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Radio survivor Sean Baligian rolls with the punches

Rod Beard
The Detroit News

Ferndale — Nowadays, every morning is an early morning for sports talk radio host Sean Baligian.

He scours the morning papers for a nugget and has talks with co-hosts Marc Fellhauer and Tom Mazawey for ideas to add to their morning talk show, “Sean, Maz and Marc,” on WMGC (FM 105.1).

It’s a different dress code — Baligian is donning a Tigers hat and pullover with shorts — and a different business.

Every day.

Every day, for almost 21 years.

The hot topic of the day was whether Tigers manager Brad Ausmus would survive another tumultuous week, as the early-season swoon continued.

It’s an all-too-familiar conversation for Baligian, who has seen any number of Tigers, Red Wings, Pistons and Lions coaches come and go in his time. It’s a striking similarity to his own radio career, as he’s bounced around from station to station over the years, trying to find strength in numbers — ratings numbers.

While WMGC parted ways with its program manager two weeks ago, Baligian and his comrades are pushing forward. In the radio business, all the turnover is nothing new, just as it was in his previous stops at WDFN (1130 AM) in Detroit, WMAX (96.1 FM) in Grand Rapids, WPSD (1370 AM) in Toledo and for a short stint at WJR (760 AM).

But Baligian has survived all the turmoil, and the cycle keeps repeating. When Baligian was riding high with WDFN in the late 1990s and early 2000s, he was on the other side, riding the wave until the massive layoffs in 2009, as WXYT (1270 AM) was on the rise.

“I was part of the WDFN crew that wasn’t supposed to last (in late 2009),” Baligian said. “Not only did we last, but we had a really good run. I got to watch 1270 go through the same thing that 1130 went through and now we’re currently going through.

“There was a three- to four-year span where they were going to flip formats and it was supposed to be over. Then they got things going and moved to the FM and became 97.1 and found their place in the market — and they’ve become a juggernaut, arguably the biggest station in the market.

“We just want a piece of the pie.”

Baligian has managed to slice up the pie in other endeavors as well, lending his voice to call games for University of Toledo football and basketball, Wayne State football and basketball, Plymouth Whalers hockey and most recently, USA Hockey.

He also had a “Fantasy Sports Geekly” talk show on WDFN and famously led the “Angry Man March” to protest then-Lions president Matt Millen.

“He does have great longevity,” Fellhauer said. “He’s a nice guy, too, which you don’t find a lot in this business. When you find someone you can work with and who is good at their job, it’s huge.”

And Baligian knows what he’s doing, no matter the sport or topic. Unlike some sports talk programming on national networks or other platforms, there’s no script and no fake banter in their show.

It’s that authenticity — and the “common man” approach that Baligian sees as an essential part of his shows, part of the humor of “It Is What It Is,” the show moniker he made popular from a quote from former Lions running back James Stewart.

“The day that I walk into the studio with some kind of scripted Roman numerals and road map is the day I’m leaving the business,” Baligian said. “I’ve always looked at doing a radio show as sitting at the corner pub and shooting the breeze.

“I’m a sports fan; if I weren’t doing this for a living, I’d be living this way — that wouldn’t change. I’ve always been somebody where sports was my thing.”

More than sports

With all the turmoil in the radio business, Baligian hasn’t really thought about leaving for another market, though he’s had some good opportunities.

But the Detroit market — and his family — have kept him here.

“Life is much bigger than sports,” Fellhauer said. “Sometimes in this business, people lose track of that.”

After leaving WDFN for good in late 2011, following the unexpected death of co-host Tom “Killer” Kowalski, Baligian wasn’t sure he wanted to stay in the radio business. He took a few months off and got an interesting offer from WMAX in Grand Rapids that would help him balance his family and radio duties — hosting from his home.

“I have an office at home — and contrary to popular belief, it’s not in my basement,” Baligian joked. “To be able to do it in the house was awesome and I had a great time.”

Now that his kids are older — his son is finishing his junior year in high school and his daughter is nearing middle school — can have more time to focus on them, with his morning show leaving plenty of time in the evening for him to participate in their activities.

And he’s never regretted the decision, even if it means he has little time from the start of football season in August until late December.

“It was awesome; that was the best part. As they’ve gotten older, part of the reason I made the decision to go from 96.1 was I was done at 6 p.m. and the kids are off to do something, whether it be practice or something,” he said. “When the opportunity presented itself to have more time in the afternoon after the kids got home from school, that was the mitigating factor. I didn’t want sports to rule my life.

“The kids are only young once and there aren’t any do-overs. I’m not going to make it up to them later. I’ve always tried to make as much time with them as I can.”

Enjoying the ride

Even as the tumultuous winds of change continue to blow back and forth in the radio business, Baligian just continues to ride it out, enjoying his time there — and giving back to the next generation of radio hosts.

That includes Ryan Ermanni and Rico Beard, who co-host the “Ryan and Rico Show” following Baligian’s.

“The guy’s been here and done that in this market and when he tells you you’re doing a good job, it means something. It resonates,” Ermanni said. “If you go ahead and ask him for his opinion on something, he’ll give it to you — and he won’t sugarcoat it.”

That goes for on or off the air. In many ways, he’s the same person, whether the microphone is in front of him or he’s out having dinner with friends. There no need to put on airs to try to be one persona on the radio and another in his daily life.

“There are plenty of shows out there where (they script it) and they argue,” Fellhauer said. “We’ll disagree but it’s a whole idea that we’ll converse the way you and your friends would converse instead of generating something that’s phony or false — he’s very genuine.”

Through the highs and lows, Baligian values all his experiences, and friends he’s met along the way.

He doesn’t dwell on the high or low points, but just takes it with the same seriousness as he would one of the callers to his show.

“This has been a 21-year ride and I don’t want to take a moment to think about it, in case it ends,” he said.


Twitter: @detnewsRodBeard

Riding the radio airwaves

1995: Producer/reporter at WSPD (Toledo)

1997: Sports director/host, CCHA hockey, Toledo football and basketball

1998: WJR (part-time)

1999: WDFN, “It is What It Is” and “Fantasy Sports Geekly”

2004: WDFN and WSPD

Jan. 20, 2009: Let go from WDFN in mass layoffs

Aug. 17, 2009: Began hosting afternoon drive time at 96.1

September 2009: Returned to WDFN

October 2011: Left WDFN

December 2011: Did ESPN 96.1 in (Grand Rapids) from home

November 2015: Started at 105.1