Berkshire County radio market remains viable amid rough economy
It's 8 a.m., a time when most people can only mutter groans of disapproval. Amy Reed and Glen Turner, however, already have been up for a few hours and are forming long, witty sentences.
Most come at the expense of each other.
"We joke about things that are obvious to joke about, like my big bear claws [hands]," Reed said.
A thousand or so people listened to the duo's banter on a recent Friday morning. Turner and Reed could end up in your living room, car, workplace, even your bedroom or bathroom -- it just takes a turn of the dial to Pittsfield's WBEC-FM (Live 95.9), one of seven commercial radio stations based in Berkshire County.
"It's a personal medium unlike any other medium. You're inviting people into your home," said Peter Barry, the vice president and marketing manager of Gamma Broadcasting, which owns five of the county's stations and is under the Vox Communications group that also owns stations in Vermont and Indiana.
The Berkshires radio market, the sole commercial broadcast medium in the county, has weathered the economic storm of recent years, maintaining the same seven commercial stations that existed when the recession officially began in December 2007.
"The death of radio has supposedly been claimed for years," said Chip Hodgkins, the president of Pittsfield-based WBRK, Berkshire County's oldest (it began in 1938) and only locally owned station. "When Pittsfield's economy is up, we're up. When Pittsfield economy's economy is down, we're down."
Gamma went through a restructuring in 2012, when the company was still called Vox. In the restructuring, Tom Conklin, a 16-year veteran in his field, lost his job as a corporate-wide broadcaster. Conklin now does voice-acting work out of Pittsfield.
Barry said staff reductions took place "around 2005," after Vox purchased WUPE AM/FM, WNAW and WSBS. He said the cuts were made in an effort to avoid duplicating resources now that the formerly independent companies were under the same ownership.
"In other areas we actually added staff, such as creating a morning ‘team' on Live 95.9, as [opposed] to a singular morning host," Barry said.
He recalled 2009, in particular, as being "a challenging year."
"Like everyone, we felt the effect of the economic downturn," Barry said without going into specifics.
No financial figures were available from any of the Berkshires stations, and there are no Arbitron ratings to measure their success or failure. The local radio market is so small that no stations in the county subscribe to Arbitron, a marketing firm that collects listener data.
"It's all a balancing act," Barry said. "A compelling product makes the numbers work."
‘Theater of the mind'
At WBEC-FM, Turner and Reed's show has been a staple of morning programming -- 6 to 10 every weekday -- since Reed joined the station in May.
Together, the two crack themselves up -- and, if they're doing their job right, their listeners also -- by making comments about "American Idol," "Nitwits in the News," or Turner telling listeners about Reed "palming a small child or basketball with her bear claws."
"Radio is theater of the mind," said Turner, 34. "You don't need a certain voice -- you just need to create a certain visual."
In her first full-time radio gig since graduating from Temple University two years ago, Reed, 27, has had to adjust to a morning schedule, getting up at 5:30 to join Turner on the air at 6:30. Turner gets in the building around 4:45.
"Everybody's tired, because if they're up listening to you, they're tired too," Reed said.
"A lot of creative and talented people that I know in the business just can't do mornings because of how much it disrupts your life," Turner said.
Bryan Slater, another disc jockey at WBEC-FM, also is the station's program director. Using a program called Selector, he chooses music from artists such as Lady Gaga, Bruno Mars, Adele and Justin Bieber -- "ear candy," as he calls it.
"I can blend every 15 minutes so it's pleasing to the ear," he said. "Whether you notice it or not, that's what makes good radio programming."
WSBS, the Great Barrington station that belongs to the Gamma group, doesn't just play music -- the on-air crew can wish you a happy birthday, host local debates, announce road and school closings, and let people know you're looking for your dog.
That's what makes it "the hometown station," WSBS Program Director Jesse Stuart said while the Katy Perry song "Hot N Cold" heated up the speakers in the DJ studio.
"We still believe that in a time when you have so many other ways to listen to music -- iPods, CDs and Internet radio -- that the flair of the localness is what gives people a reason to tune in," Stuart said.
