BANGOR, Maine — The Zone Corporation will retain its ties to sports programming on Bangor radio station WZON-AM 620 even though owner Stephen King fired sports director-sportscaster Dale Duff and reporter-sportscaster Clem LaBree on Thursday.
That was the word from Zone Corporation general manager Bobby Russell on Friday morning.
Duff and LaBree had a sports talk show from 4-6 p.m. Monday through Friday but that will be replaced by the simulcast of the progressive-liberal talk format on WZON-FM, the Pulse 103.1.
“But we will continue to carry the Red Sox, Celtics and Bruins and we will still do high school games,” said Russell, who has turned the local sports coverage over to Toby Nelson.
Russell said the decision to fire Duff and LaBree was a hard one.
“It was tough,” said Russell, who cited low ratings and the fact the corporation was losing money as reasons behind the decision.
The 4-6 p.m. show has recently run into competition as Rich Kimball, a former WZON sportscaster, debuted last fall with his Downtown with Rich Kimball radio show on Bangor radio station WAEI 910 AM. And the show recently added three new stations.
The Downtown with Rich Kimball show is primarily a sports talk show but they also delve into other topics like lifestyle issues. They do not have a call-in format like the Duff and LaBree show did.
King had told Duff and LaBree that his decision had nothing to do with the broadcast quality and Russell concurred, saying “there were things they did very well. And they were the hardest-working people at the station.
“Sports talk listeners are very loyal. But there just weren’t enough of them,” Russell said. “People really like to listen to games, big games.”
Duff was hired by King 19 years ago to direct the state’s first 24-hour sports talk show and Duff hired LaBree in the first season.
Duff said Thursday night that he understood the business aspect of the decision but the abruptness of the firing and the way it was handled were hurtful. He thought the situation could have been handled more professionally and he and LaBree deserved better treatment for their service to the station.
“That’s the way it happens in TV and radio,” explained Russell.
TV and radio executives have traditionally avoided allowing fired on-air employees to return to the air for fear of retribution.
“That is how it’s done in radio,” said LaBree. “It’s completely understandable. But after 20 years, they should have known we wouldn’t do something like that.”
Like Duff, LaBree said he has been pleased with what they have accomplished.
“When I got the job, some of my [skeptical] friends said are you sure you want to do a sports talk show in Bangor? It worked for 20 years,” said LaBree. “It’s just too bad to lose something that did so many things that had never been done before in radio and may never be duplicated, which is a good feeling. Nobody covered high school sports on radio like we did.”
Duff and LaBree were also instrumental in bringing the WZON Hot Stove Banquet to Bangor in which Red Sox media personalities have been featured like radio play-by-play men Joe Castiglione and Dave O’Brien.
They were also the first local station to stream game coverage on the Internet, he said.
They also interacted with their fans during such activities as bus trips to Red Sox games and the Fenway Faithful club at the Ground Round where they would discuss the fortunes of the Red Sox.
“We got out with the people and they knew us. That’s why we had the success we had. People knew who we were and could see us and talk to us,” said LaBree. Nelson, who has been at the station for 15 years and was the sports director at affiliate WDME-FM, which is now WZON-FM, called the situation “sad.”
“Dale gave me the opportunity to work here. They are two of the people who really helped me along in my career. They have been great to me,” said Nelson, who is a jack-of-all-trades at the station, including sales and doing play-by-play.
He also noted that Duff launched a lot of other careers, also.
Nelson said they will hire people to broadcast games and everything is still “a work in progress.”
“It’s not the number of games we’re going to do that worries me. But we want to keep the quality and standards that were established by Dale and Clem,” he said.
Under Duff’s regime, the station won 135 awards and was twice chosen the state’s top radio station by the Associated Press.
They will both receive severance packages from the station.
The 54-year-old Duff, a Houlton native, would like to remain in sports but the 40-year-old LaBree, who is from Old Town, is taking health care administration classes online and said “it’s a good time to explore all possibilities.
“But I wouldn’t rule out sports,” he said.
Nelson said he expects Duff and LaBree to land good jobs in the near future.
“They’re two very talented guys,” he said.