Is this the end for Atlanta’s 790 the Zone?

790

If there was a such thing as a “dead station airing,” channel 79 on the ATL’s radio dial would qualify as just that.

WQXI-AM 790 in Atlanta, once a longtime Top 40 outlet known as “Quixie in Dixie” over the last few years has aired a sports format better known as “790 the Zone.” It was once an affiliate of the Fox Sports Radio network but has since been airing ESPN Radio over the past couple of years.

Recently, 790 the Zone along with its sister station WSTR-FM “Star 94” (Adult CHR) were sold from Atlanta-based Lincoln Financial Media to metro-Philadelphia based Entercom in a deal which saw LFM exit the radio business.

Entercom also bought a number of stations in Denver, San Diego, and Miami.

The stations Lincoln divested included a comedy station on a translator, a Rhythmic CHR KQKS “KS 107.5” and Oldies station KRWZ Cruisin’ 950 in Denver.

Entercom also bought a few Miami stations in the deal. They acquired WAXY-AM/FM 790/104.3 The Ticket, WLYF-FM 101.5 Lite FM, and WMXJ-FM Magic 102.7 (Oldies/Classic Hits).

The San Diego stations they picked up were KBZT-FM 94.9, KSON/KSOQ 97.3/92.1 Country, and KIFM-FM Easy 98.1.

Interestingly, the Justice Department told Entercom and Lincoln Financial that it had to divest a few of its Denver stations in the deal given that they felt Entercom after the deal would have too much of a hold on that market.

As a result Entercom had to offload a few of its well-cherished Rocky Mountain outlets. Among those were KOSI 101 (Adult Contemporary and heritage Christmas station), KYGO 98.5 (Country), and KKFN Sports Radio 104.3 The Fan. Entercom also also agreed to offload KEPN 1600 The Zone which has shows from from the NBC, CBS, Fox, and Yahoo Sports Radio networks on its station.

Entercom didn’t simply give them up for nothing as they called up Bonneville and asked if they could trade their Denver cluster for Classic Rocker KSWD 100.3 The Sound in Los Angeles.

Bonneville agreed. They bought the station a few years ago from Radio One when it was KRBV V-100—an Urban AC. It began as a AAA station before surely evolving into a highly rated Classic Rock station—including luring in Mark Thompson to join their station (yes, that Mark Thompson formerly of 95.5 KLOS “Mark and Brian” fame).

So, thanks to the Entercom-Lincoln Financial-Bonneville pact, the future of 790 WQXI is up in the air.

And that whole thing about this is 790 may not have any programming left unless they act fast.

Ever since Dickey Broadcasting’s WCNN-AM 680 The Fan ditched its ESPN Radio affiliation to become that of CBS Sports Radio (along with a lot of Cumulus and CBS sports stations) it allowed for the ESPN affiliation in Atlanta to be found elsewhere.

It went to 790 the Zone.

But recently, ESPN had announced it was returning to 680—joining a growing list of Cumulus/Dickey sports outlets switching out of their CBS Sports Radio affiliation—which is ironic given Cumulus handles sales for CBS Sports Radio.

Meaning as of August 17, 790 may not have any programming with ESPN going back to 680. This is why the station’s new bosses at Entercom need to act and they need to act fast if they haven’t already acted.

CBS already has a sports talk station in Atlanta—92.9 the Game which is currently the flagship station for Atlanta Falcons football and Atlanta Hawks basketball. With 680 ditching CBS, 92.9 will likely assume that affiliation.

With ESPN, Fox, and presumably CBS all with stations in the ATL, this could mean Entercom would probably affiliate 790 with either NBC Sports Radio or Yahoo Sports Radio if it wants to maintain the sports format.

It has also been speculated Entercom may want to sell its two newly acquired Atlanta outlets to CBS given the market was not exactly as important in the original merger talks with Lincoln as Denver was.

CBS has a small yet sizable presence in Atlanta between WVEE-FM V-103, 92.9 the Game, and WAOK 1380. All three stations draw high numbers among Atlanta’s African-American audience. They’re basically a second Radio One.

If Entercom makes 790 into a CBS Sports Radio station, it could be an indication they plan to offload WQXI to CBS and make it a sister station to 92.9 with 790 airing the CBS Sports Radio network on a 24/7 basis.

It would be another arrangement where CBS has two stations in one market—one of which airs CBS Sports Radio and the other that airs the local sports format. CBS already has this in Baltimore (1300/105.7 the Fan), Washington, D.C. (1580/106.7 the Fan), Detroit (1270/97.1 The Ticket), and Houston (Sports Radio 610/650) among others.

