The death of local radio?
Tri-Lakes stations in decline or off the air amid debts, FCC laxity
SARANAC LAKE — Radio Park looks like it’s been deserted.
The weeds have grown up around the building that for years was home to Saranac Lake Radio and its stations: WNBZ, Y106.3 and Rock 105. The paint is peeling on its facade, and a bucket of trash is overturned on the front porch, next to a garbage can filled with old computer monitors.
Peering through the station’s front door window, it’s dark inside. Mattresses are stacked against a wall next to random chairs and other furniture. Boxes of wires and electronics sit atop its front desk.
Amy Isabella, who lives on nearby Colony Court, said she and her partner Brent walk by the property once in a while.
“It doesn’t seem like there’s anybody there right now,” she said. “There were times we’d get up early and go for a walk and see a car down there, but lately we haven’t seen much of anything.”
Turn on the radio in the Tri-Lakes, and you won’t hear much of anything, either. As of early this week, three of the five stations owned by Saranac Lake Radio’s Ted Morgan were off the air. The only two that were broadcasting were simulcasting WNBZ, which relocated last fall to a Plattsburgh office building.
Morgan’s unceremonious move out of the Tri-Lakes and the slow demise of the local stations has happened amid mounting financial troubles, based on documents obtained by the Enterprise and interviews of people who’ve worked for or done business with Morgan.
He owes money to the Federal Communications Commission. He routinely doesn’t pay his local, state and federal taxes, or his utility bills. Essex County is preparing to foreclose on the Radio Park properties in Saranac Lake for the second time in three years. Morgan’s antennas have been kicked off of several radio towers in the Tri-Lakes for not paying rent, and he has moved his transmitters to new sites without notifying the FCC. Several of his broadcasting licenses appear to have expired, yet those stations have still been operating.
“It’s sad. It is very sad,” said Jim Rogers of Lake Placid, who with his wife Keela owned the Saranac Lake radio stations for 35 years until they sold them to Morgan in 1998. “I feel sad for the community. I feel sad for radio. I’m sad for Ted.”
Others are less sympathetic. Dan Nardiello’s family sold Morgan their Lake Placid radio stations WIRD and WLPW, plus WRGR in Tupper Lake, in 2004. Since then, he said Morgan has run them into the ground.
“Ted’s management is abysmal — worse than that,” Nardiello said. “To fail to pay your electric bill. To fail to pay your employees. To fail to pay your rent on your tower sites. Ted’s a terrible business person. There’s no one who would dispute that, I don’t think.”
The Enterprise tried extensively, over several months, to contact Morgan for this story, but he did not return numerous messages.
The phone number for the Saranac Lake radio stations is no longer in service. Dating back to April, the Enterprise sent several email messages to Morgan using several of his email addresses, including one on file with the FCC. None were returned, and the latest ones bounced back either because his mail folder was full or the email address was no longer valid. Messages left for Morgan with a family member were also unreturned.
Twice in the last two weeks, the Enterprise visited Morgan’s current studio on the fourth floor of the Gateway building at 14 Durkee St. in Plattsburgh. Each time, no one answered the door, which was locked and the lights inside were turned off. A reporter left a note and a business card under the door, asking Morgan to call him, but he has yet to do so.
Employees of other offices on the same floor said they only see Morgan occasionally and that some days it doesn’t look like anyone comes into the studio.
“Now he runs it all himself, I think,” Rogers said.
In recent weeks, however, even Morgan has been absent from the airwaves. He’s currently broadcasting on just one station, WNBZ, which airs on 105.9 FM in the Plattsburgh area and 106.3 FM across a larger swath of the North Country, including the Tri-Lakes, but he’s no longer doing his weekday “Morning News” program. The station is only playing music with pre-recorded breaks in between songs and CBS news updates.
The WNBZ website is down. Its “Talk of the Town” Facebook page and its Twitter feed, @wnbznews, have been silent for months.
Before Morgan moved the WNBZ call letters to the FM stations, it was broadcasting on 1240 AM in Saranac Lake from a tower located next to Radio Park, but that frequency has been off the air for about a year.
The other AM station Morgan owns, WIRD 920 AM in Lake Placid, has been dark for longer than that. Last month, the FCC terminated its license and call letters because Morgan had failed to pay the agency an unspecified amount of debt.
