2015: The year Detroit’s Wheels of sports radio came completely off

 

If you are a 90’s kid like myself, you probably fondly remember the end of the Sister, Sister episode where Ray Campbell (played by Tim Reid) was working on a banner that said “Go Lions” for him to bring to an upcoming game at the Pontiac Silverdome. The show, of course, took place in Detroit.

Instead, there’s a bit of a boo-boo as the banner actually read “Go Loins” instead of “Go Lions.”

Who knows if the Lions were, in a teen sitcom, anywhere near as bad as they are really but if they were, it was simply another sign that the Lions just cannot get anything done correctly.

As most Detroit sports fans know, the Lions are seemingly the worst-ran franchise in all of North American sports (the Toronto Maple Leafs, though may have something to say about that).

In many cities, football season is exactly that. In MoTown, it is merely a countdown to baseball season.

Recently, the Lions made a controversial decision in terms of its radio flagship station. That flagship right now is WXYT-FM 97.1 The Ticket, a CBS Radio-owned sports talker.

Next year that will change as the Lions move from The Ticket to WJR 760—a Cumulus-owned News/Talk radio station.

Huge deal for Cumulus who are starting to get WJR back into the sports game as they add the Lions to their Michigan State football and basketball coverage.

“We are thrilled to have the Detroit Lions back on WJR AM 760, the Great Voice of the Great Lakes. The long history and tradition of both the Detroit Lions and WJR made this a natural partnership well into the future,” Tom O’Brien, market manager and vice president at WJR said.

Long-suffering Lions fans probably were looking at that quote and thought what tradition has this franchise has had since 1957 (the last time the Lions won an NFL Championship/Super Bowl).

The Lions have since tried to say the decision to move to WJR AM was solely based on finances (per Elizabeth Parksiand that the station and owner simply made a better business offer than either 97.1 The Ticket or Greater Media’s WMGC Detroit Sports 105.1 which also reportedly was in the running for the rights.

It has been said the deal will include a simulcast on an FM station since no sports team would be willing to go from an AM station to an FM station in 2015 unless said AM station backed a caravan full of Brinks trucks to a team’s front office.

But was there a different reason?

The idea that there could have been a different reason as to why WJR beat the Ticket for the Lions is nothing new in sports’ teams negotiations with radio stations.

The reason The Ticket’s 97.1 The Ticket’s Mike Valenti gave is one completely out of left field.

https://embed.radio.com/clip/59804047/?ref_url=http://www1.play.it/audio/valenti-and-foster/&ads_ga_page_tracker=UA-27919026-35&rollup_ga_id=UA-2438645-53&r20id=2108#

If you did not listen to the clip, Valenti is responding to reports that the Lions left The Ticket because the Lions wanted him fired from the station. Valenti has been overly critical of the team throughout his days as a Detroit sports talker, hence his high ratings.

In another soundclip that can be found on The Ticket’s website, they made a point of noting the team was 63-124 (at the time of the show) while on 97.1.

“There are people in that organization that are bad people,” Valenti said. “There are people in that organization that shouldn’t be there. And this organization should probably be more concerned about entertaining you the fans than anything people like Terry [Foster, co-host with Valenti on 97.1 and former Detroit News writer] and I have to say.

Just recently, Valenti ripped the Lions for hiring Rod Wood as the new team president because he felt the hire was nothing more than the Ford family hiring someone who is loyal.

Also on many occasions, a radio station owner may simply “no-comment” the claims. CBS Radio did not “no-comment” the claims and backed Valenti 5,000 percent.

“CBS Radio and the Detroit Lions are parting ways. 97.1 The Ticket has served as the flagship station for the Lions for more than a decade. CBS Radio says it has been negotiating with the Lions a long time. It is sad to say goodbye, but in the end it came down to the integrity of CBS—the refusal to censored in talking about the team and making honest assessments on the air about this team.”

The organization has since denied this claim on many occasions, going back to the line about how it was simply about money.

I wrote a couple of columns for this website in the past titled, “When Sports Teams Want to Be The Media” where I referenced how teams have bought radio stations and television stations partially for the purpose of putting out their own message instead of that one that most fans will likely believe.

One of the hosts on the DetroitSportsRag.com Podcast even mentioned how the Lions were pretty much “ticketing” themselves out of The Ticket because of Valenti.

