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August 11, 2007

The WCAP Sale: Local Radio Stays Local

by at 6:35 pm.

For many months the rumors have been flying around Lowell that locally-owned and operated WCAP radio (AM 980) was up for sale. With the news article in the Sun and today’s Kendall Wallace column, I think it is safe to say that it is a done deal.

For over 50 years Maurice Cohen and his late brother Ike operated what has become one of the last independent radio stations in New England. Most stations are now controlled by major corporations but not ‘CAP. Although I have at times been critical of the station, I have always felt that it serves the community; what I found frustrating is that it could do so much more.

The group that has been named as the potential buyers of WCAP has an opportunity to restore the station to its past glory of a few decades ago; the obvious question is will they?

According to people who know, Clark Smidt, one of the principles named by the Sun, is a radio veteran who has a track record of taking stations and making them profitable again. He is a professional who believes in local content. It is obvious that Mr. Cohen wanted to sell to a local entity and by-passed many lucrative offers until the right deal came along.

Sam Poulton, the other principle named, is well known not only because of his real estate business but also for his involvement in community activities in Greater Lowell. Although he is a successful man in his current profession, the radio business is unlike anything that he has taken on in the past. Hopefully he will defer to Smidt when it comes to programming decisions.

Another name that has been circulating but not identified in the Lowell Sun articles is a prominent local real estate developer with political ties. According to Kendall Wallace’s column, there are other minor partners in this deal.

Ideally, this new group would transform WCAP into the WBZ of the Merrimack Valley. We all know that a smart businessman expects a return on investment at some point. In addition to the six-figure price for the purchase of the station, they need new equipment. If you listen regularly, you are aware of the technical problems the station currently has. Those who know have told me that most of the equipment is not worth saving.

The station will have to be moved, hopefully it will stay in downtown Lowell, and they will have to build a brand new studio. WCAP currently rents the space, I believe, so these real estate people must have a building or two that can accommodate a radio studio.

This major financial investment does not bode well for those who are expecting major changes. Hiring local announcers and a news staff is an expensive proposition. If they do add news beyond the current practice of rewriting the morning paper, it will probably be outsourced to an entity like Metro Networks. It would be fantastic for Greater Lowell if this new WCAP would have a news group that would rival the Sun. Two news sources. Wouldn’t that be great!

Keeping WCAP under local ownership control is a good thing for the City; even if they bend the airwaves to their personal political views. I am sure here at LiL will remind them of that when and if it happens.

However, anyone can pick up the telephone and call these people; we can see them downtown Lowell, at community activities. We can express satisfaction or displeasure at something they do or do not do. At the end of the day, this is better than having Clear Channel, Entercom, CBS, etc…

A special thanks to the Lowell Five Cents Savings Bank for making the financing available to keep the station locally-owned.

The unknown factor is the format and the staff. It would be foolish for them to make any drastic changes at first. But they will need to increase their revenue to begin recouping some of their investment, so they will need to make drastic changes to bring on new listeners so that they can attract new sponsors. My suggestion is a good web site and streaming audio.

The new owners have a perfect opportunity to give Greater Lowell a new voice and an additional source of information. Let’s see what happens!

18 Responses to “The WCAP Sale: Local Radio Stays Local”

  1. Dave Faneuf Says:

    As a two time “offender” :-) at WCAP over the years (I’ve worked there twice, the first time as Assistant News Director in the 70’s, more recently about 7 years ago as News Director) I want to weigh in and say to Maurice Cohen that he is a Prince among men!

    Maurice has had several opportunities that I am personally aware of to sell his radio station at obscene prices and yet he refused. Why? Because he fears the loss of an independant voice in Lowell.

    Granted, that voice isn’t as strong as it once was. I remember working at WLLH going head to head with the award winning news people and WCAP and getting my hat handed to me on more than one occasion, the folks who worked for the Lowell Sun back then can say the same thing!

    The lack of advertising dollars and the cost of doing business are largely to blame for the demise of what was once a dominate source of news in Greater Lowell.

    Yet, Maurice Cohen hung on, refused to sell to corporate radio and over his dead body would he sell to anyone who would give control to the Lowell Sun. Maurice is a strong believer that limiting information to a single source in a community like Lowell is unacceptable! He has done his best to ensure that Lowell has an alternative to the paper.

    Maurice is one of those people who usually stays behind the scenes, he rarely spoke on the air on his own radio station leaving that to the folks who he hired.

    He was also a loyal boss! Back in the days of Crane and Cochran advertisers put pressure on Maurice, even pulled advertising dollars out of the station, trying to get him to fire Casey Crane because they didn’t like what she was saying on the air! Maurice believes in free speech and he stood by her and refused to fire her, even though it cost him revenue. How many of us can say our current employers would do the same for us today!!!

    The Cohen brothers have been unsung heros in the history of the City of Lowell for 5 decades. They were not self promoters and that’s why most people don’t even know their names or who they are but Lowell owes Maurice, his late brother Ike and others in his family a debt of gratitude that can not be repaid any time soon.

    I can only hope that the new owners of WCAP (or whatever call letters they choose to use) will remember that Maurice trusted them to keep an independent voice in Lowell. Agree with that voice or not.

    Maurice, I wish you all the best you’re the best boss I ever worked for.
    Dave Faneuf

  2. Shawn Says:

    I agree, the Cohens have given quite a bit to the Lowell Area, and I hope the new owners will continue in that vein.

    Mr Schmidt did respond over on the Dracut Forum to a posting I put there, where he has emphasized “professionalism and local connects” are important to him.

    I would hope that a lot of WCAP’s past could also be donated to one of the historical museums in town. The old jingles, songs and clips would be a valuable and entertaining addition to any Lowell archive.

    Local talk is necessary to the community.. I hope the new owners find a way to make it happen.

