio in NY just took an unfortunate step in going towards that direction.

98.7 isn’t being leased to ESPN because of bad ratings, it’s being leased because Emmis Communications is flat broke. NY’s black community is expansive to the point where another radio owner could come on the scene today and launch another similarly formatted station where Kiss is leaving off. But in today’s radio landscape, the chances of that happening aren’t very good.

Another thing is for sure, if what we’ve seen in Houston with The Box & Majic is any indication, then the newly married Kiss FM & WBLS @ 107.5 should skyrocket near the top of Gotham’s radio charts, especially given the ratings bounce Kiss has received. As mentioned here earlier, Shaila’s “Midday Café” & “Kissing After Dark” with Lenny Green will be Kiss’s two shows that make the move to WBLS.

Emmis Comunications/Merlin Media:

The Indianapolis-based radio ownership organization has had its books in the red for a while, & Jeff Smulyan (their CEO) sees the tea leaves. Last year, Emmis sold 3 radio stations via LMA to a new radio company called Merlin Media headed by Randy Michaels. Michaels is a former executive with the Tribune Company, but was exiled from the Trib due to shady business practices & work habits that irked many in Chicago.

Michaels has always been considered a renegade within radio circles. It was Michaels who once branded a radio station in Chi-Town “Hell 94.7”. Needless to say, it was the Windy City media and citizens who gave Michaels hell for the “666” overtones such a radio brand will produce.

But last year, he and Merlin put a spell on 3 radio stations. 2 of them were in Chicago & one was in New York. The two in Chicago were heritage stations that aired Rock music—WLUP 97.9 the Loop (Classic Rock) & WKQX Q101 which played Alternative Rock. The New York station was another rocker—101.9 WRXP branded “The New York Rock Experience” even though most New Yorkers know 101.9 as being the home of Smooth Jazz powerhouse WQCD, “CD-101.9”. That station became RXP in early 2008 when Jazz stations across the country were dropping like flies.

Emmis wanted to sell these stations for a while. It was even rumoured once via an article in Crain’s Chicago Business in 2010 that Emmis would sell one of the Chicago stations to Jerry Reinsdorf so he could launch a sports station on one of them. This was because the Sox’ contract with their flagship station WSCR 670 the Score was expiring. Reinsdorf owns both the Chicago Bulls & the White Sox. The Sox’ contract with the Score was renewed, though. The Bulls are on ESPN 1000 WMVP in the City of Broad Shoulders—another of ESPN’s 4 Owned & Operated’s. The others are KSPN-AM 710 in Los Angeles & KESN-FM 103.3 in the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex.

The eventual owner was Merlin and they put FM News on 101.1 & kept the Classic Rock format of the Loop. Q101 signed off by paying tribute to its history & heritage with Alternative Rock in Chicago. It can be said that they were the Kiss-FM for Alternative Rockers. The Q101 logo, contests, brand, & intellectual property were acquired by Chicago-area based Broadcast Barter Media—the same peeps who once organized a “Save the Loop” campaign when that station was rumoured to flip formats.

CBS, the owners of the heritage All-News goldmine WBBM-AM 780 counter-cursed Merlin by putting that station on WCFS-FM 105.9, formerly Modern AC “Fresh 105.9”. Not that they needed to, in hindsight, since FM News 101.1 has been sorry competition for the heritage News station. WBBM is still #1 in Chicago and still making money for CBS.

Merlin’s other FM News venture in New York @ 101.9 hasn’t been doing too well either. Liz Aiello and other staffers have left the station in droves and Michaels brought negative attention to his stations by being booked once for DUI in Ohio.

This is why Merlin is in the process of transitioning to a different direction with their stations. In Philadelphia, WKDN 106.9 out of Camden was picked up by Merlin from Family Radio and it intends to place conservative News/Talk there. They’re already stunting as an “All-Sean Hannity” station and rumours are that they’ll be adding Rush Limbaugh & Glenn Beck soon. Similar rumoured shifts to News/Talk are also affecting surrounding their News stations in New York & Chicago.

Rush’s NY station, WABC 770 is owned by Cumulus & there are rumors that if Rush leaves for a Merlin talker, Cumulus could simply replace him with former Arkansas governor, Mike Huckabee, whom their Citadel Media is now syndicating. Huckabee is seen as a more conversational approach to conservative talk as opposed to Limbaugh, Beck, Hannity, Ingraham, & Boortz. Clear Channel-owned Premiere Radio Networks (who syndies Rush) is in the process of pulling Limbaugh from his Philadelphia affiliate, CBS-owned WPHT-AM 1210 and replacing him with the local Michael Smerconish who is more of an independent. Beck & Hannity are also on suburban Philly sticks.

