WEPN-FM (98.7 MHz), known by its on-air branding ESPN New York 98.7 FM, is an all-sports radio station in New York City. The station's license is owned by Emmis Communications and its operations are controlled by the Walt Disney Company, ESPN Radio's majority owner, under a local marketing agreement. The station has its studios on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and its broadcast transmitter is located atop the Empire State Building.
The 98.7 FM facility in New York City became WOR-FM on June 13, 1948, after having been known as WBAM for a decade. It was owned by the Bamberger Broadcasting Service, which was a division of R.H. Macy and Company. Like most early FM stations, WOR-FM initially simulcast AM sister station WOR (710 kHz). Macy's/Bamberger sold the WOR stations (who launched a television station in October 1949) to the General Tire and Rubber Company in 1952. General Tire reorganized its broadcasting division into RKO General in 1957. WOR-FM simulcasted its AM sister station's full service Talk/MOR format.
In 1965, the Federal Communications Commission ordered AM stations in large markets to end continuous simulcasting on co-owned FM frequencies, a move made to spark development of FM stations as individual entities. On July 30, 1966, WOR-FM began running a freeform-based progressive rock format for most of its broadcast day, though the station continued to simulcast WOR radio's morning program Rambling with Gambling for a time afterwards. Under the leadership of legendary disc jockey Murray "the K" Kaufman, and featuring other notable disc jockeys such as Scott Muni and Rosko, the freeform format was the first of its kind in New York City radio. At that point, Muni and Rosko departed for WNEW-FM, where the progressive format would become a huge success.
Initially, the Drake-Chenault-consulted, Top 40-formatted WOR-FM played new songs but in less of a rotation than WABC, which was then New York's big Top 40 station. Some of the notable early personalities included Bill Brown (who was a holdover from the rock format and would leave for then-rock station WCBS-FM in 1969); Joe McCoy (who would later become general manager of WCBS-FM); Johnny Donovan (who would go to WABC in 1972 and remain there until his 2015 retirement); Tommy Edwards (announcer); and Al Brady (who would program WABC in 1979), among others.
On October 23, 1972, RKO General changed the station's call letters to WXLO, and starting in April 1974, it became known as "99X," a reference to the WXLO frequency's close proximity on the FM dial to 99 MHz. This was a version of what was known as the "Q" format, so named because it was modeled after station KCBQ in San Diego. The format featured about 15-20 currents, with a heavy emphasis on constant contests and promotions. Still, because the station played plenty of non current product spanning as far back as 1964, it was considered Adult Top 40, similar to what WNBC evolved to.
In 1976, WXLO held a contest in which listeners had to guess the identity of six Beatles songs blended together in a sound montage. The Beatles montage was about three seconds in duration and contained one or two notes of each of the songs. They were "Hey Jude", "Got to Get You into My Life", "Day Tripper", "Come Together", "Do You Want to Know a Secret", and "Ticket to Ride". The station announced that the contest winner was from Tappan, New York. The prize was a Rock-Ola jukebox stocked with Beatles 45's. The station also once held an all-Elton John weekend. Listeners had to count how many Elton songs were played and win his Greatest Hits Vol. 1 album. Another weekend they held a "No Bee Gees" weekend, where they asked their listeners to request Bee Gee songs that they didn't want played. "I'll be sure to not get that on the air for you" a DJ said on that weekend.
WXLO evolved to a younger skewing but still slight adult leaning Top 40 format by 1977, and the "99X" moniker remained until late 1979, when it became "FM 99 WXLO." This iteration had decent ratings for a while, but by the spring of 1980, the ratings fell dramatically. RKO General phased out the Top 40 format, and brought in new Program Director Don Kelly from successful sister soft adult contemporary WFYR in Chicago in an attempt to duplicate that format's success on WXLO. The station at first attempted a call letter change back to WOR-FM, but an FCC challenge from competing crosstown WRFM (now WWPR-FM) prevented the call letter change from happening. Still, Kelly attempted to make the station the same adult contemporary format he had in Chicago. These changes did not gain any new listeners for WXLO, and ratings sank even lower. Later, Kelly adjusted the music and very slowly and gradually began mixing more disco and soul into the format. In the Fall of 1980, Kelly, in consultation with RKO General, decided to go after WBLS-FM's urban audience and WKTU's Rhythmic audience by bringing in new music director Barry Mayo. Mayo shortly before his arrival, suggested a new format for the station to Kelly and then-general manager Lee S. Simonson after he received a surprising lambasting from his idol, WBLS Program Director Frankie Crocker (who would later become his rival). Mayo would later become WXLO's Program Director when Kelly left to start his own consultancy.
