In a narrow room on the third floor of Longport Media’s Linwood office building, WMGM 103.7-FM morning radio host Joseph “JoJo” Borsello sits with his sneaker-clad feet propped up on a wooden desk as he yells to his friend and co-host, Scotty Reilly.
“So tomorrow we’ve got Bob Saget calling in and then we might get Howard Eskin, right?” he asks Monday, leaning back farther in his chair. A still-boxed Steve “The Crocodile Hunter” Irwin action figure — one of many toys in the office — rocks back and forth on the top shelf of the 38-year-old’s desk.
Reilly, 31, nods. They hope guests they build relationships with now will be good to the show in the future. Most importantly, Reilly adds, the next day’s show will mark the return of the “bikini cam” — a webcam set up in the studio featuring girls who will later visit construction sites delivering coffee to the workers.
Their wives are not especially fond of that segment, the pair jokes.
Reilly and Borsello are examples of the investment Longport Media is making to turn WMGM and four other radio stations into local powerhouses, a strategy that includes using personalities to lure listeners away from satellite radio and iPods and back to local radio.
“One of the beliefs we had is that there needs to be a connection to the listener and the station, and that connection is the personalities,” said Longport Media President Dave Coskey. “We obviously see them as the most critical part of our operation.”
Working to launch
It’s nearly noon, and the harsh midday sunlight is beating in through the office’s large panel windows facing New Road in Linwood. The duo has been up since before 4 a.m. They finished taping the second day of their radio show — The Morning Edge with JoJo & Scotty — nearly two hours earlier. They’ll continue to hash out plans for future shows for a few more hours in the office. After leaving, they’re unlikely to go more than an hour or two without calling each other with a question about the show.
Reilly and Borsello returned to the airwaves Monday with the relaunch of 103.7. Earlier this year, the financially failing station, formerly known as The Shark, was one of five purchased at auction by Longport Media LLC, a newly formed company whose owners were insistent that in order to succeed, the stations needed to be “local, local, local.”
Longport Media’s strategy will give the stations a competitive advantage over others, said Paul Heine, senior editor at Inside Radio, a broadcasting trade publication.
“WMGM can go to advertisers and say, we’ve got live and local jocks who can do advertisements, who can make appearances and who are generally more connected to the Atlantic City market,” said Heine, noting that listeners who are able to call in and hear relevant, local discussions might feel more of a connection and loyalty to the station. “That’s going to give them an advantage because they can say, look, we’re the real Atlantic City station.”
For two years, JoJo and Scotty previously hosted a show on WTAA 102.7-FM, now also under the Longport Media umbrella. The show was canceled by the station’s previous owners in March 2010 after a format change and reports that personalities were being fired because of financial problems. And despite Reilly’s and Borsello’s constant comic banter, it’s clear that concerted effort and planning are behind their craft.
“We knew the show was worth fighting for. The station as we knew it was going to collapse, and we were going to be waiting at the door saying, ‘Why we should be back?’” Reilly said. “For 18 months that’s what we did. It’s taken us this long.”
Keeping it live
A roster of seven hosts now makes up the rock station’s 18-hour lineup of live coverage. It’s a novel concept in an age of radio that’s catered to automation and prerecorded shows, which are cheaper to produce, Coskey said.
Radio stations have trended toward automated, computerized music and commercials that don’t require live hosts. In some markets, the automated stations have a low-paid announcer who breaks in occasionally to give the show a live feel.
“Most people aren’t totally aware what they’re listening to,” Coskey said. “They don’t realize right away that a lot of today’s radio is recorded, but if you listen closely, you can tell.”
Heine explained that many stations use an automated technique known as voice tracking. It allows a company to use personalities from other stations the company owns — inside or outside of the market — to record show segments. Sometimes those non-local personalities are fed information about the local area, so the show may appear to be done locally.
“When a jock is in the studio, a good portion of that time they’re playing music. The idea is that they really don’t need to be there while music is playing,” Heine said. “If a jock is good, why just have them on in just one market? It’s less expensive to produce. The downside is they can’t be immediate.”
But automated shows also mean stations lose the ability to discuss up-to-the-minute news or take live callers — something that Coskey, 52, said is essential in the age of YouTube, podcasts and increasing competition from satellite radio, particularly SiriusXM.
“We have to give listeners a compelling reason to want to tune in. Keeping it live builds a relationship between the listeners and us, but is also a more costly model,” Coskey said. “We’re taking a risk. That’s the bottom line. We’re kind of going retro.”
Turning it around
Longport Media took control of WMGM and four other stations in May from bankrupt Atlantic Broadcasting: news-talk WOND 1400-AM, WBSS 1490-AM, Top 40 station WTAA 102.7-FM and WTKU 98.3-FM, which recently relaunched with its own roster of personalities who feature hits of the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. The stations were purchased at auction for $4.2 million.
Days after the deal, Longport Media, owned by Atlantic City attorney and businessman George Miller and other investors, brought on Coskey as the company’s new president. Coskey was previously the vice president of marketing for Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa and is a former executive vice president of the Philadelphia 76ers.
When Coskey took over in May, he said there were 11 employees left. Now, he said there are 54 people currently involved in the operations of all five stations, including 25 full-time employees. He hopes the investment in local staff will lead to more annual revenue, adding that he can’t make predictions yet but will use the period from July to December as a barometer of the stations’ futures.
“Since we’re really a start-up operation and we had so many tendencies to reverse, we decided it would be best to wait to make those predictions,” he said.
