North East RadioWatch: July 15, 2002

Clear Channel Faces Hearings on Augusta Purchase

by Scott Fybush

Is the regulatory tide turning against big clusters and consolidation? A proposed Clear Channel purchase in MAINE is one of three deals facing a level of scrutiny the FCC hasn't employed in decades.

Clear Channel has been operating WSKW (1160 Skowhegan) and WHQO (107.9 Skowhegan) under an LMA from Mountain Wireless for several years, ever since Mountain's proposed sale of the stations to Cumulus fell through due to financial problems at the Cumulus end.

Last October, Clear Channel filed to convert the LMA to ownership, a deal that would give Mountain Wireless $1.8 million and add WHQO and WSKW to the rest of the Clear Channel Augusta-Waterville cluster, a group that includes WFAU (1280 Gardiner), WCTB (93.5 Fairfield), WKCG (101.3 Augusta), WABK (104.3 Gardiner) and WTOS (105.1 Skowhegan, another former Mountain Wireless station).

WHQO has been simulcasting the talk programming from Clear Channel's WVOM (103.9 Howland) in the Bangor market, while WSKW has been sharing a sports format with WFAU and WIGY (97.5 Madison, just returned to the air this week after suffering tower damage). For the last few months, the Mountain stations have even operated from the same Augusta facility as the other Clear Channel central Maine stations.

The hitch? If the deal is approved by the FCC (it already has Justice Department clearance), Clear Channel and Citadel (which has WMME/WEZW and WEBB/WTVL in the market) would share a whopping 99.5% of the radio revenues in the market, with just a handful of commercially-licensed religious stations (WMDR 1340, WWWA 95.3) as "competition" for radio ad dollars.

So the FCC has designated the WHQO/WSKW sale, along with a Clear Channel purchase in Youngstown, Ohio (WRTK 1540 Niles OH, WAKZ 95.9 Sharpsville PA, WICT 95.1 Grove City PA, WBBG 106.1 Niles OH) and another one in Killeen-Temple, Texas, for a hearing on market concentration. Stay tuned as the Commission sets what promises to be a new precedent for acceptable levels of station revenue and ratings share...we'll keep you posted.