Side note on Merlin: They’re also purchasing an 87.7 WLFM Smooth Jazz station in Chicago & changing its format to Alternative Rock ala the old Q101. Of course, they couldn’t use the brand since Barter owns it, but they plan to use the WKQX calls for it. But, the government will soon be shutting down all of the 87.7 frequencies when they’re really Low-Power Television Stations on Channel 6.

Back to Emmis: They will also soon be reassuming full control of another radio station they LMA’ed in Los Angeles. KXOS-FM 93.9 under Emmis was Rhythmic AC “Movin’ 93.9” and featured longtime radio veteran Rick Dees. 93.9 was LMA’d to Mexico City-based Grupo Radio Centro as they placed a Spanish Top 40 station on KXOS. If Emmis still wants to put the station on the market, I expect ESPN or Merlin Media to be the top candidates for that outlet. But as this 98.7 story proves, nothing is certain in radio.


98.7’s long-term lease by ESPN Radio also has ramifications for the sports landscape of New York as well. Right now, CBS’s 66 WFAN is NYC's radio scoreboard. The Fan serves as the flagship for the New York Mets, New York Giants, New Jersey Devils & the formerly New Jersey-now-Brooklyn Nets. ESPN Radio has the Jets, Rangers, & Knicks. The deal more-than-likely means that New York Yankees games will be moving to 98.7 beginning in 2013 as they have been looking for a new flagship station after signing a 1-year extension with WCBS. It also would mean that this could be John Sterling & Suzyn Waldman’s last year calling games for the Bronx Bombers on the radio. Michael Kay, the TV voice of the Yanks, also does a radio show on ESPN 1050.

This affects CBS because with ESPN relocating to FM, CBS is almost certain to follow suit. Right now, they own 3 FM stations in Gotham. CHR/Rhythmic station WXRK 92.3 Now FM (which flipped from a 2nd incarnation of legendary rocker K-Rock in 2009), 101.1 WCBS-FM (a legendary Oldies station that once did flip formats in 2005 in an infamous change to Variety Hits “Jack FM” before listener outrage, low ratings, and Dan Mason’s return as CBS CEO led them to bring back CBS-FM), & WWFS 102.7 Fresh FM (formerly home of a Rocker & a Hot Talker under the WNEW calls, as well as female-entertainment talker “Blink 102.7”.

More than likely, especially with CBS-FM’s ratings, billing, & cume, The two stations on Lookout Watch are 92.3 Now FM & Fresh 102.7. Fresh is decently rated for a station whose musical playlist these days is closer to Cumulus’ 95.5 WPLJ than 106.7 Lite FM WLTW. My take is that 92.3 is the station to watch. Nick Cannon had to leave his morning slot on Now because of health reasons, they just hired a new PD, and they have virtually no prospects of beating Clear Channel’s WHTZ Z-100. Add to the fact that 92.3’s HD-3 feed is WFAN & their HD-4 is an All-Mets station. If 92.3 simulcasts The Fan, expect them to ditch Now altogether (not relocate it to HD2/online), put the Mets’ station on HD-2 and K-Rock on HD-3.

That is, of course, unless they feel both 92.3 & 102.7 are both still viable properties they’d like to keep & they take a snag at 94.7 WFME. That’s what most are forgetting in all of the hubbub about 98.7 Kiss flipping & relocating to BLS—with 98.7 going to ESPN, Newark's 94.7 is still up for grabs. Michaels reportedly tried to say that he doesn’t think WFME has come on the market despite reports of the Christian station being sold. They can buy it because 94.7 wouldn’t put CBS over the limit an owner can own in one market. That is 5 FMs/3 AMs.

So, in short, to say that this leasing of 98.7 by ESPN has far-reaching ramifications inside New York & outside is a definite understatement. Kiss isn’t going away entirely, but something about it just doesn’t feel right that it is relocating to 107.5 on WBLS. Certain stations just belong on certain frequencies. Kiss belongs on 98.7. Hot belongs on 97.1. Z-100 belongs on 100.3. KTU belongs no place else but 103.5. The same analogies can be applied to virtually every heritage station in every market.

Back in 2007/08, as I mentioned in a previous column, the owners of 93.5 KDAY in Los Angeles tried to rebrand their station as an Urban Contemporary under two heritage LA Urban brands—both KDAY & The Beat, formerly on 92.3 & 100.3. They acquired the right to do that after Radio One sold Urban AC V-100 KRBV to Bonneville who has since turned 100.3 into a very successful Classic Rock station as “The Sound”. Needless to say, it was extremely confusing for listeners and arguably the lowest point in the histories of both brands. That led to an all-out format change to Classic Hip-Hop “Back in the Day Jamz” which they still retain today.

