Driving to work last week, I unthinkingly launched into my morning radio routine. Since George Bush’s second election I have boycotted all serious broadcast news, and have turned my full attention to the multi-layered, but largely harmless, drama that is big league sports. So I punched my 920 AM car radio preset expecting to hear Mike and Mike’s take on Roger Clemens’ truthfulness, or lack of same. I also anticipated football playoff talk and hoped that there would be something on Isaih Thomas, and maybe even news of an outburst from Bobby Knight.
But no. In an instant I knew that the calm, reasoned voice emanating from my radio had nothing to do with the sports world. Hearing, but not really listening, I determined in a flash that he was a preacher of some sort. What! Someone must have been playing with my presets. But what member of my family would dare to substitute religious programming for 920 AM, the central New Jersey home of ESPN?
I fiddled furiously as I cruised through yellow lights. Maybe 920 had shifted a bit? Maybe I could hear it if I moved the dial a little to the right, or to the left? But there was nothing but static. Arriving at work I went straight to the Internet and Googled ESPN 920.
The explanation for its heavenly transformation popped up instantly. Nassau Broadcasting, the Alexander Road-based owner of 53 radio stations, including its flagship station, WPST, was in the process of switching ESPN to 1040 AM, where it is expected to debut early in February.
Relieved, I called Tris Collins, Nassau Broadcasting’s executive vice president, for more information. How does a station just rip away Mike and Mike, not to mention Colin Cowherd, and replace them with pious programming?
As is so often the case, the reason was purely business. The company’s 920 AM station carried many syndicated ESPN programs, but also included coverage of Philadelphia sports, a beat that was handled by Dan Schwartzman from Nassau Broadcasting’s Alexander Road studios. The station, Collins explains, was "directional." That means that it could only shoot its signal some directions. It was blocked from certain areas, including northern New Jersey. But it didn’t reach far enough into the greater Philadelphia area. It was available to Eagles fans in what they like to call "the Great Northeast," but could not get through to fans south of the city.
At the same time, ESPN wanted broader coverage in northern New Jersey, home to many of its executives. The solution Nassau Broadcasting came up with involved dropping Eagles and Phillies coverage, moving its Christian channel, WCHR, onto the 920 AM signal, and beefing up the signal of 1040 AM, WCHR’s former home.
Newly enhanced, 1040 AM, a "non-directional" channel, can now broadcast deep into northern New Jersey while still covering all of southern New Jersey and reaching into Bucks County. "Every station has a contour," says Collins, "a circle, or a half circle. It’s the FCC’s job to make sure that it’s fair, that everybody plays nice. There is only a certain license area in which you can broadcast."
Approved by the FCC, the improved reach of 1040 AM was attractive to ESPN, says Collins, and was a factor in its decision to simulcast 1050 AM, the New York City home of ESPN programming, over 1040 AM. Under the new arrangement, Nassau Broadcasting will not control the programming on 1040 AM, but will merely lease the signal to Disney, ESPN’s parent.
Locally-generated Philadelphia sports coverage has been dropped, and Schwartzman has been laid off. Collins says that he has been getting as many calls from Philly sports fans sorry to see Schwartzman go, as he has been from overjoyed New York sports fans eager for a New York-centric station.
Meanwhile, Christian broadcasters who had been in Flemington have moved to Nassau Broadcasting’s studios. Other personalities who have programs on WCHR are located in Reading, Pennsylvania. "The Christian programming is very popular," says Collins. "We are one of the most successful Christian stations in the country."
Collins, a 1986 Dartmouth graduate, had been an investment banker for Lou Mercantanti, president of Nassau Broadcasting, before joining the company in 2004. As an investment banker, first with Merrill Lynch, and then with Solomon Smith Barney, he had long specialized in the broadcast industry in general, and radio in particular. "When I joined Nassau Broadcasting, there were 13 stations," he says. "I helped Lou build up to a portfolio of 53 stations."
Within that family, there are plenty of choices, from the solemnity of the Christian message to the non-stop shenanigans of sports talk radio. But I’m beginning to wonder if a return to NPR is not in my future. Hillary and Barack, Mitt and Huckabee, and even feisty John McCain, do appear to be substantially more interesting than Roger or Isaiah.