  3. Shawn Says:

    Sorry, misspelled “Smidt”

  4. Bill O'Neill Says:

    I echo the sentiments of my old pal, Dave Faneuf. I have been fortunate to keep in contact with Maurice Cohen over the years since my leaving the area in 2000 and consider him a friend. I logged in many years behind the microphone at WCAP. I will forever consider WCAP the station that I called home. As Joe Corcoran, former program director, once put it as I was considering a return to the station in 1988, “WCAP is like a comfortable old shoe” that you can return to. I did, and shortly after, WCAP flipped to Talkradio 980. I can tell you that in my many years with The Bill O’Neill Show not once did the late Ike Cohen, Maurice, Station Manager Pauline Yates or Joe Corcoran even take me aside or enter the studio to shift me off of a topic or to challenge my right to express my opinion. Having also worked at other stations that were corporately based, I assure you that it was not the case elsewhere.

    I was the program director at WJUL at ULowell when I also transitioned over to WCAP. I will forever look back on these two Lowell gems as being integral parts of my vocational and social development for 20 years of my young adult life. And for that, I shall be forever grateful.

    I know that Maurice and I will stay in touch because as much as WCAP Radio was a part of Maurice’s life, the people in it who remained loyal throughout the years earned his loyalty right back.

    I am grateful to Gary Frascarelli for making WCAP’s 50th Birthday Party of the Air a reality. My opportunity to return to host that event will be one that I will forever cherish. And as times change and another chapter closes, those moments at WCAP will only increase in value to me.

    The future of Lowell radio is bright so long as the commitment to live and local remains, and respectfully, remains separate from other major news voices in the market.

    Bill O’Neill

  5. -b Says:

    I really enjoy WCAP. I am glad to hear they are thinking of keeping the local influence. We don’t need another ESPN or Disney station on the dial.

    I hope they go find Kevin Dunn and bring him back. He was a real talent and had a much more diverse list of topics than the current morning show. The morning show was sooooo good when he was on, probably the best show on the dial at the time.

  6. ArtisFun Says:

    Seems like everyone missed the third and junior investor, Brian McMahon.

  7. Mimi Says:

    Artis: Brian McMahon’s name was rumored but since it was not yet officially announced, I chose not to mention it. According to Kendall’s column on Saturday, there is a scheduled press conference tomorrow morning; perhaps then all of the players will be made public.

    Again, I think the first order of business is for these investors to put in place a format that will attract new revenue streams so that they can begin to get a return on their investment.

    From a business stand point, it would be disastrous for any of the principles to use this platform to advance any political agenda they may or may not have.

  8. ArtisFun Says:

    Mimi, Isn’t that the advantage of owning or controlling a media outlet, is being able to push your agenda. I think Old school bi-partisan first amendment advocates like the Cohens are few and far between. From mGeorge Anthes right wing banter to Lynne L. on JUL, from CNN to Fox news, Globe vs Herald. If you know of a newspaper or TV or radio outlet that only puts out unspun fact please let me know. I know this is cynical but today you have to listen to all sides and come to your best conclusion.

    ps. Thank You Maurice Cohen and the best of luck to the new owners.

  9. Eleanor Rigby Says:

    I think the point that is being made about Mr.Cohen is that he did not push his own agenda. Unlike the paper and whatever other media you would like to mention Maurice Cohen allowed Free Speech to happen on his radio station. Not many folks (corporations) that will do that these days are there?

  10. Shawn Says:

    Better be careful there Mimi..

    You’re concern for the business’s first priority to actually being allowed to make a profit is decidedly right wing!

    And it is true, Maurice went out of his way to make sure that all the station followed all the rules regarding election issues (equal time, etc) both to the letter of the law and to the intent.

    He also never got involved in the topics of the day. Each host has his own views, opinions, and audience.. that’s what talk radio is all about.

    It’ll probably take a few months before we see any changes. We’ll report more after the press conference later today.

  11. Jay Booth Says:

    When I was running for office and there was a scheduling mixup about when I was supposed to be on the air, Maurice made another time slot for me on zero notice just to make sure he gave everyone equal time and a chance to get their message out.

    So best of luck to the new owners and I hope they keep George Anthes - the guy falls a little right of center but he’s a good interviewer.

  12. jack Says:

    Best of luck to the new owners, I hope this is where we say goodbye to that right wing nutjob George Anthes and the silly side kick Mc Donough

  13. Mimi Says:

    Jack:

    You realize that you have just ended any possibility of a rapprochement between LiL and the morning radio show.

  14. Shawn Says:

    How do you know Jack isn’t someone from the Morning Information Team? lol

  15. jack Says:

    Mimi, thanks for pointing that out, however, when weighing a rapproachment and cleansing my ears of Anthes rantign and Mc Donoughs foolishness my position was clear. :)

  16. Guido Says:

    Profit isn’t right wing, reckless profit is right wing. Responsible profit is a requirement of life. Starbucks and Ben and Jerrys started as local companies too.

    The station needs to make a profit: then the new owners will be in the position to keep it local, which they promised to do.

    If we want it to stay local, then we need to - A. Listen, B. provide feedback, and C. Encourage local business to advertise.

    If these things don’t happen, then we might as well just hang a sign up inviting Entercom to come in and stream WEEI…

    My two cents,
    Guido

  17. Clark Smidt Says:

    Thanks to all for your comments. We’re looking forward to super serving the Merrimack Valley and encouraging the continued momentum of Lowell.

    All support and suggestions appreciated.

    Best regards,
    Clark Smidt

  18. Mimi Says:

    Thanks Clark; we have heard nice things about you and are looking forward to a new media outlet serving the Merrimack Valley.

    I want to emphasize the Merrimack Valley, because it is obvious from your public comments that is the intend. That is great.

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