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Station's sale may signal news change

For five years, the listening public and radio industry alike waited for the other shoe to drop. Instead, on Tuesday, CBS picked the first shoe back up and ran away.

"I don't want this to reflect that in any way we have turned away from AM radio," CBS Radio Division president Nancy Widmann said Tuesday in announcing the sale of WSUN to Cox Enterprises of Atlanta.

"Our properties (around the country) are the most successful AM stations in the marketplace."

What does that say about Tampa Bay?

CBS in fact has turned away from AM radio in this area, apparently writing us off as frivolous, music-lovin' people who don't want to know from the news, not deserving of the same quality product delivered to CBS listeners in the other cities.

We should have known when no positive change was forthcoming during the first four years of CBS' ownership of WSUN. Big brother WYNF, that prosperous, upscale rockin' and rollin' bunch on the FM, was getting all the attention. Expected to eventually put WSUN on the news track, CBS instead virtually treated WSUN as a weak sibling. A corporation known for its excellence in the news field fed the Tampa Bay public a continuous diet of country music in a market already populated with other successful country stations.

This is not to say WSUN's management didn't make positive strides. In January 1989 WSUN finally achieved what many thought to be a big, albeit tardy, first step by launching a morning news block. Station general manager Shawn Portmann insisted it was his "gut feeling" that this area needed a radio station fully dedicated to news. There is no reason to believe that statement wasn't sincere. Country music was abandoned, left to the high fidelity of the FM band. Apparently bridled by lack of financing but undaunted nonetheless, WSUN inched further toward credibility by adding noon and afternoon news blocks last year.

That was as far as it would get. The budget evidently didn't stretch far enough to carry out the stated "commitment to news." That slogan now becomes an ironic battle cry. WSUN never got around to hiring enough staff to climb past the current state of apparent transition. Warmed-over advice shows from NBC Talknet simply haven't accomplished the job during the day. If solid weeks of Led Zeppelin music could be considered silly, the constant daily spin of warmed-over talk shows bordered on the self-destructive.

On a viable news service, you can tune in just about anytime and expect to find out what in the world is going on, grab a ball score, the latest in weather and traffic. All without waiting for egos to make way.

Some good news could come of all this. CBS is to be congratulated in that it found a respectable buyer in Cox Enterprises. "They are in my mind broadcasters, not traders of radio stations," Widmann said on Tuesday of Cox. What that statement says about CBS is an open question.

Cox owns highly regarded talk/news stations in cities like Atlanta and Miami (WSB and WIOD).

WSUN counts little such regard right now, but that's not the fault of those who toil in its newsroom. With no advertising to speak of, the station's travails have remained a virtual secret to all but those who happened to stumble over the station by chance.

Whether Cox retains the commitment to news or veers more toward conversation will be determined over a long term by those who just paid the money. Cox management issued a statement Tuesday saying that the current news/tape format will be subject to "research" before any decision is made.

Tampa Bay already has two major talk stations, WFLA and WTKN. Both cover the news, but neither devotes much time to it. And a lot of the gab anymore appears designed to shock on the sophomore level. Some hosts seem determined to see how many off-color images can be expressed in neat street terms.

At its best of late, WSUN has striven to be kind of a CNN on wheels, offering us an alternative when the available music or chatter elsewhere becomes tiresome. After a fix, we can tune back elsewhere.

Those who enjoy the luxury of choice can only hope some form of the current WSUN is retained. Whatever course adjustments are made, the station will be backed by a company committed to making it work.

But isn't that what we all thought five years ago?

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