Here’s another irony about 98.7 Kiss. Back in February after the untimely passing of Whitney Houston, Kiss FM was the first station immediately taking phone calls and paying tribute to the music icon. They even aired her funeral in Newark, New Jersey in its entirety live on the station.

Who would’ve thought that a mere 2 ½ months later, we’d be talking about that same radio station and its final days on 98.7. The Kiss brand may still be around, but something about it won’t sound the same to New Yorkers. It’ll be just WBLS living off of the Kiss name and heritage when really it doesn’t need to because of what BLS has become. Not to mention, as was previously mentioned here on Urban Radio Nation, the station will be signing off & relocating its brand over to 107.5 on what’s supposed to be it’s 30th Anniversary.

So as 98.7 prepares to say farewell to Kiss & its brand relocates to 107.5, let’s remember that in 2012, no radio station is safe. I’ve only been following radio for about 6 years, and already I’ve found out that any radio station can change formats regardless of its history, prestige, and legacy. Yesterday, it was Chicago’s Q101 & Mobile’s 97.5 WABB. Today, it’s 98.7. It could easily be Hot 97 or WDAS in Philly, or V-103 in Atlanta tomorrow.

It is an extremely cut-throat business led by owners who clearly do not give a you-know-what about a station’s meaning to a community. So much of that has been lost to radio as a business once about these qualities has turned into one about money, ratings, cheap programming, and homogenization. Deregulation of radio has a lot to do with it. Let’s use this as a point to advocate that our voices are indeed heard where they need to be. And to make sure those cities with huge diverse populations like New York’s have their radio markets be a representation of their diverse makeups.


  1. Someone does not know how to interpret listening stats. Better yet, they do; losing Michael Baisden's show was a "smart" election move.

  2. The New York Area needs the Michael Baisden Show

  3. Nick, I would have to disagree. Michael Baisden will likely not be missed by many because his show has become very mundane.

    Also on some of the aforementioned stations towards the end of the column, as long as V-103 in Atlanta is the top biller in the Atlanta radio market and huge cashcow for CBS Radio then it is safe. Although WPGC 95.5 in DC is no longer the #1 station overall, it is still the #2 biller in the DC market billing with $20 million in 2011. It makes sense for CBS to maintain its urban-leaning rhythmic presentation on 95.5FM.

    I cannot speak for the others because they seem to be on shaker grounds in their respective market. If their billing is up-to-par then they are in danger, period.

  4. Coupla things:

    1. WFME would indeed put CBS over the ownership limit in NYC because they own two TV stations: network flagship WCBS/2, and the recently acquired WLNY/55.

    2. The WKTU calls are heritage but did you know that once upon a time (the disco era) they belonged for many years on 92.3 FM?

    Other than that, great read, Akiem.

  5. Dear Mr. Levingston:

    I have been a long time listener of KISS-FM and while I was initially drawn to the music and birthday contest, I was quickly drawn into the public affairs programming. I don't even remember how or when it happened but it became a regular part of my life. No matter what happened the night before, I set my phone to wake me up at 10 am. The one hour that became two was must hear radio and I thoroughly enjoyed hearing the diverse voices and points of view. I'm college educated but was important to get out of my comfort zone and realize that these issues impact all of us regardless of class, race or education level. Media is NOT more diverse and right wing media seems to be the only sector spreading like wildfire.

    The listeners were completely blindsided by this merger and I can speak for those of us who've posted to Facebook that this is an awful lot to swallow and we are devastated. The depth of feeling and emotion for Open Line, Week in Review and the Michael Baisden Show is real and runs very deep. We all love r&b, that's why we listened to KISS, but we're also concerned about equality, jobs, violence, education, etc. and KISS allowed us to come together as a community in an ever increasingly divided and distracted world. We desperately need these programs. I understand that this is a done deal, allegedly based on ratings and advertising dollars, but there's still time to salvage the legacy of these programs and continue the honorable and proud path these programs have forged for all these decades.

    Please don't let us down during these precarious times and important up coming election. Everything possible is being done to turn back the clock on any advancement made by black people and these programs have done their utmost to fight back against that tide. They've rallied the troops, held town halls and helped with voter registration. Please don't become complicit in allowing certain forces in this country to keep the masses ignorant because knowledge is power.

    Thank you,


  6. I am extremely upset; that my looking forward to listening to Rhythm Review by Felix Hernandez every Sunday religously is now off the air. What is the next chapter on this episode. I really had enjoying listening to all of the music from BACK-THE-DAY. How dare them to do such a thing.

    They really need to remove off the air some of the other garbage that is continued on the air.

    Thank you.

    Miss Queen


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