Sunday, July 3, 2011

Tide rolls through airwaves: Radio broadcasts reach more people than ever

More than 60 stations in five states hear Eli Gold call Alabama football games each year.
More than 60 stations in five states hear Eli Gold call Alabama football games each year
Scanning his memory, Tom Roberts traces the evolution of Alabama football's game-day radio operation.What was once a small, low-tech operation in the late 1970s is now a full-scale production in an increasingly crowded box midway up Bryant-Denny Stadium.
As the director of broadcasting for the Crimson Tide Sports Network, Roberts knows all angles of the transforming business that is sports on the radio.
On the air, he's a host.
In the office, he hammers out contracts with the local stations who carry the broadcasts.
Without the local affiliates, there is no network. In all, there are 60-plus stations in five states who hear Eli Gold call the action every fall Saturday.
But what about all the competition?
The SEC didn't have multi-billion dollar television deals when Roberts started as a statistician with the radio network in 1979, and the Internet was science fiction.
Still, the old-fashioned airwaves have its place in the modern world.
"You would think that it's probably lost some popularity because all of our games are on TV, but we don't get that impression and the station interest and advertiser interest both say there's still a significant number of people who listen to the games," Roberts said. "It's becoming more and more difficult. We have substantial number of people who tell us they turn down the sound on the television and turn up the radio."
Revenues from the radio, television and radio contracts negotiated by the school totaled $8.4 million in 2010 -- up from $7.3 million in 2009, according to the budget summaries UA filed with the NCAA.
Local affiliates aren't complaining either.
"It's as solid as it's probably ever been," said John Rodriguez, the market manager for the Montgomery affiliate WXFX-FM of Cumulus Media, Inc. "Alabama and Auburn have been fortunate over the past few years to get coverage on television, but people who are fans normally want to hear it from a somewhat partisan announcer's point of view, which means they want Eli Gold giving them the play-by-play as opposed to somebody on ABC or CBS or whoever."
The Crimson Tide Radio Network is a partnership between Missouri-based Learfield Sports and North Carolina-based IMG College. The joint venture also produces the weekly syndicated television coaching shows for Nick Saban, Anthony Grant and gymnastics coach Sarah Patterson along with "Crimson Tide this week."A two-way deal
The role of a Crimson Tide Radio Network local affiliate involves much more than airing football games and cashing checks. Contracts call for much more participation to keep the valuable rights.
Stations are required to carry all men's basketball games, women's basketball and baseball games against SEC opponents, a weekly "Hey Coach" show and short daily updates.
Exceptions are made in special circumstances.
"If we want to get an affiliate, say in East Alabama, I'd go with less than that just to get some of our programming on the air."
For 1580-AM in Columbus, Ga., being east of the state line isn't a hindrance to its commitment to Alabama coverage.
"Half this city went to Alabama, the other half went to Georgia -- well some of them went to Auburn," said Carl Conner, the vice president for operations for the station. "We get a lot of people here who are Alabama fans -- Alabama fanatics, excuse me."
Contracts last between three and four years and turnover is rare.
Most have 20-plus years of partnerships with the school.
Roberts couldn't reveal the value of contracts with local stations, but said they varied based on the size of a market. The still unrealized goal is to have an affiliate in all 67 counties in the state and each county is limited to one.
Changing landscape
The one-per county limit comes with a catch displayed clearly on the list of local affiliates on Alabama's athletic website. Several cities have multiple stations in a twist of the changing reality in modern radio.
Listeners in Huntsville, for example, can hear Tide broadcasts on 730-AM, 770-AM, and 92.5-FM since all three are owned by Cumulus.
Other corporate radio groups own a stranglehold on the college football broadcast rights.
Cumulus, owners of seven stations in Montgomery, has Alabama games on 95.1-FM and Auburn on 92.3-FM and 740-AM."Alabama and Auburn are probably the two best things we have in the building, as far as consistently being sold out," Rodriguez said. "We have little or no problem selling those."