Whoever that source was that told DSR this must be really well-connected and believable because that source nailed it before the Detroit Free Press and the Detroit News got to it.

Valenti in his rant against the Lions specifically went after their communications director Bill Keenist and said he fellytones into 97.1, sometimes segment-by-segment to discuss what he said.

Again, the team is so far deny-deny-denying all of these claims, but check the below article out:

http://www.greatermedia.com/?p=6154

Granted it is on Greater Media’s page, but this picture shows hosts at Detroit Sports 105.1 broadcasting from THE AIR at Lions training camp. The station could not broadcast directly from camp, Greater Media said, because of 97.1’s rights agreement with the team.

Oh how things could change thanks to this.

And according to a former WDFN 1130 host who is now the host of the Steelers’ post game show on 102.5 WDVE, he says the Lions being more defensive with the media than they are with…say….Aaron Rodgers’ Green Bay Packers offense is nothing new.

http://gregghenson.com/the-lions-heavy-handed-approach-with-the-media-is-nothing-new/

If true, this is the worst possible look for a sports team. It is one thing to work with the media and correct any information that is simply blatantly false and probably was only written for the purpose of shock value. It is another to entirely try and essentially impose “state-run radio” on a flagship sports talker.

I remember watching Colin Cowherd’s old ESPN show and he remarked about how before he became the national sports celebrity he is today, he was at smaller stations—and some of them had rights to sports teams.

Having rights to a sports team is one thing but it is another thing to make your station “state-run” and throw journalistic integrity out the window.

Cowherd once said he hated being on stations that had rights to teams.
Larry Gifford, who hosts The Radio Stuff podcast and is a radio veteran, said in this podcast in his experience in radio that teams have contacted his stations in the past about content that may be less-than-glowing about teams and that teams view rightsholders as business partners instead of journalism outlets.

Plus—the Lions are crossing someone in Valenti who went to journalism school at Michigan State. So if anyone is about journalistic integrity and ethics, one would think it would be Valenti.

It is also a potentially bad look for the Lions not only from a media standpoint but also from a sports standpoint. This is a team that has not won anything in nearly 60 years, yet seem to be more concerned about what the media says about them on radio and in the papers as opposed to what head coaches are saying about them on the opposing sideline.

Valenti became a trending topic in Detroit when he went on his rant and most Lions fans on social media appeared to back Valenti. Why? Because it is much easier to back a talk show host who has high ratings rather than a sports franchise that is not exactly associated with winning.

There are many layers to the story, not to mention that whole thing about a team wanting only its own message out there to suit its narrative (and by proxy its business strategy). One of them is just how topsy-turvy the Motor City’s sports radio scene has become.

About a month ago, Detroit Sports 105.1 let go of Drew Lane because the station claimed his show did not fit in with the sports-centric approach Greater Media wanted to go into.

The question that immediately came to mind here after this was revealed was why hire Drew Lane for your station anyway? (Other than ratings of course).

Lane was the only one that was drawing ratings at 105.1. Their other local show was not and none of the ESPN programming it had was doing so. Only Lane had ratings and even with Lane, the station has struggled to register more than a 1.0 in PPM ratings.

There are college radio stations with higher ratings than Detroit Sports 105.1.

My assessment of that situation was the Lane was fired probably over a contract dispute. And plus, the station also suffered a blow when they lost the opportunity to be the broadcast partner for Mike Illitch’s Tigers and Red Wings.

Detroit Sports 105.1 launched in 2013 after a rebranding effort by Greater Media on “Today’s 105.1” a Hot AC that was not doing much against the already established WNIC 100.3 and WDVD 96.3 was not going well.

One of the strategies the station used to build publicity around the Detroit DMA was to sign Drew Lane to a big deal and for him to be their marquee host. They were building their station around Lane.

They launched with the #DrewIsBack1051 hashtag and a press conference that featured Lane at the podium. Lane, of course has name recognition around the Detroit area since he a co-host of the “Drew and Mike” show on Rocker WRIF 101 The Riff.

Irony alert: Detroit Sports 105.1 and The Riff are sister stations.

Someone on the DSR Podcast suggested that Drew should have been in mornings on the station, but when you get in bed with ESPN Radio as a sports station, they mandate that affiliates have to carry its morning show—Mike & Mike. So, by linking up with Bristol, Greater Media was already operating with one hand tied behind its back.