WSBS debuted on Christmas Eve, 1956. It's on both 860 AM and 94.1 FM, a technique called simulcast. The FM frequency goes uninterrupted 24/7, but the AM frequency is "sun up, sun down," Stuart said.
During the day, the power is at 2,700 watts, but it drops until nightfall, making room for a French-Canadian frequency that WSBS shares.
Willard "Huck" Hodgkins bought WBRK (AM and FM) in 1984 for $625,000. The station's current president, Chip Hodgkins -- Huck's son -- has worked for the company since then. He has a degree in print journalism from Boston University.
"My dad told me, ‘If you want to be in radio, you have to get a degree in journalism,' " said Hodgkins, 42. "The key is local information."
WBRK airs the Sunday-morning show "The Polish-American Program," the longest continuously running ethnic radio show in the United States, according to Hodgkins. It has been exclusive to WBRK for 75 years and was called "The Polish-American Hour" before it went to 90 minutes in length.
Another ethnic program in Florida has aired longer, but not as consistently, Hodgkins said.
"We try new things, but people like consistency," he said.
Off the air, WBEC's Reed says she has a mouth "like a truck driver."
"It's something I try to [rein] in a little bit. I think it's pretty easy; it's work mode," she said.
Reed's switch is enforced by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which was established by the Communications Act of 1934 and regulates what goes over the airwaves, and how.
"All the years that I've been in the business, I've never really felt constricted by them," said Barry, Gamma's vice president.
Violating FCC regulations can lead to fines. Barry said Gamma has never encountered any FCC violations or penalties, and neither has WBRK, according to Hodgkins.
No radio personality knows FCC penalties better than Boston University alumnus Howard Stern, the most-fined radio disc jockey in the nation. He has been responsible for almost half of the $4 million in penalties since 1990, according to the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C., that focuses on ethical and public service issues.
Rumor has it, according to Hodgkins, that Stern applied to WBRK on Fenn Street right after he graduated from Boston University, before it was under the Hodgkins family's management.
(Neither Stern nor his agent could be reached for comment.)
In 2005, Stern signed a $500 million, five-year contract with Sirius, a satellite radio company that's outside of the bounds of the FCC.
"I think that's a big problem," Hodgkins said. "It should all be regulated."
For those who can stay in the FCC's good graces, radio is a "fun" industry, Hodgkins said.
"You have to be able to do a bit of everything," he said. "There's always something different."
Slater, the midday DJ at WBEC-FM, said he started dreaming of being on the radio when he was a kid. He began in the business in 1997 at WFNX, an alternative radio station in Boston. He also did high school radio in Topsfield.
The key to getting into the industry, he said, is "paying your dues."
"You've got to get the coffee, pull CDs -- mindless work," he said. "Eventually, something will come up."
To reach Adam Poulisse:
or (413) 496-6214.
On Twitter: @BE_Poulisse
Below are the seven commercial radio stations based in Berkshire County. WBEC AM and FM and WBRK AM and FM are four different stations, while WSBS and WUPE are one station apiece because they are simulcast on the AM and FM frequencies.
Station Location Frequency
WBEC-AM Pittsfield 1420
WBEC-FM Pittsfield 95.9
WBRK-AM Pittsfield 1340
WBRK-FM Pittsfield 101.7
WSBS Great Barrington 860 AM, 94.1 FM
WUPE Pittsfield 1110 AM, 100.1 FM
WNAW North Adams 1230 AM
Note: There are six noncommercial radio stations in the Berkshires: WTBR (89.7 FM), Taconic High School's station; WJJW (91.1 FM), out of MCLA; WCFM (91.9 FM), from Williams College; and WRRS-LP (low-power 104.3 FM, Pittsfield), an on-air reading service for people with disabilities through United Cerebral Palsy of Berkshire County; WBSL (91.7 FM), licensed to Berkshire School, Sheffield; WBCR-LP (97.7-FM), in Great Barrington.
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