WITH sale signals end to rock and roll format Radio: The California-based corporation that bought the station intends to present Christian programming.

On the Air

March 23, 1997|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

WITH-AM (1230), which attempted to carve itself a niche in Baltimore radio by harking back to the early days of rock and roll, has been sold to a California-based company that specializes in religious broadcasting.

In an agreement signed last week, Salem Communications Corp., which owns some 40 radio stations nationwide, shelled out $3 million to purchase WITH and two other stations (in Cleveland and Cincinnati) from Cincinnati-based Guardian Communications.

The sale, which almost certainly will result in a change in formats from music to religious talk, ends a decades-long run by WITH as one of Baltimore's premier music stations. Although its late-'50s and early-'60s format never caught on in recent years -- the latest ratings had 2,500 listeners tuning in during an average quarter-hour -- WITH had spent decades as one of the city's dominant voices, and in the 1950s was pretty much responsible for introducing Baltimoreans to rock and roll.

Almost all of Salem's stations, including Washington's WAVA-FM (105.1), have a religious format. Eric Halvorson, the company's executive vice president and chief operating officer, couldn't say for certain what new format would be used at WITH -- the deal still has to be approved by the Federal Communications Commission, meaning it probably won't become official until some time in June -- but it sounds like a safe bet that rock and roll's days there are numbered.

"We're intending to run a Christian format on the station, but exactly what format that will take, it's too early to say," Halvorson said from Salem's Camarillo, Calif., headquarters. "Our business is basically religious programming."

WAVA's programming, which Halvorson said is fairly typical of Salem's stations, includes a locally produced interactive talk program with Janet Parshall that runs 3 p.m.-6 p.m. daily.

Niles Seaberg, WITH's program director, referred all questions about the sale to Guardian's Cincinnati offices.

Mark McNeil, president and CEO of Guardian Communications, said the sale is part of an effort by Cincinnati financier Carl Lindner to extricate himself from media ownership.

With last week's sale, Lindner is left owning six radio stations in Albuquerque, N.M., and Pueblo, Colo. McNeil said he and other Guardian officers are hoping to raise enough money to buy the remaining stations.

WITH began broadcasting in 1941. Over the years, its cast of characters included both Buddy Deane, who made a name for himself as the first Baltimore disc jockey to play rock and roll (and who also was host for a dance show on WJZ, Channel 13), and Jack Gale, who replaced Deane and became just as popular. Among other famous alumni were Jack Wells, Buddy McGregor, Bill Evenson and a sportscaster by the name of Chuck Thompson.

In the early 1980s, WITH broke from its rock and roll roots (which it already had distanced itself from, opting for a more easy-listening format) and devoted itself to big-band music. Other formats would come and go over the next dozen years or so, including a stab at talk radio in the late 1980s, but the station remained largely committed to big-band music until 1993, when the station shifted back to early rock -- and a large chunk of station personnel (including Ken Jackson, Wayne Gruen and Alan Field) left en masse to start WWLG-AM (1360).

Despite its efforts to recapture lightning in a bottle -- the station even brought Gale and Deane back to the city's airwaves -- the early-rock format refused to take, and WITH's demise has been rumored for months.

"There are a couple of formats that have been tried in Baltimore that, for whatever reason, do not have a significant enough audience to make a go of it," said Paul Kopelke, general manager of WWLG and former head man at WITH. "These are guys who are just working their heart out, but for whatever reason, the music just never hit."

Regardless of what format the new owners choose, Kopelke added, he hopes they allow at least a part of WITH's legacy to endure.

"I think the call letters should stay," he emphasized. "I wish they had to, but they don't. But they should stay in Baltimore. They're a part of the city, like WBAL."

Amen to that.

Country music winner

Kudos to WPOC-FM (93.1) and promotion maven Sheila Silverstein, who walked off with the Promotion of the Year award at the 1997 Country Music Seminar.

Silverstein and her cohorts at WPOC won the award for "Camp WPOC," a promotion it set up at last year's state fair in Timonium. This is the third such award the station has won since they were first awarded in 1989.

In other news at WPOC, Scott O'Brien (a k a Scott Lindy), former program director for WTVR in Richmond, has been named the station's new program director. While in Richmond, O'Brien nearly doubled his station's rating among women 25-54 -- a performance he'd no doubt love to replicate here, as WPOC fights to retain its position atop the Baltimore market.

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