They of course did the next best thing by placing Lane in the afternoon drive time slot—the second most important shift in radio outside of morning drive.

Lane has had ratings by himself. The name recognition has worked for his show but it has not translated into high ratings for any other Detroit Sports 105.1 content.

The biggest thing the station did between signing Lane and getting rid of Lane was this:

They had signed a multi-year deal with the Pistons for their games, and even more Pistons-related content to air over 105.1.

And at about the 3:04 mark in that YouTube clip, Dennis Mannion who is the CEO of Palace Sports & Entertainment dropped a money quote.

“It is fantastic for us to think that we have a basketball season coming up that will be presented on one station and one station only with no conflicts. That itself deserves a round of applause.”

As I say all the time on my Twitter account (@AkiemBailum)…Yeeouch!!

That quote was a direct shot at 97.1 The Ticket because prior to the pact with Detroit Sports 105.1, WXYT had the rights to all four major Detroit teams—the Lions, Tigers, Pistons, and Red Wings. Conflicts had to be handled on their sister station on WXYT-AM 1270 which is now a 24/7 CBS Sports Radio station.

Their primary logo for 105.1 is now the one in Pistons colors. When the station first debuted, Detroit Sports 105.1’s logo was Tigers colors and it had custom logos reflecting the Lions, Tigers, Red Wings, Pistons, Michigan, and Michigan State logos.

While they got the Pistons’ rights, there was plenty of speculation with the Illitch teams’ rights coming up for grabs soon, Detroit Sports 105.1 had its eyes on an even bigger prize.

So did WJR.

The Tigers and Red Wings are the big money makers for Detroit sports radio—not the Lions. Letting go of the Lions is easy—the Tigers and Red Wings are not as easy to let go of.

WJR had history as the longtime Tigers flagship so when the above Detroit News article was published, that had to receive a bevy of attention from longtime Tigers fans that reminisce on the days of the late, great Ernie Harwell.

But the station that really wanted them was Detroit Sports 105.1. They knew if they nabbed the Tigers and Red Wings from CBS that it would be the biggest step they could take in competing with 97.1 The Ticket.

Except…the Ticket kept the Tigers and Red Wings.

Not only did 97.1 the Ticket keep the Illitch teams and deliver a major blow to Detroit Sports 105.1’s chances of being viable in the Motor City’s DMA, they once again re-established themselves as Detroit’s sports station.

There was also an aspect of the deal that caught my attention especially.

Illitch is moving the Red Wings out of the Joe Louis Arena and is being a new stadium and entertainment district in downtown Detroit—a city that needs all of the entertainment districts it can get.

Recently, CBS Radio took the axe to its entire company. It is a radio group that only operates in large markets and will not be found in the same cities (for the most part) as somebody like Townsquare or Alpha Media which will be in smaller markets.

Among the cuts was a huge bludgeoning of the news department of WWJ-AM 950, an All-News station. WWJ is getting more news from the national CBS News Radio in New York but when things like this happen, you cannot help but feel for those journalists. Longtimers were let go at other stations, including Philadelphia’s KYW.

Those cost-cutting methods were indicative of two things—the expense of running an All-News station and just how radio stations (and particularly larger ones) and media outlets at large seem to have no problem with cutting back and journalism and investing more on opinionated hosts and sensationalism.

CBS apparently wanted to keep the Tigers and Red Wings so badly it allowed for a special show to be aired on WWJ that aired construction updates of the new stadium/entertainment district. A literal “Hockeytown” if you will.

Illitch got a show. It worked.

It sounds essentially like a PR show airing on an All-News station, yet CBS gave it to Illitch to keep his properties because they are that valuable for sports radio in Detroit.

CBS had to go this big because according to this Tweet from Tony Paul of the Detroit News (who has owned this “coaches carousel” of a story) Greater Media had Tiffany beat!

//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

Yeeouch, again.

Greater Media had CBS beat, and someone inside the Tigers who probably is in good with Tiffany tipped them off. Whoever this tipster is, is the real MVP if you’re CBS because without it, Detroit Sports 105.1 probably becomes the new flagship for the Tigers and Red Wings.

And at that moment, Detroit Sports 105.1 looked at its station and probably saw that it was lagging in sports content. In fact, they tried to add a sports person to Drew Lane’s show and he constantly shot down the idea.

