Format Changes Bring End to NYC Radio Rivalry

Urban adult contemporary station WRKS will no longer be broadcasting at the 98.7 FM frequency after 30 years in operation

By Deepti Hajela
|  Thursday, Apr 26, 2012  |  Updated 8:23 PM EDT
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Format Changes Bring End to NYC Radio Rivalry

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It's the end of an era and a long-standing rivalry in New York City radio.

Urban adult contemporary station WRKS, or KISS-FM, will no longer be broadcasting at the 98.7 FM frequency after 30 years in operation. Emmis Communications, which owns the station, announced Thursday that the frequency would be leased to ESPN and turned into a sports talk format starting 12:01 a.m. Monday. ESPN has an AM frequency in New York City, but has been looking to shift to FM.

The end of KISS-FM, a mainstay among African-American listeners in the area, leaves rival station WBLS at 107.5 FM as the only urban adult contemporary station in New York City.

"Recent changes in the way radio ratings are measured made it very difficult for us to find success with KISS FM," Emmis CEO Jeff Smulyan said in a statement announcing the change. Some in the radio industry have complained that a new ratings system undercounts minority radio listeners, which in turn can affect advertising sales.

Deon Levingston, vice president and general manager at WBLS, said it was hard to see KISS go.

"It is a sad day for urban listeners in New York," he said.

"Unfortunately this is a model that we've seen happen time and time again," he said. "It's become very hard for multiple urban stations to be successful."

KISS and WBLS announced they were taking steps to maintain KISS's legacy, including some KISS radio personalities going to work at WBLS, and Levingston said the station would be looking into continuing some of the community shows that have been broadcast on KISS.

Alex Cameron, senior vice president and general manager of Emmis-New York, said that while it was "sort of the end of an era," listeners would still hear KISS's influence at WBLS.

"I think that instead of having two stations that are sort of middle of the pack, it enables one to be a real powerhouse and a real force both in the business community and for listeners," she said.

Both KISS and WBLS mean a "great deal to the black community," said Paul Heine, senior editor at Inside Radio, a trade publication.

He said that he'd "expect the ratings to go up" for WBLS and that it would become "a stronger, more powerful voice."

ESPN radio has been on the AM dial at 1050. That AM frequency will become a Spanish sports radio station in September.

Heine said FM was a desirable location for ESPN because there's a larger audience of FM listeners than AM listeners, and they tend to be a younger demographic that advertisers are looking for.

ESPN's move "really ups the stakes in the sport radio battleground in New York City," he said.

The biggest voice in sports talk radio in New York City is WFAN, an AM station.

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