New Jersey radio: In tune with the Garden State's many voices

May 25, 2003

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New Jersey radio is more than an afterthought to New York and Philadelphia. Although the Garden State is in the middle of those Top 10 markets, it can be heard loud and clear.

The state may be small geographically, but New Jersey has four distinct radio markets of its own, in addition to being part of the New York and Philly listenership. There are at least 168 stations that can be heard within its borders. Jersey commuters can tune in to the usual rock, sports talk and oldies favorites, and can also hear news and music from Korea and South Asia, as well as stations whose programming ranges from black gospel to the sounds of big bands.

New Jersey radio reflects various national trends -- corporate ownership, the increased interest in minority broadcasting and decentralized operations -- but localizes them with flair. Most stations emphasize community news, when in most markets that's a dying art. Corporate owners like Millennium and Greater Media recognize that Central Jersey and Shore listeners don't necessarily want the same information.

"At any given point, a listener in Newark can easily hear close to 120 stations in a broadcast day," said Phil Roberts, executive director of the New Jersey Broadcasters Association. "There aren't a lot of places where you can say that."

Yes, the state's listeners tune in to stations that are geared toward New York and Philadelphia audiences. Even though it could easily be swallowed up by two of the top 10 markets in radio, New Jersey radio has retained its identity with local news, talk topics and music. That identity shapes the programming in those big markets, through talent migration and listener demand.

"New Jersey is in the shadow of the No. 1 and No. 6 media markets in the country," said Steven Miller, media services coordinator at Rutgers University, who also teaches radio courses. "The executives who run the big radio networks can listen to new talent on their way to New York or Philadelphia."

As the years have passed, they might have heard Vin Scelsa, who went from the Upsala College station in East Orange to New York's WNEW (102.7 FM) in its heyday as a cutting-edge, progressive rock station. Newark-based WBGO (88.3 FM) may be known as one of the few jazz stations in the country, but its news department was home to Steve Inskeep and Madeleine Brand, who left the station to work for National Public Radio in Washington, D.C.

Erica Herskowitz began her career at the Rutgers University station WRSU (88.7 FM) and now works at WFAN (660 AM) in New York, one of the country's top sports talk stations.

"So much of what happens in New Jersey influences the New York market," said Thurston Briscoe, program director at WBGO. "Nobody gives us credit for that."

Spectrum of sounds

Although the 1938 broadcast of "The War of the Worlds" didn't originate in New Jersey, it put Grovers Mill on the national map. But New Jersey's radio history doesn't begin with a Martian invasion.

In 1911, the New Jersey Telephone Herald offered a wired radio service for 5,000 Newark listeners for about a year, making it the state's first radio station. The first station in New Jersey licensed by the Federal Radio Commission was Newark's WJZ-AM in 1921.

One early AM station, WTRL, was shut down in 1928 because its owner was operating a dog kennel out of the transmitter barn. The dogs' howls could be heard on the air.

WPAT (930 AM) was the first AM stereo station in New Jersey, switching its signal to stereo in 1984. In that same year, a fire at WMCX (88.9 FM), the Monmouth University station in West Long Branch, caused the station to stay off the air for a year.

WDHA (105.5 FM) was the first Jersey station to play a CD on the air -- not surprisingly, it was Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the USA." And thanks to several ownership changes and frequency swaps, New Jersey listeners now have three stations carrying ESPN Radio sports talk: WEPN (1050 AM), WPHY (920 AM) and WKXW (1450 AM).

There's more to Jersey radio than that. A tour of the dial -- admittedly, an anachronism as few radios have dials anymore -- finds stations geared to Korean, Russian and South Asian communities, as well as a variety of music, including rock, folk, jazz, gospel, blues and polka.

"In New Jersey, we have a wonderful mix of different populations, different professions and different demographics," said Miller. "You can have any type of radio station and serve some sort of community niche."

However, one glaring omission for New Jersey listeners close to New York is country radio. There are country stations in Sussex County (WNNJ 1360 AM), Philadelphia (WEMG 104.9 FM) and Atlantic City (WPUR 107.3 FM), but there has been no full-time country station on the air in the New York metro area since last August.

observers have said country is a hard sell in a mostly urban market like this, but listeners continue to hope that will change. Representatives of the Country Music Association, the marketing arm of the country music industry, said recently they hope there will be a country station on the air in New York sometime in the next two years.

Robert Unmacht, owner of iN3 Partners, a Nashville-based media consulting firm, said the association is being very optimistic.

"Country has the same problem as any new format in New York," said Unmacht. "There aren't any available frequencies for the formats that are always next in line. Those formats are country and adult alternative."

Unmacht noted that the last country station in the New York, WYNY-FM, did well in the ratings in spite of a spotty signal that was hard to pick up.

"Even with the signal problems, that station did (relatively well)," Unmacht said. "If someone put a country station on the air in New York, it would be the No. 1 or No. 2 country station in the United States."

Carving out a niche

For all of its influence on the two big markets, New Jersey puts its stamp on the four smaller markets that partition the state. In addition to New York (No. 1 in listeners with 15 million, but No. 2 in revenues behind Los Angeles) and Philadelphia (No. 6; 4.2 million), there are also Middlesex-Somerset-Union (36th; 1.3 million), Trenton (140th; 302,300), Atlantic City-Cape May (138th; 304,100), Monmouth-Ocean (52nd; 968,300), Morristown (113th; 401,400), and Sussex (239th; 120,600).