CBS also had this arrangement in Philadelphia with 610 and 94.1 WIP-AM and FM before it sold 610 to Beasley. It had it in Tampa/St. Petersburg before 1010 AM and 98.7 became Beasley properties (1010 became financial talk and 98.7 became WBRN-FM “Bubba (the Love Sponge) 98.7.”)

It is unlikely Salem would want it since they already have a radio station in Atlanta at WGKA 920 The Answer.

Or it could simply take the station silent or flip its format to something else, putting what has been (as of late) a miserable few years for the sports station. But how did it get this bad? How?

At one point in time, 790 The Zone was the biggest competitor to 680 the Fan for sports radio supremacy in Atlanta. While 680 marketed itself more as a station for the college football fan, 790 explicitly branded itself as the go-to station for Georgians who wanted their Falcons fix.

680 and 790 were also locked in this battle of wits for Atlanta sports radio dominance when there were only three major sports radio networks—ESPN, Fox, and Sporting News (which later became Yahoo Sports Radio).

One of the founders of the station was Steak Shapiro—but the 790 founders also had business interests in radio in St. Louis—business interests that did not turn out the way they hoped it would which hurt 790’s books.

But, what set The Zone apart from 680 were two personalities in particular.

2-Live-Stews

The Two Live Stews.

If there was any sports show that fit Atlanta like a glove, it was that of the Stews.

Ryan and Doug Stewart was exactly what one would think of if they were thinking of the prototypical Atlanta sports show. They were hip, they were young, they were in the African-American community, they talked sports as well as urban pop culture, and had a personality about themselves that made them relatable to the Atlanta sports fan.

In fact, the Stews’ star shone so bright at one point in time they were regular guests on ESPN’s First Take (when it still in its infancy as opposed to the Skip Bayless-Stephen A. Smith shoutfest it is today).

The station was also once the flagship station for the Hawks and Georgia Tech athletics.

Then—the Michael Vick dogfighting incident happened and many diehard fans of the Falcons wanted Vick to be thrown off the team.

Some were dog lovers but others simply wanted him off the team because they felt he was overrated and hadn’t delivered a Super Bowl to Atlanta like he was so widely touted to do.

It was said that some of the Stews’ opinions on Vick in the light of the dogfighting scandal alienated a lot of 790’s audience outside of the “Perimeter”—an area of the metro-Atlanta area that seems to separate the liberal/African American area of the region from the more conservative parts of the area.

Ultimately, the Stews were fired and despite their high-profile local and national notoriety have not been hired to a new radio station since.

But, along with the initial financial troubles that occurred in St. Louis, the programming changes that occurred with the Stews happened after Lincoln Financial assumed control of the station in 2010.

Lincoln Financial may have been based in Atlanta, but as evidenced by them trying to make the show sound more appealing to people who live in north Fulton County, Lincoln Financial apparently did not know diddly about Atlanta.

Slowly but surely, prior to their firing, they tried to remove all of the elements that made the show so appealing to an urban audience from the show. The Stews may have been an Atlanta show with syndicates, but it appeared as if Lincoln Financial wanted to make them sound like a show out of Denver instead of Atlanta.

Hint, hint—maybe this is part of the reason why LFM’s out of radio.

The Stews wanted nothing to do with Lincoln Financial tinkering with their show the way they did but they rolled with the punches—and were still released from their station before their contracts had expired.

And up to this day, no station has picked them up even after this had happened. Not even 92.9 the Game has picked them up and the bread and butter of their show is the black male listenership of the ATL.

It has even been something that has puzzled both brothers as they told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, but they both at least seem to be financially stable.

Why hasn’t a national outlet like CBS Sports Radio or even NBC Sports Radio picked them up? This is especially the case for these networks like CBS which thrives on personalities and a network like NBC which is seemingly lacking personality.

Sports stations have said nice things about them to the papers, but seem to balk on the idea of actually hiring them. It is unbelievable that such a show with such a following has not been hired by a sports radio (or television) station two years after their non-compete from 790 ended.

That was undoubtedly the beginning of the end for 790. Steak Shapiro and another businessman, Andrew Saltman had business problems in St. Louis which precipitated the sale to Lincoln Financial. But it was obvious the Stews were Shapiro hires. Hiring the Stews was arguably the best move Steak Shapiro ever made.

And it looked to be obvious from the start Lincoln Financial did not know how to run a station Shapiro put a lot of blood, sweat, and tears into making a powerhouse in Atlanta radio.

Ultimately, they lost the rights to air Georgia Tech athletics to Citadel (which later merged with Cumulus) when it flipped WYAY-FM Eagle 106.7 to Oldies as “True Oldies” 106.7 which later flipped to All-News and then to News/Talk (News Radio 106.7—now the co-flagship of the Braves with 680 the Fan).