The two FM stations that used to make up the classic rock station Rock 105 — WLPW 105.5 and WRGR 102.1 — have been simulcasting WNBZ. WRGR still broadcasts, but WLPW was shut down earlier this month because Morgan stopped paying rent for use of a Casier-family-owned Mount Pisgah tower where the 105.5 transmitter and antenna were located. His equipment has now been removed from the tower.
Three years ago, Essex County put Saranac Lake Radio’s studios and tower site on Santanoni Avenue up for auction after Morgan failed to pay more than $35,000 he owed in taxes dating to 2009. He was ultimately able to pay what he owed and get the properties back.
Since then, however, Morgan hasn’t paid any village, county, town or school taxes on the properties, according to county Treasurer Mike Diskin. In total, he said Morgan owes $16,190 for tax years 2015, 2016 and 2017. Foreclosure notices were mailed last month to Morgan and other property owners, Diskin said.
“They have until Sept. 8 to reply and pay; otherwise, we’ll move to foreclosure for those and sell them probably in late October or early November,” he said.
A string of large federal tax liens have also been filed against Morgan or companies he owns over the last five years due to unpaid taxes, according to records filed in Essex and Franklin counties. In some cases, the bills have been paid, like a $288,000 lien from 2013 that was paid two years later. But a new lien that totals $145,000 was filed against a company Morgan owns, Prescott House LLC, in December of last year and remains unpaid.
Over the last seven years, the state has also repeatedly issued judgments against Morgan and his companies, totaling in the tens of thousands of dollars, for failing to pay state taxes, unemployment insurance and worker’s compensation insurance.
Morgan has also faced a string of lawsuits and other legal actions for not paying his debts. In 2014, Kathryn Nardiello took him to court, seeking $144,000 in unpaid principal and interest stemming from his purchase of Radio Lake Placid. The court later issued a judgment against Morgan in the amount of $72,000, which he paid by September of last year.
When Radio Park was still operating, National Grid shut down the power to the building several times, causing its stations to go off the air, because Morgan hadn’t paid his power bill, according to Chris Brescia, Morgan’s former engineer. He said there’s no power to the site at all right now.
“He basically is not using anything out there,” Brescia said. “It’s more or less abandoned.”
Morgan has reportedly moved several of his station’s transmitters without getting required approval from the FCC, but it doesn’t seem like the agency is watching.
WRGR102.1 FM used to be on a Mount Morris, Tupper Lake, tower that’s partly owned by Earl Svendsen of Champlain Communications in Plattsburgh. About three years ago, when Morgan got behind on his rent to the tune of several thousand dollars, Svendsen said Morgan pulled his equipment off the tower and relocated it on a chairlift building at the former Big Tupper Ski Area.
“Really, that’s not legal if he didn’t change his license with the FCC,” Svendsen said. “If you change your antenna configuration or you relocate, if it’s not on the place where you’re licensed, that is a problem.”
The same situation played out about three years ago with WLPW 105.5 FM, which used to broadcast from a tower the Nardiello family owned on Averyville Lane, Lake Placid.
“(Morgan) stopped paying the electric bill, and the Lake Placid Electric Department shut him down,” Nardiello said. “At that time he basically moved out. He just bailed. The equipment is still sitting there.”
Brescia said Morgan then put a different antenna on the Casier family’s Mount Pisgah tower and tuned it to 105.5 FM.
“That’s how it was on the air for the last year or two,” Brescia said. “It wasn’t legal, of course. Even if you move it a couple hundred feet, you’re supposed to notify the FCC, and this was like 10 miles.”
Under FCC rules, if a station is off the air for 12 consecutive months, its license automatically expires.
WIRD, the Lake Placid AM frequency, was off the air for more than two years but only had its license terminated when Morgan tried to renew it without paying his debts to the FCC.
WNBZ’s old AM frequency, 1240, has been off the air for at least a year. However, the FCC renewed Morgan’s license for WNBZ in May of last year along with that of WYZY, or 106.3 FM.
Online records show Morgan’s licenses for WLPW and WRGR, the two former Rock 105 stations, expired on June 1, 2014. He applied to the FCC for renewal of both licenses in February of that year, but there’s no indication that they’ve been approved. Both applications have been “accepted for filing,” but there’s been no action on them in three years.
Brescia questioned whether the FCC is paying attention to what’s happened with the local stations.
