MIDDLEBURY - Jeff Beattie was driving toward Middlebury to visit his father at Porter Hospital on October 22* - the day a freight train derailed near downtown and effectively shut down every road through the burg.
Wondering how to proceed, Beattie instinctively switched his car radio to WFAD. The local AM station aired news and talk about the Middlebury area for as long as the Michaels-Beattie family had lived in the area. But that day the station was carrying ESPN national sports programming, broadcasting initiated following WFAD's acquisition in 2001 by New Hampshire-based Northeast Broadcasting Company (NEBCO).
"It was the exact stereotype of what everybody had been afraid of," notes Beattie's mother, Brennan Michaels. Some residents had warned that the loss of a hometown radio voice would be amplified when a local emergency struck.
Another Northeast Broadcasting property - WUSX-FM in Addison - did interrupt its country music playlist to carry reports on the derailment, says Bob Rowe, a NEBCO vice president who works in South Burlington. A WUSX employee happened to be in downtown Middlebury and provided on-the-scene information that enabled the station to air train-wreck updates at 10-minute intervals, Rowe adds.
But Brennan Michaels says she's never heard of WUSX. "It's WFAD that was the local news source. That's where we always tuned," the former dairy farmer recalls.
Most Vermonters have never heard of NEBCO, either, even though it owns about a dozen radio stations in the northern and central parts of the state, including WNCS, a.k.a. The Point. Company owner Steven Silberberg also controls radio and communications operations in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, South Dakota, Colorado, Nevada and Wyoming. Silberberg reluctantly agreed last week to be interviewed by Seven Days from his office in Bedford, New Hampshire.
Silberberg argues that NEBCO's stations remain responsive to their local markets even though the company's Vermont programming includes little local content other than sports. "We've taken radio stations that don't have financial viability or listeners and spent money to save them," Silberberg says. He says WFAD was in bankruptcy when purchased from Kathryn Messner - wife of Vermont TV weatherman Tom Messner - reportedly for $180,000. And WFAD, along with a few other NEBCO stations in Vermont, does regularly air local school sports as well as occasional live coverage of community events, Silberberg points out.
The switch to ESPN, which fills about 90 percent of WFAD's airtime, reflects the failure of Middlebury-area advertisers and listeners to support the station's local news-and-talk format, Silberberg adds. Audiences "vote with their ears," he says, suggesting that nearly wall-to-wall ESPN coverage "seems to be what the market wants."
Many more listeners tune to stations now owned by NEBCO than when they were locally oriented, Silberberg adds. But neither he nor two other NEBCO executives were able to provide specific listenership comparisons.
And while declining to reveal financial results for his privately held company, Silberberg did say NEBCO is "profitable - but not as profitable as we could be if we didn't do community service."
The company has Vermont roots, he adds. It was Dudley Davis, former head of Merchants Bank in Burlington, who agreed in 1984 to "take a chance on some kids with no experience but with a vision," Silberberg recalls. The Merchants loan enabled the new company to purchase WNCS from Jeb Spaulding, Vermont's state treasurer.
Ed Flanagan, a NEBCO co-owner based in Montpelier at The Point, says its eclectic rock 'n' roll programming is the product of local decision-making. Flanagan also defends The Point's self-definition as "Vermont's independent radio network" on the grounds that NEBCO is a comparatively small company that cedes autonomy to its stations' program directors.
"Local radio is economically viable," Flanagan adds. "Local news isn't economically viable because the advertising money needed for it isn't available."
What about Vermont Public Radio? VPR has vastly expanded its state news coverage in the past few years.
That's been possible, Silberberg responds, because VPR is part of a listener-supported national operation that's at least partly insulated from free-market forces.
A few of NEBCO's Vermont properties do continue to run regular local newscasts, adds Richard DeLancey, a company vice president for marketing. He says many of the stations also air community calendars. "We run a heck of a lot more local stuff than many other radio stations in Vermont," he says, but acknowledges NEBCO's local news spots don't involve much original reporting.
Mark Johnson, longtime host of a Vermont-focused talk show on locally owned WDEV, agrees that radio news with a down-home flavor "does require a substantial investment." But Johnson adds that "there's a real need and desire" for news of this sort - as WDEV's own financial success demonstrates.
The trend toward generic radio programming may nonetheless prove unstoppable, he says. "I feel like a dinosaur working for a dinosaur. We may be the last of a dying breed," Johnson laments.
*This date was corrected in the online edition.