Seventeen years after debuting as Bangor’s first, all-sports radio station, The Sports Zone will be shifting programming back to a mix of sports and political talk.
Sources have confirmed that Stephen King-owned Bangor radio station WZON (620 AM) will be going from a 24-hour, all-sports format to a primary format of liberal-progressive news/talk with occasional live, local broadcasts of high school and college sports and possibly a two-hour afternoon local sports talk show. The changeover could happen as early as November.
WZON program director and sportscaster Dale Duff didn’t confirm the change, but didn’t deny there would be a programming shift.
“There’s nothing I can say about that. It’s not imminent here, but it’s kind of out of my hands,” Duff said. “I really prefer to have it come from a higher-up. I really don’t know what the plans are.”
Duff referred questions to Zone Corporation general manager and sister station WKIT morning host Bobby Russell, but attempts to reach Russell via phone and e-mail Monday afternoon were unsuccessful.
WZON apparently will switch from all-sports syndicated programming overnight, in the morning, early afternoon, and evening to the same liberal and progressive talk programming currently running on Dover-Foxcroft WZON sister station 103.1 FM, known as "The Pulse." Those programs include the locally-produced and hosted "Mornings with Dan (Frazell) and Renee (Ordway)" plus syndicated hosts like Stephanie Miller, Ed Schultz, Dr. Joy, Randi Rhodes, Clark Howard, Thom Hartman, Leslie Marshall, and Doug McIntyre's Red Eye Radio.
Cracks have been forming in The Sports Zone’s foundation for the couple years with the loss of the exclusive broadcasting contract for University of Maine sports, the resulting defection of a few broadcast personalities, competition from other sports-oriented stations and the layoffs or resignations of other longtime employees.
The news didn’t come as a surprise to former “the Shootaround” afternoon talk show host and game announcer Jeff Solari, who resigned last May after to take a job with Bangor law firm Rudman and Winchell.
"I'm not happy to say I saw this coming months ago," said Solari. "In my mind, WZON's future has been in question for almost a year. That uncertain future was a big reason I decided to leave in May."
Board operator, broadcaster and afternoon co-host Pat Spekhardt was cut as a full-time employee last November after a nine-year run with the station.
Perhaps the biggest blow to WZON came in March 2007 when the University of Maine ended a 14-year association with WZON by awarding exclusive radio broadcast rights to Black Bear Sports to then-Clear Channel-owned stations WVOM (103.9 FM) and WGUY (102.1 FM). UMaine games are now heard primarily on Blueberry Broadcasting-owned Bangor stations WAEI (97.1 FM) and WABI (910 AM).
Longtime WZON announcers such as Jim Churchill, Rich Kimball, Bob Lucy and Dan Hannigan then left WZON soon after to continue announcing their respective UMaine sports on Clear Channel/Blueberry stations.
After adding a heavy dose of sports broadcasting in August of 1993, WZON dumped talk radio shows hosted by Rush Limbaugh and Larry King and switched exclusively to an all-sports format in January 1994.
Over the past 17 years, WZON has won numerous Associated Press and Maine Association of Broadcasters first-place awards for individual announcing and overall station excellence. The station won back-to-back AP Station of the Year awards in 2002-2003.
"It's a shame it has come to this," Solari said. "WZON has been one of the best small-market all-sports stations in the country for years."
Duff and current morning show host Clem LaBree may be asked to co-host an afternoon sports talk show from 4 to 6 p.m. as part of the new format.
"Stephen King is of course entitled to do whatever he wants to with his stations, no question," Solari added. "But in my opinion, this was not just a business decision. This has to do more with internal politics and Zonecorp management issues than business, and sports fans in Eastern Maine are the ones hurt the most by the decision."
Duff did not return a call to comment specifically on the switch or reasons for it.
WZON will likely continue broadcasting local high school football and basketball games along with Husson University sporting events. It's unclear, however, whether WZON will remain the exclusive station for Boston Red Sox baseball broadcasts in the Bangor market, as it has been for the last 18 years. WZON's current Sox radio contract runs through the 2011 season.