By December 1980, the station was leaning towards Disco and R&B. The station dropped American Top 40 in January 1981. The evolution was gradual, and by May 1981, WXLO was nearly all rhythmic, playing almost all disco, soul, and rhythmic-friendly pop. Almost all the rock and AC crossovers were gone. By today's standards, this station would be called "Rhythmic CHR", but that term did not exist back in 1981. Therefore, the station was classified as "Urban Contemporary" (which today would be considered as a strictly R&B-type format whether Rap or Soul).
Enter "Kiss FM"
In June 1981, the station was known on-air as "FM 99 WXLO making its move to 98.7". By the middle of July, the station had changed its call letters to WRKS-FM (the meaning of which originally referred to its being an RKO Station) and adopted the on-air brand "98.7 Kiss FM", as the station's transition to this new urban contemporary format was completed by that August. Early on, WRKS played a great deal of R&B and dance music, and became an almost instant hit with listeners, as its ratings skyrocketed from 22nd place to third. Notable Kiss FM Mixmasters at the time were Shep Pettibone and the Latin Rascals, who relied heavily on freestyle music. Longtime urban contemporary leader WBLS was caught off-guard by the sudden rise of the new station, which represented its first direct competition in that format.
Around mid-1983, the station approached Afrika Bambaataa about an underground rap music show. He liked the idea and appointed DJ Jazzy Jay, a fellow member of Zulu Nation. He then passed the gig on to his cousin, DJ Red Alert. In Fall 1983, WRKS became the first station in the United States to play rap music in regular rotation. Also that year, non-R&B dance music and disco were phased out, as the station played strictly music catering mainly to an African-American audience. WBLS responded by hiring Mr. Magic to conduct a weekend rap show, which helped WBLS reach number-three in the ratings that year, beating out WRKS. Nevertheless, the station had made such strides in its first two-and-a-half years that it resulted in Barry Mayo being promoted as general manager, the first African-American to hold such a position in the RKO radio chain.
WRKS incorporated artists such as Kurtis Blow, Whodini, Run DMC, Fat Boys, LL Cool J, and Public Enemy into the same rotation as such established acts as Ashford & Simpson, Kool and the Gang, and Gladys Knight. In 1986, Indianapolis-based Emmis Communications launched WQHT (then at 103.5 FM), which had an early emphasis on dance music, forcing WRKS and WBLS to add more dance music to their playlists again. In 1988, Mayo left to organize a new broadcasting company with Lee S. Simonson and Bill Pearson, and RKO appointed Charles Warfield (former general manager of WBLS) as the new general manager of WRKS. During his tenure, the station reached first place for six years.
By the late 1980s, however, RKO General was forced out of the broadcasting business when the FCC began revoking its licenses to its radio and television stations in New York, Boston and Los Angeles because of gross misconduct and lack of candor on the part of its corporate parent, the General Tire and Rubber Company. Already been stripped in 1980 of its license to WNAC-TV in Boston, RKO was left with no choice but to break up its broadcasting unit. In New York City, RKO's three stations were sold to different companies during a two-year period beginning in 1987. Two years after WOR-TV went to MCA (and renamed WWOR-TV), on June 26, 1989, RKO sold WRKS to the Summit Communications Group of Atlanta. Around the same time, WOR radio was sold to Buckley Broadcasting.
That same year, WBLS lured on-air personality Mike Love (formerly of the original Kiss Wake-Up Club) to their morning drive show. Kiss immediately formulated a new morning show featuring Ken "Spider" Webb and Jeff Foxx along with then-unknown Wendy Williams. Foxx and Webb would continue on for the next several years, while Williams held various shifts on the station.
