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Ratings drop into the sink at Blink

June 1, 2003

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If you blinked, you might have missed it. And you probably did. It's been more than month since WNEW (102.7 FM) debuted the "Blink" concept of blending music, gossip and entertainment news, and it's not exactly racking up listeners. The guys in charge at Infinity, the station's parent company, aren't saying much, but their actions are coming through loud and clear.

Steve Kingston took the reins at Blink a couple of weeks back as operations manager. Kingston was program director at WXRK "K-Rock" (92.3 FM), which is also part of the area Infinity group that includes WFAN (660 AM), WINS (1010 AM) and WCBS (101.1 FM and 880 AM). Kingston was replaced at K-Rock by Robert Cross, who programmed KROQ in Los Angeles. Howard Stern, who is on WXRK, has complained about the move on the air, saying he's not sure Cross understands New York. (But Stern's complaining likely is part of his continuing anti-management shtick -- he's also said he'll hang it up when his contract expires in two years.)

A few weeks back, Infinity tapped Joel Hollander of Westwood One to replace John Fullam as operations manager. Some industry observers noted that this doesn't bode well for Infinity CEO John Sykes, who hired Fullam last August.

While Stay Tuned realizes the revolving door at Infinity may not mean a lot to local listeners, the moves at the top may lead to some on-air changes.

After a splashy, high-priced debut, Blink seems to be going nowhere fast. More than a month after flipping the switch, it still has no live deejays middays, evenings and most of the weekend. The live air staff so far consists of Chris Booker and Linda Lopez in the mornings, Todd Newton live from Beverly Hills in the afternoon, and former MTV host Matt Pinfield on Saturday afternoon.

From a corporate standpoint, Blink has allowed Infinity's parent company, Viacom, to showcase its E! and "Entertainment Tonight" television properties, clumsily. Songs are sometimes preceded by recorded "tags," which give listeners updates on the doings of Justin Timberlake, John Mayer and other company favorites. The tags would be more effective if they were part of the on-air patter of a live deejay.

Nashville-based media consultant Robert Unmacht, former owner of the radio tip sheet M Street, said the New York goings-on remind him of another Viacom venture. "There was a Viacom store in Chicago, which had merchandise related to MTV, Paramount, 'Entertainment Tonight,' but it closed because most people didn't grasp what Viacom was."

The eclectic music mix has not delivered a large audience. Although Blink debuted at the end of the last ratings book with a .5 Arbitron rating, that number included the previous months when the station played a contemporary hit format with no deejays. The latest Arbitron trend has the station at .4, which is behind WBBR (1130 AM), a business news station with a spotty signal.

Unmacht said the current Blink mix is like the old Top 40, in which the Beatles and Conway Twitty could be heard side by side. "I think young listeners have had their tastes shaped by MTV," he said. "They played a wide variety of music, but it was segmented into programs -- metal, rap, etc. The current generation grew up with all kinds of music, but not all together."

Perhaps Kingston will fine-tune that. Stay Tuned wanted to get his thoughts on all of this and requested an interview, but Infinity reps didn't return calls.

"I think they brought Kingston in to make it (Blink) more of a radio format and less of an experiment," Unmacht said. "Kingston has a lot of experience in Top 40 radio, which seems to be what they're going after."

As for what will happen to WXRK with Cross' arrival, it's anyone's guess. His former station, KROQ, was always known for its power/punk edge, but that may be explained as much by the difference between L.A. and New York.

Another question on the horizon for Infinity is WFAN's Don Imus, whose health woes kept him off the air for more than a few days during the run-up to the war in Iraq.

"He makes a huge amount of money just in New York," Unmacht said. "I would say, as long as he is healthy, he has a job."

Doing the dance: WKTU (103.5 FM) has added "KTU Friday Night Dance Factory" to its dance-pop lineup. The show, which features deejays Paul Oakenfold, Riddler and Junior Vasquez, will air from 11 p.m. to 4 a.m. Friday into Saturday.

In other station news, Noel "Speedy" Mercado will be among those honored at the Eight Annual National Puerto Rican Day Parade June 8 in Manhattan. Mercado has been with KTU since 1997, and can be heard weekday mornings from 6 to 10 a.m. with Baltazar and Goumba Johnny.

Cleaning out the attic: WFMU (91.1 FM), in conjunction with the Edison National Historic Site in West Orange, has started presenting "Thomas Edison's Attic," a bi-weekly program featuring historic Edison recordings from the sound archive at Thomas Edison's laboratory. The program airs from 7 to 8 p.m. every other Tuesday. The next broadcast will be Tuesday.

Jerry Fabris, the Edison sound recordings curator, hosts the show, which draws upon the 10,000 cylinders and 37,000 disc records of the Edison National Historic Site sound archive. The program will showcase more than 40 years of music and performance on Edison records. Among the offerings will be popular songs, ragtime, vaudeville comedy, dance bands and old-time country tunes. Once popular recording artists such as Billy Murray, Ada Jones and Vernon Dalhart are among the featured performers.

Stay Tuned, a column about radio and all it surveys, appears weekly in the Spotlight section. Contact radio writer Claudia Perry at cperry@starledger.com or at (973) 392-5954. Press releases should be submitted no later than two weeks before air date.

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