WEMP/101.9 Debuts News Format, Struggles to Find Sound

There had been plenty of rumor and speculation surrounding 101.9 since Merlin Media took over the former Rock station WRXP last month. After playing an interim mix of 1980s pop music, 101.9 FM “New” finally added the “s” to its name Monday (after a “soft launch” over the  weekend). With its new call letters WEMP, 101.9 is now New York’s only full-time FM news station, a slogan the news anchors are quick to promote.

WEMP does employ some major talent, including those who’ve called WINS and WCBS-AM home.

Reports have indicated that Merlin was gearing 101.9 toward women in the 25 to 54 age bracket, especially the younger end of that group. It doesn’t take long to see that’s definitely the case.

Anchors used the interim format as a trial period to get the kinks out. However, we’d soon learn that would not be the case.   

We’d also learn that the 101.9 anchors would give us an overdose of personality.

One such example, when Aretha Franklin was set to perform a free concert in Coney Island, the dual female anchors lead into the story with a mini duet of Franklin’s classic “R-E-S-P-E-C-T.” 

For a top-notch WINS anchor like Catherine Smith, it was embarrassing.

With the station focusing on a female audience, WEMP has hired primarily women anchors.  VP of programming Liz Aiello has assembled those anchors to be similar in sound.

 There are, however, a few exceptions.

Dave Packer is familiar mostly for his jock work at WCBS-FM and Fresh 102.7. (Alice Stockton-Rossini, the longtime WINS reporter, joins Packer as morning drive co-anchor.)

Paul Cavalconte is a hold over, remaining at 101.9 through a third regime.

Brett Larson is also part of the staff. He has been with WINS and Channel 5/WNYW.

But perhaps the best fit is evening anchor Gene Michaels. Michaels is best known for his traffic reports on WCBS-AM (via Shadow Broadcasting) the last several years. Michaels brought a strong energy to traffic, and early on, his talent transfers perfectly to news–at least WEMP’s version of news.

Sprinkled into the newscasts are recorded, helpful hints from Victoria Keelan (formerly of Sirius’ Cosmo Radio). Lucky listeners can learn everything from how to apply makeup to how to prepare a dinner from leftovers. Also, catering to the younger females, anchors seemingly have no shortage of  Jersey Shore and “Snooki” stories.  

Furthermore, there’s a fine line between broadcasting for women and broadcasting at women. Many of the features, if not stories as well, can be deemed condescending toward females.

With that in mind, it’s curious why WEMP isn’t running sportscasts. Many women are more passionate about sports than men.  

A bigger problem is the sound of the station. Audio from interviews interspersed into newscasts are usually too low for air, giving the station a nice, cozy college radio feel. This, however, is easily fixable.

A more glaring issue is how WEMP covers news. Their story selection needs to be rectified–immediately.

For example, on Sunday, New York City had a drenching rain and severe flooding conditions. It was the most rainfall in one day at JFK Airport —ever!

But, WEMP decided to lead throughout the day with the deadly Indiana State Fair stage collapse. Even if it had to be number one, though, management had the perfect segue into our terrible weather. But no, it was on to Tim Pawlenty dropping out of the presidential race. Every other “real” news station–WINS, WCBS-AM, plus the evening TV newscasts all chose team coverage of the deluge as their lead–go figure.

Even a missing blimp in Cleveland came before the New York weather situation. Actually, there was no weather report, no meteorologist, no correspondent on the scene, no one at a “Storm Desk.”

WEMP listeners were instead forced to wait for traffic on the 5s. The reporter from Shadow (Jeff McKay is the only traffic reporter hired by Merlin) handled the extensive traffic backups and gave a weather forecast.

(WEMP promotes its traffic updates as being “easy to understand,” However, the content is no different than what Shadow provides other stations.)  

Finally, by the evening, Therese Crowley, the former WCBS anchor, led the 7 p.m. with the flood waters. She had a taped piece with a meteorologist from the National Weather Service.

But, as was the case on the roads and rails Sunday, the damage was done.

Of course, given that they just signed on officially, you’d think WEMP brass would want to give their unknown meteorologist Scott Derek an opportunity to attract a following during the horrendous weather.

At the height of the storm, the most acknowledgment that 101.9 gave to the conditions was a brief forecast after the headlines before moving on to the “real” news.  There was no sense of urgency and the station showed poor news judgment.

Apparently, consultants have decided that women don’t care about stormy weather.

Yes, this station can weather the storm, but without major changes, neither women nor anyone else will care.