When radio sportscasters Dale Duff and Clem LaBree were fired by Zone Corporation owner Stephen King last Thursday, it was the end of an era.
Nineteen years ago, Duff was hired by King to undertake a new project: a 24-hour sports talk radio station in Bangor on WZON-AM 620. It became known as the Sports Zone.
It was a gamble and there was no shortage of skeptics. Previous sports talk shows had failed.
It would be a combination of local and national sports.
They eventually established two local talk segments to go with their college and local high school game coverage and national feeds.
LaBree, who was hired in the first year of the station, and Duff had a 6-9 a.m. sports talk show that included several regular guests such as Rich Kimball and Jim Walsh as well as telephone call-ins who could voice their opinions.
There was also a 4-6 p.m. show that featured a number of hosts including Dan Hannigan (Hang Time) and the co-host tandem of Jeff Solari and Pat Spekhardt (The ShootAround with Jeff Solari).
The Sports Zone broadcast University of Maine games for several years before losing the rights to Clear Channel in 2007.
In one year, they did 120 Maine games and 150 high school games.
Some will say when WZON lost the rights to University of Maine games to Clear Channel, it was the beginning of the end. The university’s athletic teams provided a constant conversational banter for the sports talk shows and its call-in format.
Some will say it all boiled down to Stephen and Tabitha King’s desire to air the liberal-progressive point of view on WZON-AM and WZON-FM, the Pulse 103.1, to combat the conservative talk on sister stations WVOM 103.9 FM and WVQM 101.3 FM. The Kings made the changeover in November 2010 as the 24-hour sports talk show format was replaced on WZON-AM by liberal-progressive talk.
Duff and LaBree’s 6-9 a.m. show was moved to 4-6 p.m.
Hannigan had moved to Kittery in 2003 and formed Cod Rock Media Productions with Eric Frede. Spekhardt was laid off due to budgetary reasons in November 2009, and Solari left to take a job at a local law firm six months later.
Then there was Rich Kimball’s flourishing Downtown with Rich Kimball Show from 4-6 p.m. on Bangor radio station WAEI-AM 910. It began last September and the sports talk show, which also covers nonsports topics such as lifestyle and music trends, has recently announced the addition of three more stations to its network.
Kimball’s show does not have a call-in format.
A call-in show in this market is a difficult sell because the population can’t support one. You wind up with the same 8-10 callers every day. Even call-in shows in major markets can be risky if the people who call in don’t add much to the broadcast. But they get prominent players and coaches from the pro and college teams in their markets and they also get the beat reporters and broadcasters.
Duff and LaBree were told their firing had nothing to do with the broadcast quality. It had everything to do with low ratings and the fact the station is losing money.
The bottom line is that Stephen and Tabitha King own the stations — rock station WKIT-FM 100.3 is also part of the Zone Corporation — and they can do whatever they want with them. It’s their prerogative. It’s business.
The station will continue to carry high school games, the Boston Red Sox, Bruins and Celtics.
Well-respected broadcaster Toby Nelson, who is a jack-of-all-trades, will anchor the high school game coverage and serve as the primary play-by-play man.
Nelson and general manager Bobby Russell will hire people to join Nelson as color analysts. They will also hire other play-by-play announcers and color analysts if they intend to broadcast multiple games on a day.
Those game duties had been major parts of Duff’s and LaBree’s jobs.
From a financial standpoint, King will save money. Instead of paying for two salaries, King just has to pay Nelson his salary while future on-air talent will receive a game-by-game fee. Probably no insurance benefits.
Duff and LaBree defied the odds.
They took a format that had never previously succeeded and put together a remarkable 19-year run.
They did it with professionalism and an unparallelled work ethic. They put in countless hours and did thousands and thousands of games.
They’re also quality people who have done a lot for the community such as the WZON Hot Stove Banquet, bus trips to Red Sox games and their work at the Senior League World Series.
The station earned 135 awards and was twice named the state’s station of the year by The Associated Press.
Job well done, gents. I’m sure you’ll be back on the air soon.