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Change is in the airwaves

Small stations shift to survive in tight market

Radio station WLLH of Lawrence and Lowell flipped from Latin and tropical music to ESPN sports two weeks ago. WSMN of Nashua is about to return to the airwaves after its former owners pulled the plug in January.

Hispanic radio entrepreneur Patrick Costa, principal owner of three Methuen stations, wants the signal strength of his flagship, WNNW, to reach listeners as far away as Plymouth and maybe Cape Cod.

The past weeks have seen several shifts in the Merrimack Valley radio landscape, with stations laboring to preserve loyal audiences or build new ones in a region eclipsed by the larger, more powerful stations broadcasting from Boston.

With Boston radio stations bombarding much of Eastern Massachusetts with signals as strong as 50,000 watts, the smaller local stations are at a severe disadvantage.

''It's a challenging region, just as it is for areas like Worcester, the South Shore, or Metro West where a listener can turn on the radio and hear 30 or 40 stations coming out of Boston, which is one of the 10 largest markets in the country," said Scott Fybush, editor of the trade publication Northeast Radio Watch.

''They're up against stations with powerful signals and a lot more money to throw at promotions and programming."

But stations have found ways to compete, and, in the process, build a loyal audience, said Fybush, who worked at WCAP in Lowell as a reporter and anchorman in the early 1990s.

''Do something that the Boston stations can't or won't do -- broadcast news about the towns," he said. ''Local programming is a solid niche where the Boston stations don't compete. People have a voracious appetite for local news and politics, particularly on the Massachusetts side of the border with so many older, established communities. People are passionate about how their communities are covered."

Nowhere has this passion been more evident than at WUML, the University of Massachusetts at Lowell radio station. When university administrators decided to broadcast a nighttime talk show by radio personality Christopher Lydon and Lowell Spinners baseball games, the decision sparked an outcry from the station's staff, who felt the change would take air time from music programs and cultural shows conceived by students and community residents.

Under pressure from students and some alumni, the university agreed to drop the deal with the Spinners. The games are now broadcast on WCAP, where they aired in 2003 and 2004. Lydon's program, ''Open Source," airs on Boston public radio station WGBH weeknights but is rebroadcast on WUML the next day in the 9 a.m. hour of ''The Sunrise Show," a news, weather, and interview program.

WUML station manager Nate Osit, said the morning time slot for ''Open Source" coupled with the termination of the Lowell Spinners contract has kept the station true to its roots.

''Our focus is still intact," said Osit. ''Student-run radio and local programs. We haven't lost the air time we feared we would lose."

Across the state line, in Nashua, developer Tom Monahan is preparing plans to restore local programming to WSMN, which he purchased in June for $250,000. He is awaiting Federal Communications Commission approval of that sale and his purchase of Nashua's WSNH in October 2004.

WSMN started out with a community-oriented format in 1958, but changed to business news by its new owners in 2000. WSMN went off the air in January. Monahan wants to bring back favorites like ''Weather Hawk" and ''The Bargain Box" when the station resumes broadcasting.

''My goal is to keep it local," said Monahan, who owns the Nashua-based Absolute Broadcasting. WSNH airs ESPN sports from its studios at the Indian Head Plaza under a lease agreement with the station's previous owner.

Monahan would like to return WSMN to the airwaves within the next 30 days, using a temporary transmitter until a permanent location can be found.

Meanwhile, the new owners of WLLH have taken the niche concept of radio broadcasting in a different direction. The station, which formerly featured a Latin and tropical format, started a 24-hour ESPN sports format on July 24. Mega Communications, which owned WLLH and its sister station WAMG of Boston, sold both stations to a company now called ESPN Radio Boston for $9 million. Both stations have adopted the ESPN format.

Jessamy Tang, head of ESPN Radio Boston, said the new format will target listeners in Eastern Massachusetts, particularly those living within Interstate 495. The market has been dominated by all-sports station WEEI, which broadcasts from Boston.

Tang said the market is large enough for a newcomer.

''We're the only station carrying ESPN in this region right now, and we think there's a market for national sports programming here," said Tang, adding that broadcasts will eventually include a focus on local sports, with programs hosted by local talent.

WLLH's changeover could prove to be very good news for Costa Eagle Broadcasting, the company that owns three Methuen AM stations, WNNW, WCEC, and WCCM. Patrick Costa, principal owner of the company with the Lawrence Eagle Tribune, said he now sees an opportunity to increase his niche in the Hispanic radio market.

He wants to increase the power of the signal for WNNW, also known as Power 800, from 1,000 watts to 5,000 watts, which would extend the station's reach well beyond the Merrimack Valley. The station plays Latin and tropical music.

''We have an audience of loyal listeners in the Merrimack Valley, but a stronger signal would give us a farther reach," said Costa. ''We feel we can hold on to the listeners that we have, and build on top of that. In radio, that's a marvelous situation."

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