Sleazy but rich radio leviathan swallows tiny quality station

August 29, 2004|By JAY HANCOCK

WILM-AM, a tiny news-radio station that covers the Iraqi National Conference and the New Castle County, Del., Planning Board, deserves its valuable piece of the public communications spectrum.

Clear Channel Communications, a $9 billion corporation that broadcast "humor" about anal sex last year with "sound effects of flatulence and evacuation," according to the Federal Communications Commission, does not.

Now they are merging. Clear Channel said last week that it will pay $4 million to absorb WILM, which is based in downtown Wilmington, Del., and calls itself the only independent all-news station in the country.

Clear Channel praises WILM, promises to honor its achievements and says the merger is for the little broadcaster's own good. Napoleon spoke similarly of Poland before invading it.

"One of the things that that station has going for it is its years of history and heritage in the market," says Joe Puglise, Clear Channel's Delaware vice president. "It takes years to build what they have, so the last thing we want to do is come along and turn it into a Czechoslovakian punk rock station."

History and heritage WILM has. If "knowledge is the air that democracy breathes," as the Los Angeles Times' Tim Rutten wrote recently, then WILM pipes political oxygen to central Delaware.

Powered by only 1,000 watts and situated in a dingy studio under a Wilmington parking lot, the station employs 15 full-time and six part-time journalists - more than many far larger stations.

The news product is even bigger than the staff. There's a 4 1/2 -hour morning news show, an hour at noon and three more hours in the afternoon, all heavily laced with locally produced stories.

Legendary anchor/reporter Allan Loudell assigns reports on Wilmington government and crime as well as the latest crises in Africa or the Middle East. The station has full-time legislative and court reporters.

Rather than rely solely on wire services, Loudell gets on the phone to international hot spots via one of the fattest Rolodexes in the business. Last year he put a Baghdad hotel clerk on the air as bombs fell in the U.S.-led invasion.

Any town needs such dispatches, but Wilmington does doubly.

The 77th biggest radio market, it's overshadowed by Philadelphia and has few news resources of its own. There is no Wilmington-focused TV news except a small public broadcasting outfit. The Wilmington News Journal, the paper owned by the Gannett chain, sells 116,000 copies on weekdays in a state with 785,000 people.

WILM-1450 AM has been owned since 1948 by the local Hawkins family, now led by matriarch Sally Hawkins, 81, and her son, E.B. Hawkins, who runs day-to-day operations. Long reluctant to sell to a chain, the family said yes to Clear Channel only because it intends to keep WILM as a serious news outfit, E.B. Hawkins says.

"We had higher offers," he said. "But we truly believe that WILM news radio will continue to exist in a fashion most similar to its present state for a long time because of the nature of this deal."

Besides quality journalism, WILM is distinguished by its reputed inability to earn a profit. "We've broken even for 50 years," E.B. Hawkins tells anybody who asks.

Besides periodically spewing garbage into people's cars and offices, Clear Channel is known for minting money. Its 1,200 U.S. radio stations make 38 cents profit on the dollar on average, financial statements show.

How the Wilmington station will simultaneously generate WILM-quality news and Clear Channel-quality profits will be an interesting parlor trick, but there are ideas.

Clear Channel's bigger and better-organized sales force should boost WILM's revenue, both sides say. Puglise wants to rebroadcast some of WILM's news on WDOV, Clear Channel's more-powerful Dover, Del., station. That will increase the audience and could boost revenue. Administrative functions can be combined.

But I fear the newsroom will shrink or morph. If Clear Channel truly valued crackerjack journalism, it would deliver it in every market.

Instead, it serves up people such as Suzi Hanks, the newscaster on Houston's KKRW "The Arrow" who got her breasts augmented on air last year while sidekicks narrated and made melon jokes.

I'd rather hear Czechoslovakian punk rock.

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