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WBTA owner sells station after 53 years, keeps it local

By Joanne Beck


After more than 50 years in the news business — covering the gamut from radio DJ and newspaper writer to regional photographer, vice president of broadcasting for five stations, and owner of  the successful WBTA radio station with wife Debrah right here in Batavia — Dan Fischer is ready to call it a day

Paperwork was filed on Feb. 17 and the sale became public on Feb. 21 that WBTA advertising executive Jim Ernst, aka Majic Tones LLC, purchased the station, officially titled HPL Communications, for $425,000.

“I’m 72, I’ve been doing this for 53 years, it’s time,” Fischer said to The Batavian. “I enjoy the business; I truly never worked a day in my life. I had the opportunity to sell locally. Jim is an account executive for us, he’s a local guy who grew up in Batavia, and he’s been with us for eight years.”

WBTA AM radio has been on the air based in Batavia since February 1941, with two FM stations, one each based in Batavia and Le Roy, and all three carry the same program. And programs are streamed around the world, Fischer said, to audiences that can be counted “by the person” versus less accurate totals for other audience types.

The station reaps 25,000 listeners cumulatively during each weekly period, though the numbers can vary, say, on a snow day — and “average listenership just soars,” Fischer said. After all, everyone seems concerned about bad weather days.

As for the new ownership, Ernst is a familiar face around town, and “wishes to keep everything the way it is” right now, Fischer said.

“He’s happy with the way things are,” Fischer said.

Staff will also remain the same at this point, which is five full-time, including President/General Manager Dan Fischer and Vice President/Business Manager Debrah Fischer, and five part-time staff, and about four contract talents for sports play-by-play broadcasts, he said.


Perhaps more importantly, how did this all come about? “Jim and I have been talking for a year,” Fischer said. “I was not actively seeking a buyer.”

He liked the idea of keeping the station in local hands, and believes that’s been a key to the station’s success. WBTA had one of its best years in 2019, just before COVID and the pandemic hit, he said, and “we suffered, along with many other businesses,” but the workload on media increased even more so by covering pandemic-related news briefings, announcements, vaccine and protocol updates, and infection rates, he said.

“All while advertising revenues lagged,” he said. “That was a challenge. The station has always done well when in local hands … and owners understand that the way to success was serving the public interest.

“WBTA and The Batavian are the only locally owned and operated media. One of the highlights of my tenure has been our partnership with The Batavian,” Fischer said. “Covering local news is an expensive proposition at a time when advertising revenues for all traditional media are shrinking. We have been able, with our partnership with the Batavian, to stay very competitive in this market.”

Likewise, The Batavian’s publisher, Howard Owens, has greatly valued his professional relationship with Fischer, while also appreciating his “journalistic friendship.”

“I first talked to Dan after I became owner of The Batavian in March 2009. He could see the value of what we were doing, and could see the value of a news partnership. That always gave me somebody to talk to, and we could trust each other. His knowledge of Genesee County has been a tremendous asset to The Batavian, and WBTA is a great example of a news organization serving its local community,” Owens said. “I’m looking forward to working with Jim.”

Fischer’s long history with the company — he and business partner Debrah, who will continue in a consultant role after the sale, bought WBTA in 2004 — also includes a lot of journalism roots attached. His first job was as a country music DJ in Utica who also read the news for listeners. The station owner liked the way Fischer read, and “I really enjoyed doing news,” he said.

“It was a more important calling than just announcing the next Johnny Cash song,” Fischer said.

He worked his way up the ranks, moving to Jamestown, where he met the future Mrs. Fischer, and also worked for Buffalo Courier, Erie Times-News, and WIVB, gleaning all sorts of media nuggets for his future career. He eventually moved to Batavia — a brand new place for the native of Cheektowaga — and credits the late Bill Brown, a popular media figure and author about town — for inviting Fischer to Batavia Rotary, where he met several people, and made those much-needed connections as a new business owner.

Part of the local aspect includes WBTA’s status as being a heritage, full-service radio station. It has been around for decades, even before World War II, Fischer said. News stories from its airwaves have been about tragedy — the Attica Prison riot — and victories — high school championship football games. And everything in between.

“I can’t imagine operating a station with just music,” he said.

Many pancake breakfasts and chicken barbecues later, the Fischers had settled into Batavia life, though as residents of Oakfield. Married for 33 years, they plan to continue their love for travel and visiting family. That is, after all legalities have been finalized, which is to happen in 80 to 90 days when a notification will be sent regarding an assignment of licenses, and that gives the parties 10 days to close the deal.

Top Photo: Dan and Debrah Fischer at the time of the station's 75th anniversary. Photo by Howard Owens. Inset photo, Jim Ernst, courtesy WBTA. 

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