Whenever there's a pending format launch in New York, it briefly ignites hope among various different constituencies. That's happening again following the just-announced Cumulus purchase of religious WFME. But the ultimate decision often comes down to an owner's needs and priorities, not a market hole. That's how a 0.7 share all-news experiment replaced modern rock in 2011, and why a second all-sports FM is going to replace it again shortly. The forthcoming WFAN-FM would be hard to deny, based on its long successful track record as an AM sports station, if only it weren't claiming WRXP, a station that's making some listeners very happy at the moment.
If Cumulus had bought 94.7 FM 18 months ago, market speculation would have landed on a simulcast for WABC's talk format and an FM home for Rush Limbaugh. But Cumulus launched its Mike Huckabee show against Limbaugh. Then, Clear Channel bought WOR-AM, seemingly to guarantee its talk programming a New York outlet. So does the possibility of Limbaugh on FM change anything for any of the parties involved? If not, there is no shortage of other options, and they're always fun to handicap, regardless of what research might ultimately show a new owner.
Country: For more than 15 years, any owner with a full-signal station that was pondering a change had some format it liked more than country. A month ago, it was unquestionably country's turn, then modern rock went up for grabs again. Here's the good news for long-suffering country fans. Cumulus likes and is comfortable with the country format, simulcasting its Danbury, Conn., station on a suburban Westchester County frequency, which will reportedly go away as part of this deal.
Why it should happen: The 6-7 share success of WKLB Boston should put to rest any discussions of whether country works in the Northeast, while hard-charging WKMK (Thunder Country) Monmouth-Ocean, N.J., has proved that successful country in the tri-state area doesn't have to be AC-flavored. Country would also offer Cumulus some crowd control against market-leading AC WLTW (Lite FM) and greatest hits WCBS-FM.
Why it might not: The presence of WKMK and Long Island's WJVC (My Country 96.1) might convince an owner that there isn't enough remaining available country listening. Besides, modern rock's 2-3 shares are a known quantity. And even though it has little to do with today's reality, this discussion often circles back to country's troubled past in New York and the struggles of WKHK more than 30 years ago.
Alternative: The costly WEMP experiment in female-friendly FM news made successor WRXP's rapid and low-cost return to the 2 share range (and growing) look a lot smarter. The available new music is better than a year ago, when the only viable way to do alternative was thought to be a mostly '90s-based approach. Also, after years of operators who were afraid to do this format without slipping in AC/DC, this version of WRXP suggests that an actual alternative format might be viable in New York.
Why it should happen: Alternative is thought to be the format most diminished by other radio choices. Yet, most of the previous WRXP audience is quickly regrouping on the FM dial, and having been repeatedly jilted only seems to make them more grateful. It's a safe, demonstrable franchise that will have the support of the label and artist community.
Why it might not: Because other platforms are so entrenched, some owners might not regard alternative as a long-term strategy. Also, between liking country and wanting to secure an FM spot for talk, Cumulus may just have other priorities.
'80s-Based Gold: A few programmers have seen some sort of '80s-based format, a "next-generation oldies" station, as the hole in New York here since the departure of Jack-FM and the launch of the PPM. Right now, WCBS-FM and WLTW are both doing their best to cover the '80s, but neither can completely live there. WPLJ, New York's original '80s franchise-holder, moved back toward the '80s a few years ago, then took a sharp turn toward top 40 when Cumulus took over.
Top 40: Even in this crowded market, there would be a way to do top 40 that differs from WHTZ (Z100), WXRK (92.3 Now) and WKTU. Cumulus' rhythmic-leaning but more recurrent version of the format--the one they favor in large markets--wouldn't be different enough from those stations, and is almost what they're doing on WPLJ. But a new owner might want a top 40 flagship in market No. 1 anyway. And going top 40 would free WPLJ to fill that '80s hole again.