Nation's 3rd-largest radio station owner set to purchase cluster of Berkshire stations

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PITTSFIELD — The nation's third-largest radio station owner is poised to purchase the cluster of commercial radio stations owned by Gamma Broadcasting LLC and subsidiary Berkshire Broadcasting Co.

Following two failed sale attempts since 2013, the group has reached a $3.55 million purchase agreement with Townsquare Media, pending approval by federal regulators.

Townsquare's portfolio would expand to 318 once the Berkshire deal wins the expected green light from the Federal Communications Commission.

The stations involved in the transaction are Pittsfield's WBEC signals (FM "Live 95.9" and AM 1420), WUPE ("Whoopee" FM 100.1 in North Adams and its FM 103.3 and AM 1110 relays in Pittsfield), WNAW (AM 1230) in North Adams, and WSBS in Great Barrington (AM 860, FM 94.1).

"We look forward to partnering with the Pittsfield team to bring our resources, including our digital and live event products, to Berkshire County's advertisers and audience, and further build upon their success in the market," Townsquare Chairman and CEO Steven Price said in a prepared statement.

Townsquare, based in Greenwich, Conn., owns five stations in the Albany, N.Y., area, including country music powerhouse WGNA (FM 107.7), which has a loyal audience in the Berkshires and is the top-rated music station in the Capital District and surroundings. The chain also has an all-sports station, two rock signals and a hip-hop station in Albany.

A top Townsquare executive, in response to The Eagle's questions, expressed support for Peter Barry, the longtime vice president and market manager for Gamma's Berkshire Radio Group.

"We were impressed with Peter Barry and his team, and Pittsfield is a natural fit within our Northeast regional footprint," said Rob Williams, Townsquare's senior vice president for operations, stated in an e-mail message. He predicted the transaction would be completed before the end of this year.

Williams said he doesn't anticipate any program format changes for the Berkshire stations. "We view Albany and Pittsfield as separate operations," he said. "We do not anticipate closing down any of the Pittsfield FM signals."

"Gamma's Berkshire operations mesh perfectly with our overall strategy as a diversified local media company," said Williams, who has operating responsibility for Townsquare's Northeast operations. "Williams said Peter and his team have been integral leaders in the community for years, building a very impressive cluster of radio stations and a growing lineup of live events."

He also emphasized a commitment "to introduce Townsquare's digital capabilities to the market, including Townsquare Interactive, which builds and optimizes local websites, and Townsquare Ignite, which unlocks the power of programmatic digital sales for businesses."

Last year, a $3,150,000 deal to sell the Gamma/Berkshire Broadcasting station group to Galaxy Communications fell through. In 2013, a potential transaction to station owner Greg Reed was not completed.

"Townsquare is a digital media entity heavily involved in sponsoring events," said communications industry analyst John Krol, a broadcaster, Pittsfield city councilor and president of OneEighty Media in Pittsfield. "I can't envision them pouring a large investment back into the area."

Krol predicted that since the Berkshire County group of stations already operates with a lean staff, "it's hard to imagine they're going to be trimming more people now."

"I wouldn't think there would be a dramatic impact on what people hear on the air," he added. "If they're smart, they'll support local personalities as much as possible."

Krol remains producer-host of "Good Morning Pittsfield" on WTBR (FM 89.7), the station owned by the Pittsfield public school district and based at Taconic High School until it relocates late next year. During his re-election campaign for Ward 6 city councilor, Krol assigns on-air duties to guest hosts.

The pending purchase by Townsquare Media leaves WBRK (FM 101.7, AM 1340) as the only remaining locally owned commercial broadcaster in the county. WBRK-AM is the oldest radio signal in the Berkshires, first signing on in 1938 and featuring live big band performers. WBEC-AM followed in 1946, originally owned by The Berkshire Eagle.

For WBRK, Inc., owner and President Willard "Chip" Hodgkins, the pending deal comes as no surprise. His stations have been in the Hodgkins family since 1984.

"It's everything I've been predicting," he told The Eagle. "They keep being sold to a bigger and bigger chain."

"It's great news for us being locally owned, we're doing great and we're going to be staying," he added. "But it's a sad thing for the industry."

WBRK-FM ("Star 101.7) programs a customized mix of top 40 music hits hosted by local DJs, "minus the hard-core stuff," Hodgkins said.

WBRK-AM is a full-service heritage station programming classic hits of the '60s, '70s and '80s, as well as local call-in talk shows, the "1340 Club" of big band and pop standards on Thursdays and Saturdays from 9 to noon, hosted by Len Bean, and long-running ethnic shows on Sunday mornings.

"The Townsquare deal makes plenty of sense, and it would certainly be very unusual to have something like this not go through," said Scott Fybush, a veteran media industry analyst and consultant based in Rochester, N.Y. He predicted a likely FCC green light within a month or two.

"To drop $3.5 million on a cluster of stations in the Berkshires is an investment play," he told The Eagle. "For Townsquare, it makes a tremendous amount of sense, given its strong base as one of the big three players in Albany. They're paying to dominate the Berkshires market by owning nearly every commercial station in the county. There's certainly a value to that."

Fybush, who tracks the broadcast industry through his Northeast Radio Watch at www.fybush.com, predicted that listeners in the Berkshires would not notice any changes in programming at the stations, although "some tweaks could be made, they might freshen up what they're doing."

WBEC-FM's "Live 95.9" format is devoted to "hot adult contemporary" rock hits, while WUPE plays classic hits. WBEC-AM offers a talk and sports schedule, while WSBS in Great Barrington and WNAW in North Adams are community-oriented, full-service stations that play adult contemporary music.

WBEC-AM carries the "Imus in the Morning" talk show, conservative broadcasters Glenn Beck and Boston-based Howie Carr, and the Fox Sports network from 6 p.m. until 5 a.m. The station has an extensive lineup of play-by-play, including the Boston Red Sox, New England Patriots, and local high school sports.

Reach correspondent Clarence Fanto at cfanto@yahoo.com or 413-637-2551.


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