The Sports Zone is getting some competition.
Bangor radio stations WABI (910 AM) and WWBX (97.1 FM) are making the switch to all-sports programming as affiliates of Boston sports radio giant WEEI (850 AM), effective Sept. 1.
The switch is the product of a five-year deal between Kennebunk-based Blueberry Broadcasting, which recently bought 17 Maine radio stations from Clear Channel Commuications, and Entercom New England, which owns WEEI.
That means the field is more crowded now for Bangor station WZON (620 AM). “The Sports Zone” has been in a league of its own — programming-wise — for the last 15 years as eastern, central and northern Maine’s only all-sports station.
“I think it’s a good fit because the passion of New England sports fans right now is phenomenal,” said Brunswick native Bruce Biette, Blueberry Broadcasting’s vice-president and chief executive officer. “It’s a great time to be one with the Red Sox, Patriots, and Celtics’ success. Many of the people I know up there are very passionate about those teams, and coupling that with the popularity of UMaine sports, it’s kind of a natural tie-in, and WEEI is a proven sports brand and product that is already known among local listeners.”
University of Maine sports radio rights are currently owned by three of the four former Clear Channel stations now owned by Blueberry: WABI, Howland-licensed WVOM (103.9 FM), and Boothbay Harbor’s WCME (96.7 FM). The fourth, Lincoln’s WGUY (102.7 FM) is currently held in a private trust.
The deal calls for WABI and WWBX to carry all WEEI sports talk programming from 6 a.m. until midnight, including the morning Dennis and Callahan Show, Dale and Holley, The Big Show and Planet Mikey along with Boston Red Sox, New England Patriots, Boston Celtics and Boston Bruins players, coaches and highlight shows.
“We’ll have their programming seven days a week with Fox Sports Network programming filling in the gap between midnight and 6 a.m.,” said Biette, a friend and former Brunswick High School classmate of WEEI announcer Dale Arnold. “They have Patriots shows on Monday, Friday and Saturday with guys like Tom Brady and Bill Belichick in the studio for an hour each week.
“We may add other things, too, from the NCAA or NFL and other sporting events.”
Might this deal put WABI and WWBX in line to be serious players the next time Red Sox radio rights, now held by WEEI sister station WRKO (680 AM), are up for grabs?
“I think in any market, not just Bangor, it’s a situation where those things are put out to bid when contracts are up,” Biette said. “I’ve not gotten that far yet, and the current Sox contract runs another couple of years, but we would certainly like to be considered and have a chance to get them in the future.”
Dale Duff, program director, broadcaster and morning show host at WZON, was reluctant to discus the Red Sox deal or the introduction of WEEI programming into Bangor.
“We have the Red Sox contract, but I don’t really want to get into those details,” he said. “It really doesn’t affect us and I can’t really speak to someone else’s programming, I’m not going to have any comment about other stations or other formats.”
Although other stations own local radio rights to the Red Sox and Celtics (WZON) and Patriots (Bangor’s WWMJ, 95.7 FM), Biette sees no problem with his stations’ providing even more coverage of those teams.
“It’s one thing to have the games, but I think having all those shows that WEEI offers fill those gaps and niches that fans like to listen to,” he explained. “I think WZON has done a good job and I think they’re good broadcasters.
“What we’re doing is not specifically done to counter-program. WEEI is a separate brand and is something we’d consider bringing to town regardless of what else already exists in town. The Portland people are actually competing against themselves with WJAB (1440 AM) by bringing in WEEI.”
WEEI is also expanding its programming into Portland via deals with Portland stations WTEI (95.5 FM) and WPEI (95.9 FM) and New Hampshire with Keene’s WEEY (93.5 FM).
Repeated attempts to reach Learfield Black Bear Sports Properties general manager Mike McCollum for comment on how the deal affects broadcasts of UMaine sports were unsuccessful.