Airwaves

The venerable WCGR-AM radio station celebrated its 50th anniversary on the airwaves this year. Ten years ago, WCGR joined the roster of radio stations comprising the Finger Lakes Radio Group (FLRG). Co-founded by local broadcasting executives George Kimble and Alan Bishop, the combined broadcast range of the group extends across six counties: Ontario, Wayne, Seneca, Cayuga, Yates, Schuyler and Tompkins. If you live or work in the Finger Lakes area, chances are good that you listen to at least one of FLRG’s seven stations.

The story of how Kimble and Bishop intersected professionally to form the group 11 years ago is a circuitous tale. It all starts with WCGR, a family owned radio station broadcasting music, news and high school football in Canandaigua 50 years ago.

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In 1961, WCGR (1550AM) station owner Westley “Wes” George Kimble, George Kimble’s father, played easy listening standards from second floor studios above an appliance store on Main Street. Wes Kimble was born and raised in Canandaigua. He attended Saint Mary’s School and Canandaigua Academy, where he played high school football before studying radio and speech at Northwestern University. Kimble married his high school sweetheart Marian Bliss and began his broadcasting career as an announcer at WGVA in Geneva in 1951. He and Marian moved from town to town so Kimble could learn the ropes in different broadcasting markets. He wanted to master all aspects of the business and eventually buy his own radio station.

Kimble worked in Geneva, Kingston and Elmira, as an announcer, then in advertising and sales. He was an assistant station manager in Lansford, Pennsylvania and then station manager in Pottsville, Pennsylvania. There, Kimble applied for a frequency with the Federal Communications Corporation (FCC) to start up a new radio station in Canandaigua. After a decade on the move, the hardworking Wes Kimble had reached his professional goal and moved back to his hometown to launch WCGR, signing on for the first time on April 5, 1961. The couple now had children: twins George and Russ, William and Mary Ann. Their last child, Katherine, was born in Canandaigua in 1965.

Kimble’s oldest sons worked at the station. At 13, the twins were licensed board operators playing music and running recorded commercials. By the time they were 16, they were on-air announcing. In 1968, their father suffered a massive heart attack at the age of 40. Wes Kimble’s unexpected death left his young widow, also 40, with five children ages 3 through 17, and a radio station.

The twins were high school seniors. “I became the morning DJ and went to school in the afternoon,” George Kimble recalls. “Russ attended classes at Canandaigua Academy in the morning and was the afternoon DJ.”

By 1972, George Kimble was managing WCGR after studying communications management at Ithaca College. Philip Povero, now the Ontario County Sheriff, worked part time at WGVA in Geneva (where Wes Kimble started) when he and George Kimble were classmates at Ithaca College. They commuted together weekly after Povero’s Sunday night radio show. “George had taken on a lot of responsibility at the radio station when his Dad died,” Povero recalls. “His father had wanted WCGR to be successful and George worked very hard to see his father’s dream through.”

Kimble had other goals, too. He wanted to acquire more local radio stations. But FCC regulations set ownership caps, only permitting the purchase of one AM and FM station frequency per broadcast market. In 1974, Kimble added a WCGR-FM simulcast, later changing its format to country music. By 1996, the FCC’s cap rules had changed and Kimble could procure more stations. Future business partners George Kimble and Alan Bishop first crossed paths professionally that year, too.

Alan Bishop had arrived in the Rochester area in 1986 to work as station manager at WISH95-FM. Bishop, born in 1959 in Berlin, New Hampshire, grew up in Bath, Maine, where the “broadcasting bug” bit him at an early age. Like Kimble, Bishop worked in radio as a teenager. After college, he worked as a Detroit DJ, then in radio sales in Worcester, Massachusetts. That was followed by an adventurous six months on a “pirate radio” ship broadcasting off the coast of England. In 1989, while still at WISH-FM, Bishop married Seneca Falls native Lisa Marconi. They moved to Fairport to raise their children, Andrew and Colleen.