Joe Burns has the same good fortune selling advertising space at 1400-AM in Decatur, but similarities with the Montgomery ownership ends there. Cumulus' website claims it's the second-largest owner of radio stations with a presence in 68 markets from Southern California to Northern Maine.
Burns is one of the few mom and pop station owners left in the business now ruled by publicly-traded giants. The Columbus, Ga., affiliate is also locally owned.
Tucked in the back corner of a strip mall on Danville Road, the office doors for WWTM were locked Wednesday afternoon with no one inside. The entire station is automated by computer. Burns programs it all in advance, so the need for on-site engineers doesn't exist.
The station's affiliation with ESPN provides the content unless there's a game for Alabama, Decatur High School football, basketball, baseball or Calhoun Community College baseball.
The station, founded in 1935 as WMSL, has owned the rights to Alabama broadcasts for all but two of the 25 years Burns owned it. Switching over to Auburn in the late 80s or early 90s didn't pan out.
"Well, I couldn't get any sponsors," Burns said. "That's what stations do. You have so much commercial time with every gamem and that's when you sell local sponsors. But I couldn't find enough sponsors to make it worthwhile when I had Auburn. So I went with Alabama and Alabama was always easier to sell."
Overlapping markets can also be an issue.
In Northern Alabama, Tide broadcasts from Huntsville affiliates are heard in Morgan County along with the Decatur-based 1400-AM signal and the powerful 93.9-FM out of Florence.
"If a station is going to be profitable, they probably need some exclusivity in the area they cover," Roberts said.
It hasn't hurt business for Burns."We have no problem selling Alabama," he said.
Turn down the TV
In today's world when all 12 regular-season football games air live on television, the radio broadcasts still have a place in those living rooms.
It's just getting harder to sync the radio play-by-play to the moving pictures on the screen.
Roberts said there's little anyone can do about that from his end. He traces the path of the radio signal that leaves Bryant-Denny Stadium, travels to an unlink, to a satellite in space and back to local stations creating a short delay of a second or two.
Most local affiliates add an extra seven seconds to the delay to avoid any obscenity trouble with the Federal Communications Commission. All told, the signal arriving in the listeners' home is eight or nine seconds behind the live game action.
The television broadcasts also include a variation of the seven-second delay.
"(The listener) might have an over-the-air signal from the TV station in Birmingham that carries the games or he might have DirecTV or he might have DISH or Charter cable or Comcast cable," Roberts said. "All those are varying degrees of delay from the live (feed). "It becomes a technical nightmare, and there's no way we could do it because of the different ways our stations are carrying it and the different ways the TV folks are routing it."
The decision to delay the radio feed is a decision made by the local stations. Doing so avoids the potential of an FCC complaint. Twice in the past two seasons, Tide coach Nick Saban used one of the seven dirty words in impassioned halftime interviews with sideline reporter and former Alabama linebacker Barry Krauss.
There is no delay for 1400-AM in Decatur and there's nobody in the office to dump out of the live broadcast it.
"We have no control over their broadcast," Burns said. "It's just a feed by satellite. So if they don't catch it, it goes out over the air."
The future
Changes and advancements in the radio business have introduced game coverage to listeners way out of the range of radio stations in the Southeast.
Crimson Tide Radio Network broadcasts came to satellite radio several years ago so the reported 20 million-plus SiriusXM subscribers can hear games coast to coast.
The Internet takes it worldwide.
A $120 annual subscription to the Alabama All-Access package on provides live broadcasts of all Tide sporting events.
It's a far cry from Roberts' first days with the network.
"When I first started doing this, we had a color man, a play-by-play guy, an engineer and a sideline reporter," he said. "Now we have a spotter, a stat man, a pregame show host, a postgame show host.
"There are more people involved."
That includes the Joe Burns and the Cumulus Radios of the world.
Without the affiliates, after all, there is no network.

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