CBS Detroit: Lions censorship demands caused split

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Detroit — On the day the Detroit Lions announced they are changing flagship radio stations, their long-time home, WXYT-FM (97.1, The Ticket), asserted the switch was made because the tin-eared franchise couldn't control the commentary of their sports-talk hosts.

The Lions shot right back, saying WJR-AM (760) simply made, by far, the better financial offer.

"I know there's a bit of narrative out there regarding the notion that, somehow the Lions are practicing some sort of censorship," said Elizabeth Parkinson, senior vice president of marketing and corporate sponsorships for the Lions. "If we were trying to practice any sort of censorship, we certainly would've done it (the switch) much sooner."

Lions heading to WJR in 2016

The Lions announced Friday morning that, starting in 2016, WJR, the "Great Voice of the Great Lakes," would start carrying the team's games in 2016.

WXYT — first 1270 AM, now 97.1 FM — has been the Lions' flagship station for 18 years, and was involved in the bidding process to extend the relationship.

On Friday morning, Mike Stone, co-host of the "Stoney and Bill" morning show on 97.1, said the Lions long have tried to control the message when it pertained to Lions' talk on 97.1

Mobile users, listen here: Valenti calls Lions a "petty, juvenile organization"

CBS Radio, owner of 97.1, released a statement Friday, saying the same thing.

"It is sad to say goodbye," said Debbie Kenyon, senior vice president and market manager for CBS Detroit. "But in the end it came down to the integrity of CBS — the refusal to be censored in talking about the team and making honest assessments on the air about this team."

The Lions have been among the worst franchises in football for decades, and in their 18 years on WXYT, they've made the playoffs just three times. Understandably, they've been criticized roundly by media from coast to coast, but especially locally.

One of their biggest critics has been WXYT's acid-tongued Mike Valenti, the station's headliner host.

In 2009, Valenti drew the Lions' ire for reading a "Ticket Text" on-air that made light of defensive end Corey Smith, who was missing off the Gulf of Mexico. Smith died in the boating accident, and Valenti issued an emotional apology.

Mobile users, listen here: Valenti reacts to the Lions leaving WXYT

In 2011, then-Lion Ndamukong Suh was so perturbed with Valenti's line of questioning, he cut short an interview, and quarterback Matthew Stafford has opted to do a weekly interview with WJR's Mitch Albom over Valenti and his co-host, Terry Foster, who also works for The Detroit News.

Parkinson disputed the switch was made over Valenti or any other host. But when asked whether the Lions ever have contacted WXYT to discuss content, she wouldn't deny that.

"Anytime that our media is either not factual or misrepresenting the content that they're sharing, those calls are made," she said. "Our media team is working with all the media to correct inaccuracies. Absolutely, they were working with CBS to correct inaccuracies, you name any media outlet, and they've worked closely with our media teammates. If there are inaccuracies, somebody's going to get a call."

Asked if Valenti, specifically, was a problem, Parkinson said: "I'm not going to single out any one individual."

However, Valenti's agent, Mort Meisner, said Valenti was singled out, in contract talks between the Lions and 97.1. He said the Lions demanded Valenti be fired as part of any new pact between the team and the station.

Valenti co-hosts one of the top-rated sports-talk shows in the country, and is the paramount reason 97.1 consistently appears No. 1 in weekly ratings books in Metro Detroit.

"Mike is a clever and creative talent who speaks his mind and that is why he is so spectacularly successful," Meisner said in an email to The News. "To Deb's credit, she stood firm and let the Lions walk as opposed to surrendering to a ridiculous form of censorship."

Valenti responded on his radio show Friday, saying reports were "100 percent accurate."

"This was very personal, because what you guys the listeners don't know is this has always been personal," Valenti said. "If this was the first time my name had had come up about getting rid of me then maybe I'd be jarred by it. But I'm used to this. My station ironically enough made a business decision. ... because this show was more important than the Lions.

"Why would it be personal and why would they want me fired? Here is the problem with your football team here. They care more with what Terry and I say here than they do about the product on the field."

The Lions declined to respond to remarks made on Valenti's show Friday. In his introductory news conference, Lions president Rod Wood denied the allegations that the team moved stations because of heavy criticism on 97.1.

Jimmy Powers, program director for 97.1, declined to comment, other than to say the station made a fair offer to keep the Lions. Asked to respond to the Lions' comments, he said Kenyon's statement speaks for him.

WJR general manager Tom O'Brien said the Lions made no mention of content during negotiations.

Mobile users, listen here: Valenti on the Lions departure 

"They have no control over the programming," O'Brien said. "At the same time, I think at WJR, we certainly have a level of respect for our partners.

"There's a line we don't have to cross to still be entertaining."

O'Brien confirmed play-by-play man Dan Miller and analyst Jim Brandstatter will be on the call at WJR, and that WJR will be looking for a new sideline reporter. Current sideline reporter Tony Ortiz, of whom O'Brien was very complimentary, is an employee of CBS Radio.

O'Brien also said the station will be airing a fair amount of Lions-centric programming, but has no plans to add daily sports-talk shows.

WJR has been trying to get back into the pro sports game at least for the last year, and were involved in trying to get the Tigers back — before the Tigers decided to stick with 97.1, which narrowly beat Detroit Sports 105.1 (WMGC) for the rights. It's unclear if WJR made an actual bid for the Tigers, whom they carried for decades, until losing them in 2000.

WJR has carried Michigan State football and basketball since 2006.

For 97.1, which for many years carried all four professional sports teams, this is the second loss in two years — last year, the Pistons defected to 105.1, and now the Lions will move on.

While 97.1 bid to keep both, the station's priority has always been to keep the Red Wings and especially the Tigers, who, with their popularity plus 162 games a year, are ratings gold and bring in significant advertising dollars. The Lions, by comparison, only play 16 games a season, so advertising opportunities are limited.

Detroit Sports 105.1 also was involved in the bidding for the Lions' rights.

WJR, despite its 50,000-watt signal and significant reach, especially on clear nights, is believed to be planning on simulcasting Lions games on an FM station.

They're a phenomenal station," Parkinson said of WJR. "It feels like the Lions are getting back to our roots."