For many years, Kiss FM was number one in the Arbitron ratings due to its hip hop-influenced format. WRKS was also the first radio station in the United States to embrace Dancehall and Reggae music by adding Dahved Levy to do a Sunday night Reggae show. The battle between WRKS and WBLS continued into the 1990s, but a major turning point occurred in the spring of 1994, when WQHT (now at 97.1 FM) changed formats from dance music to primarily hip-hop, thus competing directly with WRKS. The station responded by adding more Mixmaster shows, producing remixes unheard on other urban stations and formulating a new morning show featuring Wendy Williams.
Based on WRKS's success several radio stations in other markets began to use the "Kiss FM" moniker for branding the station itself or its format. In the case of WRKS, the branding was grandfathered even as Clear Channel Communications trademarked "Kiss FM" for its use on its mainstream top 40 pop stations in the late 1990s, largely based on KIIS-FM in Los Angeles, whose "KIIS" name was trademarked by prior owner Gannett Company in 1986.
"Smooth R&B and Classic Soul"
In December 1994, WQHT's parent Emmis Communications took advantage of newly relaxed FCC ownership regulations and agreed to purchase WRKS from Summit, forming the market's first FM duopoly. WRKS subsequently stopped playing hip-hop and focused on an Urban Adult Contemporary format using the slogan "Smooth R&B and Classic Soul". The shift in format resulted in notable personalities associated with the previous format, such as Wendy Williams and Red Alert, moving from WRKS to WQHT. The new sound on WRKS was introduced by the station during its annual "Twelve Days of Kiss-mas" promotion during the Christmas holiday, and was fully implemented in January 1995. Soul music legend Barry White became the station's imaging voice and promotional face, and would remain in this role until his death in 2003.
In September 1995, WRKS hired another deep-voiced bass singer, Isaac Hayes as its new morning show host, and later added Ashford & Simpson to helm their afternoon drive program. Funk musician Roger Troutman (of the band Zapp) and former disc jockey-turned-motivational speaker Les Brown also hosted programs on WRKS around this time.
WRKS's playlist for its first year consisted almost exclusively of songs from the 1960s and 1970s; after 1996, the station began reintroducing current R&B back into rotation. But in 1999, WRKS switched from a classic soul-based Urban AC format to a mostly current R&B format. That same year, Frankie Crocker was hired as an announcer and a weekend DJ. The station slowly began to reintroduce rap in 2000. When WWPR-FM was launched in March 2002, the station slightly switched back to classic soul. In 2003, Barry Mayo briefly returned as general manager for WRKS, WQHT and jazz-formatted WQCD (now WFAN-FM), and WRKS returned to its full-fledged Urban AC format.
In April 2001, WRKS became the New York home for the nationally syndicated Tom Joyner Morning Show, as Isaac Hayes chose not to renew his contract with the station; he remained for a few months to host the local segments within the program (known on the station as The Tom Joyner Morning Show with Isaac Hayes). Joyner's first stint on WRKS lasted only two years; the station picked up his program again in the Spring of 2011. In 2003 author and "relationship expert" Michael Baisden became host of the afternoon show, which later became syndicated nationally in January 2005.
In early September 2010, the slogan for the station, "Old School & Today's R&B," changed to "'80s, '90s & Today's R&B," which included dropping most pre-1979 titles. This would change to "Classic Soul & Today's R&B," which would last until the station's demise in 2012.
Notable station radio personalities during the KISS-FM years included:
- Barry Mayo (1981)
- Shep Pettibone (Mastermixer) (1981–1984)
- Bob Slade aka "Big Bob" (1981-2012)
- DJ Red Alert (Mastermixer) (1983–1994; 2007–2012)
- Wendy Williams (1989–1994)
- Roberta Flack (1995–1999)
- Ashford & Simpson (1995–1999)
- Isaac Hayes (1996–2001)
- Tom Joyner (2001–2003; 2011–2012)
- Michael Baisden (2003–2012)
- D. L. Hughley (2009–2010)
- Ed Lover (2011–2012)
- DJ Cocoa Chanelle (Mastermixer) (2011–2012)
While WRKS had a long-standing repertoire among listeners in the African-American community alongside WBLS, it suffered an advertising revenue setback in later years. This was due in part to Arbitron switching to the portable people meter system to monitor ratings around 2010, which caused controversy among urban radio advertisers in major markets. In addition, an increasing debt load at Emmis's corporate level which forced the company to sell 80 percent of WRXP to Merlin Media in 2011 was also a major factor.
