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Sale, layoffs rock alternative radio station

Most staffers fired after Clear Channel deal

Most staffers at local alternative rock radio outlet WFNX 101.7 FM were laid off Wednesday as Stephen M. Mindich, publisher and chief executive of corporate owner Phoenix Media/Communications Group, revealed that the station is being sold to industry giant Clear Channel Communications Inc.

“It’s terrible. I’m devastated,” said veteran disc jockey Julie Kramer, who said she was laid off after 25 years at WFNX. “I feel bad for all the indy bands, and the local bands, that no longer have a home,” she said.

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Seven of the station’s full-time employees were laid off, according to group executive editor Peter Kadzis. Six part-time employees, many of whom worked on a single weekly shift or show, were let go. Three full-timers remain on the staff permanently.

WFNX, which is located in Lynn, will retain an additional three full-timers and two part-timers until Clear Channel, based in San Antonio, takes ownership.

Founded in 1983, WFNX was one of the last independent radio stations in the Boston market, catering to a new music niche.

“This is the disappearance of the last independently owned major commercial station in the heart of the Boston market,” said Scott Fybush, editor of NorthEast Radio Watch, an industry trade publication. “What gets lost is a separate voice ­— a voice for college kids, a voice for independent music.”

In a memo disclosing the sale, Mindich indicated the station could no longer survive on its own. “For some time it has been difficult to sustain the station — especially since the start of the Great Recession,” he wrote. “And that is why the station is being sold.”

Mindich did not return calls for comment.

Even though “these are challenging times for all media companies,” Kadzis said the sale was not related to any financial problems at Phoenix. “The radio station was not for sale,” he said. “Clear Channel approached us with a very good offer, and we decided that it made a lot of sense from a business point of view.”

No other Phoenix properties are for sale, according to Kadzis. The company runs weekly newspapers in Boston, Providence, and Portland, Maine, and the Boston biweekly magazine Stuff, along with associated websites. Two weeks ago, the company sold Spanish language weekly newspaper El Planeta, which it purchased in 2008, back to its original owner.

WFNX’s revenues have been “challenged” for the last few years, said Mark Fratrik, an analyst with media research and consulting firm BIA/Kelsey, of Chantilly, Va. In 2011, BIA/Kelsey estimated that station revenues were $3.2 million a year, down from more than $5 million in 2004 and 2005. “Stations like WFNX are facing competition from the Internet, satellite radio, iPods,” Fratrik said. “It’s really a tough environment out there.”

According to the memo from Mindich, WFNX was filing paperwork with the Federal Communications Commission on Wednesday to transfer the station to Clear Channel. The station will remain on the air while the process runs its course. It was unclear what format WFNX will adopt under Clear Channel.

The purchase price was not revealed, although it will likely be made public within a few days, when the filing is posted by the FCC.

“This was a great opportunity to expand our footprint and our listenership in Boston,” said John Hogan, chief executive of Clear Channel Media and Entertainment, in a statement.

WFNX continued to play its trademark mix of new and older rock music on Wednesday. A statement on its website said the station’s live events will take place as scheduled.

Tiffany Shackelford, executive director of the trade group Association of Alternative Newsmedia, said that print circulation of the Boston Phoenix has “done very well recently,” growing 22 percent from the previous year to 130,280 in 2011, according to figures from the Audit Bureau of Circulations. Shackelford said that like many alternate weeklies, the Boston Phoenix has recently been focused on adding readers online and on mobile devices. “Basically, alternate weeklies are in the same dogfight that traditional media is in,” Shackelford said.

In its early days, WFNX was a pioneer in the alternative rock format. Taking a cue from free-form college radio, the independent station programmed music that was often too noisy, quirky, or offbeat for the strict confines of the Top 40 playlists of other stations. WFNX’s playlist included all manner of punk and new wave music from bands like Gang of Four, the Cure, and local Boston rockers Mission of Burma.

Through the years, the station took pride in presenting new artists. A clutch of acts that came to define the ‘90s alt-rock revolution were staples on WFNX, which in some cases was the first to break them locally, including Nirvana, Radiohead, Pearl Jam, Beck, and Foo Fighters.

The station presented many concerts in that heyday, including an infamous show in 1994 by a then-just-breaking Green Day at the Hatch Shell, which drew nearly 70,000 fans and devolved into a melee when the band’s set was cut short due to safety concerns.

WFNX also championed local music with a weekly Sunday night show called “Boston Accents,” and devoted a shift to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender issues with the show “One in Ten.”

The sale to Clear Channel follows a long-running consolidation in the radio industry. “The name of the game today is how many signals you can own under one roof,” said NorthEast’s Fybush. “National advertisers want to talk to companies like Clear Channel that can guarantee them multiple stations in multiple cities. WFNX couldn’t offer that.”

D.C. Denison can be reached at denison@globe.com. Sarah Rodman can be reached at srodman@globe.com
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