Syracuse, Binghamton stations will continue merger talks
Originally published in Current, Oct. 18, 1999
Three years after they began sharing a finance office, two public TV/radio combos in upstate New York have decided to negotiate a merger. In the summer of 1996, the chief financial officer of WCNY-FM/TV in Syracuse, Bert Schmidt, took on the same role at WSKG-FM/TV in Binghamton. "As it turned out, that was a toe in the water," says Richard W. Russell, president of the Syracuse station.
Russell and Michael Ziegler, the president at Binghamton until he retired this year, began discussing further cooperation two years ago. Board members joined the talks and last month the boards agreed in principle to merge the stations. Russell says the stations and committees of their boards aim to come up with a formal proposal-by the end of the year, he hopes.
Talks were encouraged by preliminary estimates that the combined stations would show a $500,000 surplus at the end of their first year of joint operation, much more than they generate as separate organizations, according to Russell. The savings could be spent on new local programming and services.
The stations are tentatively assuming that they would share a master control in Syracuse, says Gary Reinbolt, acting president at WSKG in Binghamton, and the Syracuse facility could also be shared with other public TV stations in the state. Reinbolt notes that Syracuse sits at the center of upstate New York, at the hub of fiber optic lines that follow major highways.
The Binghamton station, which serves a market less than half the size of Syracuse, has been cutting back for years as state funding declined. Several years ago, its management, led by Ziegler and Reinbolt, set out to turn it into a "virtual station," seeking efficiencies, out-sourcing functions when appropriate and sharing the finance office with WCNY. The duplication of master-control staff and equipment was an obvious target then.
Equipment costs are a big problem for small stations, and DTV will require massive investments in equipment. "The small stations could probably survive if capital was not an issue," Reinbolt observes, but they're typically not able to cover capital costs out of their regular income.
Savings will not be known until the stations have negotiated their programming plans, among other factors. So far, the talk is of combining TV services and maintaining separate radio services, says WCNY spokesman David Valesky. In Syracuse, WCNY-FM would continue the city's only classical service; in Binghamton, WSKG and sister station WSQX would maintain their separate news/classical and jazz specialties.
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