Transition to ESPN Radio
On April 26, 2012, the Walt Disney Company and Emmis Communications agreed to a 12-year-lease of the 98.7 FM frequency for an undisclosed price. YMF Media (which acquired WBLS' parent Inner City Broadcasting Corporation) acquired the intellectual property and trademarks of WRKS, primarily the New York City market rights to "Kiss-FM." As a result, Kiss signed off on the 30th with a goodbye show featuring all the remaining airstaff, and went off the air at midnight, with "Brother's Gonna Work It Out" by Willie Hutch being the last song on Kiss. ESPN Radio began broadcasting on 98.7 FM at that time under a local marketing agreement with the Walt Disney Company. Inner City/YMF also moved WBLS and its AM sister station WLIB into WRKS's former office/studio space at Emmis' New York broadcast facility.
The 98.7 frequency simulcasted WEPN (AM), the ESPN owned-and-operated AM station until September 7, 2012, when the AM station switched over to ESPN Deportes Radio full-time. Simulcast of New York Red Bulls games on MSG Network were now switched to WEPN-FM.
WEPN-FM broadcast a mix of local and ESPN Radio national programming.
The station's locally based hosts include Michael Kay, who has been with the station since its inception and is the current afternoon drive personality. Don LeGreca, Kay's co-host since the beginning, fills in for Kay during most vacations and when Kay is broadcasting New York Yankees games on the YES Network. LaGreca is also featured in the station's coverage of the NFL's New York Jets and the NHL's New York Rangers. Peter Rosenberg, a veteran personality associated with Hip-Hop radio (and co-host of the morning show on sister station WQHT) joined the afternoon drive program as co-host in the summer of 2015. Other local personalities on WEPN-FM include Ryan Ruocco, Dave Rothenberg, Robin Lundberg, Patrick McEnroe, Ian O'Connor and Bill Daughtry.
Network programming heard on the station includes Mike & Mike in the Morning and ESPN SportsCenter AllNight airs overnights from Midnight-3 AM, though it is occasionally preempted for WEPN-FM local programming.
WEPN has not aired any of ESPN Radio's regularly scheduled weeknight programming either, choosing instead to feature games from the Rangers and New York Knicks during their respective seasons, local programming hosted in the past by Stephen A. Smith and Bill Daughtry (Dave Rothenberg starting in September 2012), and various other games that ESPN Radio might not have necessarily carried including coverage of college basketball games provided by ISP Sports and Westwood One and college football games provided by Compass Media Networks. Since 2006 WEPN had been the New York home of Westwood One's NCAA Men's Division I Basketball Championship coverage; although the station still shared coverage of some games with Westwood One's flagship WFAN, WEPN was home to most of the tournament's action including the Final Four and the National Championship.
In addition to game broadcasts of the Jets, Rangers and the NBA's New York Knicks, WEPN-FM also carries the New York Red Bulls of Major League Soccer and United States Military Academy college football games; most Army football games usually air on WABC due to scheduling conflicts. Formerly, some games was also aired on former sister station WQEW (today WFME).
WEPN-FM has had overflow agreements with WNYM and WWRL, the former airing Knicks or Rangers games that overlap with each other or with the Jets and the latter airing when there are two overlapping games. WNYM has also aired national ESPN game broadcasts of Major League Baseball and the NFL when conflicts have arisen with WEPN-FM. WBLS had been added as a sports overflow station in November 2012 when it began airing Knicks games that conflicted with Jets games on Sunday afternoons.
Bidding for baseball
WEPN-FM was expected to bid for the radio rights for either the New York Yankees or the New York Mets, each of which expired at the end of the 2013 season. It had been reported that WEPN (AM) had been looking to move to a stronger frequency to accommodate having a Major League Baseball team full-time. ESPN Radio New York hoped their chances have been enhanced by acquiring the 98.7 FM frequency and moving the English-language sports format there.
WEPN-FM was unable to secure either team; the Yankees signed with WFAN while the Mets signed with WOR.