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Lunch at the Tribeca Grill with: William O'Shaughnessy

Published by The New York Sun on 2005-05-23

William O'Shaughnessy, chairman and CEO of Whitney Radio, is not only a larger than life figure; he's also louder than life.

"Radio should be free," said Mr. O'Shaughnessy, who has hosted an influential daily talk show on WVOX 1460 AM for five decades. The station and its FM sister, WRTN 93.5 have more than 5 million listeners in the New York region, the nation's wealthiest market.

"It's the medium of the poor, the hurting, the lonely, the misunderstood, and the misbegotten," said Mr. O'Shaughnessy, a self-styled Rockefeller Republican who openly admires Mario Cuomo. "No one should have to pay for listening to radio programs."

He's long been a key spokesman for First Amendment issues for the broadcasting industry. But Mr. O'Shaughnessy is particularly in high dudgeon these days because of the advent and expansion of satellite radio. In cooperation with the New York State Broadcasters Association ??? which represents nearly 500 radio stations ??? Mr. O'Shaughnessy has launched a fiery campaign to convince consumers that America's airwaves should be kept open and free.

"Local AM and FM radio stations are the real deal," Mr. O'Shaughnessy said. "Even in this high-tech cyber age, radio is still the medium closest to everyday people. Radio has gotten us through two world wars, tornadoes and natural disasters, even Sept. 11, 2001."

There are 14, 645 radio stations in America, according to the Federal Communications Commission, which monitors and licenses all forms of broadcasting. Of these, 9,638 are FM ??? or frequency modulated ??? stations which transmit in continuous sine waves in a spectrum between 88MGhz, or millions of cycles per second, and 108MGhz. The nation's 5,007 AM ??? or amplitude modulated ??? stations are typically confined to a band from 535KLhz (kilohertz) to 1,700KLhz (kilo meaning "thousands," so 535,000 to 1,700,000 cycles per second, according to radio authority Marshall Brain).

But ever since Nov. 2, 1920, when station KDKA in Pittsburgh reported the results of the Harding-Cox presidential election, radio signals ??? whether in America or the 44,000 stations in the other 190 countries of the world ??? aren't able travel more than 40 miles from their broadcasting source.

And that's where satellite radio enjoys an advantage. The two networks in America, Sirius Satellite Radio and XM Satellite Radio, and the Europe-based WorldSpace, beam programs 22,000 miles into space. Satellites then transmit those programs to ground repeaters, which in turn push the channels into special receivers, whether in homes or automobiles.

Although satellite radio was only allotted a spectrum in the so-called "S" band ??? which has 2.3GHhz ??? by the FCC in 1992, networks like Sirius and XM have each developed more than 150 channels, with some 2 million subscribers between them; subscribers pay anywhere from $9 to $20 a month, depending on their choice of channels, which include pornography.

And because satellite radio isn't subject to FCC indecency fines, its channels are often raucous and raunchy ??? much in the manner of cable TV, which is also exempt from federal indecency regulations. Indeed, America's most popular talk-show host, Howard Stern, the so-called "shock jock," is moving from broadcast radio to Sirius next January. He was fined $475,000 by the FCC for colorful comments on his current radio show, which is part of Infinity Broadcasting.

The battle between satellite and traditional radio is heating up by the day, Mr. O'Shaughnessy said.


"The money," he said.

Radio stations make an impressive amount of it. Last year, they attracted more than $21 billion in advertising revenues, according to the Radio Advertising Bureau. (America's 1,724 TV stations drew $55 billion in ad revenues, according to the Television Advertising Bureau.) Moreover, each week radio reaches 94% of America's population of 286 million, and 75% of all consumers each day of the week.

In contrast, XM and Sirius together took in barely $25 million in ads last year. They have been trying to lure a larger audience with local traffic and weather and big-name sports, according to a recent report by The Associated Press. Thus, Sirius will carry all NFL games this year and XM has a deal with Nascar, which has more than 70 million followers across the country.

And while XM and Sirius are together battling the dominance of broadcast radio, they are also bitterly competing with each other for audiences. The AP said that Sirius Satellite Radio has made a deal with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum to become its official satellite radio partner, giving the struggling radio service yet another name-brand product to offer subscribers in its ongoing battle with rival XM Satellite Radio.

Both radio networks are also beaming racy programs. XM puts an "XL" next to channels that air adult content and charges extra for some. It offers adult programs such as the "Raw" hip-hop show; it features the Playboy Advisor. And it highlights a show titled "Night Calls," in which hostesses Juli and Tiffany showcase steamy offerings.

But raunchy programs elicit disapproval from Mr. O'Shaughnessy.

"The America that I know, the America that I love, wants clean, wholesome fare on its radio programs," he said. "I came of age when radio worked for the public interest."

He recalled E. B. White, the author who was also one of radio's great voices.

"Radio," Mr. O'Shaughnessy said, "doesn't mean an appliance in the kitchen. As White said, when people talk of the radio, they refer to a pervading and somewhat godlike presence which has come into their lives and homes."

His intensity about wholesome fare undoubtedly springs from his Jesuit education in Buffalo, where Mr. O'Shaughnessy was born and raised. At his high school, he ran the student newspaper, served as a DJ, and performed odd jobs.

At 18, Mr. O'Shaughnessy went to work at a radio station in Mount Kisco. He was paid $65 a week in those days, but the experience was invaluable. He met and befriended numerous towering figures in politics, broadcasting and entertainment, including Nelson Rockefeller, William B. Williams, Scott Shannon, and William Paley, the founder of CBS.

It was through serendipity that Mr. O'Shaughnessy met Jock Whitney, who owned Whitney Radio. Whitney seemed keen to sell his company, and Mr. O'Shaughnessy raised the capital to acquire it. The company is among only a handful of independent radio stations in America.

Not only did he transform Whitney Radio into a profitable entity, Mr. O'Shaughnessy has become a ubiquitous presence on the region's airwaves. He's interviewed practically every major politician, author and entertainer who strode the American public stage since the 1950s. His interviews have been assembled in three anthologies ??? a fourth is on its way ??? and their publisher, Fordham University Press, has reported brisk sales.

"I just love these marvelous, rich characters," Mr. O'Shaughnessy said.

He could, of course, just as easily have been speaking about himself. Mr. O'Shaughnessy ??? with his sharply tailored attire, his mane of silver hair thrown back in a pompadour, and his booming bonhomie ??? along with his wife, Nancy Curry O'Shaughnessy ??? whose family owns the largest independent auto dealership in the northeast ??? are a fixture on New York's social scene. They also are active in the Broadcasters Foundation of America, a national charity.

In recognition of his contribution to radio ??? and to public life in New York -- Mr. O'Shaughnessy will be inducted in a couple of weeks into the state's Broadcasters Hall of Fame. He will join the folks he's known and interviewed and admired ??? Paley, and Walter Cronkite, among them.

"I've been very lucky to have known them and focus on their life and work," Mr. O'Shaughnessy said.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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