WBUR

WFNX Creator On Sale Of 101.7: Most Difficult Day Of My Career

When the sale of WFNX-FM was announced Wednesday, WBUR’s Andrea Shea interviewed Stephen Mindich, publisher of the Phoenix Media Communications Group, to talk about the sale of 101.7 — WFNX’s radio frequency for nearly 30 years. Here’s the transcript:

Andrea Shea: What drove the decision?

Stephen Mindich: Well the decision was driven by reality and necessity. The station wasn’t on the “block,” so to speak, it was not being offered around, but clearly there’s been an interest in WFNX for a long time. Over the previous several months, I’ve gotten many calls inquiring and I kept saying it wasn’t for sale and finally I got a call from Clear Channel. And they said, “OK, we understand it’s not for sale, but if you do here’s what we’re prepared to pay.” And I said fine, and from that point and for a few weeks as I thought about it, I realized given that sustaining the station over the last four years in particular has been extremely difficult, and the recession has just really killed us, I made the decision. It had to be done.

It couldn’t have been an easy one. You created WFNX.

As I said to my staff at the station, it is the single most difficult day of my 47-year business career. I am not a seller, I’m an acquirer, and so this wasn’t sold as a “Here, I’m selling my business and retiring,” this is what it is. As wonderful — and I mean this from the bottom of my heart — however much I love what we have done over almost 30 years, it just is financially unsustainable.

Can you tell me how much you’re selling it for?

I can’t tell you that, it’s been agreed that we will not discuss the price. Let me tell you, though, it’s a lot less than I could’ve gotten not that long ago if I had chosen to sell the station. It was not sold for money, it was sold because it couldn’t go on.

Staff have been let go, can you tell me how many so far?

Among the staff that are no longer going to be with us are eight or nine people.

WFNX was your idea.

Yes, the concept of an intelligent rock and roll music radio station for smart people was my idea going back to 1981 or ’82, we went on the air in ’83. I was inspired to love radio and what it could do by my time working at WBUR back in the 60s, and I knew that with the Boston Phoenix and its audience, there was a real opportunity to bring together in two different media this kind of radio station.

And we’ve done amazing things with it, things that no radio station, including, I might add with respect, WBUR, would’ve done. Such things as putting on the first program dedicated to the gay-lesbian -transgender community in the country on commercial radio called One in Ten, and it was on the air for I think 15 years. We broadcast a recorded version of the poem “Howl” by Allen Ginsberg and it was read by a long list of luminaries including Peter Wolf, Robert Pinsky, Harvey Silverglate and even I got a chance to do a stanza. So it’s been just tremendous.

So now that this news is out, people are really reacting to the loss because WFNX has been so important for local musicians and music lovers. People are sad — but also angry.

Well, I can understand sadness about what’s happening, I’m sad myself. In terms of anger, I don’t understand that because of having lived with this for all these years and knowing that this was the last resort, and so I’m sorry for people who are angry, I apologize for them, but that’s what I felt I had to do.

The Phoenix Media Group is a private company, there are no investors, there’s no stock holders, there’s no public money, there’s no bank and at some point a decision had to be made, and I wish it wasn’t the case. Hopefully there might be an opportunity in the future to continue the ‘FNX tradition and history in another form and we’re looking into that as well. But for the moment, this is where it’s going over the next 60 to 90 days during the process of FCC approval for the transfer of the license.

And essentially you’ll have a skeleton crew running the station through that time?

The station will be on the air over that time and will be overseen by our program director. There will be various surprises and interesting testimonials and opportunities for listeners to say goodbye. We’re going to do something that, while it cannot replace the station over the next time frame, it will honor the history of the station.

When you said you don’t know what kind of a form ‘FNX might go on to take, what are the options in your mind?

We are thinking of an online version of WFNX, a streaming version. We are streaming now, we have been streaming for a very long time, and we have a very strong audience who listens online so we are looking at that as a way of continuing.

And I will say I don’t think this is an issue of old media versus new media. I think it really has been an issue of the economy. For me it’s that simple. We haven’t lost audience, neither on air nor any of our print publications. The struggle is for advertising and the sheer pie that has shrunk. You know, it’s a smaller pie, and even with loyal advertisers, of which we have many, they’re under pressure to cut as well.

It’s the fate of the gods as the world changes. For example, every week 96 percent of every Phoenix that is put out is picked up. Same with Stuff magazine and that’s true in Portland and Providence. There has been zero falloff in terms of readership and listenership. It’s just pure ad sales.

It’s interesting that you said it’s not a matter of old media versus new. It’s a fact that people are consuming their music in so many different ways.

But think about that — yes and no. Let’s be honest. Satellite radio is big but it has a tiny, tiny percentage of the radio audience. Broadcast radio still reaches enormous numbers of people. You know, the CD has been around, the cassette has been around, the MP3 has been around — and yet there is still a relationship that takes place to local media and to local listeners! And that’s what we have been, we have been a station devoted to our community. It’s not some faceless, amorphous broadcast outlet that just plays some music, and that’s why people might be angry.

But that’s how a lot people see Clear Channel. It’s feeding that sentiment.

But Clear Channel is not buying WFNX. They’re buying 101.7 — and we are retaining all of the intellectual property, and the call letters, and the history, and the music library. It all remains with us. So I’m not selling WFNX… I’m selling 101.7 and the license to broadcast on that frequency. By the way, I have zero idea what kind of programming format they are planning.

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