September 25, 2018
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Tower Power

Local radio stations transition through market changes
The South Central Communications tower rises high above Mount Auburn Road.

The local radio market is going through some big changes, some more obvious that others to listeners. Townsquare Media made a major format change on WJLT, South Central Communications is selling its radio stations, and a new FM signal will soon hit the airwaves.

South Central Media, owner of WIKY and eight other stations, announced in May that it would sell the stations to Midwest Communications, based in Green Bay, Wisconsin. South Central owns stations in Evansville, Nashville, and Knoxville, Tennessee.

John A. Englelbrecht founded WIKY as an AM station in 1948. His son, John D. Engelbrecht, became the company’s president and CEO in 1974, and grandson, J.P. Engelbrecht, took the CEO position in 2008.

J.P. Engelbrecht says to remain competitive, South Central would have needed to double its size. He says that wasn’t possible, and a sale made more sense. South Central will retain its other two divisions: digital marketing and audio/visual services.

Engelbrecht says South Central was very particular when it sought out potential buyers for its radio stations.

“We were very quiet about it,” he says. “There were only a few companies in the country that we felt could meet two thresholds: one being money, obviously, and the other being character. There were only a few people we talked to, and the people at Midwest are just wonderful people.”

Midwest Communications owns 62 radio stations in Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, North Dakota, and South Dakota. Engelbrecht says he anticipates listeners and employees will notice very few changes.

“(Midwest Communications President) Duke (Wright) and his family are very similar operators to what we are,” he says. “So I suspect there will be minimal changes.”

While the South Central sale won’t affect what listeners hear on the airwaves, a recent change at Townsquare Media did just that. Townsquare made a complete overhaul at WJLT, taking it from an oldies station to an all-sports format as an ESPN Radio affiliate. That came after ESPN’s contract with WYFX in Mount Vernon, Indiana, was not renewed.

John Prell, Townsquare Media operations manager, says several factors went into the decision to switch formats.

“That was a very difficult decision for us to make, mainly because we know people love that type of music, they love their oldies,” says Prell. “We thought about it long and hard. We came to the conclusion that a sports station was something that was very much in need.”

Townsquare Media is the third-largest owner of radio stations in the U.S. It owns 311 radio stations in 66 markets, including five in Evansville: WGBF-FM, WGBF-AM, WKDQ, WJLT, and WDKS.

While some listeners were surprised and disappointed with the format change on WJLT, Prell says making a format switch to sports allows Townsquare access to a new audience.

“There have been stations that have carried ESPN programming in the past, but those were very low power stations,” says Prell. “Nobody has ever really done it on a 50,000-watt FM station before. Evansville is very much a sports town, and we thought giving people an opportunity to talk about local and national sports, with everything ESPN offers, would be a great opportunity.”

WJLT has a local show each weekday afternoon to go along with national favorites like Mike & Mike on weekday mornings. The station will carry Evansville IceMen hockey games this winter, and will carry local high school football and basketball games as well.

Prell says the radio industry has had to evolve with new technology. He says social media sites that can give breaking news and weather updates are encroaching on territory once dominated by radio. And streaming audio on the Internet also can compete for listeners.

“Radio has to accommodate the changing technological world,” says Prell. “People no longer need to turn to their radio for news and weather. So we have our radioPup app, which allows people to get all of our radio stations on their smartphone. People are listening to devices other than the traditional, terrestrial radio.”

WNIN radio, the local PBS affiliate, went through a major format change just a few years ago. The station had played classical music during the daytime hours, with news broadcasts at scheduled times. Program director Steve Burger says that format wasn’t appealing to listeners.

“What we were doing with the hybrid format, we could not serve either audience well,” says Burger. “With our scant resources, we could not do either one well enough to please the audience. So the decision was made to go to the news/talk format, after consulting with other stations that had made that switch.”

WNIN does continue to play classical music from 7 p.m. to 4 a.m., and Burger would like to have a 24-hour classical station if WNIN’s resources could allow it. WNIN does not currently subscribe to syndicators other than PBS, though it will soon pick up Public Radio International (PRI) to keep its Science Friday program, which is moving from PBS to PRI. WNIN also could pick up programs from Public Radio Exchange (PRX) in the future.

The move toward news/talk at WNIN comes as other radio stations have cut back on local news programming. Burger says WNIN focuses on certain types of stories, based on five content pillars: business, educations, government, health, and arts and culture.

“We want to cover the news the way we feel it should be covered,” says Burger. “We get deliberate public input from our community advisory board and our board of directors on what is relevant. We are not going to chase ambulances. We can adapt our schedule much more easily than other stations can. We can do what we feel the community is asking us to do.”

One other notable change to the Tri-State airwaves is a new FM signal from WBNL in Boonville, Indiana. The station was formerly on the FM airwaves at 107.1, but that was sold to J.P. Engelbrecht and became WEJK (Jack FM). It is owned separately from South Central Communications.

The new WBNL-FM is 97.7 FM is expected to go on the air soon. It has a radius of about 45 miles, according to station owner Ralph Turpen. The frequency was formerly a low-powered signal in Princeton, Indiana, but has a stronger signal in Boonville.

Meanwhile, WEJK is being sold again. Engelbrecht will sell the station to The Original Company, based in Vincennes, Indiana. The Original Company currently operates 15 radio stations in Indiana and Illinois. The sale has not yet been approved by the FCC.

For more information about Townsquare Media, visit townsquaremedia.com. For more information about Midwest Communications, visit mwcradio.com. For more information about WBNL, visit radio1540.net.

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