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'He is 97.1 The Ticket': Tom Bigby, credited with station's rise, dies at 77

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

The ascension of 97.1 The Ticket to Metro Detroit radio dominance is often attributed to three factors. One was the move from AM to FM. The other, afternoon drive-time host Mike Valenti.

And the third, and maybe most impactful, was Tom Bigby.

Tom Bigby, credited for much of the success of 97.1 The Ticket, died Monday at age 77.

Bigby came to 97.1 in January 2008, just months after 1270 AM began simulcasting on 97.1 FM, and quickly installed his preferred format that was wildly successful during his decades-long run in Philadelphia — heavy on callers, light on guests, and non-sports talk wasn't just allowed, but strongly encouraged.

Bigby died Monday of an apparent heart condition. He was 77.

"He is 97.1 The Ticket, is the way I would put it," said Terry Foster, a retired Detroit News columnist who had a long run on the station with Valenti.

"The way the station is run today, that's all Tom Bigby. I don't think anybody else can really take the credit, except if they came in and tried to implement his philosophies."

Bigby came to 97.1 as operations manager, and later added the program-director title, after being credited with "inventing" the sports-talk format that is so popular today while he was at Philadelphia sports station WIP-AM. He was at WIP from 1989-2004, and later moved to Philadelphia sister station WYSP-FM for a brief run before Detroit.

One word many former colleagues used to describe Bigby was "intense." He lived for ratings, and no matter how high the ratings, they were never good enough.

That sentiment trickled down to the staff, who knew he had a button in his office that could cut the feed. Before he arrived, 97.1 had a 15-second delay. After he arrived, Bigby made it a 30-second delay, and used his power freely.

"He made us better. He made us think bigger than being a sports station. He made us think big picture," Foster said. "Before he got there, all we wanted to do, if possible, was be No. 1 in men (ages) 25-54. He said that's not good enough. He said, 'I want you to be No. 1 with persons 12-plus, which we didn't think was possible.

"Every time we got the ratings, we'd be happy. Like if we got a 10 share, then he'd say, 'Nah, we need a 13.' Then we'd get a 13, and he'd say, 'Nah, get to a 15.' He kept moving the goal line.

"He was never satisfied."

Said Debbie Kenyon, senior vice president and Detroit market manager for Entercom, in a statement to InsideRadio.com: “His philosophies are still used today and all of our talent would say he made them better personalities. Tom was my mentor in this format and became a true friend. He will be missed by many, especially in Detroit.”

The Ticket often had the power of sports teams, the Tigers and Red Wings making 1270 and later 97.1 the flagship in 2001, and the Lions and Pistons off and on since. All four teams are with 97.1 today, the Lions announcing they are returning for next season.

But the dynamic hosts, starting with Valenti and Foster but also including morning-show hosts Doug Karsch and Scott "Gator" Anderson, played a role, too.

Bigby helped shape the hosts' content, starting with his philosophies. He wanted callers galore, but never one caller for more than two minutes at a time. He'd often call the studio if a caller was going on too long. He also didn't like guests.

"Because, one, athletes don't say anything," Foster said. "He would allow it if you had insiders or something like that, or if you were a newsmaker. It was OK to have you on, like, if you just signed a contract or beat up your coach or something like that. I got in trouble one time for having Nick Lidstrom on the air. I thought at the time, he was near his retirement, and he was beloved in the community, but I was told he's too boring. It's all about entertainment. We were supposed to entertain more than inform. 

"He proved himself right, because after a while when we got the People Meter, he could see where the ratings were going. One time he called me into his office. I had a guest on, and he just saw the numbers sinking."

Then there was the delicate issue of how much to talk about sports, versus what else was going on in the world.

Talk too much sports and you'd fail, Bigby proclaimed, which is why you hear so much "best pizza" or "best burger" talk on 97.1. In the past, there was a lot of Kwame Kilpatrick talk. But in recent years, politics talk has diminished greatly.

A year into Bigby's tenure at 97.1, the area's longtime sports-talk giant, WDFN The Fan, cut much of its popular programming, essentially conceding defeat in the local sports-talk wars. In late 2009, he brought WDFN's Mike Stone to the station. "Stoney" remains the morning-show co-host. Bigby later added the title of VP of strategic programming for CBS radio, overseeing stations in Dallas, Los Angeles and New York, and Detroit talent never knew whether he was still at their station — only for him to sporadically pop in with a critique or, less often, a joke. Bigby left CBS Radio (Entercom now owns 97.1) in 2011 and started a consulting firm.

Current program director Jimmy Powers has carried on many of Bigby's philosophies.

"He was very intense," Foster said of Bigby. "He was on you constantly. He's the toughest boss I've ever had.

"But if anybody else takes credit (for 97.1), don't believe them."

Bigby, who was living in Fort Worth, Texas, when he died, is survived by wife Phyllis, two children and four grandchildren.

tpaul@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @tonypaul1984