Questions remain about future of WAMO radio after its sale

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The pending sale of Sheridan Broadcasting's three Pittsburgh stations is sending ripples through the local radio market, and there are still more questions than answers.

Sheridan owns urban WAMO-FM (106.7), R&B-and-talk station WAMO-AM (860) and gospel station WPGR-AM (1510). All three are being sold to St. Joseph Missions for $8.9 million and will shift to religious programming.

On Friday, WAMO employees were told the station was being sold and that they were out of jobs. Thirty-five full- and part-timers were let go, including DJ personalities Kode Wred, J-Cruz and DJ Boogie, and talk host Lynn Cullen.

The FM station is still running its urban music format without DJs, although the syndicated Steve Harvey morning show remains on both the AM and FM stations.

St. Joseph Missions plans to put Catholic programming on the three stations, although it hasn't announced details.

"There is a nationwide movement to get Catholic programming on the radio. Catholic organizations all over the country have been buying radio stations and increasing Catholic programming and ownership," says Ray Rosenblum, a Pittsburgh media broker and consultant who recently handled a similar deal for a Cleveland station.

Until May 1, there was a local station dedicated to Catholic programming: WZUM-AM (1590), which was carrying the Catholic talk radio network Relevant Radio. WZUM is now airing gospel music.

The date of the WAMO/WPGR format change is not known. It will happen within six months, if the FCC approves the deal. The new owner also would have the option to take over under a local marketing agreement and start running programming sooner.

When that happens, Pittsburgh -- a city with a sizable black population -- will be without an urban format. Sheridan also was a major employer of African-Americans in on-air and management jobs at its stations.

Eddie Edwards, the former owner of television station WPTT and a longtime champion of African-Americans in broadcasting, yesterday decried the loss of the radio stations, not only for their content but as employers in the community.

"It's disappointing," he said. "WAMO was, basically, their only hope. Television does a better job of hiring minorities, on-air and behind the scenes. But minorities are not being hired by radio."

WAMO-FM also was popular among white listeners, especially younger listeners. There are other stations in town that play some crossover music -- contemporary hits stations like WKST-FM and WBZW-FM. One or both could incorporate more hip-hop and urban music into their playlists. They could create a hybrid -- not a full-blown urban format, but more of a rhythmic Top 40. Or another station could seize the opportunity to fill a void and bring back a new urban format.

Station WLTJ-FM runs an urban adult contemporary format on one of its HD channels.

"I was as sorry to see this format change as any I've read about in a long time. I'm sorry to see WAMO go. I hope somebody fills the hole and makes a go of it," said Sean Ross, vice president of music and programming for Somerville, N.J.-based Edison Research. "With the right commitment and on the right signal, I still think the right broadcaster could make a go of it."

The move not only will leave Pittsburgh without urban music for the foreseeable future. It also will take away two liberal talk voices -- Bev Smith and Ms. Cullen -- whose programs aired on WAMO-AM.

Ms. Smith's show is based here and nationally syndicated through American Urban Radio Networks, which broadcasts news, entertainment, sports and information programming to more than 300 radio stations. AURN, which is headquartered in Pittsburgh and has bureaus in New York, Detroit, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and Atlanta, is a partnership between Sheridan and National Black Network.

Pittsburgh will continue to be AURN's headquarters, said Jerry Lopes, president of program operations and affiliations for AURN.

Ms. Smith's show will continue to air across the country, but will eventually lose its Pittsburgh affiliate with the ownership change, Mr. Lopes said. Local listeners may be able to listen online by the end of the year.

Ms. Cullen's fans -- who were still celebrating her recent return to the airwaves -- are in the cold again. The longtime talk host's tenure at WAMO was short: She went on the air March 1, after a six-month absence from the airwaves.

"We were just starting to get some traction" in terms of rebuilding an audience, Ms. Cullen said yesterday. "It was totally a shock to everybody."

Last August, she lost her show on former talk station WPTT-AM, which switched to a money-and-finance format.

"It's getting absurd with me," Ms. Cullen noted. "Now you see her. Now you don't." She said she is considering retiring from radio, because the options here are shrinking and she's committed to staying in Pittsburgh.

The Sheridan sale comes at a challenging time for minority broadcasters. The Arbitron Portable People Meter, new technology for measuring radio audiences instead of the traditional written diary, is being introduced gradually in markets across the country.

Minority broadcasters argue that the Arbitron meter has flaws that undercount some groups, including minority listeners, which could have a negative effect on stations aimed at African-American and Hispanic listeners.

Yesterday, the FCC launched a formal inquiry into whether the Arbitron meter distorts the picture of minority radio listenership.

Staff writer Dan Majors contributed to this report. Adrian McCoy can be reached at 412-263-1865 or .


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