Lane had reason to shoot down the idea because the station built a social media campaign around someone who probably is better suited for WJR than a sports station, yet only did so for publicity and ratings.

Now they wanted to change his show. Not every show is Toucher & Rich who transitioned into becoming a more sports centric program after being the morning duo on Boston’s 104.1 WBCN and are now on 98.5 The Sports Hub WBZ-FM.

Not every show is Covino & Rich—another “Free FM” type show that began incorporating more sports and eventually landed a show on SNY.

Having a non-sports show as the franchise show for a sports station does not sound like a good idea. It sounds worse when it is the highest rated show because of name recognition and how it does not translate into other shows.

In other words, this station has probably been more successful in drawing in listeners from The Riff (one of their sister stations, by the way) than it has The Ticket.

All of this culminated in Lane leaving the station. He probably will return after his non-compete clause is up.

Sean Baligian, Tom Mazawey and Marc Fellhauer are now the show for Detroit Sports 105.1 from 12-3 while Matt Dery and Drew Sharp will handle 3-7 afternoon drive duties. DSR has suggested Baligian and Dery have had run-ins in the past which could make things somewhat difficult between them.

That was when attention began turning to the possibility of the Lions leaving. Then ultimately they did—to a station that has history but probably does not have a robust audience with people under 34 Y.O.

When I think about this move and put it in the larger context of just how crazy Detroit sports radio has become, there are three things about this that are somewhat getting lost in the shuffle of the allegations by Valenti against the Lions.

The first is the idea that it could be another sign Cumulus may try to move away from conservative talk. With Rush Limbaugh being on such a short leash in major markets like Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, and others, they are seeing the writing on the wall.

Perhaps Mary Berner recognizes this. If declining ad buys due to an aging audience was what turned out to be the downfall of the Smooth Jazz format circa 2008-09, then what makes conservative talk any different?

Even if most radio executives have political views that are similar to those of Rush, Beck, Hannity, and the lot of those on the right, that ultimately runs second-fiddle to ad buys in any media business.

Cumulus is already doing this most notably with their 890 WLS station in Chicago when they struck a deal with Jerry Reinsdorf to add the Chicago White Sox and Chicago Bulls to its lineup. They already aired Notre Dame Athletics and Chicago is a hub for Notre Dame fans.

Chicago is another market where Rush is also in trouble.

And given personalities like Steve Dahl are on their station, it is another sign WLS may go in a more apolitical direction given other stations have either already transitioned out of political talk or dropped it.

The second thing I gather from this is even with Valenti talking about how the Lions wanted to impose “state-run radio” on 97.1 with only the Illitch properties left, isn’t 97.1 in a position to become more “state-run radio?”

After all, CBS just gave Illitch a show on WWJ to tout the stadium project and it only has the Illitch teams left. But given how Illitch is higher regarded in Detroit as a sports owner than the Ford family is, I think some Detroiters may not mind a station centered around covering his teams.

The last thing I gather from this is Detroit Sports 105.1 is on the clock to use an often-used sports phrase. This radio station lost out on the Illitch teams and the Lions. All it has are the Pistons and even though they are showing signs of winning now, contracts with sports teams are kooky for this reason. Teams have left stations based off format flips before.

Just ask the Bulls who had to change their flagship to ESPN 1000 shortly after CBS’ 105.9 WCKG flipped to “Fresh 105.9” because Fresh’s format did not fit airing sports.

Even though the Utah Jazz were once carried on an AC station for a few years….

Also, it is somewhat ironic that on the same day the Lions announce what is a bloody divorce from 97.1, the Steelers re-up with WDVE until 2018. The Steelers are a more stable franchise than the Lions on and off the field, it appears.

How long are we going to give this station before it flips and what does it flip to? Around next year? Does it flip back to AC as “Magic” or “Soft Rock?” Country (Does Detroit need a third Country station in addition to WYCD 99.5 and WDRQ 93.1 Nash FM?)? Rhythmic Hot AC ala their WBQT “Hot 96.9” in Boston? Classic Hip Hop? It is a format one would think would work in Detroit….

Unless Radio One (more likely) or Cumulus (less likely) beats them to it.

Only time will tell if the relationship between the customers and the car dealers will improve or if said customer will move on to another dealer.

Only time will tell if 105.1 gets a fresh coat of paint in a few years.

This is sports radio in the Motor City….and this is what they do.

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