. . .

Thanks to the filing with the Federal Communications Commission, we at least know the names of the folks behind Saint Joseph Missions, the non-profit corporation that plans to purchase WAMO-FM, WAMO (860) and Monroeville-licensed WPGR (1510).

They’re Matthew J. Gorsich and his wife, Sandra; Thomas Marinchak Jr. and his wife, Tracy Lynn; and Tracy Marinchak’s father, Fran Pratt.

All except for Pratt list their contact address as a private residence on Penns Grove Lane in Unity Township, Westmoreland County. (Pratt lists an address in downtown Latrobe.)

. . .

Gorsich isn’t talking about his plans for the stations. He “declined to comment” to the New Pittsburgh Courier on the future of the stations, or even on the “nature” of his organization.

However, published reports indicate that Saint Joseph, which was chartered in 2007, plans “Catholic-oriented” programming. The corporation has asked the FCC to classify the stations as “non-commercial” and for permission to relocate the studios to Latrobe.

. . .

It’s entirely possible that this deal is exactly what’s being presented — an effort by five like-minded individuals to create a Catholic radio outlet for the Pittsburgh market.

There are plenty of Catholic philanthropists, for instance, both locally and nationally who might be helping this effort. (Latrobe is, after all, home to St. Vincent College.)

Still, more than one Pittsburgh radio insider has questioned whether “Saint Joseph Missions” is working with — or on behalf of — some larger group that’s trying to stay under the radar.

(For what it’s worth, a search of public databases turns up a “Matthew J. Gorsich” who was a commodities trader and an executive at Greensburg-based Allegheny Energy. If it’s the same person, that could answer the “money” question.)

. . .

If any other FM station but WAMO were being sold — say, “Q92.9” WLTJ-FM, or “Star 100.7” WZPT-FM — this deal wouldn’t be attracting much media scrutiny.

But this is WAMO, a station with five decades of heritage serving the African-American community. Since the 1950s, WAMO has served as a place for both black and white listeners to come together, share music and culture, and voice their common concerns.

WAMO’s influence was sharply limited by its 1996 decision to swap its Pittsburgh signal on 105.9 for cash and its present 106.7 location.

The weaker signal, licensed to Beaver Falls, didn’t adequately cover communities like Homewood, East Liberty, Wilkinsburg and Penn Hills.

There have been other boneheaded moves by WAMO’s owners in recent years. Management has been unable to decide on a consistent format or identity for 860 AM, for instance.

. . .

Nevertheless, the imminent loss of even a weakened WAMO is a significant blow.

Allegheny County has a significant (about 13 percent) African-American population.

Other stations air programming created for and by people of color — Carnegie Mellon’s WRCT-FM (88.3), for instance, features “Ebony Spectrum” on Wednesday evenings, and Kevin Amos’ “One-to-One” on Sunday mornings.

But they reach only a fraction of WAMO’s audience.

While one or more of Pittsburgh’s other FM stations might (and should!) add more “black” voices, WAMO was in a unique position to listen to the community’s needs, because it was owned by African-Americans. None of Pittsburgh’s other top-rated stations have that distinction.

. . .

Finally, the rumored move of WAMO from a mass-market FM station to “Catholic-oriented” programming bodes poorly for the future of FM radio.

When music programming fled AM radio in the 1970s and ’80s, talk and sports filled the gap. As talk began moving to the FM band, however, AM became marginalized. (One Pittsburgh radio executive has compared owning an AM station to having a store in an otherwise empty mall.)

Today, with a few notable exceptions, the regional AM dial is filled with paid ethnic programming and other “niche” shows. Roughly 80 percent of radio listeners never turn on the AM band.

. . .

It’s true that the Pittsburgh area has a significant Catholic population — about 31 percent of the people in Pennsylvania call themselves “Catholic,” according to the American Religious Identification Survey — but Catholic programming on WZUM was largely ignored.

No doubt that’s partially due to WZUM’s limited and weak signal. But there are other Catholic programs on suburban stations like McKeesport’s WEDO (810), while the Diocese of Pittsburgh sponsors “Amplify” on KDKA (1020).

Those programs don’t have significant audiences and don’t appeal to a broad spectrum of listeners, which leads to the logical conclusion that an “all-Catholic” radio station will serve a small (and largely elderly) niche.

. . .

Over the past decade, the radio industry has actively chased away listeners.

In search of fatter profits, corporate owners have slashed news, programming and promotions budgets while filling the airwaves with syndicated shows, boring cookie-cutter formats and infomercials.

At the same time, iPods and satellite and Internet broadcasters have become ascendant.

. . .

So, it comes down to this: If WAMO is really being purchased by a small, unknown group of investors from Latrobe, Pa., then the bottom has fallen out of the market for radio stations.

And if the station is really going “all-Catholic,” a major FM signal is going to virtually disappear from a major market.

Both of those things should worry anyone who cares about the future of radio.

Yeah, I may be crazy. But I’ll bet I’m not the only person in local radio who’s sticking tinfoil in my hat right now.

. . .

Jason Togyer is a public-relations professional, freelance journalist and on-air personality at several local radio stations. Opinions expressed are his alone, and not those of PBRTV or any other organization.

(Commentary/Editorial) After I did some speculating over email last night about the pending sale of WAMO-FM (106.7) and its Pittsburgh AM siblings, two people called me a “conspiracy theorist.”

Well, fine. Then I guess I’ll stick some tinfoil in my hat.

Sorry, but when a group no one’s ever heard of announces plans to buy one of the most important radio stations in the nation’s Number 24 ranked media market, a reasonable person might ask questions.

I’m not alleging wrongdoing. I’m just wondering — to quote Star Trek‘s Captain Picard — what the hell is going on here.

. . .

Such as — where are the buyers getting the money?

And is this purchase part of some larger national strategy by a bigger organization?

. . .

From a broadcasting standpoint, can the Pittsburgh market really sustain “Catholic-oriented” radio programming, considering that a similar, well-funded effort failed earlier this year on Carnegie-licensed WZUM (1590)?

Will anyone else step into the breach and serve the Pittsburgh area’s sizable African-American population?

. . .

And finally, is this the beginning of the end for the FM band as a mass medium?

Is the FM dial headed for the same fate as the AM band, which is now largely occupied by niche formats (gospel music, far-left or far-right talk, and Hispanic and other ethnic programming) that broadcast to small groups of listeners?

Maybe WAMO is like a canary in a coal mine. Its death might signal that the oxygen sustaining the radio business in Pittsburgh and elsewhere is very thin indeed.