When the FCC permitted unlimited radio station acquisitions in 1996, Bishop was working as general manager of WMAX-FM, owned by Auburn Cablevision. The company was interested in buying two of Kimble’s stations and sent Bishop in to negotiate a deal. Kimble sold the stations to Auburn Cable­vision and Bishop was promoted to general manager of their three stations. Kimble still owned five stations in the Finger Lakes region, including WCGR-AM.

From 1997 to 1999, Bishop says there was “a massive consolidation of radio stations.” Auburn Cablevision sold their stations to another company who sold them to Clear Channel Communications. Bishop remained with the stations through each new management transition, but in 1999 he declined an out-of-town position and took a severance package. This gave him time to plan some next steps for 2000.

In 2000, George Kimble also faced some personal and professional next steps. His daughter from his first marriage was leaving for college and his second wife, with whom he had a baby daughter, wanted to relocate to Arizona. The only way he could move away was to find a local partner to manage his stations. Someone like Alan Bishop.

Bishop and Kimble became business partners. Kimble relocated to Arizona, speaking with Bishop weekly to consult on major decisions, but Bishop ran the day-to-day operation of the stations. Kimble made trips to visit the stations and his siblings who live locally (his twin brother, Russ, owns WYLF-AM, Penn Yan).

It was Bishop’s idea to brand all the stations as “The Finger Lakes Radio Group.” Individual stations could still sell local advertising but promoting a six-county broadcast coverage for the group attracted national advertisers, like Dunkin’ Donuts and McDonald’s, to buy commercial time on the stations.

Combining the stations, now seven in all, to create a regional branding was a smart business decision, says Kimble admiringly. “I had the pieces in place but Alan has done a tremendous job making the Finger Lakes Radio Group a very significant player in the Upstate New York radio industry,” he adds.

FLRG’s stations offer a wide range of formats including “News/Talk,” “Adult Contemporary,” “Traditional and ‘Hot’ Country” and “Classic Rock.” The main hub geographically is Geneva, where their business headquarters and several broadcast studios are. The group also has studios and offices in Canandaigua, Auburn and Dundee.

Recently, Bishop put the Finger Lakes Radio Group on the national radar screen professionally. When he accepted General Manager of the Year award at a Chicago trade show in September, his staff wasn’t surprised. “Working for Alan is the best experience of my 33-year broadcasting career,” says Ted Baker, program director of WGVA-AM/FM and WAUB-AM/FM since 2003. “He trusts his people to do the jobs they’ve been hired to do and he gives us the support and tools to do the job.”

Grouping aside, Bishop knows that each station has unique obligations to report local events concerning each community. For instance, many of the stations broadcast high school football, basketball, hockey and lacrosse games. Studio generators make broadcasting possible during power outages, providing information on weather events like ice storms or flooding that affects community safety. And he remembers how deeply affected the WFLR-FM/AM (Dundee/Penn Yan/Watkins Glen) listeners were by the radio coverage of the September death of Dundee Army Specialist Christopher Scott in Afghanistan. “We are a community resource and we take that very seriously,” says Bishop.

Developing the radio group has been “a 10-year process of building a successful business,” says Bishop. Each station makes a distinct contribution to the overall success of the whole group. Throughout, there has been one constant presence: WCGR-AM, a community mainstay founded 50 years ago by broadcaster Wes Kimble, a man who simply loved the radio business.

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The Finger Lakes Radio Group
3568 Lenox Road, Geneva, NY 14456
315-781-7000
www.fingerlakesdailynews.com

WAUB-AM (1590AM)
WAUB-FM (98.1 FM) – Auburn
News/Talk Simulcast

WGVA-AM (1240 AM) WGVA-FM (96.1 FM) – Geneva
News/Talk Simulcast

WFLK-FM (101.7 FM) – Geneva
Hot Country Simulcast with WCGR-AM and FM

WNYR-FM (98.5 FM) – Waterloo
Adult Contemporary

WCGR-AM (1550 AM) WCGR-FM (104.5 FM) – Canandaigua
Hot Country Simulcast with WFLK-FM

WLLW-FM (99.3 FM) – Seneca Falls & (96.3 FM) – Ithaca
Classic Rock

WFLR-FM (96.9 FM) Penn Yan & (101.9 FM) Watkins Glen (1570 AM) Dundee
Country


by Nancy E. McCarthy