New Jersey listeners driving on the Turnpike or the Parkway can hear stations from all of those markets in a single day, unlike in other states with multiple markets. Also, the FM and AM spectrums can't accommodate any more stations, which isn't true in multiple-market states like Texas and California.

Millennium Radio Group, which is based in Ewing, has 12 stations in hand -- including WKXW (101.5 FM) and WOBM (1160 AM), and a 13th deal for WCHR (1040 AM) awaiting approval. The company has the largest ownership stake in New Jersey radio. It is followed by Atlantic City-based Equity Communications with nine stations, including WBNJ (93.1 FM) and WCMC (1230 AM), mostly in South Jersey.

Greater Media, which recently moved its corporate headquarters from New Brunswick to Braintree, Mass., owns seven, including WCTC (1450 AM) and WMGQ (98.3 FM).

"Greater Media was started in New Jersey by (people) who understood the idea of suburban radio," Roberts said. "There are certain categories of advertising you are hard-pressed to sell in New York City, like gas stations and grass seed. They concentrated on buying suburban stations, and it worked very well for them."

Of course, people who live in Jersey City as opposed to North Brunswick may not need grass seed or gas particularly, so it's unlikely that only one station embodies New Jersey radio. Millennium may bill its flagship station, WKXW, as "the voice of New Jersey," but New Jersey doesn't have just one voice.

"101.5 may call itself the voice of New Jersey, but there's no way there can be a singular voice of New Jersey," Miller said. "The state has so many different voices, so many disparate voices, no one station can serve them all."

"What people want from radio is local news, local weather, local sports and community activities," Roberts said. "Radio is a highly personal medium, and today most stations are formatted to a specific audience."

The Millennium stations have tried to carve out a niche as one of the premier providers of New Jersey news, spending close to $2 million on a digital network that allows the stations to share news stories. The group offers a half-hour network newscast weekday mornings at 5.

"Radio lost what it does best, which is to be a vehicle for local information. Throughout the industry, if there are budget cuts, radio news is the first thing to go," said Eric Scott, Millennium's vice president for news.

"Millennium thinks differently. We are on a personal crusade to say not only is radio news viable, but it gives us a distinct competitive edge with advertisers.

"With music stations, regardless of format, if you listen to satellite radio, the New York stations, MP3s, CDs, you can always find the music you hear. But the one thing none of that offers you is information about your local community."

Sentheia McLeod, a teacher who lives in Marlboro but commutes to Plainfield, agrees.

"I take four different highways to work," McLeod said. "I turn on 101.5 at 7:03 every morning to figure out how I am going to get to work."

A mosaic of voices

While companies like Millennium and Greater Media use their New Jersey station groups to consolidate and streamline corporate operations, others take a different approach. Multicultural Radio Broadcasting, a New York-based company, owns four radio stations in New Jersey. The company buys stations and then leases the airwaves to local producers in various ethnic communities.

WNSW (1430 AM) offers Korean music and news. WPAT is programmed in Russian during the week, and plays Caribbean-oriented music and news on the weekends. The minority radio segment is one of the industry's fastest growing areas, but Multicultural East Coast vice president Tony Wong demurs.

"The populations we reach are not being served by other stations," Wong said. "I don't know about 'fastest growing,' but our business is steady. There are a lot of immigrants who come to this area. They want to find out information about home."

One of Multicultural's stations, WTTM (1680 AM), has its studios in Metuchen and transmitter in Princeton. Its programming is geared to South Asian listeners, with shows about cricket, weddings and Bollywood entertainment news, mixed with music from various South Asian cultures.

Kulraaj Anand, the program director for WTTM, said he wanted the station to be part of the community. EBC Radio, which Anand owns, leased the 10,000-watt station a year ago from Multicultural. It has listeners as far away as West Virginia. Its core audience is the estimated 450,000 South Asians in Central Jersey and Pennsylvania.

"Our community has grown a lot," Anand said. "Our culture and music is one of the oldest in the world. We're seeing our music become part of mainstream America."

Mamta Narula, a computer engineer in Kenilworth who is the host of three programs on the station, delivers her on-air patter in a blend of Hindi and English. Her Tuesday night show is a mix of music from Bollywood movies, audience quizzes and up-to-date news from the Bombay film world. She also does a wedding talk show on Sundays and a three-hour show on Saturdays with co-host Sanjiv Pandya that counts down the Top 10 and delivers more Bollywood news.

"I may be a computer engineer," Narula said, "but my heart and soul is in this. People have recognized me in the store just when they hear me speak. They'll come up and say, 'Are you Mamta, Jisko Kuch Nahin Jamta?' (her signature phrase, which loosely translates to "Mamta, the woman who doesn't like anything but music") I get a kick out of it."

Anand, whose station is staffed by 70 volunteers, offers programming in Urdu, Hindi, Tamil, Gujarati, Bengali and Punjabi. He plans to offer a training program in the coming months for kids who want to get into radio.

"This is a society where everyone is an immigrant," Anand said. "Having this station gives confidence to people in our community."

From 5,000 listeners in Newark 92 years ago to WTTM's South Asian listeners, New Jersey radio has always been able to identify and serve its audience.

"The story of New Jersey radio is the story of the 567 towns in the state," Miller said. "Our radio reflects what an eclectic bunch we are."

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