They later lost Tech to 680.

In 2011, 790 did get a pick-me up when it was announced they were the official station to air Atlanta Falcons football—along with Star 94. It was a big get for a station that had explicitly branded itself as the station for Falcons coverage. Now they had the games to boot. Included in the coverage would be Chris Dimino and Steak Shapiro.

They assumed the rights from the previous Falcons’ station—WZGC 92.9 Dave FM which had spent eight years as the Dirty Birds’ flagship station.

But a couple of years into their Falcons contract, the unraveling of 790 really went into warpspeed.

In 2012, CBS replaced 92.9 amidst low ratings (and in the midst of a wild year in Atlanta radio that saw WKLS-FM Project 9-6-1 flip to CHR “Power 96.1”), with 92.9 the Game—the first FM sports station in Atlanta. 680 flexed its muscles by buying out a 93.7 translator.

Two of Atlanta’s three primary sports talk stations were on FM. 790 was nowhere to be found on the FM dial, leading to plenty of speculation on the radio message boards (and in the trade publications) on if 94.1 were to be sacrificed to make way for 790 or if Lincoln would buy another station and place 790 on it.

Neither happened. This was the first big mistake 790 made—and they would make plenty.

Ironically, it can be said CBS flipped 92.9 to sports because original speculation had 92.9 going All-News with Dave struggling in the ratings. Eventually, Cumulus did that with 106.7.

Between the controversial firing of the Stews and the fact that Lincoln Financial never invested in an FM for 790, it was not exactly the happiest of radio operations in Atlanta despite grabbing the Falcons’ rights.

gleason

Then, in 2013, an incident happened that would essentially prove the station was hitting rockbottom.

790 had a show called “Mayhem in the AM” which was hosted by Nick Cellini along with Shapiro and Dimino. They mocked the fact that format New Orleans Saint Steve Gleason was diagnosed with ALS by turning it into a bit on their show. The hosts themselves later admitted that they were uncomfortable with what went down, but they were prodded into doing it on air and they did it on air.

The hosts were later fired by the radio station for the bit—which did not go unnoticed by a New Orleans radio station—WMTI 106.1 The Ticket.

The three hosts later apologized—an apology that was accepted by Gleason.

They all later regretted doing the bit—a clear indication the bit was not the idea of either of the three hosts. Cellini later called the firing a blessing in disguise and also described 790 as a “sinking ship” because of the debut of 92.9 and Lincoln Financial not investing in an FM stick.

All had other gigs prior to what happened and all are back on the radio today at 680. Cellini later committed himself to donating to the Gleason Foundation.

The Atlanta Falcons also had to issue a statement given that it was their flagship radio station and the PR backlash also affected them. A national Fox Sports personality even planned to boycott the station (and this is while they were a Yahoo Sports affiliate).

But what the incident showed is just how far 790 had fallen since its heyday of the Stews. While 680 had the Braves and 92.9 picked up the Hawks, 790 didn’t have much left and the incident (plus 92.9’s presence) only made it easier for the Falcons to seek greener pastures on another radio station.

In early 2014, Lincoln Financial later pulled the plug on the remainder of 790’s local programming such as a morning show with Alge Crumpler and JP Peterson as well as an afternoon show with Mike Bell and David Archer. 790 was officially nothing more than a 24/7 jukebox for ESPN while still maintaining (for the time being) the Falcons’ flagship rights.

No way the Falcons were going to be on a station that has fallen as far as 790 has, so the writing was on the wall. It became even moreso after Georgia Tech signed a new deal with 680 the Fan. In addition, the Falcons began transitioning to 92.9 as they dumped Star 94 as the FM flagship for the CBS radio station.

The move was completed in early 2015. 790 had lost the Falcons. The only thing that kept the station afloat at that point was ESPN—and they even lost that in lieu of the (at the time) pending Entercom sale as ESPN reunited with the Dickeys at 680 the Fan and 1230 The Fan 2 (which will air the four-letter’s radio network on a 24/7 basis).

The only question remaining is what will Entercom do now that it owns the 790 frequency? Is a sale to CBS possible? Maybe even though it could be surprising given the way CBS has slashed payroll all over the country.

CBS has been in a selling mode as of late which is why the Quixie question has to be the most perplexing one on the minds of Atlanta radio aficionados.

There is one reason as to why CBS would want to buy 790—and that is to use it as a satellite stick for 92.9 in case of anytime Falcons and Hawks coverage overlaps to take any potential load off WAOK or V-103.

But again it may be unlikely given CBS is slashing properties nationwide.

Entercom has a heck of a decision to make as D-Day is August 17 when all ears will be following what (if anything) will be heard on the 7-9-0 in the A-T-L.