Late Friday afternoon, Richie Whitt—former Star-Telegram sportswriter/host on The Fan (105.3)—hinted on his blog that big news was breaking in local sports talk radio. Saturday morning, he posted more details: that Bob Sturm and Dan McDowell, whose midday show on ratings powerhouse KTCK-AM 1310 is known as BaD Radio, were in the last hours of a contractual showdown that could see the show move to Whitt’s former home at The Fan. By Monday, it was clear the duo had reached an 11th hour deal to stay at The Ticket.
If you don’t care about sports talk radio, move along. For those who do, my take on how the deal to save Bob and Dan came to be finalized, and whether it was ultimately the right move for them.
Understand that radio is a pretty unique bird, one that traditionally pays its talent for success, not its sales staff for selling into that success. TV news used to do this; not as much anymore. (Print in no way does this.) Because The Ticket has been a ratings behemoth for many years, its hosts have been handsomely rewarded. (More power to them, for what it’s worth.)
But the economics of the radio industry have changed, as they have for all mainstream media. The personalization of content, whether it be blog posts for print or video on demand for TV or podcasts for radio, means stations can’t make as much money as they used to. Because of this, Cumulus, the Atlanta-based owner of The Ticket, has taken on a high-profile cost-saving campaign in recent years, asking hosts to take sometimes substantial pay cuts to get its costs in line. (You could argue Cumulus is punishing the successful shows and stations in the chain’s empire to make up for the low-performing ones. I wouldn’t disagree.) The highest-profile example was when Cumulus low-balled Mark Davis during contract negotiations, and he chose to not re-sign with WBAP-AM 820.
Now we get to Bob and Dan. They’re operating in this market reality as the contract negotiations come around. The Fan, trying hard to dent The Ticket’s ratings dominance, lets it be known it will pay previous market rate (or something like it) for BaD Radio. From The Fan’s perspective, this is a n0-brainer: strengthen your team, weaken your enemy.
No matter what happens, Bob and Dan want their show to stay together, understanding correctly that radio is a weird, chemically volatile beast — what works with one partner may not work with another, no matter the talent involved. But what worked at one station may not work at another, no matter how similar the shows try to be. That said, they don’t want to get corn-holed by management, professionally speaking. It’s easy to say, “Hey, just take less money because you enjoy your job and your co-workers.” But how many times have you done that, voluntarily?
The negotiations went wrong early on, through no fault of Bob and Dan (at least not directly). Radio hosts in big markets, like professional ball players, use agents to negotiate their contracts. This keeps the negotiations from being personal. That didn’t happen in this case. For whatever reason, the professional negotiators in this situation — quite possibly on both sides — got ugly. Threats were made. Business-style eff yous were exchanged. And too much of that back-room animosity was carried to Bob and Dan directly. (Which makes you wonder: Why pay 15 percent to folks who won’t protect you from the ugly personal side of negotiations? Why not just keep that money and get your nuts kicked in person? But I digress.)
That’s how it got to this point over the weekend, where it seemed that BaD Radio would, after a non-compete expired, end up on The Fan. How was that avoided? Because everyone came to their senses.
The idea that Cumulus would cut off its nose to spite its face, Mark Davis-style, never made sense to me. Mark Davis pulled decent numbers among an audience that is on the wrong side of retirement, from an advertising perspective. BaD Radio crushes middays in a prime demographic. No comparison.
As well, it was clear that Bob and Dan regretted the negotiation ever got to that point. It’s understandable that they considered moving. Dan in particular has been hard-done by management during contract negotiations over the years, and the sting from such a thing has to linger. But in the end, as often happens in similar sports situations, egos were put aside only at the final negotiating hour. Cumulus did not “match” The Fan’s above-market offer, but it did make a fairer effort. Bob and Dan accepted less money to stay at a station, in a time slot, with an audience that has given them more than a decade of affection.
By no means do I think that was an easy decision. Again, you try turning down more money sometime and tell me how easy it is. But it was the right decision. I wish The Fan well. I love Ben and Skin, and I hope they build a competitor with new and original talent that competes hard for my attention every day. But I want 1310 to stay the Little Ticket as I’ve always known and loved it, small not in its level of success but in its spirit.