Locals might remember 103.7 as Rock 104 — a throwback to the days when listeners had to manually turn dials to find stations as opposed to hitting an electronic button, and tuning to about 104 would pick up the station’s signal. The station, which now plays rock ranging from classic to current hits, also carries the largest signal of the five owned by Longport Media. Broadcasting at 50,000 watts, 103.7 reaches from Delaware to Ocean County and as far west as Cumberland and Camden counties.
“There’s a lot of nostalgia with that station,” Coskey said. “For people who’ve lived at the shore for a long time, they remember that as the rock station in this area. 103.7 is arguably the most important station in the group. It broadcasts at 50,000 watts. That’s the biggest signal in the region, so that makes this relaunch especially important for us.”
As director of operations, much of the transition rests on Paul Kelly’s shoulders. In the case of 103.7, the station has been morphed from classic rock station into one that plays everything from classic to modern rock — a niche left unfilled in the market, he said.
A radio veteran and former programming manager under the stations’ previous ownership, Kelly returned in June and has overseen the relaunches of both 103.7 and KOOL 98.1. He also has yet to find the time to put up blinds on his office’s windows.
Kelly, 38, is in the same age range as most of the hosts, but takes on the role of a chaperone when the group is pulled together. Reilly and Borsello have taken to calling Kelly their “arch enemy” both on and off the air, and afternoon show host Sean Patrick, who’s known Kelly for 12 years, makes a bet that the week of the relaunch will mark the first time he’ll hear him yell.
“Just remember, Paul, we’re all a team here, but we’re the quarterbacks,” Borsello told Kelly during a planning meeting.
“I’m going to have to rein you guys in,” Kelly said.
“You just remember, we’ve got two hours in the morning when we’re on and you’re not here yet,” Borsello said.
Days later, however, it’s Borsello and Reilly who are seeking out Kelly’s help. It’s day two of the relaunch, and while there haven’t been any major catastrophes, not everything is running smoothly.
The team has moved into a new, larger studio. Some controls on the soundboard are still bound by tape and have to quickly be undone seconds before live segments. One microphone sounds terrible on air for an unknown reason, and the new WMGM website is down, prompting concern from The Morning Edge hosts who have been posting links to the site on their Facebook page all morning.
“Aren’t you the administrator we contact about this?” Borsello asked Kelly, who tried pulling up the website himself to no avail and promised to have someone look into the problem.
Still more work to be done in the studio, which unlike others in the building still has bare walls and little seating for guests. Borsello and Reilly are angling for a couch and a mini-fridge, hopefully with some sponsorship.
Joking aside, the hosts said they believe in the station’s concept and appreciate the new opportunity. Five of the seven WMGM hosts — as well as Kelly — worked at stations under Atlantic Broadcasting ownership.
Moving past bankruptcy
Atlantic Broadcasting filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in December 2010 after accumulating about $8 million in debt. In court documents, the company blamed the stations’ financial problems on the recession, poor performance by previous management and theft.
Former general manager Brett DeNafo was arrested in October 2010 and charged with stealing $175,000 from the company. The Prosecutor’s Office dismissed the charges administratively by letter last month with no comment.
The months leading up to December 2010 were particularly tense, said afternoon show host Sean Patrick, who can rattle off names and circumstances of more than a dozen employees — including himself — who were abruptly let go.
“There was a day in March I call bloodbath Thursday when so many people were gone, it was scary. You were just terrified when you came in the building that it could be your last day,” Patrick said. “I remember driving by the parking lot one time around 10 a.m., and there was no one there. That’s how bad it was.”
The mood at the station has completely changed, said Patrick, who started out just a bit nervous at his first day back on air. He’s more reserved than Reilly and Borsello.
After his first live set, his nerves cleared up. Sitting behind the soundboard in the new studio, he takes calls from listener after listener who said they missed him on the air. There’s even a call from a young girl named Taylor, a Van Halen and AC/DC fan who has devotedly listened to Patrick’s show and is thrilled he’s back.
Sports fans will also have a new local station to turn to. Coskey said Friday that 1490-AM, which used to simulcast its sister station WOND, will begin simulcasting popular Philadelphia sports station WIP 610-AM starting around Sept. 15.
“We think the move is part of our local commitment because Philadelphia sports are such a big part of our local market,” Coskey said.
In the days before the recent changes, Longport Media brought all of the hosts together for a photo shoot and dinner at Greate Bay Country Club in Somers Point — an unlikely spot for the crew dressed almost entirely in T-shirts and sneakers. They joke they would have been better suited for a meal at Chickie’s and Pete’s.
The group files into the dining room, ducking under chandeliers and fiddling with white napkins. For some, it was the first time they met. The hosts have already scoured each other’s Facebook profiles. Borsello told night-show host Matt Murray that he was certain they wouldn’t get along after he saw some postings about Christian rock on his page. However, the two seemed to get along fine.
Murray, 39, hasn’t been brought together with a group of hosts for something like this since 2002, and Patrick doesn’t think he’s ever had a group meeting with other hosts. Murray, who lives in Vernon Valley, Sussex County, and plans on “couch-hopping” until he permanently relocates, is entirely new to the station. The others tell him about the editing software he’ll be using and assure him he’ll catch on quickly.
Before the group parts, the conversation digresses to what the station will be up against. Their biggest competition in the area is WAYV 95.1-FM. But that station is a top 40 station, and what WMGM offers will cater to true rock fans, they said.
“We’re in a good place. It’s really ours to lose,” Reilly said.
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