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WMGC nearly landed Tigers, ex-employees say

Tony Paul
The Detroit News
Sean Baligian

Detroit -- Former employees at the now-defunct Detroit Sports 105.1 (WMGC-FM) said they were told in a meeting this week by the local head of Greater Media, Steve Chessare, that he had a handshake agreement with the Tigers to be the team's new flagship station.

Radio hosts Sean Baligian and Ryan Ermanni were among the radio hosts that relayed what Chessare said during Wednesday's 6 p.m. meeting, which was held to inform employees of 105.1 that the station was dumping the sports-talk format after less than three years.

The Tigers and Red Wings in June signed a deal to stay with radio giant 97.1 The Ticket (WXYT-FM) and its cluster of CBS Radio properties.

In Wednesday's meeting, Chessare, vice president and market manager for Detroit's three Greater Media stations, told employees of an alleged handshake deal with Duane McLean, executive vice president of business operations with the Tigers, Ermanni said.

"I want to be clear that I was not in that negotiation, I have no idea if that really happened or not, but that was told to us when we were all let go,” Ermanni said. "Obviously, if 105.1 had the Tigers, the station would still be sports."

Baligian, who joined 105.1 in October, confirmed the account from Ermanni.

Chessare, reached Friday by The News, declined to comment.

McLean, reached Friday by The News, said: "Our organizations pride ourselves on conducting business the right way and this was a fair and competitive process from start to finish."

Two high-ranking sources in the Tigers organization denied Chessare's account.

Three stations were in the mix to get the Tigers rights, which mean big ratings -- given the popularity of the team and sheer number of game broadcasts, numbering close to 200 when you count spring training and possibly playoffs -- and, thus, big advertising dollars, dollars 105.1 failed to land on a consistent basis, despite a big name in building the station around, Drew Lane, and the securing of the Pistons' rights two seasons ago.

The three bidders were: 97.1 The Ticket, the incumbent; 105.1, the new kid on the block; and 760 (WJR-AM), the long-time prior home of the Tigers. The bids were not sealed. As many as 20 Red Wings and Tigers employees were in the room for formal presentations.

The brass at 105.1 were said to have made a competitive formal bid and were especially intriguing to the Red Wings, who often got bumped off 97.1 when their games conflicted with the Tigers, Lions or Pistons. All four teams were on 97.1 until the Pistons went to 105.1 a couple years ago, and the Lions recently left for 760, which starts airing games in 2016.

There's more to it than money, though, when it comes to radio stations bidding for rights.

Stations also routinely include in their proposals several "asks" -- for things like suites, season tickets, signed baseball and bats, which can add up to big money.

Sports teams also closely examine the "cluster" of stations beyond the flagship to see how those could factor into help promoting the brand. For instance, CBS Radio has six stations in the Detroit market, including a country station that could theoretically help promote and sell tickets for the Tigers' "Country Night," and a classic station that could do the same for something like an "Elvis Night."

Greater Media has three stations in the market, two rock and 105.1, which announced Friday it's switching to "The Bounce," which will be hip-hop and R&B.

There could've also been serious concerns about whether 105.1, which launched as sports in August 2013, had the infrastructure and manpower in place to handle the significant responsibility of carrying the Tigers, who annually are among the top-rated teams -- on TV and radio -- in Major League Baseball.

There were many other issues that led to the failure of 105.1 to attract a big-enough audience, and thus big-enough revenue.

As an ESPN affiliate, it originally had an agreement to air "Mike & Mike" in the mornings, and that was a ratings disaster for many, many months, until 105.1 finally got out of that deal and went local in the mornings. Also, 105.1 never got to the point where it was local around the clock, as 97.1 is, for the most part. In its infancy, 105.1 would sign off locally at 6 p.m. or 7 p.m. on Fridays and not be local again until 10 a.m. on Mondays.

It went through two program directors, as well, first Jason Dixon, and then Dave Shore. While both came with impressive resumes -- Dixon from North Carolina and Tampa, Florida; Shore from Dallas and Los Angeles -- both were out-of-towners with no strong ties to Detroit. Dixon was fired in March 2015, and Shore this May. Greater Media originally started looking for a new sports-talk PD, but recently halted the search and never held any formal interviews, and corporate made the decision within the last three weeks to kill the sports-talk format before the end of the second quarter, which concluded Thursday. Three weeks ago, 105.1 employees were told in a mandatory meeting that there would be no flipping of formats.

The station also bungled its relationship with Lane, a rock-format radio legend in Detroit for more than two decades. Lane was told from the get-go that he could mix his brand of pop-culture and political dialogue with the sports-talk format. Dixon resisted at first but eventually came around; Shore never did. And last fall, Greater Media asked Lane to welcome a third member to join him and Marc Fellhauer -- a sports "expert," of sorts. Lane resisted, and left the station.

Lane didn't get all of his audience to follow him from 101.1 (WRIF-FM), but still had the best ratings at the station. His replacements, Matt Dery and Drew Sharp, couldn't do anything close to what Lane was doing and were fired in March, with Shore and former Piston Lindsey Hunter taking over before Shore's firing.

Hunter stayed as Greater Media saw him as a potential rising star in radio, but left last month to take a basketball assistant coaching position at the University of Buffalo.

Twitter @tonypaul1984