“Back in the day, the FCC really did keep an eye on things — you had to have all kinds of logs of what you’ve done and community affairs,” he said. “They don’t require that anymore, or they’re not watching. I think the reason things have gotten the way they are is they don’t care anymore and they’re so understaffed, too.”
Growing up in Saranac Lake, Isabella said her family kept the radio tuned to WNBZ all the time.
“I think about the K and J Show, and I remember when they used to have the football games on Saturday,” she said. “It was more about the people in your neighborhood and the different events and things that were happening. It was a way to keep people connected.”
Now, Isabella said she doesn’t listen to WNBZ much anymore because that kind of community-based programming is largely gone, and the stations are headquartered in Plattsburgh.
Brescia said people sometimes ask him if he knows what’s happened to the local stations.
“I just tell them, as far as I know, the only thing that’s on is 106.3,” he said. “I don’t listen to it myself. I was getting my hair cut the other day, and they were complaining that he plays the same 20 songs over and over again. I think most people have more or less given up on it.”
Normally, a local business’ struggles aren’t fodder for a local news story, but the radio airwaves are supposed to be for the benefit of the public, Rogers said.
“I was brought up to believe that radio is the people’s air and you owe them, for the use of their radio, you owe them some respect,” he said.
“That’s what the FCC originally created radio stations for, to serve the public,” Brescia said. “It was to take part in the community, inform the community of what was going on.”
The demise of the local radio stations is also the loss of an important local institution. WNBZ, in particular, was one of the first 100 stations in the country and one of the first north of Albany when it went on the air on Sept. 11, 1927, at 1320 AM, later switching to 1240.
“WNBZ used to be an essential part of Saranac Lake life,” Brescia said. “It was the only station people could get at the time before a lot of the FM went on the air. The whole community revolved around WNBZ.”
“And now, who knows what’s going on?” he added. “It’s not really a public service.”
Even one of the Morgan’s competitors said he’s concerned about what’s happening.
“I hate to see radio stations go dark, anybody’s radio station, competition or not, because that’s not moving forward,” said Jon Becker, owner of WSLP 93.3 FM in Lake Placid. “I’m not so jaded to say, ‘We want to be the only game in town.’ But it is too bad. It’s a shame. And I don’t know the story. It’s such a mystery.”
Rogers said he understands the situation Morgan is in. He said he spent a lot of years in debt during his ownership of the Saranac Lake stations. That’s why Rogers said he was so excited when Morgan made him an offer to buy the stations in a deal that was worth more than $400,000.
“Ted never really asked me what I wanted,” Rogers explained. “He made me an offer, and I thought about it for a little while I was trying to stop saying, ‘Whopee!’ and I said, ‘I think we can deal with that.’ It was much more money than I would have sold it for, honestly.”
Rogers also said he thinks Morgan overpaid for Radio Lake Placid, which he bought from the Nardiello family for $700,000 in 2004.
“I just feel very sad for him,” Rogers said. “I don’t know what he had in mind. I know he’s made his own bed, but it’s so sad to have spent that kind of money and be where he is today.”
It’s likely also been tough for Morgan to compete with other media outlets for advertising dollars, Isabella said.
“A local station, they depend on advertising,” she said. “If they don’t (get that), it would be difficult in this day and age where people have so many different ways to get what they’re looking for, whether it be other news outlets or music.”
Part of the problem Morgan has faced, Rogers said, is the decline of traditional AM-FM radio and the rise of streaming and satellite radio services.
“It’s sort of sad that (some of the local stations) are off the air, but it also in some way reflects the changing times,” Nardiello said. “I mean, I’m a big fan of Sirius Radio now.”
But Becker countered that terrestrial radio — traditional AM-FM — has actually increased in listenership nationally and reaches more people than satellite radio, citing recent industry numbers. It’s tough to get streaming services in places like the Adirondacks, Becker noted.
Nardiello said satellite and streaming services are also missing a local component that he thinks many people would still like to hear.
“The AM and the FM, I grew up with it,” he said. “The local sports. The local activities. The remote (broadcasts) that happened at events, store openings, special sales, car dealerships. It was a bigger local piece in the old days. It was a participatory piece, too. I think it drove people to businesses.”
Could that happen again? Nardiello said it would take the right person: someone who loves the local communities and knows how to showcase and sell them.
“I think if it had been run the right way, it still could be the center of community activity,” Brescia said. “It would definitely take somebody else to do it. It would be nice if some people in Saranac Lake could get together and put a small station on the air to serve the community.”