Sunday, August 28, 2011

Finebaum's Lawsuit and Where Will Birmingham Sports Talk Go From Here?

Finebaum plotting his next move?
Well, it looks like the cat's out of the bag. Paul Finebaum's lawsuit against his employer Citadel Broadcasting has finally made the rounds with restricted court documents released at the end of last week. The BBJ did a really good job of laying it out here.

And - in what I believe to be no coincidence at all - Cox Media Group of Birmingham is throwing their hat into the ring by launching their own sports talk station this week.

Jon Solomon of the Birmingham News wrote a piece on Saturday about the situation as well. One highlight:
WJOX business manager Mary Brown claimed in an affidavit that Finebaum was overpaid by Citadel between 2007 and 2010 due to calculation errors.
Calculation errors? Keep in mind that Citadel Broadcasting has declared Chapter 11 Bankruptcy in the past year, and the company has been acquired by Cumulus Broadcasting, who are scheduled to take over the Birmingham properties later this year. With calculation errors like this to go unnoticed/without action for three years, I'd say the bankruptcy declaration is believable.

I had been hearing little bits and pieces about the lawsuit over the past month or so, but one item I had not heard until I saw it in the BBJ article was how Citadel threatened to pull Finebaum's show from it's affiliates and SiriusXM:
Finebaum’s complaint alleges Thomas told Finebaum before he signed the amendment that it was non-negotiable and that his show would be removed from all Citadel affiliates and Sirius-XM Satellite Radio if it was not signed.
That is CRAZY. And it's also a strong-arm tactic that I believe could potentially have huge repercussions on WJOX.

Everybody knows that Finebaum carries the day in Alabama's sports talk. And with his becoming more frequent appearances on ESPN television and his national exposure on SiriusXM, the 'Finebaum brand' continues to grow - and his numbers (ratings) are wild. Paul's show recently carried over a 20 share in men 25-54. That's like 1965 stuff - with so many options today, you don't get 20 shares anymore. And last Fall, WJOX was the third highest rated station in the market (12+).

It would just seem to me that you wouldn't try to make enemies with the biggest player in town.

For those that don't know (And really, why should you?), for a sports station to garner ratings like these isn't normal. To pull 5-8% of the entire listening audience is amazing. Extremely successful sports talk stations pull in 2.0-3.0 ratings. And those are the SUPER successful ones. JOX is a monster, ratings-wise.

So, how's it all going to shake out, and what do I think about the chances of the new station?

Reports are that The Zone will give us a morning show of Eli Gold and Stan White from 6-9, Brando's syndicated program from 9-12, and Matt Coulter (formerly of WJOX) will have a program from 12-3. After 3? Looks like a Rick and Bubba replay for now. (It has been tossed out that Rodney Orr and others could do some once-a-week block programming. We'll see.)

Let's talk logistics first. WJOX is a 100,000 Watt station that covers everywhere in Alabama that you'd want to be. (Sorry, Montgomery - you're not there yet.) What does a 100,000 Watt station look like? Here you go:

The 97.3 signal is currently with call letters WNCB (or 'The Buck' as it's affectionately referred to). It comes in at about 6,200 Watts. That's less than 100,000. How much less?

Anniston, Clanton, Cullman? Thanks for playing. Birmingham is okay of course, but Cox better get ready for this battle. Because the production crew at WJOX needs to freshen up their "100,000 Watts" promos and blast them. The wattage issue will be a strategic talking point for the sales teams of these stations, I promise.

Then we have The Zone's lineup:

Their morning show. Eli & Stan. Now, I have no problem with Eli Gold (who I've had a few minor dealings with - he's usually been very accessible to me and fairly easy to work with) or Stan White as people, or as play-by-play announcers and commentators.

My problem on this pairing is that both men are employed by their school of choice. And, this leads to bad radio. And maybe Stan is a little better than most at being able to critique his own team, but there's a conflict of interest here for both. Mal Moore and the folks at the Athletic Department are the ones, in the end, who decide whether or not Eli is going to be the voice of Alabama football. So, I wouldn't necessarily anticipate a whole lot of objectivity or commentary on the NCAA or 'bag men'.

It reminds me of back in 2007, when Finebaum left WERC to join WJOX. Anyone remember "The Ultimate Sports Show with Chris Stewart and Kenny Stabler"? Doomed show from the jump. Because at the time, both were tied to the University, and their loyalty professionally and personally was to Alabama. I'm not sure that show made it two months (admittedly, it was going up against Finebaum on a 100,000 FM station - tough task.)

Brando's show will be just what you expect it to be, and while Brando has made a mark as a 'love to hate' guy on Finebaum's program, in almost every instance local beats syndicated. And I think that's especially true with Alabama. If it ain't the Tide or Tigers, radio listeners in Alabama won't have much patience and they'll turn to the guy who IS talking Tide and Tigers.

Matt Coulter's program. Now, I'll disclaim that I did do some work with Matt in my time at WJOX, and I was there when he, Melick, Dunaway & Brown, and the rest were relegated to the AM side of the WJOX AM/FM split in 2007. He was always pleasant and helpful, and generally a good guy around the office. I'm sure that Matt's eager to be back on the radio and go up against WJOX.

That said, I didn't necessarily jump out of my seat in excitement when I heard that Matt Coulter would be a part of the new station. I'm sure Matt will be fine, but I'm not sure that this necessarily pulls listeners from WJOX. I guess that's a nice way to say it.

The big pull is of course, Finebaum. He'll pull listeners wherever he goes. But while it probably doesn't matter, it is at least interesting/curious to think about with Coulter playing a potential lead-in to Finebaum. It wasn't too long ago that Coulter sued Paul Finebaum, claiming that Paul said Matt was a homosexual. Some pretty great reading there.

But that's the issue with this lineup. If they get Paul, you can make it work. Otherwise, I don't think there's enough there to beat WJOX. Instead of taking the opportunity to pull some people into the market or develop some local TV folks looking for an opportunity to get more exposure, the folks at Cox just kind of looked and got whoever was around. You don't make big splashes that way, and if Paul - for some reason - can't jump over, this will fizzle out.

Which is WHY I think Paul will make the move. Just don't know when. If I am to believe what was in the BBJ story, then I can't see how the Finebaum/Citadel relationship can continue. You've pissed off the most valuable asset you have, and now he's got the motivation to compete against you - and he's trying to get the legal means to do it.

I think a mid-football season move would be fine listener-wise, but it'd be a disaster for the business operations. Sales contracts that had been locked in for months will have to be cancelled, renegotiated, and there will be a mad scramble at Cox to pull the Finebaum advertisers over. Meanwhile the Citadel/Cumulus folks will be in the ears of those same clients pleading with them to keep their dollars with WJOX.

It would be a mess.

But it's all a mess - should Finebaum leave, how does WJOX programming respond? Do Dunaway & Brown team back up for the afternoon? Where would my man Lance Taylor go? Do you keep Tony Kurre in the morning? WOULD ANYONE OUT OF THE CURRENT WJOX LINEUP MOVE TO COX AS WELL? It'd be quite a domino board tumbling over, and no one wants to end up on the losing end.

And of course, if you'd like to follow me on Twitter, you can do so: @harry_long. I'd also appreciate it if you 'liked' the Facebook page of A Total Waste of Blog. You can do that at the top right of this page, or you can do it here. And you see all those buttons under the title of this post? That's how you share this thing. Get to it.